The grit of language

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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

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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

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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).

Epiglottis

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Banter, repartee and conversation with a linguist distinguishes itself from almost all other exchanges because of its speed – both in terms of the flow and the pace of topic change. Nothing said has a single meaning. Everything has multiple meanings, which makes the exchanges all the richer – things to mull over long after the brisk conversation ends.

Beyond the aphrodisiac of constant metaphor, your wordplay will be enlivened with terms like “velaric fricative” and words like “epiglottis”.

I love this, as someone who dreamt of but abandoned the dream of being a linguist many years ago. I also love how one single word – like epiglottis – sets me off on some entirely different tangent. In this case, right back to my favorite thing: poetry.

So… Romanian poet Nina Cassian. She died in 2014. Did I even know she died? (As a complete digression: When I originally jotted down this question of doubt and walked away, I came back and thought it read, “Did she know she died?” Are we aware when we die that we have died? I start to wonder sometimes about what we see or experience. So many stories I hear about near-death or about being with someone as they shed this mortal coil lead me to think we meet already-passed loved ones in those last moments, in the in-between world between here and hereafter – whatever that hereafter is, even if it is infinite nothingness.)

Nina Cassian – a discovery I made in high school. Poetry that now feels overwrought and overdone, indelicate and “blocky” (I don’t even have a word that adequately conveys what I mean by “blocky” as the dictionary definition of “blocky” isn’t right). I don’t care for Cassian’s style now, but it provided a kind of shock value at the time, which was enough credibility for me. Hers was a voice, despite not being popular or apparently well-liked by most Romanians I have known, from a mysterious but newly open place. Every Cassian reference I made to Romanians was met with a “You should be reading Eminescu”. I did, but it did not fill the need I had at that moment.

Me, I am partial to Marin Sorescu but at the time of finding Cassian, I wanted to find women poets exclusively – not men, and not pre-20th century – from eastern, southern and central Europe. Cassian qualified. She satisfied my need at the time to explore the limited perspectives of life in specific countries through a female’s eyes.

Incidentally, it also contributed to my efforts to supply my brother and his friends with poems that would shock or offend teachers who never wanted to hear words like ‘orgasm’, ‘clitoris’ or, worst of all – ‘cunt’ (see also: Heather McHugh, Marge Piercy). They could not deny the legitimacy of a word like ‘cunt’ when it was wielded by these women writers and often by champions of feminism.

But yes, Cassian. Epiglottis –> Glottis.

Cassian’s work deals frequently with language and the self/identity divided by language or the identity language confers, and it is within these poems that I sensed her greatest strengths. Other works on other themes seemed weaker:

Language
My tongue — forked like snake’s
but without deadly intentions:
just a bilingual hissing.

Or

Vowel
A clean vowel
in my morning,
Latin pronunciation
in the murmur of confused time.
With rational syllables
I’m trying to clear the occult mind
and promiscuous violence.
My linguistic protest
has no power:
The enemy is illiterate.

And finally, the pièce de résistance, the poem that actually came to mind as “epiglottis” flapped its way casually into discussion, “Licentiousness”, which naturally was on the penultimate page I searched (after looking through hundreds of pages of disorganized collected poetry)…

Licentiousness
Letters fall from my words
as teeth might fall from my mouth.
Lisping? Stammering? Mumbling?
Or the last silence?
Please God take pity
On the roof of my mouth,
On my tongue,
On my glottis,
On the clitoris in my throat
vibrating, sensitive, pulsating,
exploding in the orgasm of Romanian.

It’s a small world on TV after all: More subtitled TV

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More than ever, creators of TV are trusting audiences (particularly English-language markets) to delve into storylines that mix in non-English-language characters (integral characters and stories, beyond the stereotypical and often offensive Spanish-only illegal immigrant or household worker). I have written about the increasing instances of more foreign language subtitles on TV – and the number of shows weaving “globalization” into the story is increasing and lending depth and credibility to stories that are often removed from authenticity by giving English-speaking actors awkward, false, non-descript “foreign” accents while still speaking English.

Finally, we see more reality coming to the screen. This is the case because non-network TV has greater leeway. It is also happening because a more international group of people is creating TV entertainment. It is also happening because people are connecting more with reality – not in the sense of reality TV (ugh!) but in the sense of wanting to see reality reflected in the characters and stories depicted on screen.

In some cases, a show is created and not primarily intended for an English-language audience but is eventually exported and subtitled, such as the recent NRK production, The Saboteurs (Kampen om tungtvannet). The story and language is Norwegian with a heavy peppering of English and German. It’s been shown on UK TV recently.

Similarly the recent Deutschland 83, an eight-part, German-led drama (supported by German RTL and US-based Sundance), is the first German-language production to air in the US.

Yet, even in almost entirely English-language shows, we’re hearing a lot more diversity. While we tend to hear more (again stereotypical) Chinese-language in contemporary crime shows (always associated with Chinese gangs, such as in the recent Murder in the First and Sons of Anarchy), the latest (and final) season of Hell on Wheels has introduced a new story about Chinese railroad workers, and in telling these stories, we do get a “Chinese villain/gangster” but he is not a caricature so much as he is depicted as a profiteer not unlike the rest of the profiteers of the time, regardless of race or background. The Chinese workers, too, get a bit more depth to their story than standing around in the background. While I cannot say that Hell on Wheels has always been a superb show, it has sometimes taken interesting perspectives on intercultural interaction, conflict and integration in both a post-Civil War and westward-moving, “manifest destiny” environment. The Chinese language and culture addition is just another layer to a show that rolled out several layers already.

The already unusual Orphan Black, in which Tatiana Maslany plays multiple, very different characters (she has finally been recognized with an Emmy nomination), shows one character who is Ukrainian (and who uses Ukrainian). This affixes yet another piece of complexity to Maslany’s expertise at differentiating each character from the others

Ultimately what prompted my writing about this topic again, though, was the Swedish-speaking couple in the new show Mr Robot. Somehow their Swedishness makes them feel like a complete “otherness” in an already strange milieu. In Mr Robot, everyone is a bit of a weirdo, and while the Swedish guy seems to have it all together on the surface, he is perhaps the biggest weirdo of all, and his very private Swedish-speaking home life feels like it adds to that division.

Language can serve that purpose, too, which is of course something common in language and linguistic fields – different languages and how you use them in your life can contribute to very different aspects to your personality. In this sense, it is deeply interesting to watch how different characters’ behavior changes based on the language they use, choose to use in specific situations and with which other characters they interact in which language.

Urinal cakes: Flushing it out – “Nothing’s wasted if it’s human”

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I was recently told more than one story about someone who seems to have a sick and unnatural obsession with urinal cakes (that is, removing urinal cakes from urinals and throwing them around in a public place – like a bar). Yeah, no details, but my thinking was less about how disgusting and freaky this quirk of obsessively handling urinal cakes and more about how the word “urinal” is pronounced.

In American English, we say /ˈjʊr.ən.əl/and in UK English they say /jʊˈraɪ.nəl/. Have a listen. Hearing “urinal” the UK way in the course of hearing the aforementioned story, I almost spit my coffee out all over the place. I had heard it before but had somehow forgotten how it sounded – the stress being on a totally different syllable. Lots of words like that between the two Englishes.

Amidst all this urinal talk, I suddenly remembered the episode of Frasier in which Niles finally gets a satisfactory divorce deal. He had labored under the false belief that his wife’s family fortune came from the timber industry. His wily lawyer discovered that the family fortune really came from urinal cakes. Niles decided to phone Maris, the soon-to-be-ex-wife, who refused to come to the phone until Niles craftily and smugly stated, “I have flushed out the family secret.” Haha. Maris immediately came to the phone.

Frasier was such a fantastic show.

Urinal-cake talk makes the brief but vivid poem “Bladder Song” from Leonard Nathan spring to mind.

Bladder Song
On a piece of toilet paper
Afloat in the unflushed piss,
The fully printed lips of a woman.

Nathan, cheer up! The sewer
Sends you a big red kiss.
Ah, nothing’s wasted, if it’s human.

Linguistic tipping points – Double down bust

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I hate the term “tipping point”, but it is everywhere.

Years and years ago, when I sometimes went to a local casino, one of the blackjack dealers, an older guy named “Ted”, liked to say, in a gravelly voice, almost unintelligibly, “Double down bust.”

I have noticed, particularly during the US presidential campaigns that are overwhelming international media at the moment, that there is an unfortunate spike in the use of the term “double down”. This gambling term, which means to double one’s bet or risk, has enjoyed much greater mainstream application as candidate Mitt Romney has flip-flopped on his positions but has often “doubled down” on factually inaccurate information. The use of this term has spread throughout the media, though, and I rarely hear a news story now that is not putting this expression into play.

Needless to say, I don’t like it – especially because everyone is using it. If it were just one guy’s (or one network’s) signature phrase, it might not bother me this way. There is no controlling the way expressions and language spread like wildfire, but certain expressions just do nothing for me.

(I won’t even get into the naming of the dubious KFC Double Down sandwich (“the bun” being replaced by two slabs of chicken), which strikes me as doubling down on clogged arteries.)