Archive for Language and literature

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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This bore is not a bore

I was thrilled when I came upon this 3:04 YouTube video by chance on the morning of the mid-Autumn festival (October 1):

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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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Historical dialectology and the Poetry Classic

[This is a guest post by John Carlyle written in response to the following comment by E. Bruce Brooks to "Similes for female pulchritude in an ancient Chinese poem" (7/1/20):

The formation of the Shr* corpus is currently under serious study, and it can be said with some certainty at this preliminary stage that this particular poem was added to the growing Shr collection at the end of the 05c. How much older it may be, in its own country (Wei) will depend on scrutiny of its dialect position: some of the poems from that area show traces of (original) local pronunciation; others do not. Stay tuned.

*Shījīng 詩經, aka Poetry Classic, Classic of Poetry, Shijing, Shih-ching, Book of Songs, Book of Odes, Odes, or Poetry.]

   There is justification that Wey's 衛 dialect position might suggest something about the age of some of the poems in the Wey airs. The dialect position of Wey is better understood for the later period. What that might suggest about earlier poetry is still not clear. I'll try to give a quick summary of what we know so far.

   At least by the time of Fangyan 《方言》, Wey belonged to an eastern group of Chinese dialects. The exact limits of this eastern group are not entirely settled nor are the phonological features shared by the group since studies of Fangyan are primarily lexical. Since the time of Lin Yutang's (1927) first approximation of Fangyan dialect boundaries, the dialects of Wey and Song have been grouped together. Later scholars also included neighboring states like Qi (but not "Eastern Qi") and Lu. More recently, Matsue Takashi (1999, 2006, 2013) argues that the eastern group's boundaries extent as far as Chen and that the dialect of Chen was a transitional dialect between the eastern and southern groups due to Chu incursion (2006, 2013).

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Similes for female pulchritude in an ancient Chinese poem

From Shī jīng 詩經 (Poetry Classic), circa 6th c. BC:

(Her) hands are like catkins;
skin is like congealed lard;
neck is like larva of longicorn;
teeth are like calabash seeds;
forehead (like that of) cicada,
eyebrows (like antennae of) moth,
(her) enchanting smile is winsome;
(her) beautiful eyes are clear-set.
         — Ode 57, tr. Diana Shuheng Zhang

Shǒu rú róu tí
fū rú níng zhī
lǐng rú qiú qí
chǐ rú hù xī
qín shǒu é méi
qiǎo xiào qiàn xī
měi mù pàn xī.
      —— Wèi fēng·shuòrén

手如柔荑
膚如凝脂
領如蝤蠐
齒如瓠犀
螓首蛾眉
巧笑倩兮
美目盼兮。
 —— 衛風·碩人

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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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Know your Narts: cattle rearing and cattle raiding

We here at Language Log know our Ossetians:  see "Know your Ossetians" (2/17/20), and be sure to read the informative comments to that post.  Today, let us go one step deeper into their language and lore.  We shall do so through getting to know some basic things about the Nart sagas (Abkhaz: Нарҭаа ражәабжьқәа; Nartaa raƶuabƶkua; Adyghe: Нартхымэ акъыбарыхэ; Nartxıme aqıbarıxe; Karachay-Balkar: Нарт таурухла; Nart tawruxla; Ossetian: Нарты кадджытæ; Narty kaddžytæ; Nartı kadjıtæ) are a series of tales originating from the North Caucasus. They form much of the basic mythology of the tribes in the area, including Abazin, Abkhaz, Circassian, Ossetian, KarachayBalkar, and to some extent ChechenIngush folklore.

The term nart comes from the Ossetian Nartæ, which is plurale tantum of nar. The origin of the root nar is of Iranian origin, from Proto-Iranian nar for 'hero, man', descended from Proto-Indo-European *h₂nḗr. In Chechen, the word nart means 'giant'.

Source:  Nart saga

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"The old man at the pass loses his horse"

For many years, Melinda Takeuchi, professor of Japanese art history at Stanford, regularly competed with horse and carriage in combined driving events.  Here's an example of what the sport looks like.

Not long ago, her carriage driving days came to an abrupt end due to an accident, which she describes thus:

I had a horrendous carriage wreck a couple of years ago — 5 dashing deer spooked my horse and she bolted. carriage flipped. i was life-flighted to stanford emergency where they discovered 8 broken ribs and a malignant cyst in the pancreas. by one of those crazy serendipitous miracles, the cancer was discovered in time to blitz it. so i survived against all odds, but my daredevil days are over. thank the goddess for horses in these days of shelter in place.

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WeChat COVID-19 ditty

[This is a guest post by David Moser]

This little Stück of piecemeal wordplay has been making the rounds on WeChat. It seems to be an amalgam of several little coronavirus memes that had appeared in isolation.

gélí rénquán méile 隔离人权没了
bù gélí rén quán méile 不隔离人全没了
tiānshàng biānfú, dìshàng Chuānpǔ 天上蝙蝠,地上川普
yīgè yǒudú, yīgè méipǔ 一个有毒,一个没谱
bù dài kǒuzhào nǐ shìshì 不戴口罩你试试
shìshì jiù shìshì 试试就逝世

A rather literal translation might go as follows:

隔离人权没了 With the quarantine, there are no human rights.
不隔离人全没了 Without the quarantine, the humans will be all gone.
天上蝙蝠,地上川普 In the sky are bats, on the earth there's Trump.
一个有毒,一个没谱 One has a virus, the other has no clue/no plan.
不戴口罩你试试 Just try not wearing a face mask.
试试就逝世 If you try it, you'll die.

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Tocharian love poem

From Diana Shuheng Zhang:

This English translation is modified based on pages 26-28 of the article — Adams, Douglas Q: "More thoughts on Tocharian B prosody," Tocharian and Indo-European Studies 14 (2013), 3-30.

A fragmentary manuscript in Tocharian B, ca. 600 AD, excavated in Kucha (Qizil Miŋ-Öy), Berlin Turfan Collection. Now stored at Frankfurt. No. THT 496, B 496.

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Captivating translation: young Turk with flowing charm

In my Middle Vernacular Sinitic (MVS) seminar yesterday evening, Diana Shuheng Zhang submitted this translation:

Even more there is the young Turk with flowing charm,
who could take advantage of you with his coiled-up turban.
His horse white, his robe blue, his wide-open eyes bright ­–
Probably he is truly a debauchee at heart!

gèng yǒu fēngliú shè núzi
néng jiāng pánpà lái qī ěr
báimǎ qīngpáo huō yǎn míng
xǔ tā zhēnshi chá láng suǐ

更有風流歙奴子
能將盤帕來欺爾
白馬青袍豁眼明
許他真是查郎髓

Li She 李涉 (fl. 806-835)《Què guī Bālíng túzhōng zǒubǐ jì Táng Zhī yán 卻歸巴陵途中走筆寄唐知言》 “Returning Once Again to Baling, Written Hastily [lit., Running My Brush] En Route to Confide in Words to Tang Zhi”

The entire poem in 44 lines may be found here.

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Sino-Semitica, part 2: of massage and Old Sinitic reconstructions

As part of our research on the dictionary of Middle Vernacular Sinitic (MVS) that Zhu Qingzhi and I have been working on for more than two decades, I was tickled by this quaint poem (below on the second page) by the medieval Buddhist poet, Wáng Fànzhì 王梵志 (Brahmacārin ब्रह्मचारिन् Wang; fl. first half of 7th c.).

I have been an avid fan of Wáng Fànzhì's unique poetry for nearly half a century.  Quaint, indeed, and also quirky.  Wang Fanzhi is self-demeaning in a funny, adorable way.  The poem I'm about to introduce you to is a good example of his trademark self-abnegation.

What attracted me particularly to this poem for the purposes of our research on MVS is the first word in line 2, chǎngtóu 長頭 ("for a long time"), which does not exist with this meaning in Literary Sinitic (LS) / Classical Chinese (CC).  Finding chǎngtóu 長頭 ("for a long time") in Wang Fanzhi's poem was already enough of a treat, but when I got to the last word of the couplet, I was even more delighted.  As you will momentarily see, what Wang says about his wife's tummy is funny by itself, but the word he uses to describe what the wife does to her tummy made me even more excited.

But let's read the poem first, then I'll talk about the word in question, namely, méisuō 沒娑 ("massage").

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