Brat’s end

July 15, 2015

No, I don’t mean Congressman Dave Brat, about whom (or rather about whose name) I wrote last year. Instead, I am referring to an essay I wrote some nine years ago, in which I characterized Greece as “the spoiled brat of Europe.” I wrote:

Examples of what Greece has managed to obtain by throwing tantrums include admission to the European Union despite its non-contiguous location, admission to the Euro zone despite not meeting the stipulated fiscal criteria, and a ban on calling ‘feta’ the common white cheese of the region when it is not made in Greece.

But perhaps the biggest such tantrum has been about the fact that a country to the north of Greece, formerly a part of Yugoslavia (and before that of Serbia), chose, on attaining independence, to call itself the Republic of Macedonia.

But now it seems that Greece’s knack for getting away with spoiled-brat behavior has come to an end. I feel very sorry about the hardships that the people of Greece (whom I prefer to call, as I explain in the cited essay, the Grecian rather than the Greek people) are suffering and will continue to suffer as a result of the constraints imposed upon them by the political and financial authorities of Europe. But it was the Grecians who elected the governments whose irresponsible actions have led to the present situation.

The spoiling of Greece has a long history, going back two centuries. In order to get the major European powers’ help for securing independence from the Ottoman Empire, Greek leaders played two different parts: to Russia they were the embodiment of Eastern Orthodoxy; when addressing the West, they took on the mantle of ancient Greece (and, for the first time in a millennium and a half, began to refer to themselves as Hellenes rather than Romaioi, that is, Romans). This ploy coincided with the tide of Philhellenism that was began to sweep over Western Europe in the late 18th century, making waves in Britain (with Lord Byron a famous disciple), France and especially Germany. King Ludwig I of Bavaria was so enamored of everything Greek that he changed the spelling of his kingdom’s name from Baiern to Bayern because the y made it look more Greek than the i, and offered his younger son Otto as the first king of Greece installed by France, Britain and Russia.

While German Philhellenism, at least in its political form, may have cooled when Otto was overthrown in favor of a Danish prince married to a Russian princess, in France and Britain it continued unabated to the present day, and Greece’s political leaders learned that with enough whining they could get what they wanted, even membership in the very Western EU with which they had little cultural or economic affinity. When this happened, in 1981, Germany — at the time under Social Democratic rule — went along. But since then global capital, with the German financial empire as one of its pillars, has taken over the world. Profligate spending on such trifles as pensions, healthcare and education for the people is behavior that the system will not tolerate. And so the brat is spoiled no more.


June 12, 2015

In my last post, I noted how Google Maps gives  accurate information on public transportation, both local and long-distance, in Spain, Italy and Germany, but fails to do so with regard to train travel in Belgium and France. In Belgium, the information is found readily (and reliably) on the website of Belgian Railways (NMBS/SNCB), in Dutch, English, French and German. In principle it should be the same with French Railways (SNCF), but it didn’t quite work out that way with regard to a trip from Amiens to Paris.

A previous consultation of the website had shown that a train listed as Intercités 2014 was due to leave at 11:05 and arrive at the Gare du Nord at 12:29. This seemed to be an ideal connection, and when we arrived at Amiens on the preceding day the electronic timetable at the station did in fact show that train.

I had thought about getting our tickets for the train right after our arrival from Ghent (with a train change at Lille), but since the ticket office (nowadays called espace de ventes) was to be open till 21:30, we decided to do it later. When we got to the station at 8 in the evening, however, the office was closed; a printed sign on the door said that “for exceptional reasons” (unspecified) they would be closing at 19:30.

We decided to try the automatic ticket machine. The train in question was listed as having only first-class seats available, at a price more than twice of second class, but in any case the machine would not accept our American debit card. Since ticket office would open at 05:50, we could easily postpone the purchase to the morrow.

Meanwhile, checking the SNCF site on my smartphone, I found that the train we wanted was not listed at all  on the reservations page, while the timetable page had it departing at 11:35.

When I got to the station (a short walk from our hotel) the next morning at 7:30, there was as yet no sign of life at the espace de ventes. I asked around, and was told variously that the office would open at 7:45 and 8:00. It was actually opened (reluctantly, it seemed) at 8:15, and I got the second-class tickets I wanted with no problem. The train, though officially an Intercités, was in fact composed of TER Picardie cars, second-class only. I wonder what we would have done with our first-class tickets, had we bought them from the machine!

A check of the SNCF website today shows the train listed, with an 11:20 departure (but still a 12:29 arrival), on both the reservations and timetable pages. Perhaps the slower time when we took it was due to track work, and perhaps the inconsistencies in the electronic information were due to a system malfunction. I have generally had good experiences riding French trains (except during strikes), and I hope that what happened last month (which, in any case, did not affect the travel itself) was a fluke.

Traveling by Google

June 5, 2015

I have just learned, from  this story in the San Francisco Chronicle, that I am one of the 53 percent of Internet map users who rely primarily on Google Maps, and one of the 90 percent who do so primarily on a mobile device. Rarely do I find myself so much a member of a majority.

I was an early user of MapQuest. I flirted for some time with the soon-to-be-discontinued Yahoo Maps. But once Google Maps became established I quickly converted, seduced by the fact that it provides not only driving directions but also ones for walking, bicycling and public transit. I have found the last option especially useful here in the Bay Area, obviating the need to consult separately the various agencies (AC Transit, BART, SF Muni and others). And on a recent trip to Europe which began in Barcelona and continued in Rome and then Cologne (via Ryanair), I got all the necessary bus, metro and suburban-rail connections pretty much right. And the information for continuing our travel from Cologne to Aachen by train was also spot on; GM, obviously linked to Deutsche Bahn, gave both the regional RE trains and the international ICE express trains (which go on to Brussels) at their scheduled times.

But when I was planning the continuation of our voyage from Aachen into Belgium, something strange happened. Had our destination been Brussels, we would of course have taken the ICE which would have whisked us there in a little over an hour. But we had decided that our base would be Ghent, and for the connection from Aachen to Ghent Google Maps gave the following:

12:21 PM–3:52 PM

High speed trainICE Bus214 Bus96 3 h 31 min

12:21 PM from Aachen Hbf

4 min

Schedule explorer
12:21 PM
Aachen Hbf
12:21 PM

Aachen Hbf

ICEICE 16towards Bruxelles-Midi
1 h 5 min (2 stops)
 1:26 PM
 Gare de Bruxelles-Nord


About 2 min
 1:35 PM
 Brussel Noord Perron 2

 Bus214 towards Brussel – Aalst

 1 h 18 min (57 stops) · Stop ID: 300855
 2:53 PM
 Aalst Station Perron 5


About 1 min
2:59 PM

Aalst Station Perron 3

Bus96 towards Aalst – Erpe Vijfhuizen – Oordegem – Melle – Gent
52 min (46 stops) · Stop ID: 204972
 3:51 PM
 Gent St.-Pietersstation Perron 12


 About 1 min , 160 m
 3:52 PM
Station Gent-Sint-Pieters
9000 Gent, Belgium

It seemed very strange that there would be no train from Brussels to Ghent and the trip would have to be done on two buses and take two and a half hours. I then checked on the website of Belgian Railways (SNCB/NMBS) and found out that there are about five such trains every hour, express trains taking half an hour and local trains taking an hour. Why weren’t they shown on Google Maps?

It so happened that the ICE train that we were going to take from Cologne to Aachen, and for which we had the tickets, was canceled a few minutes before departure. We quickly changed platforms to take the slower (and cheaper) regional train, and when we arrived in Aachen we requested (and promptly received) a refund of the difference in fares. When we inquired about going to Ghent, we were informed that, instead of changing trains in Brussels, there was an alternative that was perhaps a little bit slower but, for travelers over 65, considerably cheaper: we could take a local (L) train (operated by Belgian Railways) from Aachen to the nearby Belgian town of Welkenraedt (French-speaking despite the seemingly Germanic name) and there, on the same platform, hop onto one of the hourly express IC trains that run clear across Belgium, from Eupen to Ostend, by way of Liège, Brussels, Ghent and Bruges. The trip from Aachen to Ghent, including the change, takes two and a half hours (ours took longer because the Aachen-Welkenraedt train was late and so the connection was missed).

Now let’s see what Google Maps has to say about this sort of trip. The train from Aachen to Welkenraedt (and vice versa) is covered, because it is code-shared as both a Belgian local train and a German regional (R) train. How about Welkenraedt to Ghent, in reality a direct train taking 2 hours and 11 minutes?

7:42 AM–12:52 PM

TrainR ICE Bus214 Bus94 5 h 10 min

7:42 AM from Gare de Welkenraedt

3 min

Schedule explorer
7:42 AM
Gare de Welkenraedt
4840 Welkenraedt, Belgium
7:42 AM

Gare de Welkenraedt

7:56 AM

RR 5006 towards Aachen Hbf

14 min (2 stops)
8:21 AM

Aachen Hbf

ICEICE 18 towards Bruxelles-Midi

And then it’s the same as the previously given trip from Aachen to Ghent.

For trips within Belgium, such as from Ghent to Bruges, similar combinations of buses run by De Lijn were given. Now it so happens that De Lijn also runs all the local transport in Flanders, so that  information about buses and trams in Ghent was readily available on GM. But for some strange reason GM is not linked to Belgian Railways. I’m sure I’m not the only one aware of this; there are probably a few million frustrated Belgians in this situation. But I have found no reference to it online.

Belgian Railways also operates several trains a day going from Antwerp to Lille (in France) and stopping at Ghent; the trip from Ghent to Lille is about an hour and a quarter. For the Google Maps result, let the map speak for itself.

Gent Sint-Pietersstation, Ghent, Belgium to Gare de Lille-Flandres - Google MapsLille, however, was not our final destination on that day; it was Amiens. But when I queried Google Maps about the trip, I got the following reply:

     Sorry, your search appears to be outside our current coverage area for transit.

It was the same for traveling from Amiens to Paris. Obviously, then, SNCF (the French railway system) is not linked with Google Maps, either. (SNCF’s online presence, however, isn’t all that great; I’ll write about that another time.)

Google Maps does, on the other hand, give information about local transit in Paris, including buses, metro and RER (suburban rail). But something strange happened when I tried to find the schedule of trains on the well-known  (see Wikipedia, for example) RER line B to Charles de Gaulle Airport, a trip taking about 35 minutes. When I entered “Paris Nord, France” as the origin and “Aéroport Charles de Gaulle 2 – TGV, France” as the destination, I got several options, and one of them did in fact involve RER B. But rather than the northbound train going directly to the airport, GM had me take the southbound:

9:28 AM
 Gare du Nord
 TrainRER B towards Cité Universitaire
 11 min (5 stops)
 9:39 AM
About 2 min
 9:43 AM
 Subway6 towards Nation
 10 min (8 stops)
 9:53 AM
 About 4 min
 10:00 AM
 Gare Paris-Bercy
 BusiDBUS towards Bruxelles
 45 min (non-stop) ·
 10:45 AM
 Paris aéroport Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle Roissypôle
About 18 min , 1.1 km
 11:03 AM
Aéroport Charles de Gaulle 2 – TGV

This is even more puzzling: since RATP (the Paris transit network, including RER) is in the  Google Maps system, why isn’t the airport line there?

More on KJV

May 6, 2015

I wrote in a recent post that I have more critical things to say about the King James Version.

What most bothers me about it – and I am talking mainly about the Old Testament – is the clumsy stiffness and uniformity of its style, altogether foreign to the great variety of styles, ranging from the sublimely poetic to the colloquially prosaic, found in the original. This feature – acknowledged even by a KJV fan like Harold Bloom – is quite understandable from the translators’ point of view: they were churchmen, and what they saw themselves as translating was not literature but the Word of God.

My pet peeve has to do with the translators’ treatment of the present participle, and even more particularly a specific case of it. To explain what I mean I have to go through a little – or perhaps not so little – discussion of grammar.

Hebrew (like Arabic, as discussed here) has, technically, no present tense; it is what is known as a zero-copula language, so that the equivalent of “me Tarzan, you Jane” (or, more literally, “I Tarzan, you Jane”) would be grammatical in it. Instead of the present tense, then, it uses the present participle, so that “I go” is אני הולך  (ăni hōlēkh – I’m using a sort of scholarly transliteration, not that of modern Hebrew), literally “I am going”. Now the present participle, in virtually all languages that have it, functions as an adjective, but in those languages in which adjectives are inflected for number (and possibly for gender) – which include Hebrew and many European languages, but not English – an adjective can be used as a noun meaning a person or thing having the attribute indicated by the adjective. For example, English nouns such as belle and blonde are borrowings from French, in which they are originally the feminine singular adjectives meaning ‘beautiful’ and ‘fair-haired’, respectively, but can be automatically turned into nouns.

In English adjectives, because they are uninflected, can be nominalized only to a limited degree. Some adjectives describing people, when preceded by the, can be used in the plural only to the note the mass of people having the given attribute: the rich, the dead, the homeless… Occasionally, in specialized jargon, an adjective may become a noun if the noun following it is omitted, such temporary (filling, in dentistry) or attending (physician, in a hospital), but that’s about all.

It so happens that attending is a present participle, but generally turning a present participle into a noun, even in the limited way discussed above, is even more problematic, because the same –ing ending that forms the present participle also forms the gerund and the verbal noun. Consider the difference in meaning between the questions “What does an undertaker do for a living?” and “What does an undertaker do for the living?”

In those languages in which adjectives readily become nouns, present participles are often used as one way of creating actor nouns, that is, nouns meaning persons or things performing the action indicated by the verb. English is full of such nouns borrowed from those languages, especially from Latin: president (praesidens ‘presiding’), regent (regens ‘ruling’), secant (secans ‘cutting’), tangent (tangens ‘touching’) and hundreds of others. There is also commandant from French (‘commanding’), phenomenon from Greek (φαινόμενον ‘appearing’). While these languages have other ways of forming actor nouns, the present-participle form sometimes is used to distinguish meanings: in French imprimeur is a printer (person) while imprimante is a printer (machine); in Spanish viajero means traveler in general while viajante means specifically a traveling salesman.

Hebrew, too, has various ways of forming actor nouns. For example, melekh ‘king’ comes from mālakh (‘to reign’), and gannābh ‘thief’ (leading via Yiddish to the English ganef or gonif) from gānabh (‘to steal’). But the past-participle way is by far the most common one, in both classical and modern Hebrew, in the same way that the suffix –er is the most common one English. For example, the usual word for ‘enemy’ is sōnē, which is the present participle of sānē ‘to hate’. In Exodus 23:5, for example, the Septuagint (compiled at a time when Hebrew was still a living language) renders sōnē as the noun ἐχθρός ‘enemy’. On the other hand the Vulgate (written long after Hebrew had died out) chooses to interpret it as the present participle odiens ‘hating’. But it is still used as a noun, and a reasonable translation into English would be hater. (A similar thing happens in Deuteronomy 7:10, though there the Septuagint has something more like ‘hater’.) This is not, however, what English translators, from Wycliffe on, choose to do. Since they cannot use hating directly, they write him that hateth.

There a great many cases like this: him that remaineth for ‘survivor’; him that smiteth (or smote) for ‘smiter’ or ‘killer’. But my favorite is the translation of maštīn baqqīr (‘pissing on the wall’) as (him, one or any) that pisseth against the wall.

Modern translations usually render this phrase as male, and that is in fact the meaning. It occurs six times, always in narratives from the time of the kingdoms and in the context of actual or threatened extermination. In my opinion it was, in all likelihood, soldier slang. It cries for a pithy, slangy translation rather than a churchy one. Shakespeare would probably have written it as wall-pisser, on a par with ratcatcher (Romeo and Juliet) or idiot-worshipper (Troilus and Cressida). Can you imagine Mercutio saying “Tybalt, thou that catchest rats”? Or Thersites “idol of them that worship idiots”? Not me.

Hate crime

April 28, 2015

I have always had a hard time understanding the concept of “hate crimes.” I fail to see what makes a hate-driven crime more grievous than one motivated by greed, lust, anger or any other “bad” emotion, or, for that matter, a crime performed in cold blood.

I think I can honestly say that in my relatively long life (I am a week short of eighty years old) I have truly and deeply hated only one person: Adolf Hitler. If by some chance I or some like-minded person had managed to kill Hitler, then that would have been a hate crime. For that matter, most if not all of the many attempted and successful tyrannicides in history, when performed by oppressed people, would qualify as hate crimes. And yet their perpetrators are usually celebrated as heroes.

Recently, someone painted a crude swastika on the door of the ΣAE fraternity house at Stanford University and, as Nanette Asimov of the San Francisco Chronicle reports, “[s]omeone painted swastikas and a pentagram on the Stanford University campus over the weekend in what university officials are calling a hate crime.” Here is a picture of the crime:

swastikaAs is known to many people, the swastika is a decorative symbol that appears in many cultures. But as should also be known, the Nazi swastika has the peculiar property of having its arms at 45º to the horizontal and vertical, not parallel to them. Having lived under Nazi occupation as a child for almost six years, I can assure you that the swastika in the picture above (which Asimov’s article erronously calls a “Nazi symbol”) does not in the least make me think of the one below:

naziGiven the recent racist history of  ΣAE, the swastika may be some sort of twisted comment about that, and have nothing to do with the fact that the Stanford chapter, supposedly, has a large proportion of Jewish members. Moreover, a swastika was also found on the Casa Italiana, and along with it a pentagram, whatever it may mean; no picture was shown.

My suggestion: let’s stop calling “hate crime” whatever offends somebody or other’s delicate sensibilities, and let’s treat vandalism for what it is.


Prunus and Pronto

April 20, 2015

Discussion of the California drought is not limited to California anymore. One topic that gets a lot attention (even a segment on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) is almonds and their supposedly inordinate consumption of water.

I love almonds. I east a handful of them (unsalted dry-roasted) almost every day. I love them almost as much as peaches, which are, as far as I can think about it, my favorite food of all. And guess what! The almond tree (Prunus dulcis) and the peach tree (P. persica) do not only belong to the same genus, but the same subgenus Amygdalus. I am not a dendrologist, or a biologist of any sort, but to me it seems unreasonable that two tree species of the same genus or subgenus would have drastically different water requirements. But I haven’t heard any complaints about peaches or plums or apricots or cherries.

At any rate, I am willing to sacrifice some of my own water use if my doing so will help keep the Prunus crops growing. I know it’s unlikely, but there’s always the categorical imperative.

One of the ways in which I can save a little water is, since I am also a big eater of pasta, by using a new product from Barilla called Pronto. It’s a pasta made not just with wheat flour but also with semolina, and it consequently absorbs its cooking water, like rice or couscous. To cook 6 ounces (175 g) of pasta requires only 1½ cups (360 ml) of water, instead of the several liters for conventional pasta, and none of the water is wasted. And since you start with cold water, time is saved as well. Since to me pasta is pasta (I don’t care if it’s fresh or dried), the result is completely satisfactory. Bravo Pronto!

KJV and ST

April 18, 2015

Wolf Hall, the BBC series, is currently airing on PBS in the United States. I have already read its namesake novel and the latter’s sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, and the TV series is reinforcing two strong reactions that the books provoked in me.

One is the use of language. Perhaps because it is heard and not merely read, the utter modernity of the characters’ English speech is even more striking on TV. I find it somewhat alienating, because it is so at odds with the costumes and setting and habits. It’s almost as if I expect Thomas Cromwell to pull out a mobile phone in order to check in with Henry VIII. What also struck me in the books, though it hasn’t done so yet on TV, is that when a character quotes the Bible he does so in the language of the King James Version, or perhaps that of Tyndale (the main basis of the KJV). In historical reality this is precisely the language in which they would have been conversing, while they would be quoting the Bible in Latin. Tyndale’s translation — written in the common language of his day — was just then being published, and owning it was forbidden. Those familiar with the Bible would know it only in Latin. And while Wolf Hall does not shrink from Latin speech by the characters, such speech does not include biblical quotations.

The King James Version is, in fact, not written in the English of King James (the First of England and Sixth of Scotland) but in that of James’s great-granduncle, Henry VIII. But once the Reformation took hold, the Tyndale translations became the basis of all the later English Bibles, and English and Scottish Protestants accepted its language — which is also that of the Book of Common Prayer — to be appropriately Biblical, including features that were pretty much obsolete in English by the early 17th century; for example, the use of “yes” or “no” only in response to questions in the negative, while questions in the affirmative were to be answered “yea” or “nay”; for another example, the use of “thou” as the singular second-person subject pronoun used between people of equal rank (except on the lowest rungs of the social scale, as still used — in the form tha — in rural Yorkshire). (“You” occurs once, in the Book of Ruth, and it was probably a slip that wasn’t caught.) I have a lot more to say about the linguistic infelicities of the KJV, and I will do so at some length in a later post.

My other reaction is to the portrayal of Thomas More as a highly unsympathetic character. I have no problem with such a characterization per se, nor with his being made a saint by the Catholic Church. The Church’s criteria for sainthood are its own, and concern mainly the person’s significance to its agenda. John of Capistrano, as I have written here, was one of history’s great Jew-haters. No, what bothers me is the fact that in British crosswords of the cryptic variety, of which I have recently become an addict,the clue “good man” is often used to refer to the letters ST. This is not the only such clue; since “St.” can also be the abbreviation of “street”, possible clues are also “street”, “way” or “road”. And we often say “he is a saint” as a way of saying that he is a very good man, but in that case we don’t (except jokingly) abbreviate “saint” as “St.” My point is that ST does not by itself denote a good man (or woman). Some saints have been good, some have been evil, and some in between, while what has historically been the most prominent qualification for sainthood, martyrdom, is neither good nor evil by itself. In fact, a simple acceptance of the fact that both good and evil are inherent in human nature — and on a continuum, not in a dualistic way, sometimes in the same person — obviates many a needless philosophical dilemma. When pro-religion advocates point to the many good things that people have done motivated by their faith, one need only respond by pointing  to the many evil things done with the same motivation as well as to the good things done out of innate altruism.

And so, when I write the letters S and T in their appropriate squares referenced by a clue that contains “good man”, I hope that the gnashing of my teeth reaches the setter’s ears.

House style

April 7, 2015

Last week’s issue of The New Yorker carried an article titled “The System,” by Adam Kirsch, about the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. It ran under the Books rubric because it purported to be a review — but was in fact an uncritical summary, devoid of comparison with other sources — of a book titled KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann, a young German-English academic who is a professor at Birckbeck, University of London, specializing in studying the Nazi legal system. Now, KL — an abbreviation of Konzentrationslager — is the abbreviation designating ‘concentration camp’ that is most commonly found in the documents of the Nazi bureaucracy, but to all non-bureaucrats who were there — whether as inmates or as guards — the universally used abbreviation was KZ, sometimes spelled out phonetically as Kazett (pronounced kah-TSETT). I haven’t read Wachsmann’s book, and perhaps the point of view that he wants to give is precisely that of the administrators, though no such aspect comes through in the “review.”

In fact, Kirsch persistently uses the abbreviation KL when referring to concentration camps in his article, or at least probably did so in the version that he submitted. In the printed version the abbreviation appears as K.L., with periods, just as SS appears as S.S. This is because the New Yorker’s house style dictates that abbreviations which are not acronyms (such as NATO) carry periods: N.G.O. not NGO, and so on. This sort of makes sense if the abbreviation consists of the initials of individual words. But this is not the case in German, in which the abbreviated words are single compound nouns (SS, similarly, stands for Schutzstaffel). In fact, it would be a reasonable rule that an abbreviation that is borrowed from another language should be left as is. But the New Yorker’s tyrannical and famously quirky house style allows no deviation.

[I should add here, for the sake of honest reporting, that in some typed documents from concentration-camp administrations the abbreviation does appear as K. L., as seen below; but this comes from an office (Häftlingsschreibstube) manned by inmates, not necessarily German, and is not standard German practice.Transportlisten]

One of the joys of being self-published is the freedom from adhering to a publisher’s house style. I enjoy this freedom in this blog and in my novels published on Amazon Kindle. And when my book Plasticity Theory was reissued by Dover Publications, it was my own PDF of the book that was printed, since Dover, being a reprint specialist, has no house style of its own. It was a very different matter when dealing with a first-tier publisher for a mechanics textbook that I recently wrote with a colleague. While the copy-editors nominally consulted us about some changes, they made a great many more without any such consultation, and the book as it came out was in many ways (though, I hope, not in its substance) a disaster. We were able to persuade the publisher to issue a second edition, in which we took care to make everything conform to house style as much as possible. Our contract for the new edition has just been approved, and all I can do now is hope for the best.

More calf to the board

April 5, 2015

I wrote a post the other day about word-for-word mistranslations of the titles of some novels by Mario Vargas Llosa. I didn’t mean to limit myself to MVL, but I ran out of time. So I would like to add a few more.

Let me start with a very famous one: Gabriel García Márquez’ Cien años de soledad, known in English as One Hundred Years of Solitude.

OK, cien does mean ‘one hundred’ or ‘a hundred’. But Latin cultures don’t treat numbers as precisely as Germanic ones. The Spanish Golden Age is known in Spanish as el Siglo de Oro, which, as the Wikipedia article makes clear, “does not imply precise dates and is usually considered to have lasted longer than an actual century.” In a famous bolero titled Cien años, the singer declares “y si vivo cien años, cien años pienso en ti” (‘if I live a hundred years, for a hundred years I will think of you’) without ever implying that exactly 100 years are meant, only a long time. On the other hand, in English ‘one hundred’ sounds even more precise than ‘a hundred’, which allows a little slack in popular usage.

And soledad does mean ‘solitude'; it also means ‘loneliness’. In English these are very different states, the former being one of dejection and the latter one of freedom. It would seem clear from reading the book that GGM’s soledad as a characteristic of the Buendía family is loneliness, accompanied by sadness.

And so, what would be a good translation of the title? In the 1955 song Unchained Melody there appears the line “A long, lonely time”. I think this would convey the intended meaning perfectly.

Of course, the mother of “calf to the board” translations is the title under which François Truffaut’s film Les Quatre Cents Coups released in English: The 400 Blows. This word-for-word mistranslation has been discussed for a long time (as in Wikipedia), but I would like to add that one possible clue to the origin of the idiom “faire les quatre cents coups” is precisely the fact that the word coup has a great many meanings besides ‘blow’, especially in the form coup de followed by another noun, and that quatre (like Spanish cuatro or Italian quattro) doesn’t always mean ‘four’ but can mean ‘a few’, and so quatre cents means ‘a few hundred’, that is, a lot; and so faire les quatre cents coups means doing a lot of the things that can be called coup.

And as long as we’re at the movies, let me bring up a retitling that is a non-translation: Carlos Saura’s Cría cuervos was released in the US as Cria! Now, this word means absolutely nothing in English, and it can’t possibly be a Spanish word, because in Spanish an exclamation mark after a word or phrase requires an upside-down one before it. The Spanish word cría, with an acute accent on the i, as a noun means ‘litter’ or ‘baby animal'; but in the title it’s the singular imperative of the verb criar meaning ‘raise’, ‘rear’, ‘bring up’ or the like. Cría cuervos means ‘Raise ravens’ (the title under which the film was released in the UK), and just as to someone who knows French “les quatre cents coups” brings to mind the full phrase “faire les quatre cents coups“, so to someone who knows Spanish (as explained here) it is an anapodoton for the saying Cría cuervos y te sacarán los ojos.

Calf to the board

April 2, 2015

Not quite by coincidence, I recently read Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel, El héroe discreto, just as the English version was coming out amid critical hoopla. The title of the translation is, unsurprisingly, The Discreet Hero. A literal translation, to be sure. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

Well, yes and no. I have done some translating in my life, and I have always believed that the title should bear, more or less, the same relationship to the content in translation that it does in the original. Does it, in this case?

I would guess that the English-speaking reader, on seeing a novel titled The Discreet Hero, would assume that it’s about a character who in some way — perhaps ironically — embodies the two qualities named in the title. But in fact this novel is about three such characters. The reader would then wonder: which one of them is the discreet hero? Don Felícito, Don Rigoberto, or Don Ismael?

What about the reader of the original? Well, someone familiar with Spanish literature would know that the title is a conflation of two classic titles from the Spanish Baroque, El Héroe and El Discreto by Baltazar Gracián. The former (1637, The Hero) is “a criticism of Machiavelli, drawing a portrait of the ideal Christian leader”, while the latter (1646, The Complete Gentleman) “described the qualities which make the sophisticated man of the world” (descriptions from Wikipedia). Neither embodies what we nowadays think of a heroism or discretion, but then Gracián was known for his highly idiosyncratic way with words, and in any case what matters is the titles, not the content. Probably not that many people nowadays have read the books, but it’s generally known that they are didactic treatises of a “how-to” variety.

By basing the title of his novel on these classic titles, Vargas Llosa lets us know that he has written a didactic novel, showing us by means of three entertaining examples that one can be brave without being reckless and discrete without being timid. If I had been the translator I would have tried to make the title reflect this. Perhaps How to Be [or Being or On Being] a Discreet Hero, or Discreet Heroes, or maybe, à la Jane Austen, Heroism and Discretion.

Word-for-word translations that don’t convey the intended meaning are famous from the world of menus (for example here). My favorite, which I encountered in Spain in the 1980s, is “Calf to the board” as a translation of ternera a la plancha (which means grilled veal or beef). But they are not what one would expect in the world of literature.

Let’s look at another Vargas Llosa novel, La Fiesta del Chivo, tiled The Feast of the Goat in English. If you scan the title word by word, la does indeed mean ‘the'; fiesta may be translated as ‘feast’ (though in a very limited sense); del means ‘of the'; and chivo means ‘goat’, though also in a limited sense. ‘Goat’ as the name of a species, with no reference to gender, is cabra, and chivo means very specifically a billy-goat. Note that the word is capitalized in the title, implying that it’s used as though it were a proper noun, and El Chivo was in fact one of the nicknames given to Rafael Trujillo (around whom the novel revolves) on account of his notorious randiness. ‘The Billy-goat’ would have been an adequate translation, since “as horny as a billy-goat” is a common English expression. But just plain ‘goat’? No way.

How about fiesta, then? It can, of course, mean ‘feast’ in the sense of a periodic religious holiday, but not in the sense (far more common in English) of a large and sumptuous meal. The title The Feast of the Goat would, I believe, evoke a banquet at which goat is served, or perhaps a religious ritual at which a goat is worshiped or sacrificed.

Needless to say, the book is about none of the above. It’s about a party (by far the most current meaning of fiesta) that is supposed given by the Billy-goat and to which the novel’s female protagonist is invited, except that she turns out to be the only guest and is duly raped by the dictator. The Billy-Goat’s Party would have perfectly conveyed the meaning of the title in relation to the book.

But then there is the case of another Vargas Llosa title that was not translated literally, and should have been. La tía Julia y el escribidor was rendered as Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Now, escribidor means ‘scribbler’ or whatever other word one might use for a bad writer. ‘Scriptwriter’ sounds like someone who might be a bigwig in Hollywood or on television, but in this book the character writes silly scripts (yes) for a provincial radio station.

Then there is the mystery, which I’ve never solved, of why Vargas Llosa’s first novel, La ciudad y los perros (‘The City and the Dogs’), was published in English as The Time of the Hero. Perhaps, the book being by a heretofore unknown author, the translator felt freer  But then I never actually read the book.


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