Penang Lawyer.

This e-mail from Bathrobe is self-explanatory, and he’s given me permission to quote it verbatim, so I will:

I started reading the Hound of the Baskervilles (which you no doubt know was written by Arthur Conan Doyle) and came across a curious expression in the very first paragraph:

Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table. I stood upon the hearth-rug and picked up the stick which our visitor had left behind him the night before. It was a fine, thick piece of wood, bulbous-headed, of the sort which is known as a “Penang lawyer.” Just under the head was a broad silver band nearly an inch across. “To James Mortimer, M.R.C.S., from his friends of the C.C.H.,” was engraved upon it, with the date “1884.” It was just such a stick as the old-fashioned family practitioner used to carry–dignified, solid, and reassuring.

The expression that caught my eye was “Penang lawyer”. I had no idea of the origin of this name: colonial as it appeared to be, I could not think of any way that lawyers from Penang would be particularly noteworthy within the Empire. When I looked it up the answer was quite straightforward:

(From Websters 1913)

Pe*nang″ law″yer (?). [Prob. fr. Malay pīnang līar.] A kind of walking stick made from the stem of an East Asiatic palm (Licuala acutifida).

This suggests a fanciful misinterpretation of the Malay pronunciation. But Wikipedia at its article on Licuala also offers an alternative explanation:

Licuala acutifida is the source of cane for the walking stick nicknamed the Penang-lawyer by colonials, probably from the Malay phrase pinang liyar for a wild areca, although the term may also refer to the use of these canes as deadly knobkerries to assassinate litigious enemies.

That is the end of the story. It’s not a very complicated one, but what piqued my interest was how translators have dealt with this strange name. The first paragraph of a Russian translation available online goes:

Мистер Шерлок Холмс сидел за столом и завтракал. Обычно он вста- вал довольно поздно, если не считать тех нередких случаев, когда ему во- все не приходилось ложиться. Я стоял на коврике у камина и вертел в руках палку, забытую нашим вчерашним посетителем. Это была хорошая толстая трость с набалдашником – из тех, что именуются «веским аргументом». Чуть ниже набалдашника было врезано серебряное кольцо шириной около дюй- ма, на котором было начертано: «Джеймсу Мортимеру, Ч.К.X.О.*, от его друзей по Ч.К.Л.» и дата: «1884». В прежние времена с такими тростями – солидными, увесистыми, надёжными – ходили почтенные домашние врачи.

Lo and behold, “Penang lawyer” is translated as веским аргументом [‘weighty argument’ — LH]! The translator seems to have adopted an interpretation closer to the second one in Wikipedia.

I checked the Mongolian translation (which is from the Russian, not the English), and found myself in a game of Chinese whispers. In Mongolian it is translated as ноцтой баримт, meaning something like “serious facts”. The only other translation I have got hold of is an online Chinese version, which translates the offending phrase in a pedestrian way as:

这种木料产于槟榔屿,名叫槟榔子木。

This kind of wood is produced in Penang; its name is Penang wood (or perhaps ‘Areca wood’, since 槟榔 means Areca).

This may not be totally worthy of an LH post, but apart from being interesting in itself, I’m intrigued at the possibilities for straying from the original meaning in other languages.

I love everything about this: the phrase itself, the dueling explanations, and the “Chinese whispers” translations. And I was a huge Holmes fan in my childhood; I still have my two-volume Collected Stories from back then.

Comments

  1. I didn’t know the Malay etymology, only the idea that a club is a lawyer because it will defend you against your enemies (which is not quite what WP says). I once cracked wise in an email: “So, you are from Penang. But are you a solicitor?” Got no reply.

  2. David Marjanović says:

    a fanciful misinterpretation

    As is common in True Names:

    David Hässlichdoof

    Star Dreck

    Raumschiff Entenscheiß

    (Star Trek, a nigh upon untranslatable title, was shown on German TV as Raumschiff Enterprise; Raumschiff = “spaceship”.)

  3. Then there’s the Scotch attorney, whose leaves can be used to for writing by the parsimonious.

  4. Many, many years ago I was reading a Japanese book about sex. At ‘condom’, it gave a list of alternative names, one of which fairly leapt out at me: フランス人の手紙 Furansu-jin no tegami ‘Frenchman’s letter’. The book was obviously a translation from English, and the translator had unthinkingly translated ‘French letter’ directly into Japanese.

  5. Incidentally, the Mongolian translation I gave for ноцтой баримт, ‘serious facts’, is too narrow. Баримт has a broad range of meanings in Mongolian: ‘basis, fact, proof, evidence, reason, data, certificate, document, invoice’.

    So ноцтой баримт was possibly intended to mean ‘serious evidence’.

    Whatever the meaning is, the translator, who I suspect did not refer to the English at all, was struggling to make sense of веским аргументом.

  6. Wikisource has Le Chien des Baskerville in 1905 translation by Adrien de Jassaud. There the penang lawyer is translated as « une permission de minuit » (with square quotes). Wha? The midnight permission, as a quick search reveals, is about parents letting children to stay outside of home beyond midnight. How’s that relevant to anything? In some more modern translation available on Google books this little quirk is left untranslated.

  7. I just can picture how the French translator must have imagined this word.

    Some distinguished Paris École with harsh discipline (perhaps military school) whose tired students finally succeed getting precious weekend overnight leave and go out to seek thrilling adventures of Parisian nightlife – armed with a strong cane, just in case…

  8. There’s a New Zealand native vine ‘Bush Lawyer’ https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bush_lawyer_(plant)

    Typically, it climbs some host shrub with its tendrils flopping innocently (hah!) into an opening in the bush. As you brush past, a backwards-pointing thorn catches your clothes — which drags a whole stem and its thorns across your arm. Ouch! The more you twist to get away from it, the more other stems appear and engage your body, legs, backpack, anything.

    You then have to take the darn thing seriously: unhitch each thorn, bend each stem away. Not only does this result in drawing blood, but also perforates your rain gear, making it useless. It’s a lawyer straight out of Dickens or Gilbert and Sullivan.

  9. The book was obviously a translation from English, and the translator had unthinkingly translated ‘French letter’ directly into Japanese.

    “Unthinkingly” seems a bit strong. That’s a fairly standard translation of “French letter” in Japanese, although I’ve only ever heard it used in contexts like “names for condoms around the world” or similar.

  10. Finnish
    Yrjö Weilin, Helsinki, 1904.

    Se oli jokseenkin soma ja tukeva, se oli varustettu sipulinmuotoisella kädensijalla ja näytti oikealta “tuomarin sauvalta.”
    It was pretty cute and sturdy, was equipped with an onion-shaped handle, and looked a proper “judge’s staff.”

  11. More in Hobson-Jobson.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    You then have to take the darn thing seriously: unhitch each thorn, bend each stem away. Not only does this result in drawing blood, but also perforates your rain gear, making it useless.

    And that in New Zealand, where it rains only once in two months… because it doesn’t stop for two months.

    “tuomarin sauvalta.”

    Note the doom in there.

  13. Rather, the Swedish domare (note the unexpectedly short u.

  14. There are three different Japanese versions accessible on the Internet.

    Because Japanese has a tradition of representing foreign words in katakana, it is possible to get away with just representing the pronunciation of ‘Penang Lawyer’, a practice that all three adopt, with slight differences in transliteration.

    Two of the three translations attempt to explain the significance of the name.

    (My translations are on the literal side)

    それは見事な太い木で球根のような頭がついていた ペナン・ロイヤーとして知られる種類のものだ。
    Sore wa migoto na futoi ki de kyūkon no yō na atama ga tsuite ita Penan Roiyā to shite shirareru shurui no mono da.
    ‘It is a thing of splendid thick wood with a head like a bulb known as a Penang Roiyā.’

    それは見事な太い木で出来ていて、球根のような持ち手がついていた。ペナン・ロイヤー*と呼ばれるタイプのものだ。
    Sore wa migoto na futoi ki de dekite ite, kyūkon no yōna mochite ga tsuite ita. Penan Roiyā* to yobareru taipu no mono da.
    ‘It was made of a splendid thick wood and had handle like a bulb. It is of the type called Penang Roiyā *.’
    (There should be a footnote explaining what “Penang Roiyā” means but this is missing from the online version.)

    太くて上質のものだ。握りはこぶ状にふくれており、東アジアにあるペナン島原産の椰子の木から作られた“ペナン・ローヤー”だとわかる。
    Futokute jōshitsu no mono da. Nigiri wa kobu-jō ni fukurete ori, higashi Ajia ni aru Penan-tō gensan no yashi no ki kara tsukurareta “Penan Rōyā” da to wakaru.
    ‘It is a thick and fine thing. The grip is swollen in a knob shape. It can be seen that it is a “Penang Rōyā” made from a palm tree native to Penang in East Asia.’

    Here the explanation is worked into the translation.

  15. The Portuguese and Spanish translations available online are less interesting:

    Portuguese:

    Era uma bela e grossa peça de madeira, de castão bulboso, do tipo conhecido como Penang lawyer.
    ‘It was a beautiful thick piece of wood, of bulbous cast, of the type known as Penang lawyer.’

    Spanish:

    Sólido, de madera de buena calidad y con un abultamiento a modo de empuñadura, era del tipo que se conoce como «abogado de Penang» 1.
    ‘Solid, of good quality wood and with a bulge like a hilt, it was of the type known as “Penang lawyer” 1.’

    Two versions of the footnote were found, one with two explanations of the origins of the name:

    1. Bastón de paseo de cabeza abultada que se fabrica con el tallo de Licuala Acutifida, una palma dé Asia oriental.
    ‘1. Walking stick with bulging head that is manufactured with the stem of Licuala Acutifida, a palm tree from East Asia’.

    1 Este tipo de bastón, de puño abultado y protuberante, se fabricaba con madera procedente de Penang (Malasia), antigua colonia británica. Se empleaba también como arma y para resolver disputas (de ahí el uso irónico de abogado).
    ‘This type of staff, with a bulging and protuberant fist, was made of wood from Penang (Malaysia), a former British colony. It was also used as a weapon and to resolve disputes (hence the ironic use of lawyer).’

    (All translations courtesy of Google Translate.)

  16. The Croatian translation takes the easy way out and just omits that part of the sentence entirely.

  17. A practice all too common in translations.

  18. An online German version naturalises it completely:

    Es war ein schönes, dickes Stück Holz mit rundem Knauf – ein so genannter Knotenstock.
    ‘It was a nice, thick piece of wood with a round knob – a so-called knot stick.’

    And what is a Knotenstock?

    Ein Knotenstock ist ein Stock mit verdickten Auswüchsen (Knoten). Am oberen Ende ist er oft verdickt. In der Regel werden die Knotenstöcke aus natürlich verwachsenen Zweigen und Wurzeln von verschiedenen Bäumen gefertigt.

    ‘A knot stick is a stick with thickened outgrowths (knots). At the top it is often thickened. As a rule, knot sticks are made of naturally grown branches and roots of different trees.’

    (Google translate modified)

  19. Lars (not the regular) says:

    I found a Danish translation which has “Det var et fint, solidt stykke træ med et kugleformet håndtag af den gode gamle slags” (“… of the good old sort”). After thinking about it for a bit, I quite like the Russian solution, as far as getting the point across is concerned. It seems to me that it would work in most languages.

  20. Yes, the more of these I read the better the Russian version seems.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    Verwachsen means “fused”, “grown together”. Other than that, your translation is perfect, Bathrobe.

    would work in most languages.

    durchschlagendes/schlagkräftiges Argument – a powerful argument that “beats through”, sometimes used as a jocular euphemism for violence.

  22. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Reading this post in Singapore — the closest I’ve been to Penang in many years — brought back memories. We were supposed to take a bus trip across Malaya to Penang in 1948, when I was 5, but we had to cancel it because of the emergency. Anyway, one of the things that I learned from a taxi driver, half Malay, half Hokkien, yesterday, is that although Malays are only about 15% of the Singapore population a significant number of the Chinese majority can speak Malay. I know one is not supposed to say that one language is easier than another (my wife gets cross if she hears people describe Spanish as easy), but most people seem to regard Malay as one of the easiest to learn. When I lived in Singapore I picked up a tiny bit of Malay — numbers 1 to 10, makan (food), rimau (tiger) — but no sort of Chinese, though the non-Europeans we interacted with were all Chinese, not Malay.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    Spanish version: con un abultamiento a modo de empuñadura =
    ‘with a bulge like a hilt’

    Isn’t it rather with a bulbous end for a hilt ? A hilt is not usually bulbous, so ‘a bulge” cannot be “like a hilt’.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    Athel: I know one is not supposed to say that one language is easier than another (my wife gets cross if she hears people describe Spanish as easy), but most people seem to regard Malay as one of the easiest to learn.

    I think the prohibition is about “more beautiful” (or uglier) than another. It is true that the ease or difficulty of learning a language is somewhat relative because it depends a lot on the language’s resemblance with one’s own, but some objective features of a language make it more or less difficult to learn. Pronunciation wise, a limited number of phonemes, a lack of rare consonants and of heavy clusters make recognizing and speaking much easier than the opposite, so in this way Spanish or Hawaiian are easier than Russian or Nuu-chah-nulth. Morphologically, minimal, regular inflections (or even no inflections at all) preclude the huge effort of memory required to learn a large number of forms for individual words. As for learning written versions, obviously Hawaiian is easier than Chinese.

    Spanish is relatively easy to pronounce in such a way as to be understood without too much effort on the part of the hearer, and the writing conventions, which are few and regular (unlike those of English) leave little room for ambiguity, but mastering the verb system (even more complex than the French one) beyond the most elementary sentences is quite difficult, both in the effort of memorizing the forms and in understanding and mastering their uses.

    On the other hand, it is not always easy to guess what will be difficult for others. Few things seem so elementary to most Western Europeans as the use of articles, which often remain the bêtes noires of Slavic speakers.

  25. Of course, (the) articles in (the) English are quite different from those in (the) other languages.

    As for Hawai’ian, it can be difficult in its own way: I googled for [long hawaiian words] and found a page where someone asked what kawaiolanonapukanileo means; someone else explained that it was Kawaiolaonapukanileo ‘voices that bring new life’, the name of an a cappella group that sings Hawai’ian choral music.

  26. Glendening’s Teach Yourself to Learn a Language, paraphrased from memory: “After studying Malay for three months, I thought I knew all there was to know about the language. After a year, I was sure that I never will.”

    All languages are hard to be expert in, but some have a steeper or shallower learning curve.

  27. Isn’t it rather with a bulbous end for a hilt ?

    You are probably right. I relied on Google Translate for Spanish; it looked so-so; I used it.

    Not so for Turkish, where Google Translate came up with this:

    Penang Lawyer dedikleri cinsten ucu topuzlu, kalın, güzel bir bastondu bu. Topuzun hemen altında iki üç santim genişliğinde gümüş bir halka vardı.
    ‘Penang Lawyer is a nice, thick, sticky stick. Just below the ball was a silver ring two or three inches wide.’

    I cut off a few words:

    cinsten ucu topuzlu, kalın, güzel bir bastondu bu. Topuzun hemen altında iki üç santim genişliğinde gümüş bir halka vardı.

    and got this:

    ‘This is a thick, beautiful cane with a twist. Just below the ball was a silver ring two or three inches wide.’

    I decided to give up.

  28. Teach Yourself to Learn a Language

    What a blast from the past! I read and reread that book as a teenager, little knowing how sketchy Glendening’s linguistics was and how Anglocentric his views (poor understanding of languages outside of European languages, plus maybe some colonial languages like Malay). He had virtually no familiarity at all with Chinese and Japanese and his summary outlines of those two were crap.

    I remember being totally intimidated by his Chinese and Japanese examples. Years later I looked at the Japanese again and found it was just a boring article about the ILO.

    Still, the book was an alluring peep into the world of languages!

  29. I still have some of the Teach Yourself series, but as a kid I wanted to have all of them. The idea that a pocket-sized book could make you learn a whole language—and there were and are dozens of them, from Icelandic to Samoan—was intoxicating. TYTLAL was the meta–Teach Yourself book.

    Glendening also warns you against language programs that promise too much. “Finnish in a Fortnight” was one made-up example, and it’s still funny.

  30. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    John Cowan: Of course, (the) articles in (the) English are quite different from those in (the) other languages.

    Yes. Sometimes my French colleagues ask me to check texts they’ve written in English. I find a significant amount of the task is taken up with deleting “the” where it’s not needed, or adding it where it is.

  31. @JC: I learned, belatedly, that the preferred spelling is Hawaiian, in contrast to Hawai‘i.

  32. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Marie-Lucie: I think the prohibition is about “more beautiful” (or uglier) than another.

    Nonetheless, there is a lot of agreement about which are uglier than others. You’d find few people to claim that Dutch sounds nicer than Italian, or Hebrew than Turkish. Among English accents few would claim that Birmingham (England, not Alabama) is more beautiful to listen to than, say, Canadian English.

  33. I had a number of the TY series, too, mainly French and German (including ‘French Grammar’ and ‘German Grammar’). I remember the French and German grammar books as helpful in succinctly organising the grammar for actual use, which was immensely valuable. I think I still have them boxed away somewhere.

    I also started learning Japanese from TY Japanese (by Dunn and Yanada) before I started formal classes in the language. Perhaps I should thank them for arming me with that first basic knowledge of ‘verb-final’ sentences before I plunged into combat. Nothing fazed me after that!

  34. David Marjanović says:

    my wife gets cross if she hears people describe Spanish as easy

    If you come from elsewhere in Standard Average European, Spanish has one of those concave learning curves as described above for Malay: everything’s familiar and/or easy until you need to figure out which of the three past tenses to use when.

    Of course, (the) articles in (the) English are quite different from those in (the) other languages.

    Yup, and those are different from each other, too, to similar extents – even within western Romance, where at least the definite ones are more or less cognate.

  35. I read and reread that book as a teenager, little knowing how sketchy Glendening’s linguistics was and how Anglocentric his views […] Still, the book was an alluring peep into the world of languages!

    Exactly my youthful experience with Mario Pei!

  36. “With a bulbous end by way of a hilt.”

    Second re Mario Pei.

  37. J.W. Brewer says:

    Hey, why read Mario Pei if your childhood public library’s minimal and out-of-date holdings of popularizing books about linguistics also included Frederick Bodmer’s 1944 classic (still gathering dust on the shelves where I grew up circa 1980) The Loom of Language? Wikipedia claims, FWIW, that when Bodmer retired from the MIT faculty in 1955 the slot thus opened was rather fatefully given to a young whippersnapper named Chomsky …

  38. My God, I read Bodmer too! Hadn’t thought of that in decades.

  39. David Marjanović says:

    So have I, as a reprint of the German translation. Informative, historically interesting, and full of unreflected prejudice…

  40. When it comes to unreflected (unreflective?) prejudice, the worst is Charlton Laird, with his bizarre hatred of everything Spanish.

  41. You’d find few people to claim that Dutch sounds nicer than Italian, or Hebrew than Turkish.

    Do people really generally find Turkish more pleasant-sounding than Hebrew? Why?

  42. David Marjanović says:

    Uh… yeah, that should have been “unreflective”. Late-morning error.

    Do people really generally find Turkish more pleasant-sounding than Hebrew?

    I don’t think many people have heard much of both. Still, there’s a [χ] in Hebrew and not in Turkish, which further shares front rounded vowels with the generally well-regarded French.

  43. Hebrew’s one of my favorites, [χ] and all. I love the way it sounds.

    I don’t think there’s any particular sound in Turkish that I find unpleasant, more the… rhythm of it? I don’t know enough about Turkish, or language in general, to pinpoint what it is exactly about it, but it just sounds pretty harsh to my ears. With Italian I easily notice the features that make it so well-liked, even though personally I don’t really care for standard Italian much, but I never would’ve guessed Turkish might have what it takes to be a crowd pleaser.

    I don’t think many people have heard much of both.

    In the Balkans Turkish telenovelas have been very popular these last few years. 20-30 years ago when Mexican ones were all the rage, taking up Spanish was popular for a brief time. I think Turkish is thought of as way too difficult for that kind of effect to be taking place again, but I could well be wrong about that.

  44. Hebrew’s one of my favorites, [χ] and all. I love the way it sounds.

    I’m partial to it myself. Based on the overall sound, standard Israeli Hebrew, Mizrahi Hebrew and other accents might not sound like the same language to a non-speaker, but I can’t tell (for example here, former radio announcer Reuma Eldar, speaking very naturally a very precise and conservative Mizrahi Hebrew.)

  45. David Marjanović says:

    That does sound Hebrew to me – because of [ts] and the vowels. But there probably are Hebrew accents I’d mistake for Arabic.

  46. Among English accents few would claim that Birmingham (England, not Alabama) is more beautiful to listen to than, say, Canadian English.

    I think a lot of North Americans would find brummie accents nicer than the stereotypical working class Canadian accent (which to me would be Ricky from Trailer Park Boys – numerous Youtube clips available). As an American I don’t understand the aversion in the UK towards Birmingham accents at all, I find them a lot more pleasant than “Essex Man” or woman, which to me is like nails on a chalkboard.

  47. But there probably are Hebrew accents I’d mistake for Arabic.

    Yemeni Hebrew is Arabic, phonologically speaking.

  48. I feel like there has to be some kind of phanaeng avocado joke here someplace.

  49. This video, a TV show called The Last Jews of Yemen, shows a number of people speaking Yemeni Hebrew (and chewing qat, naturally.) You might recognize some words and phrases echoed between the interviewees and the interviewer. The latter is speaking more or less standard Israeli Hebrew.

  50. David Marjanović says:

    Interesting. It sounds vaguely intermediate… but either the sound quality is too bad, or I should turn the volume up more. I’ll test that tomorrow. 🙂

  51. The sound quality isn’t too great at places, and I sometimes had to read the subtitles to follow along.

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