Untranslatable

Speaking of difficult books…and I know I told myself to read more poetry (and I am, really, most recently Michael Burkard’s Fictions from the Self)…I am entranced and overawed by Barbara Cassin’s amazing Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon. Here’s a thorough and intelligent review by Michael Kinnucan, going into more depth than I have time to post on this blog. What I want to mention about the text is its beauty and its acknowledgment of ambiguity, a quality that translates (ha!) into every aspect of human existence: our ambiguous relationships with our environments, with other humans, with our foods and our governments, our psyches, our cosmos.

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We cannot write about the act of translation without encountering ambiguity. We cannot really address philosophy without acknowledging that differing perspectives [context, culture, era, psychology, and of course, language] pose serious complications to understanding across languages and cultures. And even within a culture! For jargon and specialized terms can make understanding by even the most educated layman very, very difficult indeed.

While Cassin’s tome–and it is a collaborative work, with many brilliant people as contributors–presents itself as a philosophical lexicon, the connections with other disciplines (psychoanalysis, for example, with Freud’s famous coinages, and certainly poetry) are unavoidable. It may be challenging to translate the German Schicksal, a Kantian form of the idea we call in English fate, but in such cases the reader is generally going to be familiar with Kant and perhaps aware that the subtle connotations may vary. Take the word sign, however, and each reader–even those who have linguistics or anthropology or philosophy as a background–brings his or her own connotations to the definition and to the problem of translating what any individual author means by the use of the word.

Maybe this doesn’t sound fascinating to you. I relish it! And who knew (I sure didn’t) that even the word reality is a neologism, “coined by Duns Scotus” in the 13th century?

At 1200 pages of small type, this text is a tool, not a beach read. What a find, though. I have no doubt I will be referring to it for years to come, and that it will keep me wallowing in marvelous ambiguities.

 

A whilom history major

In an effort to get myself to sleep during a recent spate of insomnia and to enrich my understanding of ancient Roman history after reading Beard’s SPQR earlier this year, I have been reading a 1904 anthology of historians writing on various topics pertaining to the early Roman republic. History writing has changed a great deal in the past century; perhaps the historians of yesteryear were entertaining and concise by the standards of the time, but perhaps there is a reason history has a reputation for being dry. It is an undeserved reputation, in my opinion, yet I admit to finding a few of these fin de siècle commentaries soporific.

These historians toss names around as though we readers could be expected to know one 3rd-century BC general from another and assume we are already well-versed in the Punic Wars. Admittedly, it is likely the average educated reader in 1904 had more Western Civ background than the educated reader has today. I have heard of the Punic Wars, but I was rather hoping the historians could frame them for me in a way a modern reader might understand. So far, no luck with this anthology.

Perhaps that is not possible anyway–a modern reader really cannot fathom what life was like so long ago, or what constituted “civilization;” although current re-creation attempts offer a sort of immersion, no one can know how accurate they are (see: experimental archaeology). Contemporary historians, however, seem more willing to do a bit of cultural speculation, relying on archeology and artifacts as much as–or more than–upon the ancient texts listing wars, generals, leaders and enemies. One reason I decided not to pursue a history major in college long ago is that the discipline required so much task-reading of names, dates, and places before the student could move into the interesting materials of everyday life, food, culture, livelihoods, skills, crafts, religion, the arts…the kinds of things that interest me. I lacked discipline.

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But words interest me. Another reason the 1904 book is so helpful at bedtime is the general pacing of the prose, but the word choices are fascinating. I do not just refer here to archaic history jargon but to vocabulary in general. It’s what one of my colleagues among the English instructors terms “ornamental.” Ornamental prose has its place, and there are times I relish its languid character, but it tends to drag for the reader more accustomed to contemporary American-English conciseness. So I get sleepy.

There are charming rewards to this stuff. Last week, the word whilom kept me from slumber. I had to find out what it meant before going to sleep and was about to throw off the blankets and get my dictionary. My kind spouse had the smartphone on the bedstand, however, and dictionary.com identified it as “archaic; erstwhile.” Here’s a little bio of the word from worldwidewords. Reading a compendium such as this one offers me insights not only into ancient Rome but into the world of scholars of 100 years ago–quite a different culture from today.

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Ann E. Michael is a whilom history student and umquhile psychology major who turned to philosophy and English and then earned a graduate degree in Creative Writing. She recommends The Historians’ History of the World Volume 5 (ed. Henry Smith Williams) as both educational and snooze-inducing.     🙂

Struggling with words

Some of the students I tutor in writing are English learners–advanced English learners, but still on the learning curve. They began speaking and writing English at age 10 or 14 or 16, or perhaps earlier, but in a family whose English defaulted to a “home” language. They often have vocabularies that far exceed my US-born students in scope, but they lack awareness of idiomatic preposition use or skills in standard English syntax.

My background is not in “ESL,” “ELL,” or the instruction of multi-lingual students. I have precious little training in that area, and no experience in translation. I do not even have fluency in any language other than my own; as a result, I have great respect for my students, who often are conversant in two, three, sometimes four languages or dialects. In truth, their language skills far outstrip my own. Yet they arrive at my door seeking help in writing, trying to understand how to write clear, concise sentences in a language they find mysterious and arbitrary in its grammar, its use of punctuation, and its rules about documentation, capitalization, and articles.bkmk-violet

The majority of them are from immigrant families, and they are among my hardest-working students. They take nothing for granted. Their frustration at not getting their ideas across on paper drives them to read more, to look words up in the dictionary (something few of my English-speaking students ever bother to do), to visit the writing tutors, to ask interesting questions about why the noun-count adjective comes before the color or quality adjective and when and why to use a rather than the as a preceding article.

They are excellent critical thinkers, probably because they have to solve problems continually: translating in their heads, figuring out whether a translator app will help them or not, deciphering figures of speech and cultural allusions, and navigating how to get around in the world outside their home base and home language.

Some of them have had to learn to handle stereotyping, ostracizing, bullying, and worse.

I admire their resilience and their youthful enthusiasm, and I recognize their dismay when nothing they try seems to work. The only aspect of their lives I am really privileged to help them with is their writing in English as they struggle with words. The rest they do on their own.

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So here’s a story.

A student who has lived in the US for four years and who speaks one of the Asian languages regularly meets with me to go over her mathematics essays (these are basically chapter summaries with reflections). Her papers are usually well-structured and demonstrate considerable understanding of some complicated readings, but she does wrestle with article use and past-participle verb use in the various conditional tenses. Every once in awhile, though, she composes a sentence that completely throws me.

In a recent paper, her concluding paragraph contained the phrase “is not anhydrous warehouse confusion.”

[WTF?!] I had to wrap my brain around the possibilities of that one…so she pulled out her cell phone translator and we played around with it a bit: “without water,” a scientific term; I knew that had to mean “dry,” but why hadn’t she come up with the word “dry”? She knows that word. And “warehouse”? “Like store,” she said. [Storage? Dry storage? Confusion?]

After some laughter and some consternation, we realized that she was using a metaphor that means, essentially, dry facts. She wanted to write that mathematics is not just a set of confusing dry facts, as many people think it is. And we discovered that the metaphor in her language was not that different from the metaphor in English. But Google Translate doesn’t realize that!

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I got home and said to myself: somehow I have to write a poem that contains the phrase anhydrous warehouse😀

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Translation software, AutoCorrect and GrammarCheck are algorithms. They may be full of information, but they are not smart and they are not human beings. The genuine problem-solver, the best puzzler-outer, is the messy ol’ brain itself: human consciousness.brain

 

 

 

 

 

Words for pain

On Wednesday, I spent a long time in conversation with an anxious dear one who was despondent over US election results. I am not the only person who engaged in such dialogues that day, but what stays with me is the way I described the conversation later–to another friend. The phrase I used was “talking her down off a ledge.” It was, thankfully, just a harmless metaphor, an exaggeration (she was not suicidal, merely distressed). Nonetheless, having recently considered the ways we express pain linguistically and how hard it is to express pain of any kind in a manner that conveys anything to other people [see blog on Scarry], I stopped to think about the figure of speech I had employed.

Emotional pain hurts, after all, as much as physical pain. What else might I have said?

I could have said, “I spent 20 minutes calming her down.” Not as vivid, but less violent. Yet isn’t that what poets and writers want–vividness? Some sort of language that elicits visceral response…and the metaphors or war, violence, and harm are the default phrases and symbols to which we turn.spinal-cord-injury-pain

We learn these word-images when we are very young, often before we understand the violent origin of the metaphor. So I wonder whether the connection is as clear as some theorists suspect. But there’s no denying that pain = harming imagery, because pain is harm. Stabbing, throbbing, pounding. That’s pain. Emotionally, too: we feel wounded, we feel broken, damaged, hurt. Anxiety feels painful; stress feels painful– “The stress is killing me!” Pretty clear connections there.

I have been challenging myself to write poems about pain (physical, existential, mental, emotional) and to discover whether I can make the sense of pain come through in words as something other than self- or other-harm; whether I can use non-violent images to convey pain, and to reframe it in the body and in the consciousness.

So far?

Not a lot of success, but some interesting drafts that sound slightly surreal or hallucinatory. There is a bonus here, though, in that I have created a difficult writing prompt and, at the same time, given myself some insights into the connections between mind and body (Descartes, you old rascal) and language.

 

Language & violence

“To have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt.” Elaine Scarry

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I have finally finished reading Elaine Scarry‘s difficult book The Body in Pain. The subtitle is “The Making and Unmaking of the World,” which offers some idea of how large a topic is under consideration in her text. She examines torture, war, sports as metaphor for war, the creation of god(s), the interiority of and thus the difficulty of assessing pain, the Marxist and Judeo-Christian structures of imagining the world (“making” through art, government, the creation of objects, religions, and concepts), to name a few of her subjects. She considers the utter “unmaking” of torture and war as world-destroying and, ultimately, word-destroying; when the human is in deep pain, the utterances are essentially word-less–moans, grunts, screams–and the experience remains internal and unique to each individual:

“Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language. ‘English,’ writes Virginia Woolf, ‘which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear has no words for the shiver or the headache.’ … Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it.”

I love her theories (are they theories? explorations?) of imagination/imagining and creation/creativity. She develops this set of concepts in the transitional chapter “Pain and Imagining,” then applies her ideas to huge social constructs, not just to objects or individuals. I found it difficult to get my mind around the philosophical aspects of her argument–the denseness of her prose can  be tough, though never impenetrable. pain

What sprang to mind for me, among many other thoughts to mull over, is the pang I feel about recognizing that tools that change or make can also, almost always, be weapons as well. The hand or the fist. The sculptor’s knife or the assassin’s dirk. The stone that grinds corn or the projectile hurled at the opponent. The words that comfort, the words that wound. For a writer–a poet (“maker”)–that awareness hovers, always, in the background.

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Also, Scarry’s book made me mindful of how pain and sorrow employ the language of war and torture. This is irrefutable, and it saddens me. I wonder: is there any way around that fact?

If I could rephrase my pain into words that were not violence-based, could I re-frame my pain? Certainly language has a relationship with consciousness; could there be a placebo effect on my interior sensations if I were to re-name my “pain sensations” as something other than burning, stabbing, numbing, sharp?

Could I unmake the world of pain through a mindful habit of personal language?

[Note: this speculation is not where Scarry goes in her text; it’s just a thought experiment that I have considered based upon some of her observations.]

 

 

 

 

 

Alexithymia

Alexythymia–a term used in psychology and psychiatry. Dictionary.com defines it: “difficulty in experiencing, expressing, and describing emotional responses. … Inability to describe emotions in a verbal manner.

It means having no words to describe or express feelings.

Or, experiencing feelings and having no verbal expressive methods to convey the feelings.

As to this 2016 US presidential campaign cycle, I am experiencing alexithymia. My feelings are just not something I can find words to explain. I will therefore rely on logic as much as I possibly can, but I admit that this year my vote is entirely based upon gut feelings that I cannot adequately organize into good prose.

It’s nice to know there’s a word for it.

 

Jargon

Having just spent some time in Scotland, encountering Scots accents and language, and having read Kathleen Jamie’s book Findings while on my trip, and having visited castles and a distillery (even though malt whisky is not something I drink), I find myself thinking again about words. In particular, specialized words–those used by the ancient crafts such as beer-making, by vintners and distillers, weavers, farmers, and builders of defenses, ships, and of cathedrals, architectural terms and words specific to a trade: jargon.

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Barley. Glengoyne Distillery, not far from Glasgow.

Jargon, the word itself, comes from the French. As per the Online Etymology Dictionary:

jargon (n.) Look up jargon at Dictionary.commid-14c., “unintelligible talk, gibberish; chattering, jabbering,” from Old French jargon “a chattering” (of birds), also “language, speech,” especially “idle talk; thieves’ Latin” (12c.). Ultimately of echoic origin (compare Latin garrire “to chatter”).

From 1640s as “mixed speech, pigin;” 1650s as “phraseology peculiar to a sect or profession,” hence “mode of speech full of unfamiliar terms.” Middle English also had it as a verb, jargounen “to chatter” (late 14c.), from French.

One of the things I like best about taking tours of and reading books about distilleries or castles and the like is the chance to savor those unusual and often strangely lovely-sounding special terms. The lyne arm. The tun. The potstill, the draff, the spirit safe. Wort and wormtub.

And there’s the donjon, the voussoir, the queen-post, the feretory…in addition to all those buttresses and gargoyles and portcullises. Not to mention the terms, many of them archaic, associated with the making of tapestries and the cooking of meals and the husbandry of sheep or falcons or cattle.

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Or the laying of stones for roads or masonry walls, for the engineering of moats and the design of crenellated defenses. So many words, and only highly specialized historians know them today; whereas once, the mostly illiterate men and women who did the work used the language of their trades.

It’s still true today–perhaps more than ever–that jargon is used among the people in a given industry, computer tech or realty or politics. I suppose those words will as surely fall out of use, or evolve in their meanings, and perhaps more rapidly than the jargon of yore.

Obscure terms, highly specialized in their function as means of communication. Sometimes, quite beautiful to know.