The Compulsive Copyeditor

January 24, 2014

Metaphor Deafness

This kind of thing bothers me perhaps more than it should, and I wonder if it bothers anyone else:

Even though the rules may be simple, the pathway through the cosmos to you or me is laden with twists and turns.

(Never mind that the author had originally written “the pathway . . . to you or I”; that’s a whole other topic.)

“Laden with twists and turns.” Laden? That means loaded, burdened. I don’t know about you, but this sentence makes me visually see a person carrying an armload of curved segments of toy-train track, or a bundle of sinuous slides from the old board game “Chutes and Ladders.”

There are metaphors hidden, often not very deeply hidden, in the etymologies of lots of our words, especially verbs. Most of those metaphors are physical, and boil down to a simple repertoire of objects and actions. We “weigh” a decision, we “grasp” an idea. The metaphors are a little more hidden in Latinate words than in Anglo-Saxon ones — “comprehend” — but it’s just a translation of the same thing. A monkey has a “prehensile” tail; it grasps.

Language is very physical to me, and I see and feel a kind of cartoon of these actions within abstractions. So when someone writes something like “laden with twists and turns,” it bothers me.

Another example: After looking at pond water, Antony van Leeuwenhoek looked under his microscope at some scrapings from

the fascinating, but rarely embraced, nooks and crannies of the human mouth.

I know what the writer is trying to say: that no one (except a dentist or dental hygienist) exactly rushes to meet the yucky inside of the human mouth with . . . er . . . open arms. But how exactly would you embrace a nook, or put your arms around a cranny?

I call this “metaphor deafness.” A writer is using language as pure abstraction, amnesic about its origins, cut from its corporeal roots. It hurts in a Frankenstein’s-monster kind of way, dragging along severed body parts, stitching together a mental action out of mismatched physical ones.

Am I crazy? Sometimes I think I drive writers crazy, making them use not just any abstraction with the right meaning, but one that also has the right action in its bones.

Other examples? I regret now that I haven’t been collecting them, but I will from now on.


October 20, 2009

Hals- und Beinbruch! [UPDATED]

Filed under: etymology,other languages,translation — amba12 @ 6:36 am
Tags: , , , , ,

If I haven’t been around here for a while, it’s because I have a new compulsion:  a translation compulsion.  My brother’s crash course in reading scholarly German has lured me back into that Gothic thorn-thicket.

Und das hat mit ih-ih-rem si-ING-en

Die Lor-e-lei getan.

*     *     *

The fascination of what’s difficult

Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent

spontaneous joy and natural content

out of my heart.

Sorry, my brain has a line of verse for every occasion lately.  Yadda, yadda, yadda, yadda, yadda.

So when not copyediting for a living, I’ve been wading into the dense passages of theology David had to translate, wondering how I would do it, admiring the persistence of Herr Heggen’s 45-year-old operating system installation, and trying to figure out how to give clues and tips to someone who’s lost in German — a trail of breadcrumbs through the Black Forest of the Brüder Grimm.

His exam was today.  And it was predictably grueling.  If he flunks, I flunk as a guide.

UPDATE: He passed!!  High pass!  A triumph for him, and for me, and a tribute to Herr Heggen!

Two things.

David has been an actor, so I wanted to wish him “Break a leg,” and it immediately echoed in my head that in German it’s Beinbruch . . . but it’s “Something-else-and-Beinbruch.

I looked it up.  No need to suffer from middle-aged memory impaction now that there’s Google.  Who says there’s no progress??

It’s Hals- und Beinbruch. In German, you don’t just say, “Break a leg.”  You say “Break your neck . . . and oh, while you’re at it, a leg, too.”

I figured David would Grimmly appreciate that upping of the ante.  But better yet, then I came upon this:

It is sometimes said that the German expression is actually a corruption of a Hebrew blessing hatzlakha u-brakha, “success and blessing”, which may have been borrowed via Yiddish. Whatever its source, the most plausible theory is that Hals- und Beinbruch was transferred into the American theatre (in which Yiddish- or German-speaking immigrant Jews were strongly represented) sometime after World War I.

What could be more perfect for someone who is learning to decode scholarly German for the purposes of a doctorate in Jewish studies?

The other thing:

Coming across the word Zweifel, doubt, I remembered that in German Verzweiflung is despair — a higher octave, a compression and lethal concentration of doubt.  (Take any verb in German and add “ver-” or “er-” to make it first thumbscrews and then fatal.  Ertrinken means to drown.)  For us it’s desespoir — a loss of hope.  For them it’s too much of something — a busy mind, too busy tearing down, a good image for the obsessive negative rumination of depression.  For us it’s too little of something — the departure of Glinda the Good Witch, perhaps, with her gauzy gleam — dream, desire, illusion.  There’s something passive about it.  Hope leaves, what can you do?  A German, by contrast, can’t stop doing.  Doubting.

Thinking about it some more, though, I realized that linking doubt and despair is in fact theological.  Like so many things we don’t give any thought to — like the fact that genus and species names are in Latin — it’s a living fossil of the overwhelming importance and omnipresence of God in every corner of our culture until less than a hundred years ago.  Despair was the loss of faith, and doubt risked it.  It was called acedia, and it was a sin.

So I look for a link for you, and what a surprise, I turn up a completely contemporary one:  this year, Kathleen Norris, aspiring contemplative, author of The Cloister Walk and more, published a book called Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life. Its starting point:  the deep apathy Norris fell into, understandably enough, after both her father and her husband died.  USA Today not only did an interview with her, but gave it a sidebar of quotes on acedia that Norris collected, from the Psalms to Chesterton, Kafka, and James Bond.

So there you go.

P.S. Zweifel has “zwei” in it — two. Doubt in German comes from there being two possibilities.  Maybe God exists, maybe He doesn’t.  It’s the tortured, busy, pre-quantum theory form of ambivalence where you still think it’s a matter of life and death that you decide, before you reach the befuddled peace of “neither/nor,” “both/and,” “maybe.”

September 15, 2009

Interlanguage Land Mines

Filed under: other languages,translation — amba12 @ 5:40 am

Gestures don’t travel well between cultures.  If you flash a Brazilian the thumb-and-forefinger circle that to us means “A-OK,” he’ll punch you out for calling him an asshole.  Japanese people appear to waving bye-bye when they’re actually saying, “Come here.”  More examples invited.

The same is often true of words, to mortifyingly comical effect.  In English, “mist” is a wistfully romantic word.  It enshrouds the lighthouses and lonely sea widows on the covers of romance novels, bosoms heaving with longing.  Like falling in love, or like Vaseline on the lens of the movie camera, it softens harsh reality to a flattering blur.

But in German, as Chicken Little pointed out in the comments to my recent post on German, Mist means “manure.”

Animal crap.  And since the manure pile in a German farm courtyard was also the compost heap and all-purpose trash midden (I’ll never forget being told brusquely by a child in a German-Romanian farmyard, when I asked him where all his new puppy’s siblings were:  “Im Mist“), to throw something “an den Misthaufen” is to dismiss it, discard it, shitcan it on the trash heap of history . . . one word encompassing both our meanings of “dump”!




What does that do to the song “I Get Misty, The Moment You’re Near”? Does it mean romance is a load of crap?

Are we having fun yet?

When J’s German cousin Ada came to visit us in New York many years ago, we were puzzled that she shrank from putting sugar in her coffee. We kept the sugar in a pretty coffee can with a Christmas design. On the can was the word “Gift.”  In German, that means “poison.”

Then there’s pula:
In Finnish:   the national bread.

In Setswana, the language of Botswana:  rain; also the name of the currency. (I adore that; calling your money “rain.”  I can relate.)

In Romanian:  penis.

(Man-na from heaven?)

More examples?

September 1, 2009

Visiting German [UPDATED AGAIN]

(New UPDATE:  Read my brother’s wonderful discovery-tribute to the German language, even though it does make him break out in flop sweat and armbands.)

My brother, back in grad school as he approaches 50 (and feeling alternately exhilarated and ridiculous), is taking a crash course in reading scholarly German, than which nothing could be more insane.  You could accurately translate every word in a passage of such German, painstakingly consulting an on- or offline dictionary (here’s an amazing one, by the way, which serves up all the alternative and idiomatic translations of any word you feed into it, complete with examples in vivo), and still not understand the logical links and interactions among those words engineered by German grammar.  If you misread number, case, or gender, or overlook a little track-switching word like nur (only) or nicht (not) or sondern (which always works in harness with nicht to mean “not this, but rather that”), you could go in exactly the wrong direction.

Fortunately, my brother has a sort of tutor — me — at his fingertips, and I in turn have the indelible memory of three years of drilling in grammar by an actual German German teacher in my high school, W. Gregor Heggen (wow, never Googled him before, amazing how many people thank him for things like helping them learn Irish), overlaid by some experience speaking and reading the language, to draw on.  (Hey, that was a lot like a sentence in German!)  I’m subfluent, and I probably have to look up almost as many scholarly-vocabulary words as my brother; but I have a basic grasp of the underlying track-switching system, the rails of relationship beneath the freight cars of vocabulary, that weaves the structures of meaning in German.   Getting just that basic grasp took all three years.  When our teacher took eight of us teenagers to Germany for the summer of 1962, starting with a one-month family stay in his hometown of Paderborn, we all soon started speaking German, but I was the only one who spoke it grammatically, because I was the only one with three years under my belt.  The idea of a crash course in German grammar boggles the mind.

I’ve seen three passages my brother had to translate, and they represented three very different kinds of German.  One was modern and brusque, written in short sentences almost imitative of Hemingway English.  One was pretentious and convoluted, exploiting to the full the German mind’s ability to put the forward progress of a sentence indefinitely on hold right before the consummating verb for an enormous, indigestible digression.  (It gives an English speaker a case of linguistic blue balls that makes you go “hmmm” about German sexuality.  It’s almost sadomasochistic, that withholding of the verb that alone will let you off the hook about what’s actually happening in the sentence.  The English speaker has to plod around the digression in search of the verb, and perhaps the German mind does this too, but much, much faster, scooping up the whole digression as it goes in one deft pelican gulp.)

The third was a rather famous passage by the composer Arnold Schönberg.  Here it is in German, and here’s an official English translation — which is a lot like and no smoother than the one my brother accomplished with a little remedial nudging from me.  You’d think the Arnold Schönberg Center could have found a better translator, but that’s not the problem.  The problem is that it is untranslatable.  Rarely have I read anything in German so purely German, in that nearly every word of it falls either into a space between two English words or a space that encompasses two or three English words.

Take, for example, Geist, a cognate of “ghost” in English.  (That remains a minor and archaic meaning in German; there’s a separate word for the spooky meaning of “ghost,” Gespenst.)  In some contexts, it will be translated into English as “spirit;” in others, as “mind” or “intellect.”  But in German, it encompasses both.  They are not two different things.  We need at least two words to approximate the German word — poorly.  What does that mean?  It means, I think, that in English we think of mind as a tool, mechanism, or process that assembles or manipulates parts of ideas, while spirit is sort of featureless and above all that.  Mind is a factory, if an advanced one; spirit is a mist.  But in German, you think with your spirit.  Ideas are not something you assemble, they’re something you apprehend.

And here’s another one:  Wesen.  Literally Wesen means “being” — it even shows up doing scutwork in the grammar, where gewesen means “been.”  On a loftier plane it means the suchness of a thing — what in English it takes four lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins to say:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

UPDATE: Or, as Dr. Seuss put it

Today you are You/that is truer than true./ There is no one alive/ who is Youer than You.

For a one-word equivalent in English, we have to say “essence.”  While this is in fact the exact Latin equivalent — esse means “to be”! — it’s come to have a different connotation in English; it’s sideslid into the less essential realm of perfumes, oils, and flavorings, which were originally called “essences” because they were a thought to be a concentrate or emanation of the very being of a substance — the way it “selves — goes itself.”  In German, however, that kind of essence isn’t called Wesen — it’s called Geist.  As in Birnengeist, a very concentrated clear pear brandy.  Which brings us around to “spirits.” … and on and on.

Not to study at least one second language is a pity.  Other languages shine a different light on the world, showing up things that are really there that might remain dark in our language.  (There’s sometimes a leap of recognition when you learn a word in another language — it has lit up and pinned down one of the many, many phenomena we all feel but don’t have names for.)  They also shine a new light back on our language, helping us to find fossils and wellsprings that have been buried under the sediments of usage.

Other examples?

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