From Lapham’s Quarterly:
Anatoly Liberman is a tall man with a slight stoop and an accent that is hard to place. The stoop comes from decades spent searching for the hidden history of words in one of the fifteen languages he can read. It may also be from the weight bearing down on his shoulders as he races the clock. At the age of seventy-nine he is trying to finish one of the greatest achievements in the annals of lexicography: a history, as complete as possible, of some the last words in the English language whose origins remain unknown.
They are simple words, common words, but words whose origins are a mystery: he, she, girl, pimp, ever, gawk, yet. We use these words every day, but Liberman has been working for thirty years to unearth their roots. His sharp mind, breadth of language, and sense of mission have kept him moving steadily toward that goal for the last half of his life. He is driven by the knowledge that if he were gone, no one would have the depth of linguistic knowledge, let alone the drive, to complete his work.
Read the rest here.
These days, we’re all becoming Humpty Dumpty:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean— neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – – that’s all.”
–Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)
In The Rotarian this month, I have a column about the growing distance between words and their meanings, something that often fills me with despair. It’s not a new phenomenon: Orwell wrote about it in his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” But it is, I fear, a problem that has ballooned with the Internet and the surplus of words in our lives. Today we live in a world where “shredding papers” is “document management,” where “failure” is “deferred success,” and where “surveillance” is “data collection.” Maybe that’s just the invisible hand at work, but for what it’s worth, read on here.
To many of us, a translation seems like a currency exchange: You bring in your words, and the translator hands you a different set of words of equal value. In his new book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything, David Bellos explains why it doesn’t work that way.
Bellos, who directs the translation program at Princeton University, tells how the writer and scientist Douglas Hofstadter once sent a French poem to dozens of people and asked them to translate it. Each result was different, yet each was legitimate.
There is no perfect translation. A translation is an act of re-creation, an appropriation of the original in an attempt to find an acceptable match in another language. Because words are imbued with many tones and histories and connotations, literal translation simply isn’t possible. Bellos likens translating to painting a portrait: The result is not the same as the original, but if it’s done well, it captures the original’s essence.
Read the rest here.
It was getting dark. Paulo had been walking with me for half an hour. He’d invited me to dinner at his house, up near Mount Meru, and now we were going back down the dusty road to my neighborhood in Arusha, Tanzania. I wondered when he would turn around. I kept telling him I knew the way. But he kept walking.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I can escort you.”
The last thing I needed was an escort. I enjoyed walking by myself. But I didn’t realize how much had been lost in translation between Paulo’s chosen English word, “escort,” and the Swahili word for what he meant, kusindikiza.
In my dictionary, kusindikiza signified “to see someone off” or “to accompany someone part of the way home.” I had read these definitions, but I didn’t really understand them. Why would you want to accompany someone part of the way home? That is often the problem with learning new languages: You are taking an idea from one world and transporting it to another. The edges of the word, the shape of the idea, do not fit neatly into their new box.
Read the rest here.