Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Front for the Salvation of Private Ryan

Is it just me or does "National Salvation Front" sound a bit goddy? Like a fringey British microparty that splintered off from Christian Voice after some kind of political spat lay folk probably don't understand? Sounds weird, given the main point of them is that they don't like the Muslim Brotherhood, and I doubt a specifically Christian Jesus-Love-and-Brimstone party would be the main opposition anywhere, let alone Egypt. A look at the parties involved makes it seem even weirder: going off the names at least, none of them seem particularly religious. So what's going on with this 'Salvation' name?

First, I clicked across to the Arabic version of the wikipedia page. I don't know enough Arabic to actually know the word for 'Salvation', but I know the 'national' ('وطني') and enough about the word order to guess 'party' ('جبهة') - the noun - would be the first word. So this leaves us with the middle one: 'إنقاذ'.

So how am I supposed to know what an 'إنقاذ' is when it's at home? Well, first thing I did was put it into google images. Turns out the results are pretty light on angels and clouds and whathaveyou, and pretty heavy on drowning people, stuck people, ambulances and helicopters. The second thing I did was search for it on Arabic wikipedia, use google chrome's ham-fisted robotranslator and click a few links. The most revealing one was this: Saving Private Ryan.

So unless I remembered the film wrong 'إنقاذ' has far less to do with the redemption of Private Ryan's immortal soul than it does getting him out of actual physical trouble in the world of the living. Now, it's obvious why they picked 'Salvation'. 'Rescue' sounds weird and not very like political party, and 'National Savings Front' sounds like a militant pro-austerity splinter group, perhaps the less radical wing of the Fiscal Responsibility Army Fraction. But, as is common with Arabic, 'Salvation' does something which seems to happen a lot with Arabic translation and tie into a lot of our preconceptions: it makes the thing sound much more religious than it actually is, rather than an aggressive, drowning-in-shark-infested-lava "we're screwed under this lot" dig at political opponents.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Grief Bacon

I first saw this a few months ago, and it's definitely worth it: 15 words we should have. But yeah. Kummerspeck, or grief bacon. It's brilliant. It's just an inherently hilarious term. Thing is, that's not quite how it translates in German, even literally. Firstly, 'Kummer' isn't exactly 'grief' - more sort of troubles, or cares, or chronic woes. It's pretty sad, but it's not quite grief - definitely the verb 'kümmern' is far more like 'care' or 'take care of' than it is to 'grieve'. Secondly 'Speck', although it's literally bacon, there is a figurative use of it to mean fat, or flab, or something superfluous, and this figurative use is just as common. The titter you get from 'bacon' doesn't quite work for German. Germans see their overhanging belly and think 'bacon' as a matter of habit. And 'Kummer' doesn't have such melodramatic overtones that sound funny next to 'bacon'.

A more accurate literal translation would be trouble-flab, but obviously that's not funny. There's no real way to get this right. So here it's important to remember why we're reading about bacon in the first place. It's funny. It also fits in both the word and it's root. Which is an advantage too, because it's funnier than explaining it. What the writer has probably done is gone on LEO and picked out the funniest translation. "Grief Bacon" has become something of a meme, but not because it's a clever bit of observational humour in German, mainly because it's a really funny translation and one really apt for its function.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Chally Tooner

Via Roots Manuva, and at least ten years late, I just discovered Chali 2na. I heard his name before I read it. This is important.

Ok, so aside from the pitiful middle-class objection to the number-letters (especially because I say "tyoona"), what seemed to me to be odd about his name was the 'Chali'. I panicked a little bit when I didn't see the 'r'. To me, it's essential - it makes the 'a' long like 'ma' instead of short like 'mad'. Spelling it that way, instead of being cool and phonetic, to me, takes it further away from how the word sounds. All it does is lengthen the vowel, right?

Well, that's because I'm English, and non-rhotic. If I was American, Scottish, Irish, from the West Country, I would actually say the 'r'. Well, if I was White and American I probably would. If I was an AAVE speaker I probably wouldn't.

So to us contented cheese-on-toast munchers, his rhymes on '-or' and '-ear' sound normal. To your average White Yankee, it sounds like a missing letter - like how many Britons would consider the glottal stop a "dropped t". You see this in American transcriptions of Black speech - "'Mo' Money Mo' Problems" and the nasty little bit of Jim Crow "Massa'". But, as with the first, it's often AAVE speakers writing their own speech. Non-rhotic spelling is an assertion of identity, if maybe a problematic one.

Now we start to see Chali's thinking. The 'r' is as superfluous to him as it is to me, but it's not to the standard, largely White English he wants to distinguish his speech from. Just look at the distinction that can be drawn between the n-word with '-er' and with '-a'. Rhotic abuse said by Whites, non-rhotic solidarity from other African-Americans. But sat here dreaming of living in a place with nice weather, the difference has usually been lost to me.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

German Wimps

One thing in particular that I envy the Germans for is, instead of sitting round wondering if the collective noun for baboons is a troop or a flange, they collect and invent words for a less-than-manly man. Many of these are very, very wonderful.

The most familiar sentiments you'll see with things like
  • Turnbeutelvergesser - gym-kit-forgetter
  • Stofftiersüßfinder - cuddly-toy-cute-finder
  • Fohnbenutzer - hairdryer user
Digs at sensitive men, boys who aren't good at sports and metrosexuals. Never gets old, no matter how many of your school years you prayed it would. But look how neat the German tendency to for big long words is when it comes to making up insults.

Then there's a few more ones, ones where you start to think German conceptions of masculinity might be a little stricter than ours.
  • Handschuhschneeballwerfer - gloved snowball-thrower
  • Handbuchleser - manual reader
  • Horror-Szenen-Wegschauer - horror-scene-looker-awayer
  • Schattenparker - shade parker
  • Blasenteetrinker - blowing tea-drinker
These all seemed a bit odd to me - as they were things I thought most people did. Even a rugged slice of man-hunk like me blows on his tea if he's in a hurry or something. But the weirdest ones were
  • Warmduscher - warm-showerer
  • Süßfrühstücker - sweet-breakfast-eater
  • Sitzpinkler - sit-down-pee-er

'Sitzpinkler' especially confused me, as I'd heard just as often that it's considered massively anti-social for a man to urinate standing except at a urinal. Asking Germans what they had for breakfast (which I did quite a lot, for serious teaching-related reasons), half the time the blokes would say something involving Nutella. This made no sense to me, knowing as I did the wimpishness associated. And then one student joked, as if the idea of anyone else doing it was utterly ludicrous, about a "dirty man" peeing standing up.

Suddenly the irony clicked. Whereas with a joke like this, I would expect most Anglophones to play it fairly straight, and just make fun of the girly things that puny, sissyish men do, the Germans go one better. They add a layer of hypocrisy. They mock you for your wimpishness by accusing you of something you can safely assume they do themselves. This is by no means though, the silliest it gets:
  • Unterhosenwechsler - underpants-changer
  • Mitdemwindpisser - with-the-wind pisser
  • Partnerbefriediger - partner-pleasurer
  • Rechtsfahrer - right-hand-side-of-the-road driver (they're meant to do that there)
plus best of all
  • Fallschirmbenutzer - parachute user
For comic effect, German men project themselves as unrealistically, surreally manly while mocking each other for perceived effeminacy. The act of belittling someone's masculinity is used to reaffirm your own - Germans have become sardonically aware of this to the point where mocking it has become a popular pastime and an established part of the language. What this weird but hilarious aspect of the German language seems to say about German men's relationship to their own masculinity is that they have a strong idea of what they need to do, they will actually do a lot of it, but they also find the whole episode ever so slightly daft. For all the sarcasm English prides itself on and the stereotypes of German humour, they've definitely got us beat with this one.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

El Loco

Breakdown of political instability in Ecuador:
1997: President Abdala Bucaram, nicknamed "El Loco" ("the crazy one"), declared mentally unfit to rule after a year in power
The first thing that strikes you is that they've actually bothered to translate 'El Loco' - as if nobody's ever heard Ricky Martin. But fair enough, there's no reason why people should go without handy news-nuggets just because they've been so lucky in other areas of life. But the main thing is, this is yet another clunky BBC translation.

What we've got here is the classic adjectival noun conundrum. Ask a Frenchman, or a German, or a speaker of any other Indo-European language I've ever come across, which socks they're going to wear or something, and they won't have to say "the grey ones". They can just say "the grey". Nor does it have to be that specific situation. It can mean "the grey thing(s)", "the grey person", or anything where the quality the adjective describes is all you actually need to get across. English can't do that, English has to add an extra word - 'one', 'thing', 'bloke' and so on - so English has no choice but to be more specific. Snappiness will be lost, and a nuance has to be added by the translator.

In this case, "the crazy one" not only sounds like a rubbish, rubbish political nickname, it also doesn't sound like a political nickname at all. It sounds like you're trying to explain to a friend which great-uncle you're visiting. Not the creepy one or the reclusive gay one, the crazy one, you know with the butterfly collection. Oddly enough, one of the few contexts where we do use adjectival nouns is historical nicknames. The Great, the Red, the Unready, we're used to it in this context.

So there are two ways this could be tidied up: "Abdala the Mad" - using the adjectival noun, just because we can, or "Abdala the Madman" - using a normal noun instead of an adjective. But neither of these quite capture how neatly this nickname seems to work in Spanish. That's probably just because I know most of my Spanish from westerns and gangster movies though.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Bang On

Via the Angry Arab News Service - excellent piece on translating Islam. Highlights:
Massad then focused on the word Islam, and on Orientalists, who attributed various meanings to the word--often without definition or explanation--and switched between meanings within one text. For such scholars, the word Islam could mean the history of various or all Muslim states, a specific individual or scholar, a set of customs and norms, a community, the Quran and the hadith as well as commentaries on both.
This one particularly reminded me of the ambiguity of the terms 'Jew' and 'Jewish', and this next bit is basically what I've been saying/quoting all along:
Massad then discussed the “untranslateable"--the idea that some words are so rooted in a given culture that they cannot be translated. Massad said sometimes the cultural attachment is oversimplified; words like Allah, jihad and hijab, which are generally left in the Arabic, are not tied exclusively to Islamic cultures. Jihad is a common name among Christian Arabs, and is understood to mean “struggle,” according to the professor, who added that Allah means “God” to Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians. The fact that the Prophet Mohamed’s father was named Abdallah, Massad continued, proves the word Allah was part of the Arabic language before Islam.
Especially this:
Here, Massad said, the question becomes about how we think about translation. “Is it about about respect for difference, or about emphasizing difference?”
The key problem here, as I've always, always said, is assuming the words we borrow don't come from a living, working language. Though we only really use Arabic to describe Arabic things, don't forget, Arabs also use it to buy bus tickets and point out untied shoelaces.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Slang Bangers

In case you haven’t heard, across the pond, the DEA is looking for nine translators for African-American Vernacular English/AAVE/Ebonics, saying
Without addressing whether or not it considers Ebonics a true language, the DEA acknowledges that the phenomenon is crippling its ability to understand some of its own secret recordings.
There have been two basic reactions, titters
Yes, it was as wonderfully train wreck-esque as you’d imagine two well-educated, grown men describing what “frontin’” means would be.
and sneers
Ebonics, depending on who you ask, is either a real or a completely imagined thing. Proponents argued that some black people were speaking a whole different language independent of English. Other's argued that augmented or "bastardized" English is not a whole other language. For example, I don't always understand what British people are saying because I don't understand most British slang, but I still agree that British people obviously speak English and I would be able to communicate with a British native without too much difficulty. Slang is slang. Colloquialisms are colloquialisms. But it's all still in English, just with a different accent, different idioms, sayings and affects.
What you notice about both of these is the subtle snobbery – it’s ludicrous to have an academic discussion of the language of the uneducated, and slang, unlike real languages, is unworthy of translation. Black Snob’s disdain even extends as far as anyone even capable of understanding it – more like gangsters than translators
they need you, slang bangers, to tell them what these so-called "Ebonics" spouting linguists are saying.
Motivated Grammar gets it right though:
Believing that a language isn’t really a language doesn’t make it magically comprehensible to you, nor incomprehensible to its users. We could argue whether AAVE is a language or a dialect, whether it should be treated as a second language for instructional purposes, or how exactly one proves proficiency in AAVE. But it is an indisputable fact that AAVE exists, and that it must be converted to SAE for judges, juries, and investigators to understand it.
Nonetheless, some comment-monkeys still think, because Ebonics is the language of simpletons, it is simple, and therefore any idiot can translate it with the help of Urban Dictionary:
I remember learning about ebonics in my English class it sounds like tons of coded slang but if you take the time you can surely translate it out
Oddly enough, just as I'd been reading about this, Tracy-Ann Oberman, on The Wright Stuff (Channel Five's showcase for tedious, ill-informed waffle), used 'Ebonics' to refer to the entirely new linguistic phenomenon of words changing. There seems to be this idea at the centre that Ebonics = trendy black slang.

There's way more to it than that though. It’s got a whole different set of grammar, which isn’t unheard of with English dialects: Americans use the past simple with ‘yet’ where British people could only get away with present perfect, and with different regional dialects the verb ‘to be’ conjugates differently. AAVE grammar’s a bit more drastic though, test yourself:
Try putting the following sentences in order from earliest to most recent:
(1a) I been seen him.
(1b) She do see me.
(1c) The dog done seen her.
(1d) We did see the dog.
The correct order is been seen (pre-recent), done seen (recent), did see (pre-present), do see (past inceptive). There is a similar structure to the future, with a-see indicating seeing in the immediate future, a-gonna see indicating seeing in the near future, and gonna see indicating seeing in a far future.
Yay grammar!

So here’s your language-geek speculation titbit: the whole Kanye West “Imma let you finish but...” thing, I reckon is probably politer to AAVE speakers than it is to non-speakers. Standard English organises the future by strength of intention, and doesn’t really have this way of conveying “this won’t take long” through grammar. Doesn’t make Kanye any less of a helmet, but still.

By the way, did anyone mention that scene in Airplane!?

Monday, August 23, 2010

I Wish She'd Bloody Mentioned Having a Friend

A civilised lesbian's conundrum with the concept of facebook wives reminded me of an immensely disappointing confusion I had learning German.

Basically I fancied this Austrian girl to bits. Took me a while to realise that, every time a female German speaker says "mein Freund" (as opposed to "ein Freund von mir"), she doesn't mean "my friend [male]". She means "my boyfriend". Quite annoyed when I clocked that one, I can tell you. These things tend to work both ways, though, and teaching English to Germans, I gradually discovered they would say "a friend from me" rather than just "my friend". This was when they were men talking about men they got on with. Girls talking about girls, it would always be "a girlfriend from me", or else "my girlfriend", in the baffling American finger-wagging sense.

This is a whole new set of distinctions to learn with each language: we don't distinguish the platonic word by gender, they don't distinguish the masculine or feminine word by whether or not they've snogged. And when Germans use English words, they tend to use them in rather German ways. So a German website "friendscout24", though it uses "friend", which would be an emphatically fully-clothed relationship in English, has obvious connotations of romance for Germans.

This stuff is weird. And I've not even thought about how it must go once you chuck in homosexual relationships. In fact, the entire language of boyfriends and girlfriends is euphemistic to the extreme. Firstly, it's more than just a boy or girl (or lady or gentleman, once you reach a certain age) that you're friends with. Then you've got 'relationship', which is also stupid. I've had a relationship with every student I've ever taught. I was their teacher and they were my student. 'Dating' is even worse, and 'sleeping with' and even 'shagging' are just as incomplete. So no wonder it's just as weird and confusing in other languages.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Yadda Yadda Allah Allah

Thanks Marie Dhumières. Thanks a lot. I might as well hang up my monotran hat. The gist is this:
I couldn't help thinking that, when translated literally into English, these expressions make Arabs sound very religious – or even like fundamentalists – in the eyes of those who have a tendency to jump to quick conclusions.
Putting Arabs in our shoes, we get this:
In English, we say "God damn it", "God bless you", "Jesus Christ", which would sound very strange if they were to be translated literally into another language. So next time you hear in the news or in a movie an Arabic guy saying "Praise be to God," remember he may just be saying "Great, the electricity is back."

What's odd about this though, is that she flits between 'God' and 'Allah' as the translation. Thing is, you see, 'Allah' and 'الله‎' don't mean the same thing. When Arabs say it, they mean 'God' (usually, but apparently not always, the Muslim version). When English-speakers say it, we mean a specifically Muslim God, distinct from the usual Big Man.

This is fairly common with Arabic as far as I can see: we say both 'hajj' and 'pilgrimmage', 'verse' and 'sura', 'holy war' and 'jihad' (we'll also say 'martyr' and 'jihadi' from time to time if we're idiots). Obviously, Arabs don't have that dilemma. Every time we choose between the two, we also choose whether to present the word as general or specific, anglophone or Muslim, ours or theirs. And that's rarely a simple, clear-cut choice.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Shoot the Who?

Thank you, thank you Guardian. When the story broke about the song 'Shoot the Boer', I was momentarily confused. Why were South African farmers, who can't all be Afrikaners, so intimidated by it?

Then I remembered. The word 'Boer' just comes from 'farmer'. "Shoot the Boer" refers to the victims' job and status, at least as much as their ethnicity. The Today Programme, where I'm getting most of my news at the moment, didn't think it necessary to explain this. Luckily the Guardian did. A couple of the gnomes on the BBC Have Your Say thread seem to be taking it to mean "shoot the south african of Dutch ancestry", and I'd put this as much down to lack of explanation by the BBC as to HYS's world-beating idiocy.

Whereas in Afrikaans, 'Boer' can be both 'farmer' and 'Afrikaner' (though I'd be interested to know the differences in usage), in English, it's an unambiguous ethnonym. Ethnonyms have to come from somewhere. 'Arab' is to do with nomads, Hebrew is either 'crossing over' or, like Roman, named after a founder. A lot of African, Pacific and South American countries' names recall discovery or exploitation of resources. But if you don't know the language in which they were named, or if nobody uses that word any more, then it's only natural to assume the word refers only to ethnicity.

The really pressing question then, is, if the song does incite hatred, then who of? For some reason "inciting racial hatred" has a ring to it that "inciting professional hatred" does not, but it seems to me the song, if anything at all, will produce a mix of the two rather than just the one.