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Posts Tagged ‘translation’

Who’s Number One?

March 17, 2015 | by

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and the role of the first person.

Eugen_Rosenstock-Huessy

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

It can be staggering to realize, suddenly, that something you’ve never thought about—something you’ve always accepted as real—is just an article of faith. Language is often what turns the lightbulb on: someone defines reality afresh with a new word (mansplaining, Rebecca Solnit) or by showing the hidden powers and interconnections of an old word (debt, David Graeber). Rarely is the realization about language itself.

Of all the dogmas of classical antiquity, only grammar has held its ground. Euclidean geometry, Ptolemaic astronomy, Galenic medicine, Roman law, Christian doctrine—the schools have radically demolished them all. But even now, Alexandrine grammar still reigns.

The quote is from Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888–1973), a deeply idiosyncratic Christian theoretician of the modern era. (All translations are mine, from the two-volume The Language of the Human Race: An Incarnate Grammar in Four Parts [Die Sprache des Menschengeschlechts: Eine leibhafte Grammatik in vier Teilen].) Rosenstock-Huessy inspired a few cognoscenti, including W. H. Auden and Peter Sloterdijk, but he is still, it is safe to say, deeply, deeply obscure. It is hard to know what to do with him. I certainly find off-putting the self-evident all-importance of Christ’s Birth or God’s Divine Purpose, which he regularly tosses into his philosophical arguments. (Auden: “Anyone reading him for the first time may find, as I did, certain aspects of his writings a bit hard to take … Speaking for myself, I can only say that, by listening to Rosenstock-Huessy, I have been changed.”) The grammatical dogma he means, though—and which he spent more than one 1,900-page book in mortal combat against—is the innocent-looking list dating back to the Greeks: first person, second person, third person. I love, you love, he/she/it loves, or, if you studied Latin, amo, amas, amat. Read More »

One Wine, Two Wine, Red Wine, Blue Wine

February 10, 2015 | by

Naming wines in translation.

Georg_Emanuel_Opiz,_Der_Saufer_1804

Georg Emanuel Opitz, Der Säufer, 1804.

Valentine’s Day is upon us and if, to bedazzle your beau or belle, your tastes turn to thoughts of white tablecloths and candlelight, your thoughts will likely turn to tastes of wine.

But which wine? It can be hard to navigate those artisanal descriptions, so easy to mock—notes of saddle leather, jujubes, and turpentine with a hint of combed cotton, and so on. The basic questions are no simpler, though. “Red or white?” ignores orange wine, whites tinted a little longer than usual from the grape skins: basically the opposite of rosé, where red-wine grapes are peeled faster than usual. There’s also gray wine (vin gris, actually pinkish), which is white wine from black grapes usually used for red wine such as pinot noir, and even yellow wine (vin jaune), a special variety from the Jura in eastern France, though what white wine isn’t yellow when you think about it. Provençal pink wines—rosés—are colored gooseberry, peach, grapefruit, cantaloupe, mango, or mandarin, according to the Provence Wine Council: vote for your favorite here. Read More »

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Amazing Robot Brain Translates Russian

January 7, 2015 | by

ibm701

The general layout of the IBM 701. Photo via Computer History

Sixty-one years ago, on January 7, 1954, a massive, terrifying, IBM artificial intelligence—referred to in the press as a “giant brain,” a “robot brain,” and a “polyglot brainchild,” among other wide-eyed terms—translated more than sixty sentences from Russian into English. It was the first public demonstration of machine translation. And yeah, the people were pleased.

The computer was an IBM 701, which was, according to its manufacturer, “the most versatile electronic ‘brain’ extant,” used sixteen hours a day for “nuclear physics, rocket trajectories, weather forecasting, and other mathematical wizardry.” But translating was an entirely different pursuit, and substantially more difficult: in fact, the computer knew only six grammatical rules, and its vocabulary comprised just 250 terms.

Working with Georgetown linguists, and with dozens from the media watching in IBM’s New York headquarters, a woman “who didn't understand a word of the language of the Soviets punched out the Russian messages on IBM cards.” (They used a Romanized version of Russian.) She began with sentences about chemistry, which probably unnerved the newsmen in attendance—how were they supposed to captivate readers with such examples as “The quality of coal is determined by calorie content” and “Starch is produced by mechanical methods from potatoes”? Read More »

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Is There a Vespa?: An Interview with Michael Hofmann

December 4, 2014 | by

Hofmann, Michael (C) Thomas Andenmatten

Photo © Thomas Andenmatten

Michael Hofmann’s first collection of poems, Nights in the Iron Hotel, came in 1984, and in the ensuing thirty years he has translated more than sixty novels from the German and published five more poetry collections, along the way collecting numerous prizes for his work. He is the editor of an anthology, Twentieth-Century German Poetry, and in 2002 published a collection of critical essays, Behind the Lines. (This is far from a comprehensive accounting.) The thirty essays in his new collection, Where Have You Been?, visit a range of poets, novelists, and artists of the last hundred years, including Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Thomas Bernhard, Kurt Schwitters, and Frederick Seidel.

Hofmann’s essays are intense inquiries: he tunnels deeply, engages profoundly, and whether or not he likes what he’s read or seen, his essays ennoble the work under review. There’s a sense of humor, even joy, electrifying the enterprise. Of course, his criticism can pulverize, too—Günter Grass and Stefan Zweig are destroyed in Where Have You Been?—but most of Hofmann’s selections tend toward the form of one reader grabbing another’s sleeve and shouting, Come on now, this way! You’ve got to see this!

Though Hofmann doesn’t keep a computer at home—“usual Luddite setup,” he said at one point—this interview was conducted over e-mail. On a couple of occasions, he wrote from a stand-up terminal in a municipal library.

You’ve written that contemporary American poetry is “a civil war, a banal derby between two awful teams.” In Britain, it’s “a variety show.” These are grim assessments.

Discouraging, isn’t it? It’s just a fact that there are never very many poets around at any given time. I think poetry is always one or two poets away from extinction anyway. If it’s any comfort, it’s not a living tradition—it doesn’t depend on being passed from hand to hand. It could easily go underground for a couple of decades, or a couple of centuries, and then return. People disappear, or never really existed at all, and then come back—Propertius, Hölderlin, Dickinson, Büchner, Smart. Poetry is much more about remaking or realigning the past than it is about charting the contemporary scene. It’s a long game. Read More »

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Remembering Mike Nichols, and Other News

November 20, 2014 | by

Still_portrait_Mike_Nichols

A publicity shot of a young Mike Nichols, ca. 1970.

  • Last night there was a modest ceremony for a little-known prize called the National Book Award. Congratulations to its winners this year: Evan Osnos in nonfiction, for The Age of Ambition; Phil Klay in fiction, for his collection Redeployment; Louise Glück in poetry, for Faithful and Virtuous Night; and Jacqueline Woodson in young people’s literature, for Brown Girl Dreaming. The Daily interviewed Klay earlier this year, and The Paris Review published five of Glück’s poems in our Winter 2007 issue—read one here.
  • While we’re at it, why won’t the National Book Foundation bring back its award for translation, which was eliminated in the eighties? “The prize was a model of award-as-activism … Its administrators leveraged the National Book Awards’s clout in service of a category of literature that desperately needed popular attention and validation.”
  • Mike Nichols has died at eighty-three. (Not to diminish his incredible accomplishments as a director, but NB: his “Mother and Son” skit with Elaine May is still funny more than half a century later.)
  • A new game, Ether One, brings us closer to the experience of dementia: “Your job is to dive into the mind of Jean Thompson, a sixty-nine-year-old woman diagnosed with dementia, and retrieve a series of lost memories … The collection gradually overwhelms the player’s ability to remember just where all of these things came from and why they seemed important enough to retrieve. Why did I bring this plate all the way back here? Whose hat is this supposed to be again? It’s a tidy simulation of the cognitive degradation of dementia.”
  • How does one write a mouse-washing scene? There aren’t a lot of examples in literature, and in any event I didn’t want my mouse-washing scene to be contaminated by the work of other fiction writers.”

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Counterpunch

October 21, 2014 | by

On a sentence by Robert Walser.

Plantin_letterpress

Plantin letterpress type. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

It is worth remembering that there once was a time when every letter, number, and punctuation mark printed on paper started life as a sculpture. Someone had to make the letterforms by hand, in three dimensions; the individual characters could all look alike because they were all molten metal poured into the same mold (hence: font), but someone had to make the molds. The first time this hit home for me was when I thought about changing the type size in letterpress days: rather than pressing CTRL+> or CTRL+<, the whole font—every letter, capital and lowercase and italic and roman, every number and symbol—would have to be recarved, by hand, from scratch. Redesigned, too, since different proportions work better at different sizes. Tiny furniture’s got nothing on typefaces.

They’re sculptures, not drawings, because the angle and depth of the sides affect the look of the printed letter. These can be adequately controlled along the outline of a letter, but for the inner lines and negative spaces—the triangle in an A, the near-rectangles in a serifed E—it’s hard to gouge out the cavities precisely enough. So a D, for instance, would start out as a rod of steel whose tip is carved into a semicircle: a counterpunch, tempered to be harder than the steel of the punch. Pounding this into the flat end of another rod makes a semicircle-shaped hole. Carving around the hole makes a raised D, or rather a raised . Slamming that rod into another block of metal (softer than the steel, usually copper) makes a -shaped hole, the matrix. Pouring molten metal into that and letting it cool produces the piece of type. Then the letters are set into a stick, in reverse order; clamped together; and ink is rolled onto the surface before it is flipped again onto a sheet of paper, leaving a D-shaped black mark.

By my count, that’s five turnarounds: counterpunch, punch, matrix, piece of type, printed character. There’s a strange reversal in time, too, since every other kind of counterpunch (in boxing, in debate) reacts to the punch, while here it pre-exists the punch. I’ve never gotten tired of replaying the transformations in my mind—positive, negative, positive, negative, mirrored, counting and recounting them, following the fate of a raised waning half-moon to the empty space in a printed D. The dreamy dizziness felt like what art is. Read More »

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