The Cali Word Games, plus a Civil War gag from Alfonso Guerra

Lenox, who has been discussing the role (roll-on, roll-off?) of Google Translate in quality public service provision, has passed along this little gem from the wider reaches of linguistic dilettantism - Colombia, where 1,221 medals were cast for the World Games without wasting precious time on letter-checking:

Lost Letters Departments have of course swept the world since the sucking of Rome by Onan the Barbarian (see the chronicles of Graham Rawle) spun the gods of chaos, lunacy, and bad taste to Fortuna's apex. As Ignatius points out, "firm rule must be imposed upon our nation before it destroys itself," but I doubt whether we are up to the task.

The other night I read the pre-1982 memoirs of the Sevillan (socialist) schemer, Alfonso Guerra, Cuando el tiempo nos alcanza, in which he recounts a splendid Civil War legend starring Francisco López Real, grace of a thousand quips. It goes something like this:

Curro and some fellow-prisoners are told they have ten days to live. "Don't worry," he says, "a lot can happen in ten days: why, I happen to have on me a book called "Learn English in Ten Days."
Gord is famously gorn, even the grammar police are in retreat, so why would we bother?


Is mistranslation sometimes merely an attempt to inject life into English, a dull, stumbling language?

Michael Gilleland < Christoph Irmscher < Longfellow:
The difficulty of translation lies chiefly in the color of words. Is the Italian "Ruscelletto gorgoglioso" fully rendered by "Gurgling brooklet"? Or the Spanish "Pájaros vocingleros" by "Garrulous birds"? Something seems wanting. Perhaps it is only the fascination of foreign and unfamiliar sounds; and to the Italian or Spanish ear the English words would seem equally beautiful.
I really have no great problem with "Vino en botella" > "He/she came in bottle".


Don't ask. Plus: Victoria = Felipe II?


My impression is that in the six years since this blog started
  • Things have improved immensely.
  • In downtown Barcelona, most shop assistants now speak some form of English. This may have been a Darwinian process, where the rejects end up in other parts, but I don't think so.
  • Part of this is no doubt due to Anglophones beating the Hispanophones at the game of "we're not going to speak any language but our own." 
Skimming lightly, eyes shut, over the waves of history, I'd tend to blame the Spanish problem on the monstrous wave of intolerance unleashed during Felipe II's reign, of which Antonio Alatorre gives good account in El apogeo del castellano. The only undoubted success of the European Union has been the Orgasmus programme, quasi-academic sex tourism which, appropriately, has undone for ever the damage caused by 16th century Spain's anti-Erasmusian xenophobes and their followers:
Como remate de todo, en ese año de 1559, en noviembre, por decreto de Felipe II, les quedó prohibido a todos sus súbditos salir al extranjero a estudiar o a enseñar, para evitar contagios con ideas no "oficiales."
But it's not just the Spanish who are capable of salvation. A frustrating idiosyncracy of Andrés Trapiello's brilliant pioneering study of literature of right and left and fuck-off-and-leave-me-alone in and around the 36-39 civil war, Las armas y las letras, is his enthusiasm for amusing but bullshit-prone aphorisms. So:
... esos viajeros ingleses del siglo XIX ... capacitados como nadie para describirnos un gitano ... pero como nadie incapaces para comprenderlo... Ésa es la grandeza del pueblo inglés sobre cualquier otro, y de ahí que hayan sido los grandes viajeros de la historia: han viajado sin dejar de ser ellos mismos un solo instante y sin buscar que los otros se les parezcan.
For anyone who shares his phenomenal, almost Philippian ignorance of non-Victorian English and Imperial sexual and linguistic mores, I'd recommend ... ooh, William Dalrymple's White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in 18th-century India, which I enjoyed very much recently.


The importance of employing a sleeping cat when translating Kropotkin into Spanish

Carles Miró has serendipited one N Tassin's enlistment of Josep Pla and Eugeni Xammar, as short of money as they were of Russian, in his mission to bring to the benighted South Americans the curious blessings and recommendations produced in such prodigious quantities by his compatriot. Here's a high-speed bit of unplanned Pla:
Tassin placed himself in front of a Russian edition of the book and began to translate aloud using a mixture of French and German. At the typewriter Xammar converted Tassin's segregation [sic: think about it] into South American form and grammar. I was responsible for refining the work's philosophical lexicon and for reinforcing, in some fashion, its substance. It was a method that was very complex, but there was no other solution if one was to respect the authenticity required by the Argentine publisher. It was a method that created situations that were positively comical. When Tassin encountered an erect [?: enravenada] difficulty, he opened his mouth like a child and appeared to bear the lily of truth in his hand. When he encountered a case like that, he invariably ended up watching the cat that slept on top of the cupboard. Meanwhile, Xammar sometimes struggled to find the correct turn of phrase and the machine ground to a halt. Then his gaze turned to the the cat. Of the three translators, I had to be the most laboured, not only for the intrinsic difficulty of my role, but also because of my inexperience. Thus I often broke down, causing me, due to the same mechanism acting on the others, to look at the cat. It was curious to see all three of us intermittently, silently, bewilderedly, pensively, looking at the sleepy and indifferent cat.

Yes, said Tassin, this method is somewhat long and difficult. I suspect we will have to spend long hours looking at this animal. But there is no choice.Above all we have to do a clear translation. This celebrated author has written a book of an extraordinary childishness. He has written an anti-Darwinian ethics. To the ideas of natural selection and the struggle for life, the Russian author opposes a contrary thesis. In the life of the animal species is to be found permanent mutual help and a tendency to kindness and generosity. Translations of books like this, so infantile and dangerous, must be clear, because, for every small quantity of obscurity they contain, they cause the throwing of a disproportionate quantity of bombs...