The Universe of Discourse


Mon, 19 Apr 2021

Odd translation choices

Recently I've been complaining about unforced translation errors. ([1] [2]) Here's one I saw today:

A
picture of two cows in a field.  One has a child-sized toy plastic car
on its head.  The cow with the car on its head is saying: “БИП-БИП ВАШ
УБЕР ПРИБЫЛ

The translation was given as:

“honk honk, your Uber has arrived”

“Oleg, what the fuck”

Now, the Russian text clearly says “beep-beep” (“бип-бип”), not “honk honk”. I could understand translating this as "honk honk" if "beep beep" were not a standard car sound in English. But English-speaking cars do say “beep beep”, so why change the original?

(Also, a much smaller point: I have no objection to translating “Что за херня” as “what the fuck”. But why translate “Что за херня, Олег?” as “Oleg, what the fuck” instead of “What the fuck, Oleg”?)

[ Addendum 20210420: Katara suggested that perhaps the original translator was simply unaware that Anglophone cars also “beep beep”. ]


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Wed, 14 Apr 2021

More soup-guzzling

A couple of days ago I discussed the epithet “soup-guzzling pie-muncher”, which in the original Medieval Italian was brodaiuolo manicator di torte. I had compained that where most translations rendered the delightful word brodaiuolo as something like “soup-guzzler” or “broth-swiller”, Richard Aldington used the much less vivid “glutton”.

A form of the word brodaiuolo appears in one other place in the Decameron, in the sixth story on the first day, also told by Emilia, who as you remember has nothing good to say about the clergy:

… lo 'nquisitore sentendo trafiggere la lor brodaiuola ipocrisia tutto si turbò…

J. M. Rigg (1903), who had elsewhere translated brodaiuolo as “broth-guzzling”, this time went with “gluttony”:

…the inquisitor, feeling that their gluttony and hypocrisy had received a home-thrust…

G. H. McWilliam (1972) does at least imply the broth:

…the inquisitor himself, on hearing their guzzling hypocrisy exposed…

John Payne (1886):

the latter, feeling the hit at the broth-swilling hypocrisy of himself and his brethren…

Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin's revision of Payne (2004):

…the inquisitor himself, feeling that the broth-swilling hypocrisy of himself and his brethren had been punctured…

And what about Aldington (1930), who dropped the ball the other time and rendered brodaiuolo merely as “glutton”? Here he says:

… he felt it was a stab at their thick-soup hypocrisy…

Oh, Richard.

I think you should have tried harder.


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Mon, 12 Apr 2021

Scrooge

A few months ago I was pondering what it might be like to be Donald Trump. Pretty fucking terrible, I imagine. What's it like, I wondered, to wake up every morning and know that every person in your life is only interested in what they can get from you, that your kids are eagerly waiting for you to die and get out of their way, and that there is nobody in the world who loves you? How do you get out of bed and face that bitter world? I don't know if I could do it. It doesn't get him off the hook for his terrible behavior, of course, but I do feel real pity for the man.

It got me to thinking about another pitiable rich guy, Ebeneezer Scrooge. Scrooge in the end is redeemed when he is brought face to face with the fact that his situation is similar to Trump's. Who cares that Scrooge has died? Certainly not his former business associates, who discuss whether they will attend his funeral:

“It's likely to be a very cheap funeral,” said the same speaker; “for, upon my life, I don't know of anybody to go to it. Suppose we make up a party, and volunteer.”

“I don't mind going if a lunch is provided," observed the gentleman with the excresence on his nose.

Later, the Spirit shows Scrooge the people who are selling the curtains stolen from his bed and the shirt stolen from his corpse, and Scrooge begs:

“If there is any person in the town who feels emotion caused by this man's death," said Scrooge, quite agonized, “show that person to me, Spirit, I beseech you!”

The Spirit complies, by finding a couple who had owed Scrooge money, and who will now, because he has died, have time to pay.

I can easily replace Scrooge with Trump in any of these scenes, right up to the end of chapter 4. But Scrooge in the end is redeemed. He did once love a woman, although she left him. Scrooge did have friends, long ago. He did have a sister who loved him, and though she is gone her son Fred still wants to welcome him back into the family. Did Donald Trump ever have any of those things?


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Soup-guzzling pie-munchers

The ten storytellers in The Decameron aren't all well-drawn or easy to tell apart. In the introduction of my favorite edition, the editor, Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin, says:

Early in the book we are given hints that we are going to get to know these ten frame characters…. Among the Decameron storytellers, for instance, Pampinea emerges as being bossy, while Dioneo has a filthy mind. But little further character development takes place.

I agree, mostly. I can see Dioneo more clearly than Ó Cuilleanáin suggests. Dioneo reminds me of Roberto Benigni's Roman filthy-minded Roman taxi driver in Night on Earth. I also get a picture of Bocaccio's character Filostrato, who is a whiny emo poet boy who complains that he woman he was simping for got tired of him and dumped him for someone else:

To be humble and obedient to her and to follow all her whims as closely as I could, was all of no avail to me, and I was soon abandoned for another. Thus I go from bad to worse, and believe I shall until I die.… The person who gave me the nickname of Filostrato [ “victim of love” ] knew what she was doing.

When it's Filostrato's turn to choose the theme for the day's stories, he makes the others tell stories of ill-starred love with unhappy endings. They comply, but are relieved when it is over. (Dioneo, who is excused from the required themes, tells instead a farcical story of a woman who hides her secret lover in a chest after he unwittingly drinks powerful sedative.)

Ah, but Emilia. None of the characters in the Decameron is impressed with the manners or morals of priests. But Emilia positively despises them. Her story on the third day is a good example. The protagonist, Tedaldo, is meeting his long-lost mistress Ermellina; she broke off the affair with him seven years ago on the advice of a friar who advised that she ought to remain faithful to her husband. Tedaldo is disguised as a friar himself, and argues that she should resume the affair. He begins by observing that modern friars can not always be trusted:

Time was when the friars were most holy and worthy men, but those who today take the name and claim the reputation of friars have nothing of the friar but the costume. No, not even that,…

Modern friars, narrates Emilia, "strut about like peacocks" showing off their fine clothes. She goes on from there, complaining about friars' vanity, and greed, and lust, and hypocrisy, getting more and more worked up until you can imagine her frothing at the mouth. This goes on for about fifteen hundred words before she gets back to Tedaldo and Ermellina, just at the same time that I get around to what I actually meant to write about in this article: Emilia has Tedaldo belittle the specific friar who was the original cause of his troubles,

who must without a doubt have been some soup-guzzling pie-muncher…

This was so delightful that I had to write a whole blog post just to show it to you. I look forward to calling other people soup-guzzling pie-munchers in the coming months.

But, as with the earlier article about the two-bit huckster I had to look up the original Italian to see what it really said. And, as with the huckster, the answer was, this was pretty much what Bocaccio had originally written, which was:

il qual per certo doveva esser alcun brodaiuolo manicator di torte

  • Brodaiuolo is akin to “broth”, and it has that disparaging diminutive “-uolo” suffix that we saw before in mercantuolo.

  • A manicator is a gobbler; it's akin to “munch”, “manger”, and “mandible”, to modern Italian mangia and related French manger. A manicator di torte is literally a gobbler of pies.

Delightful! I love Bocaccio.

While I was researching this article I ran into some other English translations of the phrase. The translation at Brown University's Decameron Web is by J.M. Rigg:

some broth-guzzling, pastry-gorging knave without a doubt

which I award full marks. The translation of John Payne has

must for certain have been some broth-swilling, pastry-gorger

and two revised versions of Payne, by Singleton and Ó Cuilleanáin, translate it similarly.

But the translation of Richard Aldington only says:

who must certainly have been some fat-witted glutton.

which I find disappointing.

I often wonder why translators opt to water down their translations like this. Why discard the vivid and specific soup and pie in favor of the abstract "fat-witted glutton"? What could possibly be the justification?

Translators have a tough job. A mediocre translator will capture only the surface meaning and miss the subtle allusions, the wordplay, the connotations. But here, Aldington hasn't even captured the surface meaning! How hard is it to see torte and include pie in your translation somewhere? I can't believe that his omitting it was pure carelessness, only that Aldington thought that he was somehow improving on the original. But how, I can't imagine.

Well, I can imagine a little. Translations can also be too literal. Let's consider the offensive Spanish epithet pendejo. Literally, this is a pubic hair. But to translate it in English as "pubic hair" would be a mistake, since English doesn't use that term in the same way. A better English translation is "asshole". This is anatomically illogical, but linguistically correct, because the metaphor in both languages has worn thin. When an anglophone hears someone called an “asshole” they don't normally imagine a literal anus, and I think similarly Spanish-speakers don't picture a literal pubic hair for pendejo. Brodaiuolo could be similar. Would a 14th-century Florentine, hearing brodaiuolo, picture a generic glutton, or would they imagine someone literally holding a soup bowl up to their face? We probably don't know. But I'm inclined to think that “soup-guzzler” is not too rich, because by this point in Emilia's rant we can almost see the little flecks of spittle flying out of here mouth.

I'm offended by Aldington's omission of pie-munching.

[ Addendum 20210414: More translations of brodaiuolo. ]


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Mon, 29 Mar 2021

Skin worms?

The King James Version of Job 19:26 says:

And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God:

I find this mysterious for two reasons. First, I cannot understand the grammar. How is this supposed to be parsed? I can't come up with any plausible way to parse this so that it is grammatically correct.

Second, how did the worms get in there? No other English translation mentions worms and they appear to be absent from the original Hebrew. Did the KJV writers mistranslate something? (Probably not, there is nothing in the original to mistranslate.) Or is it just an interpolation?

Pretty ballsy, to decide that God left something out the first time around, but that you can correct His omission.


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Fri, 26 Mar 2021

Something I didn't know and I bet you didn't either

The Panama Canal has a loyalty program.

If you're planning to ship at least 450,000 TEU per year, you can register in advance and get a discount on your tolls.


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Sun, 21 Mar 2021

Two sentences that made me stop to think

In The ancient fabric that no one knows how to make:

Islam was born in Bangladesh and moved to London about 20 years ago.

Whaaaat? Then I realized: It's someone named “Islam”. Okay.

In Wikipedia's article on some comic book person called “Steppenwolf”:

His decapitated head is crushed by the foot of Darkseid, enraged by his lieutenant's failure.

For this to be correct, Steppenwolf would have to have a second head growing out of his main head. Then if someone cut off the second head, the main head would be a decapitated head.

Not out of the question for a comic book person, but in this case not correct. I changed it to “disembodied head”.

[ Addendum 20210322: Shortly afterward, another editor changed it to “severed head”, which I agree is better. ]


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Sun, 14 Mar 2021

Synthesizer bands

Many years ago I bought tickets to see Depeche Mode live, and I wondered if I wasn't making a mistake. Would they appear on stage, press “play” on the sequencers, and then stand around doing nothing while Dave Gahan sang?

And yes, it was pretty much like that. They were definitely overstaffed. I think there were four people on stage and at any particular time one or two of them were standing around looking bored.

I hadn't thought of this in a long time, but I was reading a Washington Times article about the German synth-pop band Alphaville, contemporaries of Depeche Mode. The article is from 2017, and includes this exchange:

Question: How is it possible that you’ve never played live in America before?

Answer: In the ‘80s we didn’t play live at all because we couldn’t play.

Meaning, they couldn't play any actual instruments. Marian Gold sang, but the rest of the music was preprogrammed on sequencers or assembled in an editing studio. The group composed and produced the music, but there simply was no "performance" in real time. I have to credit Alphaville for refusing to pretend to be performers and instrumentalists.

(For an contrasting approach, consider The Residents, who face the same issue and have dealt with it in a completely different way. The Residents’ stage show is elaborate and spectacular. You hear the music, but there's no way to know who's playing it. There are people on the stage, but are they the composers? Are they instrumentalists? Are they even in the band? Who knows? And does it matter? No, not really. The Residents have never had names or separate identities anyway. I imagine that Daft Punk took a similar approach.)


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Fri, 12 Mar 2021

Trans-Siberian Railway

For no particular reason, I looked up the Trans-Siberian Railway today and learned that its name in Russian is

Транссибирская магистраль

pronounced roughly “trans-siberskaya magistral”. The Транссибирская is clear, but what is магистраль?

Wiktionary says it means "main line" or "trunkline". But it doesn't give an etymology. Still, it's not hard to guess: it's akin to the French (and also English) word “magistral” which means something that relates to a master.

So it's the Trans-Siberian master train line. But "train line” is implicit, the way English-speaking recording engineers use "master" to refer to a master tape, or Americans will call a trunk road an "arterial". English loves to turn adjectives into nouns in that way, but I didn't know that Russian did it also.


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Thu, 11 Mar 2021

Debate between Bird and Fish

I recently read Finkel and Taylor's excellent little book Cuneiform. On page 27 they discuss the kinds of texts that young boys studied in school :

Alongside ‘citizenship training’ through hymns, myths and law codes, schoolboys learnt how to debate. They trained on texts arguing the benefits to mankind of antagonistic pairs: winter and summer, sheep and grain or bird and fish.

“Hey,” I said. “I've read that!” I love when this happens, something pops up that I would have wanted to know a little more about, but it's already something I do know a little more about. I feel like I'm getting somewhere in my project of reading every book ever written. Progress!

From The Debate Between Bird and Fish, Sumerian, around 4000 years ago:

“You cause damage in the vegetable plots; you are a nuisance. In the damp parts of fields, there are your unpleasing footprints. Bird, you are shameless: you fill the courtyard with your droppings.”

Bird retorts:

You are bereft of hips!

It's not so much a debate as a diss battle.

[ Addendum 20210312: Now I would like to see an cartoon version of the debate, animated by Chuck Jones. ]


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Mon, 08 Mar 2021

Canon in Euopean languages and Arabic

Today I was reading about Avicenna's work The Canon of Medicine and learned that the original Arabic title

القانون في الطب

is rendered in Latin script as al-Qānūn fī al-Ṭibb with al-Qānun (“the law”) being translated into English as “Canon” (“rule” or “law”). The English word comes via French and Latin, ultimately from Greek κανών, “rule”.

Is the resemblance between Qānūn and κανών a coincidence, or is the Arabic word originally borrowed from Greek?

I was about to write the next sentence “and where could I have looked this up?” but then I remembered that this kind of thing can be looked up in English Wiktionary. English Wiktionary is not a dictionary of English, but a universal dictionary in English. It not only defines English words, but also words in many other languages, with the descriptions and etmologies written in English.

So I looked it up, and it is a Greek loanword!

The Internet is amazing and wonderful. Truly, we live in an age of marvels.


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Sun, 07 Mar 2021

Henry G. Baker archive

(Summary: Henry Baker's web site has disappeared after 30 years. I kept an archive.)

Henry G. Baker is a computer programmer and computer scientist, one of the founders of the Symbolics company that made Lisp Machines.

I discovered Baker's writing probably in the early 1990s and immediately put him on my “read everything this person writes” list. I found everything he wrote clear and well-reasoned. I always learned something from reading it. He wrote on many topics, and when he wrote about a topic I hadn't been interested in, I became interested in it because he made it interesting.

Sometimes I thought Baker was mistaken about something. But usually it was I who was mistaken.

Baker had a web site with an archive of his articles and papers. It disappeared last year sometime. But I have a copy that I made around 1998, Just In Case.

Baker's web site is a good example of mid-1990s web design. Here's his “Gratuitous Waste of Bandwidth” page. It features a link to a 320×240 pixel color photo of Baker, and an inlined monochrome GIF version of it.

Browsers at the time could inline GIF files but not JPEGs, and it would have been rude to inline a color JPEG because that would have forced the user to wait while the browser downloaded the entire 39kb color image. It was a rather different time.

Some of my favorite articles of his were:

(The Internet Archive also has a more recent copy of the site.)


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