How dialects from Trinidad to Hawaii are expanding the limits of English

Here’s a post from Nina Porzucki.

There are probably as many terms for different kinds of English vernacular as there are vernaculars themselves: pidgin, patois, slang, creole dialect and so on.

But while we usually think of the vernaculars as oral versions of the English language, they’re making their way into the written word as well.

“There’s a really interesting paradox going on, where you’re taking something that’s constantly changing — and that people don’t expect to see written down — and you’re making it codified and setting it down for a wider audience,” says Dohra Ahmad, editor of an anthology of vernacular literature called Rotten English.

M. NourbeSe Philip (pictured above) is one of the authors included in the anthology. She speaks and writes Trinidadian Creole but points out that the process of getting the language on the page is much the same as writing in Standard English.

“You can’t write it exactly as the person speaks it,” she says. “You have to put it through a certain process that conveys the impression that it is being said in the dialect.”

She writes both in dialect and in standard English, with her characters switching back and forth between the Englishes.

“As people from the Caribbean, we inhabit a spectrum of language, and you actually hear it when you go into the cultures,” Philp says. “You can hear somebody code-switching. You might start off saying something in Standard English and midway switch into the dialect or the vernacular.”

Code-switching between patois and standard English can be traced back centuries, to when English and other European languages were brought to the Caribbean, Philip says. But it hasn’t always gotten the respect its pedigree deserves.

“When I grew up [the vernacular] was called ‘bad English,’” she remembers.

Philip wants to be able to use all the resources of the language. “I think young people need to know that when they go for jobs and so on that they have to be able to articulate in a certain way, the Standard English,” she says, arguing they should also be taught to appreciate the vernacular.

“There’s so much energy in it, there’s so much life in it,” Philip says. “If you really can work it on the page, I think it’s incredibly vibrant.”

People often asked who has the right to use a particular vernacular, but Philip is quick to dismiss the question of rules.

“Let’s take the Caribbean: you have Europeans, you have South Asians, you have Africans — people from all backgrounds,” she says. “If they grow up speaking the language and being in touch with the language and can use it, then the reviewer or the people reading [the work] to assess it can’t say, ‘This doesn’t work. This doesn’t seem authentic.’”

The phrase ‘Wha gwan’ (whaa gwaan) means ‘what’s going on’ in Jamaican Patois. The spelling varies but the meaning does not change. (Photo: id-iom)

The phrase ‘Wha gwan’ (whaa gwaan) means ‘what’s going on’ in Jamaican Patois. The spelling varies but the meaning does not change. (Photo: id-iom)

Philip also says being proficient and authentic has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin or origins. She remembers watching a white Canadian comedian in Toronto do a set in Jamaican patois. It was a language that he had picked up from living in a largely Jamaican neighborhood.

“He picked up patois and he had us in stitches,” she says. “He had the intonation and he had it down and that was fine.”

While there may not be rules as to who can write or speak or joke in the vernacular, the language is part of people’s cultural heritage. Jamaican patois, for example, is a rich resource and part of the Jamaican culture. “I wouldn’t say it belongs to them, I’d say they own it,” Philip says.

“And remember, I have to say that this is a legacy that comes from a deep historical trauma of people not being allowed to use their own languages and then weren’t being taught the best way to use those European languages,” Philip says. “I think it’s a marvelous resource that those ancestors were able to wrest out of something that was so tragic.”


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Is there such thing as an untranslatable word?

Photo illustration by Augie Schwer/Flickr

Photo illustration by Augie Schwer/Flickr

Here’s a post from Nina Porzucki.

Quick — what does the French word “chouette” mean?

If you flipped open the dictionary and took a look, you’d say it means a type of owl, and it literally does. But the French use it much more frequently to describe something that is cute, neat, nice or friendly — or even terrific or fantastic.

It all depends on the moment, and that means the French will probably know what someone meant when he said “chouette” way before you did. That’s why you might call the word untranslatable.

Or is it? Is anything really untranslatable? Michael Wood doesn’t think so.

Courtesy Princeton University Press

Courtesy Princeton University Press

“[Untranslatable] is a very contested term,” Wood said, “But there’s one thing to be clear about: nothing is untranslatable.”

Wood is a professor of English at Princeton, and, more importantly for this discussion, he’s one of the editors of the Dictionary of Untranslatables.

Translation is not an art of perfection, Wood said — it’s not copying. Translating just means rendering something in one language that began in another language. There’s always some way to do that.

“But there is a sense, with many words, that when you’ve translated them, you just feel you haven’t done the job even when you’ve done the best job you could,” Wood said.

So untranslatable, according to Wood, doesn’t mean you can’t make someone understand a word in another language at all. It’s rather that nagging feeling that you’re missing something interesting when you try to explain its meaning.

Appropriately enough, the editor of the dictionary’s French version, Barbara Cassin, has a different way to describe “untranslatable:” A word with so much nuance, so many meanings, that you can’t stop translating it in your efforts to get it just right.

Wood uses “fair” as an example of an “untranslatable” English word: “’Fair’ and ‘fairness’ is pretty much untranslatable. There’s no equivalent in German, Spanish, French or any language that I know.”

A French philosopher did take a stab at it in the dictionary, but sure enough… “She sort of thinks of being fair is just getting things right and doing things by the book,” Wood said, “whereas my idea is that sometimes, to be fair, you’d have to not do things by the book. It’s not just equality or justice, it seems to me to be something a little more mysterious and intuitive.”

The Dictionary of Untranslatables was itself written in French before being translated into many languages — and then finally English.

“The French book was written, in a way, against English. It was meant to defend the multiplicity of European languages against the invasion of Global English taking over the whole world,” Wood explained. “There was an interesting paradox in putting the thing into English, when in fact English was the thing that it didn’t want to be.”

The question of untranslatability isn’t just academic, Wood adds. Deeming certain words and concepts from certain cultures as “untranslatable” runs the risk of stereotyping these cultures and the people who speak those languages.

“The danger is that, at some point, the specificity will be some kind of essence, some stereotype — that every French person will be impeccably French, and every Englishman impeccably English,” Wood said.

Wood’s favorite word from the dictionary is the Spanish term “desengaño,” which roughly translated into English means to be disenchanted or disillusioned. The French have a similar term: “illusion.”

“English speakers are such pragmatic folks that to be ‘disillusioned’ is to be deprived of your illusions — and [that's] a good thing, too, because now you know the truth,” Wood said. But while the the basic meaning of the word can be easily translated into English, the terms have much deeper significance in Spanish and French

“In every Romance language, the notion of being undeceived also means ‘disappointment,’ as if you didn’t really want to be undeceived,” Wood explains.

A perfect example is the title of Honoré de Balzac’s novel, “Illusions Perdues,” or “Lost Illusions” in English. “You would think that a title like ‘Lost Illusions’ would mean ‘OK, good, now we’ve wised up,’” Wood said. “But, actually, that title is full of regret. It’s as if we wanted to keep our illusions.”

“Illusion” and more than 400 other terms from around the world are detailed in the Dictionary of Untranslatables.

“Find a word you’re interested in and track out the word,” Wood said, “like a maze, like a labyrinth, follow the signs and maybe you’ll come out — and maybe you’ll be lost in there forever.”


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Russian curses are inventive, widely-used — and banned

The Russian film "Da i Da" ("Yes and Yes") directed by Valeria Gai Germanika (Screenshot: Art Pictures and VVP Alliance)

The Russian film “Da i Da” (“Yes and Yes”) directed by Valeria Gai Germanika (Screenshot: Art Pictures and VVP Alliance)


Here’s a post from New York-based writer Alina Simone.

The thing non-Russian speakers don’t really understand about Russian curses, or mat, is that we’re not just talking about your favorite one-syllable curse words here — mat is an entire language unto itself.

Take the word “desk.” Not much you can do with it in English, right? But in Russian, I can “desk” something. I can get super desky and deskify it. I can be the deskiest! Because unlike English, Russian has hundreds of suffixes and prefixes.

“As a result,” University of Chicago linguist Yar Gorbachov tells me, “you could have a whole dictionary filled up with mat words.”

There are actual dictionaries filled with mat words. Paradoxically, the hot-rodded words formed from the four obscene roots (I’ll let you guess what those are…) often turn out not to mean anything obscene at all.

“That makes your speech colorful,” Gorbachov explains. “You know, instead of using a regular word for walking, or wondering or beating up, you would use the mat analog of that.”

Poster for English version of Da i Da (Art Pictures and VVP Alliance)

Poster for English version of Da i Da (Art Pictures and VVP Alliance)


The closest analogy to mat I can come up with is freestyle rap. It’s poetic, profane and often hilarious, its degree can be ranked, just like five-alarm chili. And though the government might believe it is somehow sanitizing the language by prohibiting its public use, mat is also deeply, deeply Russian.

There is a misconception widely shared in Russia, that mat was smuggled into the language by the Mongols and others who occupied Russia in the 13th century. Gorbachov insists that just isn’t true. “There is nothing Turkic or Mongolic about those roots. They’re perfectly Slavic and the whole phenomenon has nothing to do with Mongol occupation. The Russians have used mat words before and after Mongol occupation,” he adds. “And we have references in medieval literature and in private letters to mat.”

Not only is mat just as Russian as borscht or Putin, it is also the lingua franca of certain subcultures. The patois of criminals, sure, but also artists, musicians, intellectuals — your typical alienated and disenfranchised types. These are the groups featured in the film Da i Da (Yes and Yes), one of the first cultural casualties of the new obscenity ban.

Da i Da was directed by Valeria Gai Germanika, a young, edgy filmmaker who has also become a mainstream success, helming popular TV dramas and even serving as the head of MTV Russia. In other words, my Russian mom and I are both fans.

"Da i Da" director Valeria Gai Germanika (Photo: Egor Vasilyev via Flickr)

“Da i Da” director Valeria Gai Germanika (Photo: Egor Vasilyev via Flickr)

In June, Germanika won “best director” at the Moscow International Film Festival for Da i Da, which she describes as a story of complicated love. But three days after it debuted, the film was yanked from theaters when the ban on mat went into effect.

Germanika explained at a press conference that Da i Da ended up packed with swear words, simply because she allowed the actors to improvise their dialog. Misha Antipov, one of the actors in the film, agrees that Da i Da is simply holding up a mirror to what some may perceive as uncomfortable truths. The film is really honest and true to life, he tells me; there are a ton of people in Russia who speak just like this.

Misha explains that when the film was yanked, people were really upset, offering to sit on the floors during its few packed screenings. They said, “Can’t you just beep out the mat when people are talking?” But there’s so much mat in the film, he tells me, you may as well just reduce the dialog to “blah, blah, blah.”

Misha thinks the ban on mat will prompt the return of the Soviet dual persona. In the Soviet times, he explains, people had their official poker face, turned toward the government and their public duties, but in private, it was “anything goes.” The thing is that now, when you force the outsiders out — they don’t just go inside, they go online.

Jeff Parker, author of Where Bears Roam the Streets, a travel memoir that describes his attempt to “go native” in Russia, in part by trying to learn mat, began noticing an uptick in mat — concealed behind dashes and asterisks — in online posts soon after the law was passed.

“You know the effect of the ban essentially sort of puts it on everyone’s mind,” he tells me. “Everyone starts thinking about it. And in a way sort of serves to normalize the idea.”

If the Internet is acting as a pressure valve for Russian speakers jonesing for a mat fix, that may explain the popularity of a new song you won’t find on the Russian version of YouTube, or mentioned on Russian Wikipedia, but it’s all over the Internet in the West. The song contains only two words. One is “Putin.” One is … not appropriate for a family friendly setting. Let’s call it “Putin Sucks.” This amateur sing-along featuring a group of middle-aged Russians has more than 400,000 plays.

Putin Sucks hasn’t just gone viral, it’s gone interstellar. Some people recently adopted a star under the song’s name. So much for banning mat.

While lovers of niche art films don’t often get their way in Putin’s Russia, in this case it looks like the legislature might just blink — or at least squint. A new amendment has been proposed that wouldn’t repeal the ban on mat, but would at least allow films like Germanika’s to play at national film festivals without censorship.

Meanwhile, Germanika has declared she won’t be beeping out the swears in her film so it can play in Russian theaters. Instead she’s just going to just sell Da i Da on the Internet, so that anyone who wants can see it. And more importantly — can hear it.


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How did English become the language of science?

The Fifth Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Photons, 1927. Hendrik Lorentz, Leiden University, seated between Madame Curie and Einstein, chaired the conference. (Photo: iharsten via Flickr)

The Fifth Solvay International Conference on Electrons and Photons, 1927. Hendrik Lorentz, Leiden University, seated between Madame Curie and Einstein, chaired the conference. (Photo: iharsten via Flickr)

Here’s a post from Nina Porzucki.

Permafrost, oxygen, hydrogen — it all looks like science to me.

But these terms actually have origins in Russian, Greek and French.

Today though, if a scientist is going to coin a new term, it’s most likely in English. And if they are going to publish a new discovery, it is most definitely in English.

Look no further than the Nobel prize awarded for physiology and medicine to Norwegian couple May-Britt and Edvard Moser. Their research was written and published in English. This was not always so.

“If you look around the world in 1900, and someone told you, ‘Guess what the universal language of science will be in the year 2000?’ You would first of all laugh at them because it was obvious that no one language would be the language of science, but a mixture of French, German and English would be the right answer,” said Michael Gordin.

Gordin is a professor of the history of science at Princeton and his upcoming book, Scientific Babel, explores the history of language and science.

Gordin says that English was far from the dominant scientific language in 1900. The dominant language was German.

“So the story of the 20th century is not so much the rise of English as the serial collapse of German as the up-and-coming language of scientific communication,” Gordin said.

You may think of Latin as the dominant language of science. And for many, many years it was the universal means of communication in Western Europe — from the late medieval period to the mid-17th century, and then it began to fracture. Latin became one of many languages in which science was done.

The first person to publish extensively in his native language, according to Gordin, was Galileo. Galileo wrote in Italian and was then translated to Latin so that more scientists might read his work.

Fast forward back to the 20th century, how did English come to dominate German in the realm of science?

“The first major shock to the system of basically having a third of science published in English, a third in French, and a third in German — although it fluctuated based on field and Latin still held out in some places — was World War I, which had two major impacts,” Gordin said.

After World War I, Belgian, French and British scientists organized a boycott of scientists from Germany and Austria. They were blocked from conferences and weren’t able to publish in Western European journals.

“Increasingly, you have two scientific communities, one German, which functions in the defeated [Central Powers] of Germany and Austria, and another that functions in Western Europe, which is mostly English and French,” Gordin explained.

It’s that moment in history, he added, when international organizations to govern science, like the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, were established. And those newly established organizations begin to function in English and French. German, which was the dominant language of chemistry was written out.

The second effect of World War I took places across the Atlantic in the United States. Starting in 1917 when the US entered the war, there was a wave of anti-German hysteria that swept the country.

“At this moment something that’s often hard to keep in mind is that large portions of the US still speak German,” Gordin said.

In Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota there were many, many German speakers. World War I changed all that.

“German is criminalized in 23 states. You’re not allowed to speak it in public, you’re not allowed to use it in the radio, you’re not allowed to teach it to a child under the age 10,” Gordin explained.

The Supreme Court overturned those anti-German laws in 1923, but for years that was the law of the land. What that effectively did, according to Gordin, was decimate foreign language learning in the US.

“In 1915, Americans were teaching foreign languages and learning foreign languages about the same level as Europeans were,” Gordin said. “After these laws go into effect, foreign language education drops massively. Isolationism kicks in in the 1920s, even after the laws are overturned and that means people don’t think they need to pay attention to what happens in French or in German.”

This results in a generation of future scientists who come of age in the 1920s with limited exposure to foreign languages.

That was also the moment, according to Gordin, when the American scientific establishment started to take over dominance in the world.

“And you have a set of people who don’t speak foreign languages,” said Gordin, “They’re comfortable in English, they read English, they can get by in English because the most exciting stuff in their mind is happening in English. So you end up with a very American-centric, and therefore very English-centric community of science after World War II.”

You can see evidence of this world history embedded into scientific terms themselves, Gordin said.

Take for example the word “oxygen.” The term was born in the 1770s as French chemists are developing a new theory of burning. In their scientific experiments, they needed a new term for a new notion of an element they were constructing.

“They pick the term ‘oxygen’ from Greek for ‘acid’ and ‘maker’ because they have a theory that oxygen is the substance that makes up acids. They’re wrong about that, but the word acid-maker is what they create and they create it from Greek. That tells you that French scientists and European scientists of that period would have a good classical education,” Gordin said.

The English adopted the word “oxygen” wholesale from the French. But the Germans didn’t, instead they made up their own version of the word by translating each part of the word into “sauerstoff” or acid substance.

“So you can see how at a certain moments, certain words get formed and the tendency was for Germans, in particular, to take French and English terms and translate them. Now that’s not true. Now terms like online, transistor, microchip, that stuff is just brought over in English as a whole. So you see different fashions about how people feel about the productive capacity of their own language versus borrowing a term wholesale from another,” Gordin said.


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Cajuns are fiercely proud of their culture, but they’re divided over the word ‘coonass’

Photo: Veronica Zaragovia

Photo: Veronica Zaragovia

Here’s a post from Veronica Zaragovia.

The town of Eunice, Louisiana is one of those places that lets you know exactly where in America you are.

“I’m the owner of KBON 101.1 FM down in Cajun Country,” says Paul Marx, whose station began broadcasting music in 1997.

Much of life in so-called Cajun Country involves the French language, and Marx is fluent in what he calls Cajun French.

“We do speak different French here, a little different from Canada or France but it’s still our language — French,” he explains.

Cajun culture and the French language weren’t always so valued, though. In fact, French as a spoken language nearly disappeared, but the language and culture have made a comeback.

Paul Marx, owner of KBON radio station in Eunice, LA, stands near a collection of autographed photos and a wall covered in signatures. His station mostly plays music by Louisiana musicians, including Jamie Bergeron & The Kickin’ Cajuns, whose song “Registered Coonass,” has not been received well by all Louisianans. (Photo: Veronica Zaragovia)

Paul Marx, owner of KBON radio station in Eunice, LA, stands near a collection of autographed photos and a wall covered in signatures. His station mostly plays music by Louisiana musicians, including Jamie Bergeron & The Kickin’ Cajuns, whose song “Registered Coonass,” has not been received well by all Louisianans. (Photo: Veronica Zaragovia)

“We do a variety of music with a Louisiana flavor,” Marx says about his radio station. “About 75 percent of our overall music is Louisiana record artists.”

Artists like Jamie Bergeron & the Kickin’ Cajuns. People from around here either love or hate one of Bergeron’s songs, called “Registered Coonass.”

You can hear the song on Marx’s radio station because he likes it. Not all Cajuns do.

“I kind of got a threat by an attorney that if I continued playing the song, there’d be a lawsuit,” Marx says. “Well, that made me put the song on the playlist.”

The attorney was Warren Perrin, who threatened to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission if KBON kept playing the song. Since then, the station now only plays it if a listener requests it, and DJs announce it not as “Registered Coonass” but “RCA.”

Warren Perrin’s law office is 40 miles away from Eunice in Lafayette, on a street called Rue de La France. Perrin regularly sends letters to people asking them to stop using the word “coonass.”

“We ask that the person voluntarily do so and that is usually the end of it,” Perrin says. “We have not had to institute any type of formal suit or claim with the Human Rights Commission or anything like that.”

Warren Perrin, an attorney in Lafayette, LA, has a stack of files documenting how The Council for the Defense of French in Louisiana has attempted to stop people from using the term “coonass” in certain instances. Perrin served as president of the state agency for 16 years. (Photo: Veronica Zaragovia)

Warren Perrin, an attorney in Lafayette, LA, has a stack of files documenting how The Council for the Defense of French in Louisiana has attempted to stop people from using the term “coonass” in certain instances. Perrin served as president of the state agency for 16 years. (Photo: Veronica Zaragovia)

For 16 years, Perrin served as president of an organization called the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana.

“That state agency is the only one in America existing, supported by the state of Louisiana, to promote the French language,” he says. “We have 30 French immersion schools — eminently successful. So we turned it around and we developed along the way pride in ourselves.”

Pride in your roots and the word “coonass” don’t go together, says Perrin, who’s part of a movement that has tried to stamp out the use of the word. The movement won a big victory back in 1981 when it got the Louisiana State Legislature to condemn the word as offensive. Legislators not only condemned it, they outlined the word’s etymology.

“In that concurrent resolution, the politicians in Baton Rouge wrote: The word coonass comes from the standard French word connasse, which means dirty whore or stupid person,” says local Cajun historian Shane Bernard, paraphrasing what’s in the 1981 resolution. “Cajun GIs were called this when they were in France during World War II. Anglo GIs were standing nearby, didn’t know what that meant, but said, ‘Sounds like coonass, so that’s what we’re gonna call you from now on.’”

1943 photograph of the C-47 Cajun Coonass, with enlarged inset. (Photo: Credit: National Archives and Records Administration via Shane Bernard)

1943 photograph of the C-47 Cajun Coonass, with enlarged inset. (Photo: Credit: National Archives and Records Administration via Shane Bernard)

That’s the official take on the origin of the word – a vulgar ethnic slur. But it’s not correct, Bernard says. He found a photo from the National Archives taken in April 1943 of a plane called the “Cajun Coonass.” The photo was taken before the allied invasion of France.

“Because there were no Cajuns in France or any Americans in France until June 6, 1944, which is D-Day, that means that if the connasse theory were true, it had to have been created sometime after D-Day because you had to have Cajuns in France to be called connasses,” Bernard says. “Presumably you had to have some extended period of time for the word to morph into coonass.”

Bernard says he’s found other references to the word predating D-Day, as well. As far as he’s concerned, no one can be sure where the expression came from.

Whatever its origins, coonass isn’t a slur these days to people like Angie Sonnier. I found Sonnier on a rainy afternoon taking shelter beneath a roof of a Shop Rite store in Duson, Louisiana. The store sells bumper stickers and T-shirts with a “Registered Coonass” logo on them. Sonnier doesn’t care about tracing the history of the term “coonass.”

“If it was meant being ugly when it first came out, it’s not ugly now,” Sonnier says. “Not unless you look at it that way, and some people may. I just don’t.”

Instead, “coonass” is shorthand for her rural Cajun identity.

“I was raised, you know, running crawfish traps with my dad, and working on a farm with my dad, and doing different other things — going fishing with my family and, you know, generally doing all this type of stuff that is around here,” Sonnier says. “It’s in your blood.”

At his radio station, Marx echoes that sentiment. He remembers when speaking French at school was really frowned upon.

“‘You tried to shame us but now you know what? There are a lot of people who want to be coonasses,’” Marx says. “It’s kind of our way of slapping them in the face and saying, ‘You didn’t accomplish anything. We’re still here. You’re just an American. We’re Cajun, baby! We’re coonasses!”

It seems that, for better or for worse, the expression will be sticking around for a while.


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A brief history of simultaneous interpretation, from the Nuremberg trials to now

From left, Capt. Macintosh of the British Army translates from French into English, while Margot Bortlin translates from German into English and Lt. Ernest Peter Uiberall monitors the translations at the Nuremberg trials after World War II. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

From left, Capt. Macintosh of the British Army translates from French into English, while Margot Bortlin translates from German into English and Lt. Ernest Peter Uiberall monitors the translations at the Nuremberg trials after World War II. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Here’s a post from Nina Porzucki.

Lynn Visson was a UN interpreter during the height of the Cold War. She can still rattle off grandiose Soviet titles like it was yesterday.

“General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party — you had that practically memorized,” Visson recalls.

After 23 years, she’s still at it, interpreting from French and Russian into English. She’s witnessed — and spoken for — some pretty heavy hitters. “I remember Castro spoke for all of eight minutes, but the charisma was incredible,” Visson says. “The electricity the man generated — Bill Clinton could do that, too, Gorbachev could do that. Some other delegates were great speakers, but they didn’t light that spark.”

These days, we’re long used to seeing diplomats at the UN plugged into earphones, listening to speeches that are instantaneously translated into one of the six official UN lanugages — English, French, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish and Russian, but simultaneous interpretation is actually a rather recent invention, developed in 1945 for a very different global event: the Nuremberg Trials.

Defendants, Defense Counsel and Interpreters rise as the eight members of the Tribunal enter the courtroom. Monitors, front: Leon Dostert, back: E. Peter Uiberall and Joachim von Zastrow. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Defendants, Defense Counsel and Interpreters rise as the eight members of the Tribunal enter the courtroom. Monitors, front: Leon Dostert, back: E. Peter Uiberall and Joachim von Zastrow. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Before the Nuremberg Trials, any kind of interpretation was done consecutively — talk first, and then wait for the interpreter to translate. But at the end of World War II, the Allies created the International Military Tribunal, which was charged with an explicit mission: “fair and expeditious trials” of accused Nazi war criminals.

“Those two words put enormous constraints on the people organizing the trial,” says interpreter and historian Francesca Gaiba, who has studied the origins of simultaneous interpretation at the Nuremberg Trials.

She says holding a trial that was “fair” and “expeditious” meant speeding up translations of the four languages of the nations involved: English, German, Russian and French. The solution was thought up by Col. Leon Dostert. Born in France and a native French speaker, Dostert became an American citizen and a foreign language expert for the US Army.

“He was the person who thought it was possible for a human being to listen and speak at the same time,” Visson says.

Possible, yes, but far from easy. And then there was the problem of transmitting all of those languages in real time. This was 1945, so digital recordings and tapes weren’t around. But Dostert pressed on and consulted with IBM to develop a system of microphones and headsets to transmit the cacophony of languages. He hired interpreters and practiced this new type of interpreting with them.

And somehow, despite a few episodes of tripping over cords in the courtroom, Dostert’s system worked.

Interpreters at the Nuremberg Trial; Front: English desk; Back: French desk. To the left, monitor. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Interpreters at the Nuremberg Trial; Front: English desk; Back: French desk. To the left, monitor. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Even before the Nuremberg trials were over, Dostert had taken his system to the UN in New York. It’s still the model being used today, albeit with some minor upgrades in technology.

“When I started, all interpreters were lugging around heavy dictionaries,” Visson remembers. “Now they’re lugging around iPads and notebook computers because most glossaries are in those.” She says TV monitors in the back booths also let interpreters watch the expressions of diplomats and the movements of their mouths.

But technology still hasn’t advanced enough to replace the interpreters themselves. “The computer can’t pick up the intonation,” Visson says.

But one of the biggest challenges for interpreters is often not the tone, but simply figuring out what a diplomat is saying.

“People with foreign accents for example, you want to be careful that when you hear somebody saying, ‘Mr. Chairman, we wish to congratulate you on your defective leadership.’ You know he didn’t mean his ‘defective leadership,’ he meant his ‘effective leadership.’” Visson says. “But you’ve got to not be simply auto-translating word for word, because heaven help you if you say we congratulate you on your defective leadership.”

Of course, relaying the words of world leaders also means not mincing them, be they Holocaust denials, carefully crafted insults or strongly worded Cold War rhetoric.

“One of the things you are taught is that you’re like an actor on stage,” Visson says. “There are plenty of actors who play the part of people who are absolutely vile. So I think if you look on it as acting, it can almost become fun — even if you are saying things that you personally find repugnant or hateful.”


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The grammar of cuisine

Is this food combination ungrammatical? (Photo: Ryan Basilio/Flickr)

Is this food combination ungrammatical? (Photo: Ryan Basilio/Flickr)


Here’s a post from Nina Porzucki.

You are what you eat, or so the saying goes. And much of what we eat — and how we eat it — is influenced by what linguist Dan Jurafsky calls the “grammar” of food.

“The grammar of cuisine is the idea that every culture has a different way of thinking about what makes up a meal,” says Jurafsky, whose new book, The Language of Food, comes out this month.

Part of what makes up a meal are the words that we use to describe it. Take the word entrée, for example. Americans think of an entrée as the main course — the meatloaf or the roast chicken. But the French word actually means “entrance.” On a menu in France, an entrée is more of an appetizer.

But if you think Americans simply messed up the original French, you’re wrong. Americans actually got it right, according to Jurafsky. The original meaning of entrée — as it was used during the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance — was much closer to the American meaning. It meant a heavy meat course that was just the first of many meat courses to come.

“So American English kept that sense of a substantial meat course, and [from] France and then England came some sense of this idea of entrance,” Jurafsky says. “So the word really changed in France and England from meaning a heavy meat course to meaning a light appetizer.”

The grammar of food impacts not only the order of the meal, but the types of dishes that are acceptable to eat at different times during the meal.

“We grew up with these rules that say that the salty things happen first and the sweet things happen at the end,” says Jurafsky. “And coffee is a morning thing or maybe a dessert thing, but certainly not a main course thing.”

Of course, the rules are broken all of the time: savory is mixed with sweet, dessert becomes the main course or the meat becomes the dessert. Think bacon ice cream or cappuccino-flavored potato chips. They make an American eater do a double take because they violate the American rules of culinary grammar.

But some things just don’t translate, like one of Jurafsky’s favorite Chinese delicacies: hasma, a Cantonese sweet soup. It’s made of a mix of dates and frog fallopian tubes.

Hasma, a Chinese sweet soup or dessert that combines the dried tissue around the fallopian tubes of some frogs with jujubes (red dates) or other fruit. (Photo: Benjwong via Wikimedia Commons)

Hasma, a Chinese sweet soup or dessert that combines the dried tissue around the fallopian tubes of some frogs with jujubes (red dates) or other fruit. (Photo: Benjwong via Wikimedia Commons)

“Texture is very important in Cantonese foods, so there’s your crunchy things and slimy things,” Jurafsky explains. “There’s a lot of very slimy foods in lots of cultures that don’t work … in the grammar of American food.”

Then there are some food items that seem universal, like tea. Tea was introduced to the world via China. Lots of languages have a word that begins, like the English word, with a “t” sound. But many others, like Arabic or Russian, use words that start with a “ch” sound, like “chai.”

“All the languages that got tea via the south of China from trading with the Fujianese, all of those languages pronounce the word with a ‘t’ because they got it from the English or the Dutch — who got it straight from the Fujianese,” Jurafsky explains.”Everybody else who uses a word like ‘chai,’ they got the word over land from China through Central Asia, where the northern Chinese dialects start with a ‘ch.’”

In his book, Jurafsky also looks at correlations between the description of food and food quality. By analyzing restaurant reviews online, he found that food descriptions often fell into two categories: sex and drugs.

“If someone likes an expensive restaurant they use amazing sensual terms: ‘orgasmic pastry,’ ‘very naughty deep fried pork belly,'” he says. “There’s something about sex and food that’s obviously linked, but it’s interesting that we only talk about that when we’re thinking about our expensive restaurants. Expensive food is a sensory pleasure, just like sex.”

Cheap food is another story: “‘Oh, those wings, they’re addicting.’ ‘The chocolate in their cookies, they must have crack in it.’ It’s as if the food forces us to eat it. It’s not my fault that I ate those wings. The wings forced me to devour them. It lets us distance ourselves from eating these awful foods.”

The meanings of many food-related words have often been lost to history. Like why do we “toast” someone at the dinner table? What does a celebratory act have anything to do with charred bread?

Turns out toast was long ago used as a seasoning agent for wine. We used to put grilled bread in wine with spices to enhance its flavor.

“And people said ‘Oh, the belle of the ball, the lady of the evening, she spices the party like the toast spices the wine,’” Jurafsky says. “So there are these historical explanations for how the word came about. But it’s true that, as a modern eater, you just have to learn the words.”


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