"I had it professionally translated"

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It's not just those translating Chinese and Japanese into English who sometimes encounter problems. Today's Doonesbury:

A discussion here on Language Log a little more than a year ago ("Sorkh Razil: Language Log asks you", 10/22/2010) concluded that the cartoonist, Gary Trudeau, was more plausibly correct when he told us that "Sorkh Razil" is Pashtu (also spelled Pakhto, Pushto, Pukhto, Pashto, Paxto or Pushtu), e.g. in the footnote in the first panel of this strip from October 2010:

According to several well-informed LL commenters, sorkh (or surkh) is a Persian (and thus also Dari) word that has been borrowed into Pashtu, while razil is a Persianized form of Arabic radhīl which has also been borrowed via Persian/Dari into Pashtu.  So the basic vocabulary, variously rendered into the latin alphabet, exists in both languages. However, cameron observed that  "the normal Persian [or Dari] word order would be noun followed by adjective, with the ubiquitous -e- particle in between, serving as the connective tissue for the NP", so that the Dari version should be Razil-e-Sorkh. And language hat suggested that Sorkh Razil is "thinkable Pushtu":

I knew my big Pushtu dictionary would come in handy one day! While it is true that سرخ surkh 'red' and رذيل razīl 'low, base, vile; (here) rascal' are Persian/Dari (the latter is from Arabic radhīl), they have both been borrowed into Pushtu, and since in Pushtu surkh is used as the first element in compound words (e.g. surkhbād '[red sickness =] erysipelas'), whereas in Persian/Dari, as AlexB says, the order would be reversed, I think it's reasonable to conclude this is in fact Pushtu, or at least thinkable Pushtu (I have no idea whether Pushtu speakers would actually use the form).

Zoetrope asked for help from professional interpreters in Afghanistan, and reports this:

I sent this question to a friend of mine who works with interpreters in Eastern Afghanistan and he asked them for help. Here is the relevant part of his response:

"Sorkh" is Dari for "red." However, in modern Dari, "sorkh" also means "Western" or "American." I guess because are faces turn red or show color when we are hot, cold, mad, etc.

Pashtu for red is "Soor," but in this instance, that is irrelevant.

"Razil" is a much more complicated word and carries a lot more negative connotation than the English translation of "rascal." It has the same meaning in Dari or Pashtu.

"Razil" is a person who is offensive, shameful, sinful, rude, and sexually active.

I am told that if an Afghan were to randomly call another Afghan "razil," then that would be fighting words.

Therefore, to answer your question, I would say that "Sorkh Razil" does not translate to "Red Rascal." Instead it, especially given contemporary events, would more accurately translate to "American Mofo."

It remains unclear whether the name is the result of inadequate research by the cartoonist, or is part of an elaborate trans-cultural joke on the character Jeff Redfern. Or both.


  1. Robert Coren said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 11:25 am

    Well, it would be typical of Jeff to get his pseudonym just that wrong, so maybe it's deliberate, although it would be very much an in-joke (that is, I would expect the proportion of Trudeau's readers who either (1) know enough Dari and/or Pashtu to get it or (2) read Language Log to be extremely small).

  2. Bear said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 11:40 am

    There must be a common etymological root for "razil" and "rascal" ?!??

    [(myl) I don't think so. The OED gives this etymology for rascal:

    < Anglo-Norman rascaile , rascail , raskaile , raskell , raschail , Anglo-Norman and Middle French rascaille , raskaille , Middle French rescaille , rasqualle rabble, common people collectively (c1139 in Anglo-Norman; French racaille ), apparently < an unattested verb *rasquer to scrape (cognate with Spanish rascar : see rasgado n.) + -aille ]

  3. Rube said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

    Trudeau's a wealthy man with lots of contacts. I would expect him to have actually had it "professionally translated".

    On the other had, everything about Jeff seems to be a comment on the mixed-up life of someone with a fantasy-prone personality disorder, so I suspect that Robert Coren is right in his first guess — it's deliberately slightly wrong. Just like Jeff, it's just a bit off.

  4. Sissyphus said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

    Based on the two cents from the interpreter friend, an idiomatic translation could be "The Ugly American".


  5. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 2:49 pm

    Seems like "evildoer" turned out to be mostly correct. Not so much "socialist".

  6. Ian Tindale said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 2:56 pm

    It’d have been nice to have had some kind of warning that I’m about to read a discourse beginning with the word “So…”.

    This is something I put effort into avoiding. I’m highly irked when someone on the Internet posts a message (and it would be the initial post, not a reply) and the first word to spring out of nowhere is “So…”, as if they’re continuing on to counteract or contradict something I’d just said to them. I try and refuse to read the communication, and pretend it doesn’t exist.

  7. Zubon said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

    Next up: a post on "So…" peevism, followed by a consideration of "try and" versus "try to" in style guides, perhaps to be followed by advice on how to place a warning before the first word of something.

  8. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 4:50 pm

    A Victorian-era grammar of Tamil I once dipped into warns solemnly not to use the word "rascal" because "the Tamil attributes a very bad meaning to it."

    I'm not sure I want to know …

    But there are certainly Tamil-speaking LL readers and they presumably do know …

  9. peterv said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 6:38 pm

    But the character whose first utterance we read starts with "So" is a journalist hosting a talk-show. Presumably, he opened the show with some words of welcome to the audience, as all such hosts invariably do. In this context, that he says "So" in his next utterance is entirely to be expected. Your peeve, Ian Tindale, is without merit.

  10. The Ridger said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 7:05 pm

    Precisely, peterv: Jeff has been on this show all week. The "so" is fully motivated.

  11. Janice Byer said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 7:36 pm

    My favorite foreign expression for one of us whiteys, said to be commonly heard in Sri Lanka, is "thambapu issa" meaning "boiled prawn" in Sinhalese.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 8:55 pm

    In 1965, shortly after I arrived as a Peace Corps volunteer in a remote Nepalese hill town, a bunch of little rascals screamed at me, "Kweeray! Kweeray!" (that's roughly what it sounded like; I'm not sure how to spell the word properly). At the time, I didn't know what the word meant, but it was evident that the pantless urchins were making fun of me, and it sounded too much like "queerey," so I was much annoyed. Later, I was told that it meant "foggy" or "nebulous," and the reference was to the pale color of my skin.

    When I got to know the same little boys better, they would pet my hairy arm as though I were some sort of animal, and would exclaim how odd it was that they could see the blood coursing beneath my skin — or so they thought.

  13. Abi said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 10:02 pm

    Re: the Tamil use of the word 'rascal': the word had a 'very bad meaning' well into the 1970s when my father used to use it when he got really angry (at corrupt politicians, feckless sportsmen, …). It has lost much of its punch now, probably due to overuse. e.g.: see this ad in which India's cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni throws a challenge to "all you fast bowler rascals" in a thick (and faux, since Dhoni is not a native speaker) Tamil accent.


  14. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 10:31 pm

    @ Ian — Note that Seamus Heany used "So!" to kick off his translation of Beowulf and convey the OE word "Hwæt.

    He provides a little rumination on the word in his introduction (p. xxvii), viz:

    In Hiberno-English, … the particle "so" operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate action.

    Anyway, it's better than starting off with "Well" (&copy Geo. Will).

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 3, 2011 @ 12:34 pm

    @peterv and The Ridger: The journalist starts his next balloon with "so" too, so (so sorry) I wonder whether Trudeau is parodying somebody's mannerism.

    So manifold are the senses of so, by the way, that I think a peeve about discourse-initial so needs to be sharpened a little.

  16. marie-lucie said,

    December 3, 2011 @ 1:53 pm

    Is seems to me that So! to begin an utterance indicates something like Now let's get down to business!, after preliminaries have been disposed of. For instance, if you are starting to talk to a salesperson or bureaucrat who is interrupted before you have said what you wanted to say, that person might briefly deal with the interruption, then turn to you and say So! how can I help you? or words to that effect. This is what is happening in the first picture, as peterv said. It is easy for a journalist or talk show host to get into the habit of overusing So since interruptions are frequent in the context of their work.

  17. Will said,

    December 3, 2011 @ 9:29 pm

    So, since the direction of this discussion thread seems to be intent on talking about so as an introductory particle, I found this:


    Apparently, the OED attributes the first documented instance of this to Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece [1593]:

    So so, quoth he; these lets attend the time

  18. Will said,

    December 3, 2011 @ 9:31 pm

    Though I just realized that discussion thread was actually talking about sentence-initial so, not discourse-initial so. So never mind that 1593 dating, it's probably not relevant to this discussion after all.

  19. Troy S. said,

    December 4, 2011 @ 12:05 am

    As a professional Persian translator, I would agree that the word order is opposite what would be natural. Phrases do occasionally exist where the adjective precedes the noun, but they tend to be fossilized, (e.g. pir-e mard for old man). Compound adjectives of the form adj+noun are pretty common, though, but "sorkh razil" construed that way, if it meant anything at all, would describe a person whose rascalliness is red, which is of course, nonsensical. So, it sounds decidedly unidiomatic to my ear. I would note, however, that among the several words for "red," "sorkh" is indeed the one with Communist overtones.

  20. maidhc said,

    December 4, 2011 @ 2:20 am

    Between marie-lucie and Seamus Heaney I think we have initial "so" covered well.

    In the case of the strip, I think it works
    1. So = forget the commercial or whatever happened before, now I'm going to introduce a guest
    2. So = the introduction is over, now I'm going to stop being nice and start asking probing questions

    I sometimes hear initial so denounced as an Americanism, but I often hear it on the BBC: "So now for some classic comedy with The Glums" and similar.

  21. richard howland-bolton said,

    December 5, 2011 @ 7:23 am

    @ maidhc
        "Oh Ron…"

  22. Zeenath said,

    December 7, 2011 @ 5:09 am

    Actually … 'Surkh Razil' is Dari and NOT Pashto…or Pakhto…or Pashtu… or Paxto…etc etc.
    In Pashto, "Red" is Soor

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