Just my type

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Have you ever really thought about letters? About how the simple act of writing is an art form, and how the science of typography is at once omnipresent and therefore often unnoticed?

I asked my dad these questions the other night, feeling epiphanic. To which he responded, well, yes, actually.

Well, duh. My dad once worked as a graphic designer, is a calligrapher, and an artist of many forms. But I had not given much thought to typography until recently. It’s amazing, really, to consider the varieties of the Roman alphabet that we recognize. Sometimes I catch myself going in and out of cursive when I’m writing fast, and wonder what an alien would think if told that those two types of r signify the same sound. It was certainly confusing to the second- and third-grade students I tutored in literacy.

And, of course, the way we write our language communicates more than just sounds. Recently, Errol Morris provided a passage for the New York Times for readers to gauge whether they were optimists or pessimists. In fact, Morris was trying to prove “the effect of typefaces on truth.” The passage was written in one of six typefaces, and readers were randomly assigned which they read. Only a few readers realized something about the typeface was strange, and these were the readers who’d been assigned the notably bad Comic Sans. Morris found that, of the six typefaces, readers seemed to trust what was written in Baskerville the most. So, if you want people to believe you, choose Baskerville. (Don’t let politicians in on this secret).

And what of poor Comic Sans? In this case readers trusted it the least, but other studies have shown that teaching concepts in difficult-to-read typefaces actually improves retention in learners. The study specifically tested easy-to-read Helvetica and Arial against Monotype Corsiva and Comic Sans Italicized. There was an uproar earlier in the summer when the the announcement of the Higgs boson particle was made in Comic Sans (one tweet said, “Every time you use Comic Sans on a powerpoint, God kills Schrödinger’s cat. Please think of the cat.”) But perhaps those who studied that powerpoint will remember the data forever. Even if it hadn’t been linked to the God particle, Comic Sans has been immortalized in McSweeney’s most popular article of all time, “I’m Comic Sans, asshole:”

There’s so much more to say about typography, but it’s getting late so I’ll just recommend checking out a few blogs on the subject: typographica, which publishes a favorite-typefaces-of-the-year list, chictype, which is full of lovely letters, and Kottke’s posts on type, which is where I got almost all my information on the subject. If you’re already a word whiz, try these challenges on kerning and letter shaping. And, after all that comic sansing, let’s clean our palettes by watching the wonderful chalk artist Dana Tanamachi create her letter art:

Babel and The Bible

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I especially like Pieter Brueghel the Elder's interpretation of the Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel towers high as allegory, as genesis story, as good ol’ fashioned storytelling. Painters have depicted it countless times, and theologians, literary theorists, and linguists have read into it a million ways.

I brought out my Theories of Translation book and read over philosopher Jacques Derrida’s essay on Babel. He writes that Babel as a name is the name of God, yet Babel as a noun (and now as a verb in English) signifies confusion. Here is his thesis, as I read it: “In giving his name, a name of his choice, in giving all names, the father would be at the origin of language, and that power would belong by right to God the father. And the name of God the father would be the name of that origin of tongues. But it is also that God who, in the action of his anger, annuls the gift of tongues, or at least embroils it, sows confusion among his songs, and poisons the gift.” (That last phrase is a pun on the German noun Gift, which means “poison”). Later in the essay he goes on to say, “This story recounts, among other things, the origin of the confusion of tongues, the irreducible multiplicity of idioms, the necessary and impossible task of translation, its necessity as impossibility. Now, in general, one pays little attention to this fact: it is in translation that we most often read this narrative.”

Let’s face it: the stories of the Old Testament are confusing. The God of the Old Testament is especially confusing, full of vengeance and jealousy, enigmatic and indecipherable. He is nothing like the New Testament’s God, a Being who is as equally full of love and sacrifice. And so if we build on Derrida’s thesis, the Tower of Babel story is one of the most telling of the Old Testament God’s character: he sets himself as the origin, as the word, the primogenitor, and yet punishes his people so they cannot speak of him. God becomes unknowable, unpredictable. And so his people must rely on translation, which is anything but reliable.

Adam and Eve in fifteenth-century Italian orchard?

It is thus troubling when religious fundamentalists hearken back to the literal words of a religious text: not only have cultural norms changed over the course of 2+ millennia, the words themselves have most likely been translated. Of course, Muslims consider the Quran to be God’s word, verbatim, passed to the prophet Muhammad in Arabic. There is a standardized compilation of Muhammad’s text that has not changed, and the Quran in translation is technically not the Quran. Even in the case of this holy book, though, words that have remained in common usage have connotatively and qualitatively changed and thus there plenty of subtleties that contemporary Muslims would understand only with the assistance of historical accounts. (Side note: in translation class, we read a relatively long article that spoke only of one particular Italian word that is most commonly translated into English as “orchard;” the point of the article is that “orchard” does not call to mind the images that the Italian word would for fifteen century Italians, and yet the article concluded that “orchard” is the best–and only–possible translation of the word).

Christians who read the Bible in English are reading through at least two translations, and most likely many more: for some versions Aramaic made its way into Greek, and from there Latin, then German, and finally English. If plenty can be lost in a direct translation, imagine the material that is lost in four. And yet some translations are said to be divinely inspired. The Septuagint, the Ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament was said to be created like this:

King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one’s room and said: ‘Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher.’ God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did.”

If the Tower of Babel tells the story of the splitting of tongues, the writing of the Septuagint sounds like a miracle of God’s atonement. What He has separated and confused He reunites so that all may speak and know His name. As we Americans say, E pluribus unum.

Rhyme and Reason and Beowulf

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Among contemporary American poets, rhyme has largely fallen out of favor. Poor rhyme. It’s actually not rhyme’s fault, though–it’s English’s fault.

The 13th century troubadour tradition often used rhyme so that the songs might be more easily memorized by the singers. This tradition was popular in France, and spread to Italy and Spain. Do you see a pattern? These are the lands of the Romance languages. And you know what English is? Not a romance language.

In fact, the Anglo-Saxon oral tradition relied heavily on alliteration and not at all on rhyme. The reasons for this are obvious once you think about the differences in our languages. Italian and Spanish words only have five vowel sounds each, whereas English has about twenty depending on your accent. And because many Italian and Spanish words end in vowels, you have a much better chance of finding good rhymes without forcing them (after all, you can only rhyme love with dove so many times). Indeed, it’s difficult, especially in the post-Seussian literary landscape, to writing rhyming poetry in English without it sounding childish. Thus it is even more difficult to translate rhyming poetry into English, since most translators would opt to keep the rhyme scheme (as I did with Sor Juana’s poem) thereby contorting the new poem in ways the original was not.

Beowulf is one of the great epic poems of the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and uses an interesting pattern throughout: each line is alliterative within itself, and each line has four beats with a break halfway through. The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney translated the entirety of the work about a decade ago, and wrote a very interesting forward on his process of translation. After feeling daunted by the task ahead, he “noticed that without any conscious intent on my part certain lines in the first poem of my first book confirmed to the requirements of Anglo-Saxon metrics. These lines were made up of two balancing halves, each half containing two stressed syllables–‘the spade sinks    into gravelly ground: / my father, digging.   I look down.’–and in the case of the second line, there was alliteration linking ‘digging’ and ‘down’ across the caesura. Part of me, in other words, had been writing Anglo-Saxon from the start.”

Heaney goes on to talk about individual word choice, often picking words that look ancient in the Old English, but were still in common usage by his Irish aunts and grandmothers. He concludes that the tradition from which Beowulf sprang was his own ancestry, and thus he felt creative license to take on the translation. The primary language he’s translating is not so aesthetically different from the secondary language into which he’s funneling the poem.

On a final note, my dad overheard Kerri Miller, a wonderful interviewer and commentator on Minnesota Public Radio, complain of the usage of “so” to start stories. Apparently, she is sick of her interviewees signaling with “so.” I was bothered by her pet peeve–what else should we use besides “so” to start jokes or signal the beginning of something new? Luckily, as I was perusing my copy of Heaney’s Beowulf, I came across this very issue. The Old English poem begins with the exclamatory word whaet; Heaney explains how he chose the perfect word to start his translation:

Conventional renderings of hwaet, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with “lo” and “hark” and “behold” and “attend” and–more colloquially–“listen” being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullionspeak, the particle “so” came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom “so” operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, “so” it was.”

So there, Kerri!

Dub step

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For the first few months I lived in Spain, my roommate and I often turned on the TV to catch late-night American movies and shows. We bemoaned the fact that all of these English offerings were dubbed instead of subtitled for Spanish viewers, wishing we could hear the familiar voices of George Clooney and Bart Simpson. We talked about how strange it is that Spanish voice actors make a career out of dubbing one particular American actor so that Brad Pitt, for instance, always sounds the same in Spain even though it’s not his actual voice.

Too hot for Franco

There’s a reason, though, that dubbing is the only means of translating films and television in Spain, and it’s more insidious than mere tradition. For the forty years that General Franco was in power, he sought to control Spanish society through strong censorship of all “foreign” elements. He even suppressed cultures native to Spain, such as Basque and Catalán, for the sake of creating a unified national identity. Thus, all films and literature that came to Spain between 1936 and 1975 were edited in the translation process to show Spaniards only what Franco wanted them to see. Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, for instance, showed too much immoral behavior for Franco’s liking and so the film in Spain was shown with many of the most humorous scenes deleted.

Translation, then, is often more than an artistic pursuit. The reasons that some works literature are translated while other works are not are frequently political, and linguistic choices can be made to emphasize certain elements for the new audience. Indeed, Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible, which asserts that salvation is granted on faith alone (and not through good deeds), led to the Protestant Reformation.

I found that my small town in Spain was sorely in need of a translator for neither artistic nor political reasons, but just to make sense. A restaurant near my apartment offered their menu in English and French, and I loved reading  the loosely translated names of their dishes. Aged sheep cheese became “Cheese of sheep old man,” while a bread basket became “Table of bread.” When they weren’t sure which word to pick from their English dictionary, they just included both translations, neither of them correct: scrambled eggs with blood sausage became “In a mess (untidy) of pudding rice.” And my favorite: “Attacked of fantasy of mushrooms.” With a name like that, who cares what’s really in the dish.

The offending, or perhaps delighting, menu

How to be a translator

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What you’ll need: fluency in at least two languages, a rhyming dictionary

Songlist: Speak My Language by The Cure

Further reading: The Craft of Translation

I got my dad a book of poems for Christmas by the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Tomas Tranströmer. The poems in this edition are translated from their original Swedish into English by several different people, including poet Robert Bly.

This got us to talking about the translation of poems–is it possible? What’s the best method? Who best to do it? I brought up American poet Jane Kenyon who translated twenty of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s poems…without knowing any Russian. She had a fluent Russian speaker create English transliterations–direct translations of each word, with notes on subtleties–and from those she created her own poems.

Perhaps this doesn’t sound like much of a translation. Perhaps it seems like Kenyon was using Akhmatova’s poems more as inspiration than subject. Or perhaps it seems presumptuous that Kenyon did not need the original language to create poems loyal to the originals.

Unfortunately, loyalty is one of the most controversial and difficult subjects in the field of translation. To whom does the translator owe the greatest loyalty–to the author, the work of literature, or the audience for which the new work is being created? As the Italians say, Traduttore, traditore (Translator, traitor).

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

For a college course on translation, I did a project on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a brilliant Mexican woman who entered a convent so as to continue her studies, and wrote biting criticisms of the sexism rampant in her 17th century society. One of her most famous poems, Hombres Necios (Foolish Men), attacks the hypocrisy of those men who condemn prostitutes for their sin and yet are the same men who frequent brothels.

Translating this poem was difficult enough–she writes in a very formal style with strict rhythm and rhyme scheme, which is hard to pull off in English. To add to it, though, I also decided to translate a parody of the poem, Hembras Necias (Foolish Females). In translating the parody, I realized I had to parody my translation. Which is to say, the parody that I wrote in English related more to my translation of Hombres Necios than to the parody in Spanish, so that English readers might see the connection and understand the puns involved. This led to me another conclusion: all translation is, in a sense, parody (so long as we think of parody not necessarily mocking the original work but being created in its form).

In this project, I used the theory of Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, who said that all literature and indeed all language is in continual dialogue with everything that has come before and will be changed by everything that comes afterward. Nothing is said or written in a vacuum. Translations, then, are just a part of this dialogue. “Perfect” translations cannot exist, because words in different languages are not equal–they have different connotations, different histories, different users. So perhaps there is no correct way to create a translation of a poem. As the translator does not wish to replace the original, the best she can do is submit a new work in the ever-shifting landscape of literature and hope the it continues the dialogue in some meaningful way.

Say my name, say my name

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London=Unfordable River Town; Wales=Land of Strangers

When I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude, I was struck by a sentence at the very beginning: “the world was so recent that many things lacked names.” How could that be? I wondered. Didn’t things always have names?

Many of the world’s origin stories include the naming of objects, such as the Bible’s Genesis, in which Adam names all the animals presented to him. And many stories were passed from generation to generation simply to remember these names. When the Vikings decided to make the unpopulated Iceland their new home, they quickly had to create legends that characterized the landscape–the Hill of Blood, the Coast of Betrayal. By following the linguistic map of the Norse sagas, a Viking could find his way around the entire island.

Can we move to Pit Dweller's Town? Or what about Curlyhead?

I started thinking about toponymy, the study of the origins of place names, after posting a map on Wednesday of the meanings of Native American names that have become standard in the United States–Chicago, Manhattan, and my very own Minnesota. While I have associations with each of these places, the associations are, of course, not based at all on the literal meanings. It’s interesting for me–an American with no correspondence between my ancestors and my birthplace–to think of those places in the world where names are still meaningful to the people who live in them.

A pair of Germans decided to create an Atlas of True Names, for which they tracked down meanings that had been previously lost to posterity. The English version is certainly interesting to look over, even comical in many places, but how do we agree upon a “true” name? Yes, the idea of the project was to find the translations of place names from their original languages. But conquerors change the names of their acquired lands, people decide to rename their own lands for political or religious purposes, stories and the names held therein are forgotten. I remember a stubborn friend asking why we couldn’t call countries by the names they call themselves–why must we English speakers say Germany instead of Deutschland, Spain instead of España? I agreed that he had a point, but would it be fair to use the Castilian España instead of the Basque Espainia or Catalan Espanya? And Spain has relatively few languages–for those countries with hundreds of languages, or a division between native language and colonizers’ language, how would we know which name to honor as “true”? Names may start out as descriptive, but they quickly become political.

A few interesting toponymic lists, all courtesy of Wikipedia: the origins of all country namesplace names in English with counterintuitive pronunciations (like the American towns with the name of Berlin that changed their pronunciations during WWI to BUR-lin so as to differentiate themselves from the Germans), and tautological place names in which the native language already describes a geographical landmark that is then repeated in another language. For instance, Tahoe means “lake” in Washo, so Lake Tahoe means Lake Lake.

I studied abroad in Navel of the Moon. Nice country, that.

The United Maps of America

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Relief map of the United States of America

The United States inspire some pretty good-lookin’ maps. Since the land mass is so enormous and the landscape so varied, our weather maps always end up a veritable rainbow of temperatures. And because each region and state have their own identities we can plot our differences in multifarious and beautiful ways.

Let’s start first with our history. This is what the fledgling country looked like in 1800 (I especially like the contrast of the named states to the pink “Claimed by Georgia” territory):

After spending so much time studying a modern highway map on my road trip two weeks ago, it’s fun to look back on the roads available to the early driver:

And let us not forget the origins of the place names of our country, most of which we don’t really understand. The following is a map of English translations of the Native American names that have stuck with us. Check out National Geographic’s interactive version to find out that Manhattan means “where one gathers wood for bows” and Chicago means “at the skunk place.”

Poor Chicago “Skunk Place,” Illinois. It’s easy to be embarrassed by one’s state, especially after looking at the following map that shows what each state is worst at (thankfully, my state, Minnesota, is only the worst place for tornadoes!):

And perhaps some of us would feel embarrassed–while others would be proud–of which country our state’s GDP most closely resembles:

The next map is as lovely as it is shameful–a rendering of the lower 48 through the locations of every McDonald’s:

Wash that burger and fries down with a nice soda…or is it pop? Obviously we disagree:

Ah forget it, let’s just crack open a beer instead. At least we can agree on the name, if not the brand:

It’s a good-looking country, really, as long as you don’t divide us up by political leanings. Then we end up looking like a constrained heart, just one McDonald’s vanilla shake short of a heart attack:

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