I’ve run across another book I’ll have to acquire someday, linguist A. L. Becker’s Beyond Translation: Essays toward a Modern Philology. It’s a collection of essays that describe “Becker’s experiences in attempting to translate into or out of Burmese, Javanese, and Malay a variety of texts… emphasize important kinds of nonuniversality in all aspects of language and look toward a new theory of language grounded in American pragmatism.” I was immediately smitten by this passage in the introduction (Becker has returned to Burma a quarter of a century after studying the language in the late ’50s):

I have always kept field journals about learning languages in various parts of Southeast Asia.

That evening I wrote in my journal, “If you take away grammar and lexicon from a language, what is left?”

Then I wrote, “Answer: Everything!”

At that moment, as I was trying to remember the Burmese I thought I had once known, grammars and lexicons seemed beside the point, just things we do with languages, not things that are somehow within languages, not part of their being as languages. People like me make grammars and dictionaries — these artifacts are not in the minds of the users of languages. Grammars and dictionaries were not what was buried in my memory. This came to me with the force of a revelation.

I was by then a professional linguist, and these questions were important in my profession. I wrote them down, then went back to remembering Burmese words. After a while a doorway opened — a curtain parted (there is no nonmetaphoric language for this) — and some of the Burmese I once knew came back to me.

What I remembered were not patterns and definitions, certainly not rules, but particular things. First of all, a children’s song — the tune something like “Polly Wolly Doodle”: “A poh gyi oh … kha khohn khohn … m’thay ba hne’ ohn … nowght hnit ka . . . t’saung mohn . . . pwe kyi ba ohn.” [‘Old man, bent back, don’t die yet. Come back next year, month of Tazaungmon, see the play.’] I sang it to myself with almost no hesitation, sounding it in my mind. […]

I got the words for ‘back’ (kha), ‘bent, convex’ (khohn khohn), ‘old’ (oh), and ‘year’ (hnit) not separately but together. The tune helped me remember. I am sure everyone has a story like this to tell, some old remnant of learning a language. I think the particularity of it made it memorable. It came with so much particular context: the other teachers, the written words, the children singing, the familiar tune, the rhymes, the story. The particularity made a unique place in my memory for “it,” the little text.

Yes, particularity is vital, and as he says, surely everyone who has learned a language has such remnants, redolent of their first acquaintance with it; for me, a much-anthologized little Pushkin poem plays that role in Russian, and the song “Mo Li Hua” in Chinese.


  1. i’ve tried to translate that poem once and my friend told me i made the translation to sound like too simple-sounding
    so now i have bitter memories about the poem 🙂
    i mean my failure

  2. Well, that’s the thing—the poem is simple, and it works in Russian because of the perfection of the language and rhythm, but if you try to translate it it just sounds… simple.

  3. John Emerson says

    I have a longstanding theory that poets who aim for simplicity and perfection are the hardest to translate and also the hardest to appreciate. They depend too much on very subtle perfections and simple nuances of expression, and non-natives can’t always perceive these. And also, I think that such poems, for native speakers, depend on an implied contrast to absent poems in much more elaborate, rhetorical, florid styles.
    Machado is an example for me in Spanish, and Heine in German. From what people say, Pushkin is a Russian example.
    Difficult poets whom I have no trouble appreciating in the original include Gongora in Spanish and Rilke in German. Their ways of expression are extreme or intense in a way that’s impossible to miss.

  4. Kári Tulinius says

    Randomly enough translations of Heine play a very important part in Icelandic literary history. That’s because Jónas Hallgrímsson, who is pretty much universally considered to be Iceland’s greatest 19th Century poet, translated a number of his poems (very freely). You can read about some of these in this part of his biography. Here’s a very, very free translation by him of one of Heine’s poems. This one’s more of an “inspired by” kind of deal. Others were closer. My favorite lullaby as a child (so much so my parents had to sing it every night) was Jónas Hallgrímsson’s version of the Heine poem that’s usually called Die Elfen.

  5. Roughly comparing a language to a body, grammar deals with the anatomy (the skeleton and organs), and lexicon with the flesh, fat, skin, hair, etc. What is left if we remove those two? not much, but neither of them (or even both together) is what we see and know of the living person: similarly with language. There is a place for considering the grammar and lexicon in themselves, separately from the living language, to which they are indispensable, but they do not summarize the experience of knowing a language, and speakers, as living persons, are not aware of most of the structure of their language or body but have a different kind of knowledge of them.

  6. Yikes.
    What poem??

  7. Seconding John. I’ve spent some time trying to translate Heine. Finally threw up my hands. Rilke’s cake compared to him.

  8. John (Emerson), I’d like to contradict, or at least qualify, what you say on the thread, although I don’t know what Russian poems they’re talking about at the top of the thread!
    “poets who aim for simplicity […] are the hardest to translate and also the hardest to appreciate”
    Well, “AIM for simplicity” could be an anti-Newtonian perpetual quibbling point.
    But, for me, in thinking of ‘hardest to get ahold of’, I’m thinking of Celan, and of Dickinson, Keats, and Donne, and of Pindar– and I think HARD poets are ‘hardest to read’.

  9. What poem??
    are you asking me? this one and please forgive my immodesty, i can’t tell mistakes in my English, just it seems sounds like this in Russian, for me, i attempt to translate just like trying to learn English
    I loved you and perhaps still,
    This love hasn’t faded in my soul.
    It wouldn’t trouble you again:
    I want not sadden you by anything.
    I loved you so silently, so hopelessly
    Languished by shyness or by jealousy.
    I loved you so sincerely, so tenderly
    Like God make you be loved by the other.
    A.S. Pushkin
    i forget maybe i wrote it before here too, sorry then, or maybe that was Lermontov’s translation of Gornue dolinu, i so love his ‘Vukhoju odin ya na dorogu, skvoz’ tuman kremnistui put’ blestit..’ tried to translate that too, but lost the file, pity

  10. i’ve read recently avva’s post on the English and Russian poetry, the differences in metrics, rhymes etc, so irregularity, i got, is the most important feature of poems in English, while Russian poems should sound very correctly metered, if to adjust the size how it sounds in Russian to the English translation that would elicit like some comical effect

  11. michael farris says

    “Yes, particularity is vital, and as he says, surely everyone who has learned a language has such remnants, redolent of their first acquaintance with it”
    Yes, or as I might say “Wer reitet so spaet durch Nacht und Wind?…” (had to memorize that in a first year class and big chunks of it still hang around in my mind).
    To change gears a little:
    “That evening I wrote in my journal, “If you take away grammar and lexicon from a language, what is left?”
    Then I wrote, “Answer: Everything!”
    This has special resonance for me now (not necessarily the way the author meant). A couple of years ago I led a field methods class that investigated Sundanese (second largest ethnic language in Indonesia). A couple of the students made it the subject of their masters theses (to be defended very soon).
    Recently meeting with them I was left with the impression that Sundanese has a much more tenuous hold than the number of speakers (between 26 and 40 million according to various sources) would indicate. But the peril isn’t so much language shift in the traditional sense, rather it seems to be slowly but surely relexifying and regrammaticalizing itself into Indonesian. That is, it’s a language that is slowly losing anything distinctive in its grammar and lexicon.

  12. John: “…poets…are the hardest to translate and also the hardest to appreciate.”
    Do you definitely think the two elements go together? As in: have some difficulty appreciating Heine? Just asking. Seems like you are alleging a pretty high pastiche factor in Heine. Do others share that feeling? (I have read and enjoyed Cervantes without the benefit of knowing Lazarillo de Tormes. That is kind of historically wrong, I suppose, but it didn’t seem to matter at the time. Ah well, actually it still doesn’t seem to.)
    [On philosophers: Have you read Charles Taylor? He is on my list, and I’m always grateful for reasons not to read philosophers… Let me express my advance gratitude by mentioning Sloterdijk as my recommendation for omission… I also wonder how Stu fell into that trap, given his opposition to Sinnlöcher and such.]

  13. John Emerson says

    Tayler is on my list too. Most I can say.
    As for Heine, I have trouble perceiving what’s special about him. It seems like conventional reomanticism, sometimes with a little punch line at the end. I am not opposed to either romanticism or punch lines, but the thing about Heine, I’m told, is how woinderfully he does it, and I don’t know German well enough to catch that.
    Theorizing it, I imagine a Heine poem being at the center of a crowded field of a.) heavier, more complicated and puffed-up poems by other poets, and b.) other simple, naive poems very similar to Heine’s poems, except not as perfect (or even downright bad). So some of Heine’s power comes from a tacit comparison with other poems that aren’t there. But I’m not at ease enough wioth German, or well read enough, to be moved by those contrasts.
    For example, suppose that the only poet a German knew was Hoelderlin. Heine would be a breath of fresh air.

  14. it’s a language that is slowly losing anything distinctive in its grammar and lexicon.
    That’s the way I feel when I read some French prose today. so great is the influence of English, not so much directly but especially through poor translations.

  15. marie-lucie: It’s just payback for what Norman French did to Anglo-Saxon a thousand years ago!

  16. In Norwegian I get the feeling, both from the writing of young journalists and from the language of my children and their friends, that translationese now is less poor translation than a new high/written register. Not that this is new; we’ve borrowed German and Latin traits for as long as we’ve had a written language. And that wasn’t new either; I gather that Wulfila made considerable efforts to press the language of his Gothic Bible into a Greekish grammar.

  17. It’s just payback for what Norman French did to Anglo-Saxon a thousand years ago!
    I realize that, but it still hurts.

  18. How about what the Norman French did to Parisian French.

  19. John Emerson says
  20. linguist.in.hiding says

    Well, I never… The first thought that came to mind was that our host would blog about politics. Isn’t there enough of it already? 🙂
    Seriously though, “linguist A. L. Becker’s Beyond Translation: Essays toward a Modern Philology”. I see there has been some implicit and explicit commenting here on what is linguistics… …and what is philology. And A. L. Becker’s views are right on philologous, only, maybe, that he downplays the role of (?the) lexicon (in this I, as a linguist, can agree). Yes, there is relevant lexicological research in linguistics, of a sort, but on the whole “lexicology” has been moving towards (?has always been) the cultural studies sphere of linguistics.
    Inspired by the, misinterpreted, name of the blog entry, and, the recent commenting on philology I am now anxiously waiting for a blog entry “What is Philology?” by our host.

  21. What is philology?
    Philology is the freedom from self-incurred abscondage.

  22. John: Cherman is of course secretly a dialect of Dutch, although Dutch (in the narrow sense) poetry can profitably be skipped in its entirety so far as I have yet been able to tell.

  23. I took a course with Pete Becker 35 years ago in Ann Arbor. I came from a background of knowing only European languages, and the class opened my eyes to the whole notion of cultural assumptions in narrative. I’m glad to see he’s still working on those ideas.

  24. John Emerson says

    Au contraire, Des: Janus Secundus is een van de grootste dichters ter wereld”.

  25. This would be the Janus Secundus Wikipedia describes as een Nederlandse humanistische dichter die voornamelijk in het Latijn dichtte? Because Latin is pretty certainly not a dialect of Dutch or Cherman…

  26. Of course not, it’s an offshoot of Dravidian.

  27. John Emerson says

    Dutch is, as Hat has explained to us and has documented very thoroughly, the language of the Garden of Eden. It’s really too pure and holy to be used in writing profane poetry.

  28. There are dolphins in the Dutch canals, I saw it on the telly.

  29. There are dolphins in the Dutch canals, I saw it on the telly.

  30. komfo,amonan says


  31. michael farris says

    “Dutch (in the narrow sense) poetry can profitably be skipped in its entirety so far as I have yet been able to tell”
    Zal ik vergelijken jij met een gezouten haring?

  32. “Zal ik vergelijken jij met een gezouten haring?”
    Monsieur misquotes the celebrated sonnet beginning:
    Zal ik je vergelijken met een nieuwe haring?
    Je bent nog vetter, en minder smakelijk…

  33. michael farris says

    Mijn liefde is als een belgisch belgisch bier….

  34. John Emerson says

    There’s probably a reason why Italian love poetry swept the world, and not Dutch, but the realistic attitude is to be commended.

  35. John Emerson says

    It reminds me of Baltazar Alcazar’s poem comparing his lovely Inez to eggplant with cheese.

  36. Yeah, it’s cause all their words end in -eeni and other vowels, so that it’s much easier to make rhymes.
    You try and find a rhyme for smakelijk haring, no wonder they stuck to painting.

  37. John Emerson says

    I just had an extremely romantic pickled herring. I wouldn’t think of a salted herring as at all romantic, though, especially the way their oversalted a lot of the time.

  38. Fun Danish Fact: the Danish word for haring, sild, is (or at least has been) also slang for an attractive young women. (Maybe one of the Krons has a source for this? The internets seem to be playing up today.)

  39. John Emerson says

    Des, if you’re still here: are there any good Dutch jokes about the different meanings of the word je in the two languages? (And if not, why not?)
    Presumably the Dutch je is a version of the English ye.

  40. John Emerson says

    Somewhat on topic: my brother says he was six years old when he realized that “Okayseeyabye!” was not a single word.

  41. Smakelijk haring
    Is to me to be scaring,
    Which I not must be sharing
    When is a wooden-shoe’d fish staring.

  42. John: Language 2 being French? I don’t know of any such jokes; you probably need a Real Belgian to say for sure if there are any.

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