Tribute: Burton Watson, 1925 – 2017

During the second half of the twentieth century and well into the twenty-first century, Burton Watson translated a wide range of works of premodern Chinese literature into highly readable, reliable English. His numerous published translations span the gamut of Chinese texts from history to poetry, prose, philosophy, and religion.  He was also an accomplished translator from Japanese, especially of poetry and religious literature.

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The Language Log Experience

Recently this video, or a link to it, has been showing up on just about every web page I visit:

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She would evaporate slippery chickens were north

Just because I haven't written a post about Chinglish for many moons doesn't mean that it has disappeared.  In fact, the following is such a paramount specimen that I would be remiss not to bring it to the attention of Language Log readers.

From C. Grieve (who comments "I'm assuming the restaurant was a greasy spoon . . .") via Elizabeth Barber:

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R.I.P. Osamu Fujimura (1927-2017)

In 1975, Osamu Fujimura hired me as a Member of Technical Staff in his new Linguistics Research Department at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J.  I spent 15 formative years there, and I owe a great deal to the environment that he created.

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'Tis the Season: blooming in translation and in art

Jocelyn Ireson-Paine came across the Language Log posts which mention blooming: the increase in size of translated texts. She draws, and this made her think that if line drawing is regarded as translation from an original scene to lines, blooming can occur there too. She has written a brief note on this in "Drawing as Translation".

The essay was inspired partly by Jocelyn's thinking about what she does when she draws, and partly by English lecturer Matthew Reynolds talking about his book Translation: A Very Short Introduction.

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Country list translation oddity

This is weird, and even slightly creepy — paste a list of countries like

Costa Rica, Argentina, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Ethiopia, France, Germany, England, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Peru, Puerto Rico, Scotland, Switzerland, Spain, Sweden, Uruguay, Venezuela, USA

into Google Translate English-to-Spanish, and a parallel-universe list emerges:

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Active agent avoidance

In a long list of LLOG posts over the years, we've observed the widespread (and false) folk-linguistic view that the grammatical term passive means "vague about agency". (You can learn what it really means from Geoff Pullum's 2011 post "The passive in English".)

This confusion arises partly because passive verbs can sometimes be used to sidestep embarrassing questions about agency, as in the famous example "Mistakes were made" — and perhaps also partly because of a broader confusion about "passive" being passive and thus somehow, well, unmanly and generally weak.

But avoiding embarrassing questions about agency is a garden of many paths. And in an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN yesterday,  U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley offered a tour of several of them. For example:

Regime change is something that we think is going to happen, because
at- all of the parties are going to see that Assad's not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria.

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Fun bun pun

The case of activist Gweon Pyeong 권평 / Pyong Kwon / Quan Ping 權平 is now going to trial in China.  Gweon stands accused of wearing a t-shirt with three Xi-themed slogans printed on it:

"T-shirt slogans" (11/7/16)

In this post, I would like to explore in greater depth one of the three slogans, namely "Xí bāozi 習包子" ("steamed, stuffed / filled bun Xi").

In the earlier post, I explained how Xi Jinping acquired that curious nickname.  It's really not that offensive, and it is by no means vulgar.  But just what does it imply to call Xi Jinping, China's supreme leader, a "steamed, stuffed bun"?

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For want of a flack

A competent PR counsel would have advised against this wardrobe choice:

The twitterverse immediately pounced, with captions like these:

Reinforcements from the 101st Fighting Ivies Have Arrived.
From the shores of Burberry, the 82nd heir-born has arrived.
Kush Body Armor by J.Crew. "When you don't know where you are or what you are doing."

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The factual impenetrability of zombie rules

Frank Bruni, "What Happened to Who?", NYT 4/8/2017:

I first noticed it during the 2016 Republican presidential debates, which were crazy-making for so many reasons that I’m not sure how I zeroed in on this one. “Who” was being exiled from its rightful habitat. It was a linguistic bonobo: endangered, possibly en route to extinction.

Instead of saying “people who,” Donald Trump said “people that.” Marco Rubio followed suit. Even Jeb Bush, putatively the brainy one, was “that”-ing when he should have been “who”-ing, so I was cringing when I should have been oohing.

It’s always a dangerous thing when politicians get near the English language: Run for the exits and cover the children’s ears. But this bit of wreckage particularly bothered me. This was who, a pronoun that acknowledges our humanity, our personhood, separating us from the flotsam and jetsam out there. We’re supposed to refer to “the trash that” we took out or “the table that” we discovered at a flea market. We’re not supposed to refer to “people that call my office” (Rubio) or “people that come with a legal visa and overstay” (Bush).

Or so I always assumed, but this nicety is clearly falling by the wayside, and I can’t shake the feeling that its plunge is part of a larger story, a reflection of so much else that is going wrong in this warped world of ours.

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[t]-less -ists

Following up on "Weak t", 4/6/2017, I wouldn't want you to think that Donald Trump's pronunciation of "scientists" is unusually under-articulated. Here's Barack Obama from his 5/2/2009 Weekly Radio Address:

Just the "-tists" syllable:

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Variable usages

Sign greeting Xi Jinping in Florida:


(Source)

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The languages of India

At several stations on the commute from Swarthmore to University City station, around half of the people who get on the train are Indians.  Usually they are happily conversing with each other in one or another South Asian language.

Today the train was packed, and I was sitting on the aisle seat next to four Indian men who were talking to each other in Tamil.  I asked them, "When you meet other Indians, how do you know which language to speak to them?"

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