Chinese Prose Rhetoric.

You can read Christoph Harbsmeier’s “The Rhetoric of Premodern Chinese Prose Style” in a draft version (pdf) or in its final form as a chapter in Victor Mair (ed.), Columbia History of Chinese Literature (; either way, it’s a very interesting take on an ancient tradition, with suggestive comparisons to the classical West. Some excerpts:

Confucius maintained that when words get their message across, one should stop (Analects 15.41). What was admired in Confucius was his flair for wei yen (subtle speech), which, without being yin (hidden, arcane, riddle-like), achieved that peculiar subtle variety of ming (translucence, perspicuousness) which became so essential to the classical Chinese aesthetic. It was of the essence of this translucent, limpid effect that it was preferably achieved with an austere economy of stylistic means, an apparent sparseness of effort, a naturalness, the elegant light touch.

This ideal of translucence and perspicuousness, then, is not an intellectual clarity brought about by elaborate explicitness, definiteness of meaning. The text is designed to inspire in the reader the congenial but active and even creative production of artistic sense. The texts do not impose meaning, they are designed to inspire the creation of sense. […]

[Read more…]

The Madman’s Library.

Alison Flood at the Graun provides extracts from The Madman’s Library by Edward Brooke-Hitching; they’re all pretty amazing (The Triangular Book of Count St Germain is “an encoded French occult work which boasts the secret to extending life”; Pátria Amada by Vinicius Leôncio is a 7.5-ton compendium of every Brazilian tax code in one volume), but I particularly commend to your attention these:

Book 17th of Notes – Travels in 1818 by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1818)

In 1818, the French natural historian Rafinesque travelled to Kentucky to visit fellow naturalist John James Audubon. Rafinesque became such an irritating house guest that Audubon started to make up local animals to make fun of him, which the Frenchman faithfully recorded and sketched without question. Here there are four fake fish: the “Flatnose Doublefin”, the “Bigmouth Sturgeon”, the “Buffalo Carp Sucker” and the bulletproof “Devil-Jack Diamond fish”.

Poissons, ecrevisses et crab[e]s by Louis Renard (1719)

In the 18th century, Europeans knew very little of Indonesian wildlife. Renard knew even less, but that didn’t stop this Dutch bookseller from confidently producing this vibrant two-volume collection. Thirty years in the making, the 100 plates carry 460 illustrations of marine biology. In the second volume, however, scientific accuracy swiftly becomes a casualty of artistic licence. Many of the fish have distinctly avian and even human features, as well as decorations of sun, moon, star and even top-hat motifs. Highlights include the spiny lobster, Panulirus ornatus, reported to favour a mountain habitat and possessing a penchant for climbing trees and laying red-spotted eggs “as large as those of a pigeon”. The Crabbe-Criarde, we are told, mews like a cat. Or the four-legged fish, the Loop-visch or Poisson courant (Running Fish) of Ambon, of which the writer notes: “I trapped it on the beach and kept it alive for three days in my house, where it followed me around like a very friendly little dog.”

Needless to say, the illustrations are impressive. Thanks, Trevor!

Translating the Uncanny Valley.

Isaac Sligh writes for RusTRANS about the translation he and Viktoria Malik are doing of Victor Pelevin’s fifteenth novel, iPhuck 10 [sic!], which sounds extremely interesting — I really have to start reading Pelevin:

iPhuck 10’s hero is a Machiavellian, suave, and hilarious A.I. algorithm by the name of Porfiry Petrovich, a narrator who exists only in the binary ether, a “spirit”, as he calls himself. While Porfiry’s hobby (if one could call it that) is writing crime novels, he gets his material from his day job as a detective for police headquarters—a nod to that other famous Porfiry Petrovich, the police investigator from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Porfiry announces himself at the novel’s opening with a strange and grave salutation:

“And again, again, hello, my dear and distant friend!”

With his constant chatter to his audience—does he know we’re there, or has he gone crazy, and how much does our suspension of disbelief play a part in determining that?—Porfiry brings to mind the voices of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man (from Notes from Underground), Zamyatin’s D-503 (from We), and many other famous narrators of Russian literature.

But, it turns out, these echoes are by no means meant to be subtle—and herein lies one of the hardest (yet most enjoyable) challenges for us as the translators of the text. In fact, Porfiry is chuckling at his readers from the pages of his own book as he notices our recognition of such echoes of classic literature. It turns out that Porfiry has read every single work of classic Russian literature, and knows how to reference and regurgitate it, subtly or obviously, at will. “I am a typical second half of the twenty-first century Russian artificial intelligence,” he quips, “painted in contrasting colors of our historical and cultural memory: I am simultaneously something of a Solzhenitsyn together with a Pasternak.”

As you might imagine, allusions abound, from Mayakovsky to Pushkin to Yesenin. This has kept us on our toes, and presented us with the added task of framing these allusions in such a way—while staying true to the text—as to tip the English-speaking reader off to the reference, and perhaps give some subtle impetus to seek out the original text. To this end, we have attempted to match our translations of such famous pieces as Yesenin’s poem “Goodbye my friend, goodbye” as closely as possible to recognizable popular translations without actually duplicating them.

I find the issue of how to translate (and frame) allusions fascinating; I’ve been thinking of it because I’m reading Andrei Bitov’s Уроки Армении [Lessons of Armenia] and consulting Susan Brownsberger’s translation, and I can’t help but notice that Brownsberger either doesn’t notice or doesn’t explain most of Bitov’s quotes. Where Bitov has «Ах, ничего я не вижу, и бедное ухо оглохло…» she has “Useless my ears, useless the eyes in my head”; Bitov, I presume, expects at least some of his readers to recognize this as a quote from Mandelstam’s poem sequence Armenia, but Brownsberger can hardly expect English-speaking readers to know it, and she should have footnoted it. Later, when Bitov quotes «Что в имени тебе моем…», she has “What’s in a name,” which sends the reader in entirely the wrong literary direction — it’s a quote from a very famous Pushkin poem whose message is more like Ronsard’s “Quand vous serez bien vieille” than Juliet’s onomastic complaint. Elsewhere she doesn’t flag a Tyutchev quotation. I’m not faulting her; this is difficult stuff, and every translator is going to deal with it differently. But Russian literature, more than most, is full of cross-references, and the issue has to be dealt with somehow; I’m glad Sligh and Malik are taking it seriously.

The Languages of Rafiki.

My wife and I saw the Kenyan movie Rafiki, which is quite good (Ebert review), but what brings it to the attention of LH is the language situation, which shocked me (I don’t think that’s too strong a word). I wasn’t surprised when some English sentences were exchanged early on — I realize English is not only a prestige language but an important means of intercommunication worldwide between people with different native tongues — but it soon became apparent that most of the dialogue was in English, used between people who clearly did share a language (I presume the Bantu language in which some remarks were exchanged was Swahili, but it would be nice to know for sure). It’s as if Tolstoy carried on having most of War and Peace in French. I have no idea whether that is an accurate reflection of the way Kenyans of that particular Nairobi neighborhood and/or those particular social spheres speak, or whether it was done to sell the movie abroad more easily (the fact that subtitles are needed even for the English dialogue makes that less likely than it might otherwise be). I will be grateful for any enlightenment.

Unrelated, but I want to mention how pleased I was by the recent Fresh Air interview with Sigrid Nunez about her new novel What Are You Going Through (which sounds good; I’ve never read anything of hers); asked about the title, she said it was from a quote by one of her heroes, Simone Weil: “Quel est donc ton tourment?” and added that you couldn’t translate tourment by the obvious torment because, although it can mean that, here it has the less intense figurative sense ‘anxiety, trouble, worry’ (I don’t remember what word she used; I take those from my trusty old Oxford dictionary). Quite so, and it’s important to remind people not to lazily use the nearest English “equivalent”! (She, like most English speakers, pronounced Weil like “vile” à l’allemande; I say /veɪ/ à la française, even though I’m aware it’s both confusing and impossibly pretentious in English — I can’t help it.)

Which Word Came First?

A fun quiz from M-W: Time Traveler Quiz: Which Word Came First?

Come travel through time the dictionary way to figure out which words entered the English language first. Sometimes it’s easy to tell which one of two words came first: the word telephone probably came before the word Internet. Sure enough, telephone is from the 1844 along with classics like rumormonger and goatee. Internet hails from 1974 along with junk bond and microgravity.

(Note to M-W: You might want to fix “the 1844.”) I’m annoyed with myself for getting three wrong; one would have been hard to get right, but the others were just hasty un-thought-out responses. Maybe next time I’ll turn off the timer…

Also: The Time Traveler, where you can pick a year and see which words are first attested then.


I normally look askance at made-up words, but Anand Giridharadas has come up with a good and useful one in his essay for The.Ink which I hope catches on (even as I know it won’t):

My name is Anand. It means happiness, bliss, contentment. If you’re interested in experiencing these feelings, may I suggest a name other than Anand when coming of age in the United States of America.

The other day, when Senator David Perdue, Republican of Georgia, referred to his colleague of many years as “Kamala-mala-mala, I don’t know, whatever!”, I immediately recognized him. All my life, perhaps like you, I have run up against the unwillingness and inability of many Americans to say my name correctly.[…]

The obvious word for what Perdue did is “mispronunciation.” But I would like to correct that. The proper term is “dispronunciation.” Consider that misinformation is information that merely happens to be false, whereas disinformation is false information purposely spread. Similarly, mispronunciation is people trying too feebly and in vain to say our names — and dispronunciation is people saying our names incorrectly on purpose, as if to remind us whose country this really is.[…]

In my case, I’m not even talking about the pronunciation of my last name here. Look, I would love to live in a society where both names were said right by most people. But I recognize that my last name is difficult. I have heard it mispronounced in India, where it comes from. For the purposes of this discussion, I want to share my bafflement and frustration with the insurmountable difficulty of getting people in the United States of America to say “Anand.”

It’s pronounced “AH-nund.” […] AH + nunned. Faster now — Anand. […] And what I just did is far easier to do out loud […] Yet it has been a lifelong battle to get those five letters, those two syllables, said right. There is “ANNE-ind” and “ah-NAAND” and “AY-nanned.” And those are just the ones I remember. My expectation has never been that anyone should know how to say it before being properly taught. I’m just mystified why it’s so hard after hearing it.

He has some distressing anecdotes (and a great comeback to a public-radio host who kept saying it wrong: “Y’all have no problem saying Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky”). I presume we’re all in agreement that people should make a little more effort, but as I say, I like his term for the malicious version. Try harder, mispronouncers, and knock it off, dispronouncers!


I recently ran across the Wikipedia article Qurabiya:

Qurabiya (also ghraybe, ghorayeba, and numerous other spellings and pronunciations) is a shortbread-type biscuit, usually made with ground almonds. Versions are found in most countries of the former Ottoman Empire, with various different forms and recipes. […]

There is some debate about the origin of the words. Some give no other origin for the Turkish word kurabiye than Turkish, while others have given Arabic or Persian. Among others, linguist Sevan Nişanyan has given an Arabic origin, in his 2009 book of Turkish etymology, from ġurayb or ğarîb (exotic). However, as of 2019, Nişanyan’s online dictionary now gives the earliest known recorded use in Turkish as the late 17th century, with an origin from the Persian gulābiya, a cookie made with rose water, from gulāb, related to flowers. He notes that the Syrian Arabic words ġurābiye/ġuraybiye likely derive from the Turkish.

A typical Wikipedia etymological mishmosh; can anybody say what’s most plausible? (Xerîb?)

Also, courtesy of Trevor Joyce, a brief YouTube clip in which Werner Herzog regrets having been forced at gunpoint to speak French.

Squa Tront.

I was trying to find some biographical information on the editor John Benson when I ran across this 2012 interview with Casey Burchby, from which I quote the opening paragraph:

Squa Tront is dedicated to the relatively brief but enormously influential output of EC Comics. Through interviews, rare sketches and artwork, corporate ephemera, and panel discussions, Squa Tront (which takes its name from two words often uttered by aliens in EC’s comics) pays tribute to the writers and artists behind titles like Tales from the Crypt, Weird Science, Frontline Combat, and Mad. Although Squa Tront has its roots in EC fandom, its meticulous editorial focus has long since moved the magazine much closer to scholarship. May saw the release of its 13th issue in 45 years.

That is just the kind of cultural detritus I love; I mentioned the phrase a few years ago in this fantabulous post, but I thought I’d give it its own feature, since it’s so great. Also, if anyone knows anything about this John Benson (as opposed to the many other John Bensons — not one but two described as “calligrapher and stonecarver”!), do speak up.


This is another long-shot question, but I figure it’s worth a try. Over at Wordorigins, Theopolis asks about the word flist, which occurs twice on p. 106 of the Rev. T. P. Crawford’s “A System of Phonetic Symbols for Writing the Dialects of China” (Chinese Recorder XIX:3 [March 1888]). Here’s the passage:

3. The tone signs are as follows:—Ping shing, a plain character; Shang shing, a hook or flist to the right. K’u shing, a hook or flist to the left; Yi shing, a dot in the centre.

You can see the tone signs themselves on p. 108. Now, there is a Scots word flist ‘explosion; sudden outburst of rage; brag, boast, fib; blow, smack,’ but that doesn’t seem like it could be relevant here. Naturally one suspects a typo, but of what? “Fist” is a typographical sign, but surely not here. Any ideas?

Overzealous Profanity Filter.

This is pretty silly, but hey, we can all use a chuckle these days — Overzealous profanity filter bans paleontologists from talking about bones:

Participants in a virtual paleontology session found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place last week, when a profanity filter prevented them from using certain words – such as bone, pubic, stream and, er, beaver – during an online conference.

The US-based Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) held its annual meeting virtually this year due to the pandemic, but soon found its audience stifled when they tried to use particular words. Convey Services, which was was handling the conference, used a “naughty-word filter,” for the conference, outlawing a pre-selected list of words.

“Words like ‘bone’, ‘pubic’, and ‘stream’ are frankly ridiculous to ban in a field where we regularly find pubic bones in streams,” said Brigid Christison, a master’s student in biology attending the event, in an interview with Vice.

You’ll be pleased to know all ended well:

“After getting a good belly laugh out of the way on the first day and some creative wording (my personal favorite was Heck Creek for Hell Creek), some of us reached out to the business office, and they’ve been un-banning words as we stumble across them,” an SVP member explained to Reddit users.

Reminds me with my struggles with spammers back in the day (I’d ban the string “cialis” only to discover no one could talk about socialism). Thanks, Lars!