Archive for Translation

Wattle gate

Stefan Krasowski, who graduated from the Wharton School of Penn in 2002, and has visited every country in the world, just wrote this note to the e-Mair list:

Wattleseed milkshake

This Australian milkshake brought to mind a VHM Classical Sinitic class where I first encountered the word "wattle" in translating a Du Fu (712-770) poem.

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Learning Tamil

Recently we have had a string of posts on South Asian linguistic phenomena.  Most of the languages involved have been Indic, and will probably continue to be predominantly so during the coming months and years.  Consequently, I'm delighted today to make a post about Tamil, a Dravidian language with a glorious heritage.

Except where otherwise noted, the indented paragraphs below are by Carrie Wiebe (professor of Chinese language and literature at Middlebury).  They are integral and self-explanatory, so I will make few interpolations.

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Shitshows, shitholes, and shitstorms

I don't know who was responsible for first labeling the Trump-Biden debate a "shitshow", but the word has been much talked about during the last couple of days.

Nathan Hopson wrote in:

Well, obviously I want to know how the world is translating "shit show." You surely don't have to ask why.

French, the other language I read my news in, can fall back on un merdier or un spectacle de merde, both of which appear to be also liberally sprinkled in social media today.

Japanese famously doesn't have a whole lot of obscenities, but fortunately shit is one of them.

Asahi, Japan's #2 paper gave us:

Shit show(くそみたいなショー)
kuso mitai na shō = a show like shit

(FWIW, Yahoo Japan's realtime search of "shit show" (on Twitter, etc.), has many examples, mostly referencing the Asahi article.)

IMHO, it's sad that we have to fall back on a simile here. Takes some of the oomph out of the gut punch that was our national horror show.

How is the rest of the world press dealing with this "spectacle of shit"?

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The (alleged) untranslatability of Chinese poetry

Review:

"Poems Without an ‘I’", by Madeleine Thien
NYRB October 8, 2020 Issue

The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai (Li Po)
by Ha Jin
Pantheon, 301 pp.

The Selected Poems of Tu Fu: Expanded and Newly Translated
by David Hinton
New Directions, 267 pp.

Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry
by David Hinton
Shambhala, 138 pp.

I have never been a fan of the view that Chinese poetry is untranslatable, or that  any other genres of Chinese literature, for that matter, are untranslatable.  Since I have done a huge amount of translation in my lifetime, if I accepted the notion that Chinese literature is untranslatable, I would long ago have made a gigantic fool of myself.  Quite the contrary, I am content with my accomplishments in translating all sorts of Chinese literature into English, and I believe that what I have done enriches the intellectual life of Americans and other speakers of English by making available to them an equivalent emotional and esthetic experience as that afforded to Chinese readers of the works in their original language.

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"Little competent donkey"

Announced only yesterday, Alibaba has a new robot delivery vehicle for the last mile:

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"Blue-eyed person"

Cai Xia 蔡霞, a retired female professor from the Central Party School of the CCP has been denouncing Xi Jinping for his imperial aspirations and the CCP as a corrupt, zombie party.  Somehow, she managed to escape to the United States after her initial condemnations.

Fuming, the Party has cancelled her membership and vilified her perfidy:

After the Party School of the Central Committee of Communist Party of China (CPC) announced on Monday that it had rescinded the Party membership of retired professor Cai Xia and revoked her retirement benefits, Cai quickly became Western media's blue-eyed person.

Source:  "Cai Xia’s blatant betrayal is totally indefensible: Global Times editorial", Global Times* (8/19/20)

*An official CCP daily tabloid sponsored by the People's Daily.

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Classical Chinese vulgarisms

[This is a guest post by Ken Hilton]

I came across this Facebook post and I thought it might be worth sharing on Language Log.

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Japanese toponyms Englished

There's a Reddit page with this title:  "Fully anglicised Japan, based off actual etymologies, rendered into plausible English".  Feast your eyes:


(source)

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The Emperor is an organ of the state

Jim Unger sent me this mystifying note (7/25/20):

The other day, my wife called my attention to the fact that the ‘organ theory of the emperor’ (Tennō kikan setsu), for which Minobe Tatsukichi (1873-1948) was prosecuted in the 1930s, is written 天皇機関説.  This is odd since ‘organ’ in the medical sense (the apparent source of Minobe’s metaphor) is currently written 器官 whereas 機関 is now pretty much ‘engine’.  Since it is inconceivable that generations of historians writing in English have simply been perpetuating a mistranslation, it appears that either 器官 is a later coinage or that 機関 narrowed in meaning sometime later, or both.  I am not particularly interested in untangling this mess, but it might be worth studying because it seems to be a case of one or more Sino-Japanese compounds undergoing semantic change within Japanese, which, of course, ought not happen if every kanji were a logogram of fixed meaning.  Do both these words occur in Chinese?  If so, have they ever overlapped in meaning in Chinese?  Is one or the other a 19th or 20th century neologism?

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"Gold" as element and "gold" as substance — as conceived by Mendeleev

[This is a guest post by Conal Boyce]

Your wonderful arabesque on the world of 'kedi'* (and the disappearance of cats for a time — perhaps to a different planet, because they had grown weary of trying to school us humans?) reminded me that you are a connoisseur of languages plural, not just Chinese. In that connection, you might find my 2019 article** on Mendeleev interesting.

 
[**"Mendeleev’s Elemental Ontology and Its Philosophical Renditions in German and English", HYLE – International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, Vol. 25 (2019), No. 1, 49-70.]

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Accidental filmic poetry

Tonight we're rewatching The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in honor of Ennio Morricone, the composer of its iconic score, who died today. Deediedeedledee nwah nwah nwaaaaahhh

And I've just had a thought about the title that turns on the quite different interpretations of the-Adj constructions in English and Italian, which I mainly know about from this paper by Hagit Borer and Isabelle Roy .

In English, "the Adj" generally only allows a generic reading, and often refers to the class of humans characterized by the adjective, as in the poor, the rich, etc. In Italian (and French, Spanish, etc.) this isn't the case; the construction, although based on the same syntax, can also receive a particular referential singular interpretation. Borer and Roy ascribe this to the presence of identifying number and gender features on the determiner in those languages.

In the original Italian title of the movie, Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo ('The good.masc.sg, The ugly.masc.sg, the bad.masc.sg.) these 'The-Adj' sequences are referential; they refer to the three main characters Blondie, Angel Eyes and Tuco. The Italian title is more or less equivalent to English "The good guy, the bad guy and the ugly guy". 

In English, though, the grammatical structure of the title can only get the generic reading. The use of these forms in the film to refer to three protagonists, then, bestows an archetypal quality on those characters; they're metonymically interpreted as instantiating the whole classes of good people, bad people and ugly people respectively. And the kind of mythic force it imparts somehow fits so perfectly with the grandiose yet tongue-in-cheek quality of the whole film, to me it's really a fundamental part of its impact, humor and appeal.

My question is, do you think Leone and the scriptwriters understood this property of the English translation? Or did they read their English calque of the Italian grammatical structure just as they would have read the Italian? The Italian title, in fact, with its masculine singular marking, cannot be understood in the same way as the English is. To represent the English interpretation in Italian, apparently, the plural would be needed: i belli, i brutti, i cattivi. My guess is that neither the writers nor the director realized that the title read so differently in English. 

 According to Wikipedia, the Italian title was a last-minute suggestion of screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni, and the title for the English version was determined by the studio after some alternatives were bandied about and rejected. I wonder if someone at United Artists recognized the different reading, and the epic quality it imparted, when they were discussing the choice!

Thanks to Roberta d'Alessandro and other Facebook linguists for Italian judgments and discussion!

 

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Impressive Arabic translational improvisations and impostures

Since 1979, being in a department that proudly called itself "Oriental Studies", a distinguished component of which was Arabic Studies, I had often heard of "maqama" and was quite aware that it was a virtuoso literary form:

Maqāmah (مقامة, pl. maqāmāt, مقامات, literally "assemblies") are an (originally) Arabic prosimetric literary genre which alternates the Arabic rhymed prose known as Saj‘ with intervals of poetry in which rhetorical extravagance is conspicuous.

Source

Now, a new rendering of al-Ḥarīrī's masterpiece of the genre by Michael Cooperson, titled simply Impostures, attempts to convey in English the wild exuberance of the language of the original:

"Fiction: Fifty Approaches to an Antic Arabic Masterpiece:  The Maqāmāt shows off all that Arabic can do. This translation shows off English in the same flattering light."  By Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal (June 26, 2020)

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Thought control to detect the misuse of language

[This is a guest post by Mark Metcalf]

Recently read a short story by Chinese sci-fi author Ma Boyong (translated by Ken Liu) entitled "City of Silence" (Jìjìng zhī chéng 寂静之城) — a tale about a highly dystopian future in ("not") China. The story was referenced in an article in Wired.

Haven't been able to find an English translation online, so I got the Kindle version in a compilation – Invisible Planets. A thought-provoking story that describes a State in which the government controls people's thoughts by monitoring all of their communications in order to detect the "misuse" of language. The following excerpts from the book explain how the process evolved. Very disturbing, with echoes from recent history that are even more disturbing.

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