Monday 31 December 2012

Lost, or Found, in Translation

Be or not be, here in which question.
Be or not be, such is the question.
That I am or that not I am, this is the question.

Three literal translations from three languages into English, effectively reversing the original translation of probably the most famous and most translated phrase ever uttered in English: To be, or not to be, that is the question. (The languages and the original texts are given below – try to guess first!) This shows how tricky it is to translate the essence of one language into the essence of another, for that is essentially what translation involves. You have to be as non-literal as you need to be in order to render a translation faithfully. The art involved is crucial.

This art is seen at its most critical, pivotal and open to misinterpretation in the translation of the Greek logos in the first line of John's Gospel: In the beginning was the Word. Logos had a variety of meanings from ancient Greek through to New Testament Greek, depending on its use in vernacular, religious or philosophical discourse. Suffice it to say that logos could mean “word, thought, speech, account, meaning, reason, proportion, principle, standard” or “logic”, among other meanings; so which translation should a translator choose? What does a translator want to express? The meaning in the mind of John could have been “cause, reason” or it could have been “divine intermediary”, or indeed, any other of the meanings
What is clear is that the actual meaning has been argued over and translated with widely differing terms since it was written. What is also clear is that the translation, “word”, is most likely not the intended meaning. The problem is, of course, that once a term has been translated into a target language, it is generally accepted that the meaning which the translator has given it is the true meaning, especially as the likely reader will have limited or no understanding of the original language and the meaning of the original word. Hence, the expression “the Word of God” has a fundamentally different meaning in the context of John's gospel to that of utterances God may have actually said, if you believe in them, which is the way it is generally understood today. Result – confusion, disagreement, misconception and permanent misunderstanding.

So, what is the essential meaning of an utterance? How can that meaning be rendered in another language with the same intended meaning of the source language? Here's an example of such a quandary: “the quick brown fox jumps over lazy dog”. What's so special about this sentence in English is, of course, that it's the most efficient sentence containing every letter of the English alphabet. If you translated it into any other language, the literal meaning of a speedy dun-coloured member of the vulpine family launching itself over an immobile and indolent member of the domestic canine family would be immediately clear, albeit somewhat puzzling. What would be the point of it? In order to translate the essential intended meaning of the sentence – namely that this sentence contains every letter of the alphabet at least once – the translator would have to find out or work out what the equivalent sentence would be in the target language. This would mean that the literal meaning of the original would be lost in its entirety and only a restricted meaning of “here are all the letters of the alphabet in one sentence” would be transmitted. The essence of the message effectively transcends the medium through which the message is sent - i.e., the words, syntax and grammar of the languages in question. 

How about “the cat sat on the mat”? Again, a literal translation would be understood in any other language whose speakers appreciate the past mini-carpet-occupying sedentary habits of diminutive domesticated felines. However, the aim of the utterance, to show minimum pairs (minimum triplets?) or practise the pronunciation of /æ/ in English, would be largely lost in translation, though appreciated by the language students practising their pronunciation. In fact, the surface meaning described above is most definitely not the intended meaning of the utterance. Obviously, other languages would have their own strategies for expressing this type of utterance and conveying this type of pronunciation message.

So what does that tell us about understanding meaning in different languages and rendering meaning from one to the other? How can we successfully represent the meaning of a word or phrase in another language, especially when there may be no direct translation of a term, or when the concept in the original language is absent from the target language? For example, if you look up the Portuguese word ginga, the translation will normally be “waddle, scull, sway”, but these meanings are totally lacking in conveying the movement of a great football player, an expert capoeirista or a sexy Brazileira, as the word does in its use in Portuguese, especially in Brazil. 
Similarly, kefi in Greek can be translated as “high spirits”, but while this goes some way to describing the basic meaning, the essential “Greekness” of the word is lost in translation and can only be understood by being in a real Greek celebration. Which leads me to filotimo, which can loosely be translated as “love of honour”. However, this translation does little to express this amalgam of integrity, pride, honour and courage, an essential and central element of Greek life which has existed since ancient times. You would have to spend a while living in the country and experiencing Greek culture to begin to have an inkling of it. And throw timi, “honour”, and dropi, “shame”, into the mix, and you have a combination of ideas which would need a thesis to explain. And these ideas involve European languages, with similar modes of thought throughout history. Think of the problems when dealing with Indonesian, Chinese, Khoi-San, Inuit or Hopi.

So, I'd like to finish up with a term which I think will require no explanation; though it's expressed in a variety of ways, it's understood in only one way (in languages that I have learnt or have attempted to learn): feliz novo ano, feliz nuevo aňo, kali protokhronia, bonne annèe, s novym godom, selamat tahun baru, glückliches neues Jahr, onnellista uutta vuotta!


PS. Here are the original languages:

Russian: Быть или не быть, вот в чем вопрос - Be, or not be, here in which question.
French: Être ou ne pas être, telle est la question - Be, or not be, such is the question.
Greek: Να είμαι ή να μην είμαι, αυτό είναι το ερώτημα - That I am, or that not I am, this is the question. 

Don't forget to visit to find out about my book on word origins, Bless the Buccaneer with Barbecued Blood.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

No Safety in Numbers

Numbers are weird. By that I don't mean that numbers per se, that is 1, 2, 3, etc., are weird, though they are strange in many ways, as any mathematician will tell you. I mean numbers as represented in individual languages. After all, this is a language blog.

All languages have words for numbers, though they reflect their speakers' interpretation of numbers in a myriad ways (there, you see; I've just used myriad, which is the Ancient Greek for "ten thousand" - why have a word for ten thousand?). Some languages have over a hundred words for numbers, while others might have only two or three (one, two, many). A short comparison of such treatments will provide some numerical food for thought.

Have you ever noticed how similar the numbers from one to ten are in most of the European languages and many Asian languages? That's because most, if not all, of the numbers from one to ten in these languages share a common ancestry and still survive in the modern languages, showing their derivation from their Indo-European ancestor. Take the number "two": French deux, Russian dva, Greek dhio, Welsh dau and Hindi/Urdu do. We might want to add to that Indonesian dua, but actually, this is pure coincidence, and dua has no connection with the Indo-European forms, belonging to a separate language group altogether.

Staying with Indo-European, nine seems to be similar to new, and possibly not without reason, as it may well have been quite literally a new number thousands of years ago. However, some of the most fascinating ways languages play with numbers can be seen in modern languages. Here are a few nuggets.

In English, we have one to ten, thirteen to nineteen and twenty to ninety, with -teen and -ty clearly variants of ten. So far so regular. But where do eleven and twelve come from? Surely we should have oneteen and twoteen? It seems that our Germanic ancestors, and hence the ancestors of German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and all the other long dead Germanic languages, thought it good to combine en (an alternative form of one) and two with an old form of leave, creating the forms we have today and an original  meaning of something like “one left over, two left over”. 
A similar thing can be seen in Finnish, except that they extend it to all the -teen numbers. The word for ten in Finnish is kymmenen, so to create twenty to ninety, they just join up one to nine with a form of ten: kaksi (2) + kymmenen = kaksikymmentä (20). However, for eleven to twenty, they join up one to nine with -toista, literally “of the second”, in the sense that eleven to twenty is the second series of numbers after one to ten: kaksitoista (12).

The French have their own weird way of counting when it comes to the higher -ty set, as most British schoolchildren have known and hated for years. Everything is fine up to sixty-nine, soixante-neuf (no puns intended here; this is a serious language blog - if you want to believe that). But then things go strange: soixante-dix, literally “sixty ten”, and so on up to soixante-dix-neuf, “sixty nineteen (79)”. You might think that things would return to normal for 80, but you'd be wrong; they get all nerdy-mathematical here with quatre-vingt, “four twenty”, which goes on till quatre-vingt-dix-neuf, “four twenty nineteen” (99). What do French schoolchildren say when they want an ice cream with a chocolate flake in it? “Can I have a four twenty nineteen please?” If only the French had listened to their Swiss-French neighbours and stuck with good old septante, huitante, and nonante.

Now, let's turn to Russian. If there's a language which loves to complicate counting, Russian takes the biscuit. Russian is an inflected language, which means that it changes the endings of words depending on what the words are doing in sentences. Let's take student, which means, naturally, “student”. “A student” is student; “of a student” is studenta; “students” is studenty; and “of students” is studentov. So far, so good. Now, let's start counting our students with literal translations from Russian: “one student” - odin student, “two of student” - dva studenta, “three of student” - tri studenta, “four of student” - chetyre studenta, “five of students”, pyat' studentov. This continues up to “twenty of students”, but then we get to “twenty one student” - dvadtsat' odin student, and it all starts again, the same format all the way through to infinity: “thousand of students” - tysyacha studentov, “thousand one student” - tysyacha odin student, “million of students” – million studentov, “million one student” - million odin student. And just when you thought it was safe to learn all the other numbers, the system runs over into the multiples of ten: twenty – dvadtsat', thirty – tridtsat', fifty – pyat'desyat, sixty – shest'desyat, seventy – sem'desyat, eighty – vosem'desyat, ninety – devyanosto, hundred – sto. When you say "fifty students", it's pyat'desyat studentov, but "of fifty students" becomes pyatidesyati studentov. literally "of fifty of students". Oh, did I miss something? I forgot to mention the bundle of furs, srak, from which comes sorok, forty. Presumably Russian trappers bundled up their furs in units of forty.

If we move east of Russia, we get into even stranger territory. In many Asian languages, it's not possible to say simply “one house, two men, three dogs”, and so on. You have to know how to measure out the quantity of the noun that you are counting. For example, in Mandarin Chinese, the word for three is san, and the word for dog is gou, so you could reasonably expect “three dogs” to be something like san gou. However, you need to add a special word known as a measure between the number and the noun in order to package up the quantity of the noun, rather as we would say “three loaves of bread”. OK, so you just learn the measure and put it in the middle, but it's not as simple as that. Nouns in Chinese can be classified by what measure they use in common. Added to that, the measure in question for a particular classification of nouns may not seem to be obvious, based on the meaning of the measure and the nouns that are classified with it. Dogs are classified with tiao, hence san tiao gou, “three dogs”, but tiao is used for long, winding, wriggly things, like rivers, so how did dogs get in there? Were they long and wriggly in the ancient Chinese mind?

Indonesian shares the idea of measures with Chinese, but one of the easiest things about this language, apart from its relatively uncomplicated pronunciation, is the number of separate words that need to be learnt in order to count from one to a billion, a total of 15: 1 to 9 - satu/se, dua, tiga, empat, lima, enam, tujuh, delapan, sembilan; the word denoting multiples of ten – puluh; the word denoting the numbers from 11 to 19 – belas; hundred – ratus, thousand – ribu, million – juta, billion – milyar, hence: 10 - sepuluh 11 – sebelas, 12 – dua belas, 20 – dua puluh, 39 - tiga puluh sembilan, 256 – dua ratus lima puluh enam. Easy-peasy.

Yet, across the Indian Ocean, the exact opposite occurs. While you only have to deal with fifteen words in Indonesia, if you want to learn Hindi/Urdu, for 1 to 100 you have to learn, well, literally one hundred words. This is because all the numbers from eleven upwards are each effectively fused into single units, with the unit number from 21 to 99 forming the first part. The numbers from twenty to thirty illustrate this: bis, ikkis, bais, teis, chaubis, pacchis, chabbis, sattais, attais, untis, tis. On the bright side, all the numbers ending in, say, “five” in English will begin pa- in Hindi/Urdu. But don't get your hopes up too much as there are yet more numbers to learn: hundred – sau, thousand – hazar, hundred thousand – lakh, million – mil or das lakh, ten million – kror (also spelt crore), plus some even higher ones. 
I think that's enough on numbers now, even though I've only just scratched the surface, or else I feel my number will be up, I'll be at sixes and sevens and lose my place on cloud nine. If you have any more fascinating examples of human creativity and mental agility regarding numbers, I'll be happy to see them on this blog.

Monday 1 October 2012

The Obscurity of a Vision's Vision

Truth is, indeed, occasionally stranger than fiction. The truth for the London bus driver is something which could not be made up. London bus drivers are required to have something quite ethereal, quite insubstantial, in their vicinity at all times when driving in order to do their job properly. It seems to be a requirement of their employment that this insubstantiality is maintained at all times, unencumbered by the very people whose patronage ensures their continued employment, but who nevertheless carry a threat that could put the drivers' continued employment, indeed their very safety, in jeopardy. If all this has you gradualy losing your grip on reality, or indeed sanity, then let me explain.

London bus drivers are required to have a vision with them at all times when they are driving. The nature of this vision, however, is not specified by the bus companies. Presumably then, one driver might maintain a vision of beauty about their person, while another might do likewise with a vision of horror. Yet another might well opt for a religiously inspired vision. Whatever vision the driver chooses, it must be kept active at all times and in full view of the driver while on the road. Passengers are required not to place themselves between these visions and their drivers in order to maintain the safe running of the buses. Furthermore, the passengers must not engage in conversation with any of the visions, regardless of how amicable and forthcoming they may be. The consequences, one assumes, must be dire.

So there we have it; drivers must maintain their chosen vision at all times and passengers must not attempt either to come between the vision and its driver, or to engage in conversation with it. Indeed, this is clearly spelled out on a notice next to the driver's seat:


There is another, highly unlikely, interpretation of this notice: the people who devised it have a rather dubious and tenuous command of sentence structure in English. This hypothesis, though, can be safely discarded as no one in their right mind would go to the trouble of devising such an erroneous notice, printing thousands of them and placing them prominently in every bus in London, where devious-minded English language teachers can see them and dream up improbable explanations for their existence. Perish the thought!

Thursday 27 September 2012


Hello and welcome from me, the Wordman of Aperton. Why Wordman and why Alperton? Simple, really. My stock in trade is words. That's it. I'll write about anything to do with words - forms, meanings and pronunciations; expressions, idioms and etymologies; good words, bad words, ugly words - any words. In fact, I'll even write about strings of words, sentences, paragraphs, articles, books and languages.

Our words reflect our minds, express our thoughts, define our characters, lift us, amuse us and delight us, defeat us, confuse us and condemn us; we are the very stuff of words (OK, that bit sounds a little too pretentious, but I think I'll keep it in anyway). The scope is limitless - I shall write about anything and everything, because both of those things are words, and words can be anything and everything (am I losing the plot here? Help me!). Well, whatever tosh I come up with, I hope it's amusing, informative and entertaining (bloody hell, I'm beginning to sound like the BBC), but then you, gentle reader, will be the judge of that. Tell me whenever I'm less than amusing, informative and entertaining, and I shall endeavour to remedy it (if you believe that, you'll believe anything).

Big plug: I've published two books about words: The Other Dictionary and Bless the Buccaneer with Barbecued Blood, with more in the pipeline, and I shall be quoting from them from time to time, but you might want to go off and buy them now (thereby furnishing me with loads of filthy lucre). The links are on these websites: and Alternatively, you could just follow me here for free. Or alternatively alternatively, you could do both.

Oh, one more thing - why Alperton? Because that's where I live, near Wembley Stadium, in north west London, England. It's not the best place to live and it's not the worst, but it's home, and anyway, it sort of works, with me sitting here in my little room, nursing my words before releasing them to fly away into the wide, blue yonder. I hope you can catch them before they fly away for good (though actually that's crap because they'll always be here on this blog).

Read on and enjoy!