In which The Author gets lost in translation
As far as I understand it, in Zen Buddhism, Satori can be considered as the first step towards Nirvana. If Nirvana is perfect peace and bliss resulting from enlightenment, then Satori is a glimpse of self-awareness which opens the way to deeper understanding of one’s own nature. ‘Searching for Satori’ is also a line from a Bauhaus song, ‘A Kick in the Eye’, which I haven’t listened to for many years. It just made a nice title for tonight’s little musing. I don’t know very much about Buddhism, so if I’m wrong, please don’t take me too much to task…
By 9.30 on Sunday night, most of the people who’d packed the pub for the rugby and the band had drifted away. Only the die-hards remained. I was doing the crossword when I overheard one of those pub arguments that often break out spontaneously, and usually with no hope of sensible resolution. They just enter a weird time loop, going round and round in circles until one person or the other goes home/falls asleep/dies/whatever.
I’ve been a witness to many of these over the years. I always enjoy observing the intellectual cut-and-thrust going on at the bar or at the adjacent table. As a general rule, the topic is something about which I have no interest (football, say, or cars). For this reason I usually manage to keep my head down, rather than get involved. There’s a nice picture doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment:
Last time I got actively embroiled in such a discussion, it concerned the origins of the English language. I don’t think any of the AAPAA members involved knew very much about the subject. They’d probably read odd bits in the side columns of tabloid newspapers over the years, and maybe even seen something on the television. I’ve read numerous books on the subject, as it’s been an interest of mine for thirty years or so. I’d also only recently finished a university module called History and Development of the English Language.
Consequently, I felt rather more qualified than the majority of the mass debaters to offer some input. After trying to lay a few misconceptions to rest and bring them up to speed on the current state of research, one of them as good as told me that I was talking out of my arse.
A couple of days later, I tracked down this esteemed authority on linguistics in a different pub. It wasn’t hard. I just followed the smell of bullshit until I found him propping up the bar as usual. Prepared for such an eventuality, I showed him the relevant chapter in David Crystal’s The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, which has lived in my reference library for nearly fifteen years. In the face of such compelling evidence, I’d expected at least an apology, and maybe even a pint for my trouble.
Not a fucking hope! As far as my drinking companion was concerned, the scholarly opinion was worthless. So, just for a moment, let’s examine their respective credentials.
According to his own website, David Crystal
read English at University College London (1959-62), specialised in English language studies, did some research there at the Survey of English Usage under Randolph Quirk (1962-3), then joined academic life as a lecturer in linguistics, first at Bangor, then at Reading. He published the first of his 100 or so books in 1964, and became known chiefly for his research work in English language studies, in such fields as intonation and stylistics, and in the application of linguistics to religious, educational and clinical contexts, notably in the development of a range of linguistic profiling techniques for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. He held a chair at the University of Reading for 10 years, and is now Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. These days he divides his time between work on language and work on internet applications.
David Crystal’s authored works are mainly in the field of language, including several Penguin books, but he is perhaps best known for his two encyclopedias for Cambridge University Press, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language and The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Recent books include A Little Book of Language and Begat: the King James Bible and the English language (both 2010) and a linguistic autobiography, Just a Phrase I’m Going Through (2009). Co-authored books include Words on Words (2000, a dictionary of language quotations compiled with his wife and business-partner, Hilary – Wheatley Medal, 2001) and Shakespeare’s Words (2002) and The Shakespeare Miscellany (2005), the last two in collaboration with his actor son, Ben. Other Shakespeare work includes a regular article for the magazine of Shakespeare’s Globe, Around the Globe. Think On My Words, an introduction to Shakespeare’s language, appeared in 2008.
His books on English phonetics and phonology include Prosodic Systems and Intonation in English and The English Tone of Voice. His clinical books include Introduction to Language Pathology, Profiling Linguistic Disability, Clinical Linguistics, and Linguistic Encounters with Language Handicap. His work for schools includes the Skylarks, Databank, and Datasearch programmes, Nineties Knowledge, Language A to Z, Rediscover Grammar, Discover Grammar, and Making Sense of Grammar. His creative writing includes volumes of devotional poetry (Pilgrimage; Happenings); biographies of the Convent and of the Ucheldre Centre in Holyhead; a play, Living On, on the endangered languages theme; and he is currently editing the poetry of the African missionary John Bradburne. Performances include a dramatic reading of the St John Gospel, now available on CD.
He was founding editor of the Journal of Child Language, Child Language Teaching and Therapy, and Linguistics Abstracts, and has edited several book series, such as Penguin Linguistics and Blackwell’s Language Library. In the 1980s, he became editor of general encyclopedias for Cambridge University Press, along with their various abridged editions.
In 1996 the database supporting these books came under the ownership of AND International Publishers, who began to develop the database for electronic media. As part of his consultancy work with this company, he devised a knowledge management system (the Global Data Model, or GDM) which allows electronic databases to be searched in a highly sophisticated way (UK and US patents). In 2001, both the database and the GDM became the property of a new company, called Crystal Reference Systems, with two divisions: Crystal Reference had as its primary aim the provision of reference data; Crystal Semantics, the provision of systems for document classification, Internet searching, contextual advertising, e-commerce, online security, and related areas. Products of the new regime included editions of The Penguin Encyclopedia (from 2002), The Penguin Factfinder (from 2003), and The Penguin Concise Encyclopedia (from 2003). Crystal Reference Systems was acquired by Adpepper Media in 2006, and he then switched roles to become director of research and development within the firm (to 2009). Adpepper closed the Crystal Reference division in 2008, and general encyclopedia publishing then ceased. He continues to act as a consultant to Adpepper on Internet applications.
David Crystal has been a consultant, contributor, or presenter on several radio and television programmes and series. These include The Story of English (BBC TV, 8 × 1 hour series 1986, consultant), The Story of English (radio version, 18 × 30-min series, BBC World Service, 1987, writer and presenter), several series on English for BBC Radio 4, Radio 5, and BBC Wales during the 1980s and 1990s (as writer and presenter), and The Routes of English (as consultant and contributor). Other television work includes Back to Babel (Infonation and Discovery Channel, 4 × 1-hour series, 2000, as consultant and continuity contributor), Blimey (BBC Knowledge, 3 x 1-hour series, 2001, as continuity contributor), The Routes of Welsh (BBC1, 6 × 30-min series, 2002, as consultant and contributor), The Way that We Say It (BBC Wales, 50-min, 2005, consultant and co-presenter), The Word on the Street (BBC1, 2005, 30 mins, as consultant), Voices of the World (Final Cut, 2005, as consultant and contributor), and several programmes for Open University television, beginning with Grammar Rules (1980, as writer and presenter). He was the consultant for the BBC Voices project in 2005 and is currently consultant for the British Library ‘Evolving English’ exhibition (November 2010 to April 2011), and author of the accompanying book.
He is currently patron of the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) and the Association for Language Learning (ALL), president of the UK National Literacy Association, and an honorary vice-president of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, the Institute of Linguists, and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. He is a past honorary president of the National Association for Professionals concerned with Language-Impaired Children, the International Association of Forensic Phonetics, and the Society of Indexers. He was Sam Wanamaker Fellow at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2003-4 and was honorary president of the Johnson Society for 2005-6. He has also been a member of the Board of the British Council and of the English-Speaking Union. He received an OBE for services to the English language in 1995, and was made a Fellow of the British Academy (FBA) in 2000.
Call me a cynic if you must, but I think it’s fair to assume that Prof Crystal knows rather more about the English language than G—. W—., Senior Lecturer in Alcohol Consumption and Applied Crap at the Pickled Pepper, Aberdare.
But, remarkably, it would seem that this latter authority is never wrong.
When another dispute reared its head a couple of months later, I had the Netbook with me. I called up the relevant Wikipedia entry and showed it to everyone concerned, in the hope that it would settle the issue. This time, the objection to the contrary evidence was even more imaginative. Apparently I’d spent the previous thirty seconds composing, publishing and hyperlinking an entirely fictitious article to the Internet, simply to undermine the guy who was defending an erroneous position. As someone who still finds HTML coding a necessary evil at best, I was flattered that he rated my IT skills so highly.
Anyway, on Sunday evening a similar situation kicked off again. Mal, one of the evening regulars, has a habit of throwing the Welsh words Iesu mawr! into conversation. His irreverent invocation of Jesus’ name is a playful throwback to the past. For my grandparents’ generation blasphemy was almost unthinkable, reserved only for the ultimate stressful situation. I zoned back into the conversation just as a guy who claims to be a fluent Welsh speaker challenged Mal to explain why he kept saying ‘Big Jesus!’ Because, as any fule kno, mawr is the Welsh word for ‘big’. Mal isn’t a Welsh speaker. Neither am I. But we’re intelligent guys. So we both knew that Mistar Siaradwr Cymraeg was missing the point.
As a regular crossword solver (with varying degrees of success) I appreciate the subtlety and slipperiness of words and their related concepts. Even within a single linguistic frame of reference, words can slide around like a Labrador on ice. Their meanings change over time and across space. Naj and I had an odd conversation on the train one day, about the Old Testament. I had to explain that the old Bible references to the ‘awful God’ would now be translated as ‘awesome’ or ‘awe-inspiring.’ It originally meant, ‘Oh wow! It’s God!’ rather than, ‘Oh no, it’s God …’
When Jasmin from Stuttgart worked with us for two weeks back in the day, she kept apologising for her mistakes in English. I kept telling her not to worry – her English was far better than my German will ever be! When she got home she sent me a postcard with a long message, ending in the charming words, ‘Must stop now, no more place.’ I knew what she meant. Jasmin knew what she meant. But faced with three possible alternatives – room, space or place – she chose the wrong one. Perfectly understandable. If I was working from an English-German dictionary, I might well have made a similar faux pas. (Oddly enough, I’ve just called to mind Brian Eno’s sleevenotes to his 1975 LP Discreet Music. One of the three variations on Pachelbel’s Canon is called ‘Fullness of Wind’, inspired by an earlier inaccurate translation from French to English.)
It’s a well-known feature of translation that very few words have a single, direct, unambiguous mapping onto the same concept in the target language. George Steiner, in his seminal book After Babel
, discusses the inherent problems in conveying meaning across languages. (That doesn’t even begin to consider the possibility of made-up words, like this article
by Douglas R. Hofstadter about the difficulty of translating Jabberwocky
When we learn a foreign language in school, we have only a very basic dictionary. We learn vocabulary by rote, with no regard for the subtle meanings that come to advanced speakers. As we acquire competence in the target language and progress towards fluency, the mental barriers between words and concepts should (in theory, at least) break down.
So, when a ‘fluent Welsh speaker’ didn’t know that there was more than one meaning of mawr, I felt it was my duty to intervene. I Googled the word, and the first thing I came up with was Rhodri Mawr – a 9th century King of Gwynedd. I challenged him in mid-flow:
‘Excuse me – was this Rhodri Mawr just a very big bloke, or does it mean something else in that context?’
No answer. Because this particular ‘fluent Welsh speaker’ seems to have only the vocabulary range of a nine-year-old second-language learner. I asked him about the possibility that mawr might mean ‘great’ in this context, but he was adamant. The dictionary said it meant ‘big.’ As far as he was concerned. that was its sole, invariant and eternal meaning.
This afternoon I called into the library on the way home. I decided that I’d give Mal some ammunition with which to fight his corner. I picked up one of the four volumes of Y Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru. This monumental work of scholarship was finally completed in 2001, eighty years after a team of volunteers started gathering the corpus on which it was based. I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to the Welsh language, it’s the nearest thing we have at present to a world authority. Towards the start of Vol III (M – rhywyr), I found two pages worthy of photocopying. I was so chuffed that I left without paying for the copies. I’ll drop the money in with Judith tomorrow.
Anyway, this was the gold I’d struck. Two thirds of the way down the second column of the entry devoted to the word mawr, we find this:
Pwysig, arwyddocaol, galluog, dylanwadol; mawreddog, bonheddig, hynod, enwog (yn aml am frenin, ymherodr, &c.), hunanbwysig, balch; gweithgar, brwdfrydig, selog, medrus, gwybodus; hoff; trawiadol, rhyfedd, rhyfeddol, ofnadwy, alaethus: great, important, significant, powerful, influential, grand, noble, remarkable, renowned (often corresponding to ‘the Great’ of kings, emperors, &c,) self-important, proud, active, enthusiastic, skilful, adroit, knowledgeable, favourite, striking, strange, surprising, wonderful, awful, terrible.)
I’ve kept the photocopy so I can give it to Mistar Siaradwr Cymraeg next time he’s in the pub. Maybe he’ll enjoy it. Maybe it’ll open his eyes. Maybe it’ll stop him smiling for a minute or so. After all, if Ignorance is Bliss, he’s certainly well on the road to Satori.
BEVAN G.A., DONOVAN, P.J. (1998.) Y Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru. Vol III. (Cardiff: University of Wales Press.)
CRYSTAL, D. (1995) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP.)
STEINER, G. (1975) After Babel: Aspects of language and translation. (Oxford: Oxford UP.)