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Language & Literary Criticism: Experiences from Multilingual / Translated Poetic Works

From Silly Linguistics Magazine Issue #1

By Erica Sheeran

A battered copy of Tomas Tranströmer’s The Deleted World is near-always on my kitchen table or beside my bed (unless I’ve decided to introduce the Swedish poet to a friend). The bilingual edition, translated by Robin Robertson, is a constant reminder for me to engage language–particularly my second language, Swedish–from the ubiquitous creativity of poetry form offers at once a means to master use of language, as well as recurrent clues about societal experiences, albeit abstractly. Studying literature, poetry included, offers a written intimacy with language that at once transcends generations while offering new understandings of meaning, vocabulary, and cultural notions perhaps missing or understated in learning materials.

In Robertson’s translation, missed cues from the original text encourage critical evaluation from within the Swedish lexicon. For instance, in the poem En Vinternatt (‘A Winter’s Night’), Tranströmer’s original text discusses a child (neutrally-gendered) watching a storm: ‘Men barnets ögon är stora i mörkret / och stormen den gnyr för barnet’. Robertson takes ‘barnet’, literally ‘the child’, and places an unwarranted gender in the translation: ‘But the child’s eyes are wide in the night / and the storm howls for him’. Why ‘him’? Tranströmer writes that the storm howls for the child, paralleling the child’s awe at nature.

In Swedish, the articles ‘en’ and ‘ett’ signify indefinite and definite (in singular and plural forms), but neither denote genders as one would in Portuguese, for example. If this were an older text, perhaps this would be less of an issue over which to meticulate. Yet, ‘The Deleted World’ was originally published in 2006 with Robertson’s translated work released in the US for the first time in 2011. To this end, either Robertson’s conversations with Tranströmer (noted in the edition’s prologue) or a gap between English and Swedish neutral gendering conventions occured.

Why fuss over tiny details such as this? Poetry in translation, as well as bilingual works, not only open the challenging world of literary critique for language-learners, but offer rich demonstrations for the gaps that translation tries to fill. Moreover, the creativity with which poets use words and phrases familiar to them can entice language-learners to the beauty of polysemy or tightly-crafted wordplay.

Further illustrating these points are poems from Britain’s Warsan Shire (of Somali heritage) and Iranian-American poet Kaveh Akbar. Shire writes, “‘Macaanto girls like you shouldn’t smell / of lonely or empty’”, artfully placing the Somali endearment, meaning ‘sweetness’, before a poem describing in English the ravages of civil war (Ugly). In her poem, the italics serve only as indication of speech, blurring the lines between familiar language and unfamiliar language; an invitation into the blended language usage within a diaspora.

Why ‘macaanto’? Speakers and/ or learners of Somali may have an answer and an understanding deeper than the analysis offered above and from that, may find room for critique or lend to profound discussion. In contrast, Kaveh Akbar’s poem, Do You Speak Persian?, begins with a concrete distinction between English and Persian phrases, along with the power assertion, “I don’t know how to say home/ in my first language, or lonely, or light. / I remember only / delam barat tang shodeh, I miss you, / and shab bekheir, goodnight.”

This terse statement at once interplays the foreignness of English (in italics) and the void that comes from a language out of practice (also italicized). In English, Akbar lays out uncomfort, provides details that point to telephone calls, letters, distance: what happens when language is lost and the difficulty of only these two painful phrases of separation, foreign especially to an English-language audience.

While Tranströmer is not writing from a diaspora, all three works interplay with the missing elements of language within translation and / or combatting for a space with English audiences. The boons of secondary or tertiary (even languages beyond that) are understanding the precise insights that translations or poets are unable to convey…while establishing the ability for critique in from all lingual-cultural perspectives.

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Six Fun Dutch Words

By Michael Simpson

I’ve always enjoyed the weird words in other languages that just make the language feel more unique.  Portmanteaus were my obsession when I was a young teenager (supernerd), and, honestly, I couldn’t get enough.  Nowadays, I’m into phrases that couldn’t quite be translated into English or phrases that express a normally unexpressable emotion behind them.

This month, for whatever reason, though, I am obsessed with Dutch.  That’s right, everyone; in the midst of the Rushin’ to Russian Challenge, my heart starts leaning towards the almighty Dutch juggernaut.

Dutch, the official language of the Netherlands, is really not as hard as other languages in western Europe.  When spoken aloud or read, it feels like German was splattered with English and nobody bothered to correct the mess afterwards.  No offense to Dutch speakers, of course.  First impressions matter.

Yes, it feels like a weird language but weirdness is the spice of life.  Let’s look at five weird Dutch words and what they do for us.

1.  Pinderkaas

What goes well on a sandwich?  Lunch meats?  Slabs of beef?  Here in my special corner of the United States, I prefer the lovely taste of jam… and peanut cheese?

In the late 1800s to early 1900s, butter was only really used for products that actually contained butter, which sadly did not include peanut butter.  There was a mashed peanut variety called ‘pindadokun’ which cut into slices like cheese.  Thus, it was peanut cheese and not peanut butter for the Dutch.

2.   Kapsalon

This means hairdresser but also refers to a French fry snack that has meat, cheese, and vegetables.  It is named after the occupation of the first person who asked for it to be made at a schwarma shop.  “The kapsalon order” was served daily to the kapsalon who ordered it and eventually caught on as a hit.

I would not necessarily recommend eating the kapsalon, however.  It has a very high caloric rating which meakes sense considering the number of fatty ingredients.  One serving can reach up to 1800 kilocalories.  Better loosen that belt!

3.    Ziekenauto

Sometimes words that we hear in a language sound vaguely familiar.  Ziekenauto in Dutch has that familiar ring to it.  Wait a second… is this a… Dutch portmanteau?  I think it is!

A combination of the Dutch words for sick person and car, it’s not just an ill vehicle but an ambulance.  A few images of the vehicle that I saw in my research made the ziekenauto a combination of a hearst and van, though that might just be my own imagination.

4.    Mierenneuker

This one belongs in a special Silly Linguistics: After Dark segment.  This word translates into “someone who is intimate with ants.”  And by intimate… we mean, of course, to have sex with, to do the dirty, to make passionancy.

However, it doesn’t actually mean to do it with ants (as it would be physically impossible) but means someone is very attentive to details.  Wikitionary gives a loose translation of “nitpicker” as well, so it does seem to have a negative connotation.

5.    Brandslang

Let’s play a game.  What’s long, has a mouth and spits water out of it?  Okay, I’ll just give you the answer!  It’s a fire snake!  I can already imagine the confused looks.  The snake is actually putting out the fire not made of, or using fire.

Firefighters in the Netherlands use the brandslang (or water hose) to do their difficult task of fighting off fires.  How often they need to do so, I am unsure, as I can assure you, I did not look up fire statistics in the Netherlands.

6.     Schildpad

Move over, Poliwhirl!  There’s a new water-type Pokemon in town.  He’s green, shielded and a toad?  His speed stat is also incredibly slow and he has no jumping ability?  What kind of toad is this?

Schildpad actually means turtle in Dutch.  Surprised?  I am not!  German is the same way, not having a true word for turtle but instead just using the word for toad.  I wonder if they’d invent a new word if they met a Galapagos turtle?

Dutch is just a fun language to mess around with; I wouldn’t even necessarily call it weirder than other languages but I certainly enjoy reading Dutch words and their translations.

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Language party

From Silly Linguistics Issue #5 October 2018

By Alexandra Gough

The way I see it, French is a bit like the person who organises really sophisticated parties. ‘We put the passé subjonctif là, et the passé simple là…then there’s room for the wine in the middle.’ It’s not an interesting party. Swiss French is in the corner, trying to explain that he isn’t actually French, he just looks like him.

Quebecois French is there but he was only really invited because he was a cousin (French finds him a bit embarrassing), and Belgian and Congolese French and the others are only there to be polite- they’d rather be off with different languages, really, but French made everything Facebook official so they felt a bit awkward about abandoning him. Maghrebin French keeps trying to sneak in through the window and French keeps pushing him out again.

Then, suddenly, English crashes in, six-pack in hand.

‘Alright French?’ He slurs. ‘Wow…you’ve got all the tenses, haven’t you? A place for every word and every word in it’s…yeah, that’s something. But I’ve had this idea…why don’t we leave all this here and go to the pub? We’ve got some vocab from the Normans, and the Anglo Saxons left us some pretty strong verbs, and the Vikings…well, I’m not sure what it is. Think there might be fish in there. Anyway. It’s going to be really fun. Forget the tenses, we’ll just keep past and present and a bunch of modals and busk it the rest of the way.’

‘Well, thanks, English, but I’ve got it all planned out, you know…Latin had a party just like this it once…’

‘Come on, American English is on his way, Singlish and South African English and New Zealand English are meeting us there, and Indian English too. Australian English is bringing a few Aboriginal words along, and Caribbean English is bringing the music…you like Caribbean English, don’t you? All the patois are at another party but they said they’d drop in. They really miss you, you know. And Dutch is only next door.’ Quebecois looks up, alarmed.

‘Is Canadian English going to be there?’

‘Well, yeah. But between me and American English you won’t have to talk to them.’

‘Bah, alors, I had everything planned out-’

‘Come on, what’s the harm?’ French looks around, and realises that the other languages are shifting and twitching, ready to go out and take on the world.

‘Fine. I’ll stay for one Weekend and le shopping. But after that I’m switching to baladeur.’

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Silly Linguistics Issue #71 is now available

Silly Linguistics Trivia #2
By Forest

A Bird’s Eye View
By Trevor Attenberg

Inscripts – Writing as Technology
By Reagan O’Brien

Be!rs: How Taboos Work Their Way into Our Language
By Skylar Millet

Arrival: The Lexicon of Aliens
By Samantha Steyn

Language around Sognefjord in Western Norway: the Aurland dialect and ancient language
By Linden Alexander Pentecost

Get it here https://sillylinguistics.com/download/silly-linguistics-magazine-issue-71-april-2024/

Dispatches from Linguists: Speech Therapy Observation

By Tiffany Marcum

This month’s dispatch comes from Tiffany Marcum, who takes us through her experiences learning how American Sign Language is used.

I found a job that let me use my special skill – American Sign Language! The position was Habilitation Technician and I would work with adults with serious developmental delays. As new employees, they put us through an extensive 2 day brush up on common signs for our patients. Basic needs like a shower, toilet, eat were covered. In the breaks when the instructor left the room, others showed off extra words like bull crap and jackass. I would say that those patients were more non-verbal than deaf or hard of hearing.

As part of a normal shift, we had to do extensive documentation. The individuals usually had therapeutic speech and/or sign goals. One lady relied on sign language as she only knew neurological grunts. Her daily goal was to mimic signs for “eat” and “toilet”. The signs for which are simple. Eat is a hand motion toward your mouth. A toilet is a shaking of the letter “T” (thumb between index finger, fist. This shows the letter “T” swishing, as in toilet.).

“Dorit, do you need to use the bathroom?” (Closed palm, with the thumb sticking between the index and middle finger, with a wrist twist.)

She leaned forward with a grunt of interest. She stretched out her left palm and banged her right fist against it. After the assisted trip, I asked her one more important question.

“Dorit, are you ready to eat dinner?” (All 4 fingers resting on the thumb, pointed at the mouth, resembling eating.)

With another bounce forward, she replied by tapping 4 fingers against her chin. Staff knew that was her way of saying yes and interpreted the language puzzle successfully.

During different parts of my career, I considered foraying into Communication Sciences and Disorders. That would have entailed more school once again and adding a Master of Science to my Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences. Ultimately, I couldn’t bear the rigorous schedule on top of working full time and a fresh student loan.

For my edification, I emailed a local Speech and Language Therapist about an observation opportunity. I wanted to see what they do in the office day-to-day. Thankfully, she replied, and I met her the following morning.

“Welcome! I am thrilled to have you!” she greeted warmly.

“Thank you! I am very interested in the field.” I followed through a calmly lit and silent office.

“This morning, I have a patient coming in for a hearing and language evaluation. She has a concern about hearing loss because of her career as a hairstylist. The many years of loud hairdryers have weighed on her.”

“Oh. Interesting concept! Career induced hearing and speech loss.”

The first patient entered the almost recording style studio and applied specific headphones. Her back was turned to gauge effectiveness. I watched as the Doctor took her stance with a microphone. The Audiologist read a small list of common words with extreme clarity at different volumes. She was to repeat the word as she processed it. If I would have pursued that career, that meant I would’ve needed a serious diction coach for my Appalachian twang. Then, varying tones were then transmitted at different frequencies. We recorded her response of a quick hand raise as “satisfactory”.

I noticed all the interesting material on the walls. Models of the ear, inner ear, and vocal cords. Colorful charts for children with speech disorders. Speech Pathology had come a long way to give individuals their independence back.

“Are you fluent in sign language? I am pretty knowledgeable.”

“I am not fluent. It’s not a necessity in certain programs.

I left the office that day with more knowledge and knowing that my language skill entered the program. I had a notion that I must master ASL before applying. Some people had discouraged my attempts in Speech Pathology. An acquaintance once told me, “I asked my neighbor who is a Speech Pathologist, and she said you would just be cleaning hearing aides all day.” Not the case at this office.

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We here at Silly Linguistics love language and linguistics and want to share it with the world. Have you ever wondered why English spelling was so weird? Have you ever wondered where words come from? Well, in this magazine we cover all this and more. We talk to linguists and ask them all sorts of interesting questions about language. We talk to language lovers and talk to them about their highs and lows of language learning.

We discuss etymology and where words come from. We look at the social impact of words and how words shape the world around us. Languages are fundamentally human and they touch all parts of our lives. We seek to explore how language shapes our lives and the world around us. How do different groups use language and what can that teach us about being human. Discover all this and more in our magazine Silly Linguistics

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The Best of the World’s Untranslatable Words
The Big DON’Ts of Language Learning: Don’t Look for ONE method
Etymology and Cardi B
Shakespeare Said: The Words & Phrases Attributed to William Shakespeare
Mama mia
Reclaiming Scots as slang
“Mum, I Missed the Plane!” and Other Translations of Film Titles
Ancient antagonists: how our ancestors cursed at each other. Part two — the Romans
Occitan misrepresentation: the French identity conundrum
Aussie Lingo 101: Oh Naur! Dipthongs in Australian Vowels
An Etymology of the Holidays
How to read Japanese characters and why it is so hard and interesting at the same time

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