Posted on June 28th, 2012
And the word of the day is… (can you hear those drums rolling?) “nincompoop”! Just saying it makes me giggle! Go on, say it! What a nice way to call you a silly billy!
Apparently, it comes from Nicholas or Nicodemus, by association with the Pharisee of this name, and his naive questioning of Christ.
Translators working into any language are confronted on every page with decisions about the nature, scope, identity and audience of the language they are writing.
When I write, whether consciously or not, what comes out bears traces of my British background, my upbringing in France, my bicultural education etc. Once I’ve spoken, people often ask me that lovely question: “and where are you from?” Or worse, “are you Australian?” Not that I have anything against Australians, (far from it!) it’s just that my accent (RP probably) does not immediately bring a precise geographical region into mind.
But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.
The question of the day concerns translating particular accents or cultural markers in a text. For instance, when a character in a text has a heavy Mancunian accent, how should that be rendered in French? Or conversely, when a character has a broad marseillais accent, how should it be transposed into English? Very few translators actually translate such accents, as they are seen as silly, over the top and irrelevant. Indeed, a broad northern English accent does not correspond to a Northern French accent or any other in fact. It just is a Northern English accent. Regional dialects just are regional dialects. Most people think it is silly to give an Irish peasant a French Chti accent just to show that he is of different cultural background than the rich city dweller he is sitting next to on the train. In fact, distances in geography and linguistics between people are an extremely tricky translation point. Generally, these are eradicated in translations, or at best, a footnote (or N.d.T.( 1) in French) may explain that the character has a heavy accent in the original text. Perhaps the reader guesses this via another description elsewhere in the text. At least, we hope so! Otherwise a huge part of subtext may be lost. Also, most translators shy away from using uncouth forms in language in the target text. And this for an obvious reason: grammatical and spelling mistakes and types of “substandard” language might be confused as the translator’s own! A translator would rather die than be thought of as a bad speller or grammarian. Words are his trade after all. So, the result, a sanitization or neutralization of speech in text, or the taking up a notch or two the register and level of prose is an inevitable fact.
No doubt you’ve heard someone claim, “Eskimo has hundreds of words for snow”. This is one of our classic urban legends.
Apparently, it started in 1911 with anthropologist Franz Boas mentioning that the Inuit – whom he called “Eskimos”, (nowadays considered a derogatory term) – has four different words for snow. Others hold that this steady growth of exaggeration started with Whorf’s much-quoted 1940 article that places the word-count to 7 ( 1). Gradually, as this story was told and retold, spreading around the world in an unstoppable Chinese whispers phenomenon, the number sometimes reached as many as 400 words. Steven Pinker, in his book The Language Instinct ( 2), explains that “Contrary to popular belief, the Eskimos do not have more words for snow than do speakers of English” and “counting generously, experts can come up with about a dozen.”
When researching on the subject, it is rather mind boggling because even just getting down to understanding the problem is complex, since there are so many versions of it, and many contradictions. Anyway, let’s try!
The traditional claim is “Eskimos have N words for snow” (for growing N) — and every part of that claim is problematic:
- There is no single “Eskimo” language, just like there is no single “Indian” language. In fact “Indian” and “Eskimo” are not the best names since they gather several major cultural groups, ignoring considerable differences between them, notably huge language variations, within each distinct group.
- How do we count words? And what is a word anyway? We could discuss these two questions forever so I’ll just leave them hanging for now…
- What qualifies a word as being “for snow”? Does it mean that it has the same applications as English does for snow? Surely not, otherwise Eskimo wouldn’t have any words for snow at all. What about the fuzz on a TV screen? That type of snow refers solely to the context of poor audiovisual reception. How wide or narrow are the boundaries and how can we ensure that we’re setting them the same in the languages that are being compared?
Eskimo uses the apparently distinct roots aput ‘snow on the ground’, gana ‘falling snow’, piqsirpoq ‘drifting snow’, and qimuqsuq ‘a snow drift’. In English, there are derived terms for various forms of water (liquid, lake, river, sea, ocean, brook, rain, dew, wave, foam, sweat, pond, puddle, drizzle, and so on). In another language, these terms could all stem from derivational morphology (suffixes etc) from a single root meaning “water”. This could be one reason explaining why some claimed that Eskimo had hundreds of words for snow: derivational morphology. Inuit and Aleut are agglutinative languages: they assemble large words out of many parts whereas English tends to use multiple words instead (the short and sweet version?). This pattern has nothing to do with snow; it’s just how English, Inuit and Aleut differ in general.
Let me illustrate this last point with another example: igluqsaq. This is a compound word that means ‘house-building material’, (as you undoubtedly noticed with the familiar ‘iglu’ at the beginning). However, it can mean wood, brick, or any other material to build houses with; not necessarily only snow. We could try pulling the same trick in English by counting words like “etiology”, (slipping on snow can cause injuries), “projectile”, (snowballs can be thrown), “food”, (snow can be eaten), and so on and so forth. Once again, all depends on context, geographically, syntactically and grammatically.
Also, when thinking about it, people who live in snowy lands might not even care about the variations between types of snow. Similarly, few people care about the different types of grass or pavements in our parts of the world. Such constant elements usually disappear into the background and become less interesting.
Linguists such as Pinker and Pullum ( 3) to name just two, have nowadays successfully debunked the myth. But what strikes me as interesting is why do people still cling to it? Why do they need to count, classify and draw boundaries to pretend things are simpler and clearer than they actually are? Good question, batman!
(1)Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1956. “Science and Linguistics” In Language, Thought and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, edited by John B. Carroll. Cambridge: MIT Press.(retour au texte1)
Today’s quote is in French. Why don’t you try to translate it?
Short-winded is how any written form in English should be. (In the sense of ‘brief and succinct’, not out of breath!)
When translating from French to English, one is often tempted to copy French structure. Oh, how wrong! The French language loves convoluted, complicated and long-winded ways of saying something. Reading French can be a labyrinthine adventure in itself: you explore paths taking you through enchanted forests, trek up and down mysterious mountains, swim across roaring rivers, slay dangerous dragons, rescue pretty princesses, to finally reach the meaning of what is being said and realize that it was something quite simple really. English prefers the short and sweet version. Straight to the point! Less is more. And if it’s really that complicated, break it down into several sentences. It’s simpler and much easier to read, especially if it isn’t your mother tongue.
So, let’s all strive to become “masters of short-windedness”!
Today’s article is in French but I’m sure many of you read both languages. It is an excerpt of Grant Hamilton’s book “Les trucs d’anglais qu’on a oublié de vous enseigner”.
The article concerns translation choices. Should certain words or expressions be left in the source language? As often in translation, the answer is context and target dependent!
You can download the article here:
Pondering about semantics, words, translation, and above all, the importance of context. An excerpt from David Bellos’ hilarious Is That a Fish in your Ear?, chapter 8, ‘Words are Even Worse’:
“The study of how words have in fact or must be supposed to have altered or extended their meanings is the field of historical semantics. But however elaborate the story, however subtle the story-teller and however copious the documentary evidence, historical semantics can never tell you how any ordinary user of English just knows (a) that ‘head’ is a word and (b) all of the things that ‘head’ means.
From this it follows that the word ‘head’ cannot be translated as a word into any other language. But the meaning it has in any particular usage can easily be represented in another language. In French, for example, you could use cap for ‘Beachy Head’, mousse for ‘head of beer’, and chef, patron or supérieur hiérarchique to say ‘head of department’. Translation is in fact a very handy way of solving the conundrum of words and meanings. That’s not to say that anyone can tell you what the word means in French or in any other language. But what you can say by means of translation is what the word means in the context in which it occurs. That’s a very significant fact. It demonstrates a wonderful capacity of human minds. Translation is meaning.”