The grit of language


As someone in love with language, the perils and challenges of translation and the cultural concepts that are embedded in language, I was thrilled to read about the Positive Lexicography Project. The interactive project, spearheaded by Dr Tim Lomas, catalogs and categorizes words/concepts (in this case, positive traits, feelings, experiences and states) that have very specific meanings in a language but have no direct equivalent or translation in English.

It’s not a new project, but I just stumbled onto it now. I’m in love.

Image by Brenda Godinez on Unsplash

The translation lie


In some other universe, when I was young and attended university, I thought a lot during long commutes about translation. This was during a time in my life when language was the be-all, end-all. How it fit together, where it came from, how it all formed the pieces of a puzzle. I loved nothing more than to learn new languages and delve into semi-obscure poetry (at least in the English-speaking world). My mind was opened by the broad field of linguistics. I never specialized, and never pursued a professional career relating to language or linguistics, but that low-level passion bubbles away under the surface.

I wrote a paper during my first year at university about lying and forms of lying. It was in response to a book by Sissela Bok: Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. I think I took the assignment in a different direction than the professor sought, but it nevertheless kept coming back to me as I drove the 50 miles to campus and back, contemplating how I could frame translation as its own form of lying, unintentional though it is.

I don’t have the paper any longer, nor any copies of the Bok book (haha – bok book!). But the basic concept: translation as lie, comes back to me frequently, particularly as I move through the world and experience everything as a foreigner, as a non-native speaker, and constantly observe the non-native use of English as the foremost business language. It endlessly fascinates me, and thus when I recently read a dazzling book, Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, I was all the while curious about the book in its original French. The translation seemed vibrant and vital (which I say without having the original to look at for comparison), but then I stumbled on an interview with Mujila in which he voices very similar sentiments to those I’ve been carrying around with me for 30 years:

The interviewer asks: “But how did you experience the process itself?”

Mujila: “The process? I think that translation is not like getting a photocopy, or a printout. The translation of a text involves a process of re-creation. The English version of Tram 83, is not the French version of Tram 83. They’re two different books, because the translator doesn’t translate… Perhaps even the word ‘translator’ is… It always irks me…”

“I might say ‘re-creator’. Because the word ‘translator’ is like someone who buys beer and then goes and sells it, while the translator does more than buy and sell beer: he buys the beer and then he adapts the beer to the taste of his customers. A person doesn’t translate a text, he re-creates a text. It becomes another text. The English translation will be another text, and the Italian or Swedish or Dutch translation will be yet another text, particularly since this novel is aimed at a wide range of cultures and imaginations; it’s aimed at readers who may or may not have a connection to the Congo. When I wrote my characters, I didn’t think that these characters would one day speak German or English. I think that translation is a precious profession – more than one might think. I myself constantly slalom between languages. I speak several languages, and I myself have had to translate my own poems and texts into German, before I began writing in German too. And so I think that translation is more a work of … perhaps re-writing, but I think that above all we need to find another term instead of translation, or translator, another term that can illuminate all of these energies, because one doesn’t translate sentences, one translates a culture, one translates imaginations, one translates countries, one translates characters, one translates impressions, one translates sounds, smells, the smell of Kinshasa, the smell of Lubumbashi, the atmosphere of the mines, everything that happens around the mines, noises, the sound of glasses… And so a translator is not just somebody who buys beer wholesale and sells it retail, it’s more than the work of a salesman. A translator is like a ferryman, but beyond being a ferryman, a translator is a creator in his own right.”

Chocolate tears and suck pipes


A native speaker of a language, unless s/he is interested in such things, rarely thinks about the construction of words in his/her own language.

When I recently started reading Swedish-language books, I was delighted to see that the word for “straw” (that you would put into a drink) is sugrör. Despite never knowing or seeing this word before (I’ve never been in a situation where I needed to ask for or was offered a straw), I knew immediately from context and from its component parts that it means “straw”. But what do its component parts mean? Suck pipe.

I mentioned this to a few Swedes, and they were amused because they had “never thought about it”. But leave it to me to recognize a suck pipe when I see it.

I also come across these kinds of interpretations and misinterpretations when I see subtitles or closed captioning. I saw a video of the online news-opinion program, Young Turks, when Emmanuel Macron won the French presidency. They were trying to explain that Macron’s wife’s family is wealthy because of chocolate. Not, as they opined, from ‘dirty money’ but rather by being oh-so-innocuous chocolatiers. The subtitles, though, read “chocolate tears”.

Yes, I suppose if the Young Turks had been interested in presenting the true history of cocoa plantations, we might have some chocolate tears to talk about. But they made it sound like the money comes from fairy dust and Disneyland-like joy because of course chocolate is sweet. Sounds foolish, naive and not at all worldly to act like chocolate is somehow so clean. Cocoa plantations: wouldn’t this wealth be soaked in ill-gotten gains, labor of an exploited colonial workforce and child labor, as well as the whole dark side of land-resource management. It’s not as pretty and sweet as it all sounds (or tastes).

quick misreads & misheards


Like most people, I often skim over things to get the general idea without taking in the actual words. The results can produce a little chuckle.

I saw “Conducting a STOP STICKS Campaign” on the CDC website and, at first, quick glance, I misread it as “Conducting a CHOP STICKS Campaign” and wondered what exactly that would be and why the CDC would promote it.

Then someone shared a screenshot of his food-order delivery tracker, which actually read, “Track your order in real-time”, but which I misread as “Track your ordeal in real-time”. (It was Domino’s pizza, after all, so in fairness, it probably was some kind of ordeal.)

I heard someone say “nurture” but could swear she said “neuter”, which would have been more fitting. Nature v neuter. Haha.

Les mots du jour


Today’s words:

  • Swagger
  • Braggadocio
  • Attitude

In other observations, I marvel at what must be the direst of circumstances or worst of tales – something, anything – to explain how individuals escape from what I can only describe as hellish drudgery and endless hamster-on-wheel running only to return willingly.

Remind me to furnish you (any of you) with a firearm with which to kill me if I try to do something similar after I escape.

The tentative language of healthcare marketing


We are taught over and over throughout our educations that “helping” verbs (auxiliaries) and other crutches weaken and dilute our writing and our message. But then, because of invasive regulatory and legal constraints on making claims about healthcare or medical devices, writing (in marketing) about solutions in these areas becomes virtually meaningless.

“Device X can contribute to helping reduce infections.”

Not a single definitive statement in there, and that’s how it is. Definitively.