‘Literal meaning’ is an oxymoron

April 6, 2015

David Bellos’s 2011 book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: The Amazing Adventure of Translation is full of delights and insights not just about the history and phenomenon of translation but about communication, language, and culture more generally.

In a chapter on what Bellos calls the myth of literal translation, he points out that the word literal is sometimes used ‘to say something about the way an expression is supposed to be understood’. This applies to the word literal itself, and thus to the perennial nontroversy over literally which centres on the claim that it should always and only be used ‘literally’. The claim is flawed on several levels.

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German-speaking-proficiency shame

February 2, 2015

The last novel I read, Ivan Turgenev’s Liza (Everyman’s Library edition, translated by W.R.S. Ralston) has a counterintuitive comment on how proficiency in different European languages was held in Russian society, or at least a certain part of it, at the time of the story’s telling:

The young Vladimir Nikolaevich spoke excellent French, good English, and bad German. That is just as it should be. Properly brought-up people should of course be ashamed to speak German really well; but to throw out a German word now and then, and generally on facetious topics – that is allowable; “c’est même très chic,” as the Petersburg Parisians say.

That these preferences are more a matter of etiquette than anything merely practical is shown by the next line, where Nikolaevich is praised for having learned, by age fifteen, “how to enter any drawing-room whatsoever without becoming nervous, how to move about it in an agreeable manner, and how to take his leave exactly at the right moment.”

Imagine the faux pas of slightly mistiming one’s departure from the room while speaking good German. Drawing room, incidentally, has nothing etymologically to do with drawing – it’s short for withdrawing room, which is the older name: a room to withdraw to. But I’m all for drawing there anyway.


Pseudotranslations

March 18, 2014

Imgur (pronounced “imager”), a popular image-hosting social website, has a fun thread on translation errors and substitutions in speech.

It starts with a user saying his Russian wife asked for a roll of inches when she meant a tape measure, and the comments soon filled up with more in this vein: some poetic, some amusingly absurd, a few resulting from memory failure in the speaker’s own language.

I did not know the words for ‘ice cubes’ in German so asked for ‘very cold water with corners’ (from user slimydog)

My dutch neighbor called a [merry]-go-round a horse tornado. (disguisenburg)

I have referred to Muffins as bread mushrooms. (zinvader)

When I was learning English I could not remember the English for Reindeer, so I called it a Christmas Llama. (Unusualpretense)

When I was learning Swedish and making plans with friends, I kept telling them “Smells good!” when I meant “Sounds good!” (freegiant)

I went to say “a bee!” in Japanese but said “a jar of honey!” instead. (jlist)

Couldn’t remember “shower” in Spanish once, had to tell the maid my friend was “in falling water” (theblueshell)

My friend from France never said “Go Away”. Instead: “PUT AWAY YOUR FACE!” Its my favorite expression to this day <3

I know I’ve produced some howlers/classics of my own when I was learning languages, or trying to communicate in other countries, but none come to mind this evening. Got any to share? Smells good!

Update:

See the follow-up at All Things Linguistic, which has further examples in the post and comments, and queries the pronunciation of imgur.


English As She Is Broke

November 9, 2011

Its delicious unconscious ridiculousness, and its enchanting naïveté, as are supreme and unapproachable, in their way, as are Shakespeare’s sublimities. Whatsoever is perfect in its kind, in literature, is imperishable: nobody can imitate it successfully . . .

So wrote Mark Twain in his introduction to Pedro Carolino’s English As She Is Spoke (1883), a Portuguese-English conversational guide infamous for its incoherent translations and memorable incongruities.

Every page of this short book is rich in non sequiturs and grammatical mishaps that border on the poetic, the cumulative effect of which is a rare and unpredictable entertainment.

Will you this?
Let us amuse rather to the fishing.
The coffee is good in all time.
You hear the bird’s gurgling? Which pleasure! which charm!
Comb-me quickly; don’t put me so much pomatum.
He burns one’s self the brains.
You come too rare.
I row upon the belly on the back and between two waters.

Carolino’s book offers vocabularies, phrases, dialogues, letters and anecdotes, all of them delightfully mangled. There is a pronunciation guide that renders washerwoman as uox’-eur-ummeune, and a list of proverbs that turns “A rolling stone gathers no moss” into “The stone as roll not heap up not foam”.

If it were twice as accurate, it would not be half as beguiling.

The book’s history is also muddled. Collins Library published a new edition in 2002 that followed an early edition in crediting Carolino and José da Fonseca as authors. But Fonseca appears to have had no involvement except that his own work inspired Carolino’s awful effort. (I use the word inspired loosely: Carolino spoke no English, and borrowed wholesale from one of Fonseca’s phrasebooks.)

After linguist Alexander MacBride got a copy of the Collins Library edition, he contacted the publishers to question the dual authorship. He felt that a grave injustice had been done to Fonseca:

Not only was his little phrasebook ripped off, and transformed into an eternal monument of linguistic incompetence — he, the victim of the outrage, is remembered by posterity as its author!

Further digging by MacBride threw more light on how the confusion came about. It’s a nice bit of historical research. He found that Fonseca was “a serious and competent scholar” who had an excellent command of English and was “contemptuous of shoddy and amateurish conversation guides and phrasebooks”.

So English As She Is Spoke — Carolino’s “Jest in Sober Earnest” — would presumably have earned Fonseca’s contempt, but we can enjoy it on its own inimitable terms. After all,

A little learneds are happies enough for to may to satisfy their fancies on the literature.

You can download English As She Is Spoke in various formats at Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive.

Put your confidence at my. How do you can it to deny?