Archive for the ‘language’ Category
[Originally posted to linguistics.stackexchange.com as an answer to a question by user Manishearth, who asked: “I’ve heard many times that learning German is easier for those who speak Sanskrit, and vice versa. Is there any linguistic basis for this? What similarities exist between the two languages that may be able to explain this?”]
This is an answer not to the part about whether it is easier to learn German after Sanskrit (I don’t know), but rather, a few more assorted points re. “What similarities exist between the two languages”, or even more generally, “Why would people make such a claim?”
As Cerberus [another user] noted, most of these claims come from people whose familiarity, outside of Indian languages, is with mainly English, and perhaps a bit of French (or rarely, Spanish or Italian). So even though many similarities noted between Sanskrit and German are in fact those shared by many members of the Indo-European family, the claim just means that among the few languages considered, German’s similarities are remarkable.
[My background: I have a reasonable familiarity with Sanskrit; not so much with German. For impressions about German I’ll rely on the Wikipedia articles, and, (don’t lynch me) Mark Twain’s humorous essay The Awful German Language — of course I know it’s unfair and not a work of linguistics, but as examples of what the average English speaker might find unusual in German, it is a useful document.]
With that said, some similarities:
German apparently has four cases; Sanskrit has eight cases (traditional Sanskrit grammar counts seven, not counting the vocative as distinct). As Cerberus [another user] notes, “Sanskrit and German have several functional cases, whereas French/Spanish/Italian/Portuguese/Dutch/English/etc. do not. Those are the languages one might be inclined to compare Sanskrit with”.
Although English does have short compound words (like bluebird, horseshoe, paperback or pickpocket), German has a reputation for long compound words. (Twain complains that the average German sentence “is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens”) He mentions Stadtverordnetenversammlungen and Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen; Wikipedia mentions Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz and Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft. But these are nothing compared to the words one routinely finds in ornate Sanskrit prose. See for example this post. Sanskrit like German allows compounds of arbitrary length, and compounds made of four or five words are routinely found in even the most common Sanskrit texts.
Verb appearing late
It appears that German words tend to come later in the sentence than English speakers are comfortable with. I notice questions on this SE showing that German has V2 word order, not SOV. However, many English speakers seem to find late verbs in German worth remarking on. One of my favourite sentences from Hofstadter goes
“The proverbial German phenomenon of the “verb-at-the-end”, about which droll tales of absentminded professors who would begin a sentence, ramble on for an entire lecture, and then finish up by rattling off a string of verbs by which their audience, for whom the stack had long since lost its coherence, would be totally nonplussed, are told, is an excellent example of linguistic pushing and popping.”
Twain too, says “the reader is left to flounder through to the remote verb” and gives the analogy of
“But when he, upon the street, the (in-satin-and-silk-covered-now-very-unconstrained-after-the-newest-fashioned-dressed) government counselor’s wife met,”
“In the daybeforeyesterdayshortlyaftereleveno’clock Night, the inthistownstandingtavern called `The Wagoner’ was downburnt. When the fire to the onthedownburninghouseresting Stork’s Nest reached, flew the parent Storks away. But when the bytheraging, firesurrounded Nest itself caught Fire, straightway plunged the quickreturning Mother-stork into the Flames and died, her Wings over her young ones outspread.”
Well, this is exactly typical Sanskrit writing. Those sentences might have been translated verbatim from a Sanskrit text. Sanskrit technically has free word order (i.e., words can be put in any order), and this is made much use of in verse, but in prose, usage tends to be SOV.
Of Sanskrit’s greatest prose work, Kādambarī, someone named Albrecht Weber wrote in 1853 that in it,
“the verb is kept back to the second, third, fourth, nay, once to the sixth page, and all the interval is filled with epithets and epithets to these epithets: moreover these epithets frequently consist of compounds extending over more than one line; in short, Bāṇa’s prose is an Indian wood, where all progress is rendered impossible by the undergrowth until the traveller cuts out a path for himself, and where, even then, he has to reckon with malicious wild beasts in the shape of unknown words that affright him.” (“…ein wahrer indischer Wald…”)
(This is unfair criticism: personally, I have been lately reading the Kādambarī with the help of friends more experienced in Sanskrit, and I must say the style is truly enjoyable.) Now, the fact that this was a German Indologist writing for the Journal of the German Oriental Society somewhat goes against the claim of Sanskrit and German being similar. But one could say: for someone familiar with Sanskrit’s long compounds and late verbs that even Germans find difficult, the same features in German will pose little difficulty.
Adjectives decline like nouns
In Sanskrit, as it appears to be in German, an adjective takes the gender, case, and number of whatever it is describing. (Twain: “would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective”)
Gender of nouns has to be learned
By and large, it is so in Sanskrit as well. Twain notes that in German “a tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female — tomcats included, of course; a person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and not according to the sex of the individual who wears it — for in Germany all the women either male heads or sexless ones; a person’s nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven’t any sex at all”. (He goes on to write a “Tale of the Fishwife and its Sad Fate.”) It does not seem quite so bad in Sanskrit, but yes, gender of words needs to be learned. (In Sanskrit there exists a word for “wife” in each of the three genders.) However this is a feature common to many languages (including, say, languages like Hindi or French that have only two genders) so I shouldn’t list it among similarities.
This is something quite trivial, and linguists often don’t even consider orthography a part of the language proper, but spelling seems to be a pretty big deal to Indians learning other languages. The writing systems of most Indian languages are phonetic, in the sense that the spelling deterministically reflects the pronunciation and vice-versa. There are no silent letters, no wondering about a word spelled in a particular way is pronounced. Indian learners of English often complain about the ad-hoc inconsistent spelling of English; it seems a bigger deal than it should be. From this point of view, the fact that it is claimed that for German, “After one short lesson in the alphabet, the student can tell how any German word is pronounced without having to ask” means that that aspect of German is easier to learn.
The harmony of sound and sense
This is extremely subjective and will be controversial, and perhaps I will seem biased, but to me, in Sanskrit, it seems possible to pick words whose sounds match the desired feeling, better than in other languages. I have seen people who knew many languages say the same thing, and also Western translators from Sanskrit etc., so it is interesting for me to see Twain make a similar remark about German. Anyway, this is subjective, so I’ll not dwell on this much.
There are of course many; e.g. Sanskrit does not have articles (the, etc.) unlike German. It also has very few prepositions (has only a few ones like “without”, “with”, “before”), as the work of prepositions like “to”, “from”, or “by” is handled by case. The difficulty of German prepositions does not seem to be present in Sanskrit.
Some alleged difficulties of learning German, such as cases, long compounds, and word order, are present to a far greater extent in Sanskrit, so in principle someone who knows Sanskrit may be able to pick them up more easily than someone trying to learn German without this knowledge. However, this may not be saying anything more than that knowing one language helps you learn others.
An early English example of resegmentation for change of meaning: Merygreeke’s letter to the Dame Custance, from Ralph Roister Doister (c. 1553), the first comedy to be written in the English language. [Aside: Shakespeare born in 1564 started had written all his plays before 1613, only 60 years from then.]
The example also shows that enjambment (no pause at end of line) did indeed exist in early English as well.
Sweete mistresse where as I loue you nothing at all,
Sweete mistresse, where as I loue you, nothing at all
I reproduce below the line below Stephen Fry’s entire foreword to his book The Ode Less Travelled, because I find myself frequently referring to it and would like to be able to direct friends to some place to read it — this is now such a place.
I HAVE A DARK AND DREADFUL SECRET. I write poetry. This is an embarrassing confession for an adult to make. In their idle hours Winston Churchill and Noël Coward painted. For fun and relaxation Albert Einstein played the violin. Hemingway hunted, Agatha Christie gardened, James Joyce sang arias and Nabokov chased butterflies. But poetry?
I have a friend who drums in the attic, another who has been building a boat for years. An actor I know is prouder of the reproduction eighteenth-century duelling pistols he makes in a small workshop than he is of his knighthood. Britain is a nation of hobbyists—eccentric amateurs, talented part-timers, Pooterish potterers and dedicated autodidacts in every field of human endeavour. But poetry?
An adolescent girl may write poetry, so long as it is securely locked up in her pink leatherette five-year diary. Suburban professionals are permitted to enter jolly pastiche competitions in the Spectator and New Statesman. At a pinch, a young man may be allowed to write a verse or two of dirty doggerel and leave it on a post-it note stuck to the fridge when he has forgotten to buy a Valentine card. But that’s it. Any more forays into the world of Poesy and you release the beast that lurks within every British breast—and the name of the beast is Embarrassment.
I believe poetry is a primal impulse within us all. I believe we are all capable of it and furthermore that a small, often ignored corner of us positively yearns to try it. I believe our poetic impulse is blocked by the false belief that poetry might on the one hand be academic and technical and on the other formless and random. It seems to many that while there is a clear road to learning music, gardening or watercolours, poetry lies in inaccessible marshland: no pathways, no signposts, just the skeletons of long-dead poets poking through the bog and the unedifying sight of living ones floundering about in apparent confusion and mutual enmity. Behind it all, the dread memory of classrooms swollen into resentful silence while the English teacher invites us to ‘respond’ to a poem.
For me the private act of writing poetry is songwriting, confessional, diary-keeping, speculation, problem-solving, storytelling, therapy, anger management, craftsmanship, relaxation, concentration and spiritual adventure all in one inexpensive package.
Suppose I want to paint but seem to have no obvious talent. Never mind: there are artist supply shops selling paints, papers, pastels, charcoals and crayons. There are ‘How To’ books everywhere. Simple lessons in the rules of proportion and guides to composition and colourmixing can make up for my lack of natural ability and provide painless technical grounding. I am helped by grids and outlines, pantographs and tracing paper; precise instructions guide me in how to prepare a canvas, prime it with paint and wash it into an instant watercolour sky. There are instructional videos available; I can even find channels on cable and satellite television showing gentle hippies painting lakes, carving pine trees with palette knives and dotting them with impasto snow. Mahlsticks, sable, hogs-hair, turpentine and linseed. Viridian, umber, ochre and carmine. Perspective, chiaroscuro, sfumato, grisaille, tondo and morbidezza. Reserved modes and materials. The tools of the trade. A new jargon to learn. A whole initiation into technique, form and style.
Suppose I want to play music but seem to have no obvious talent. Never mind: there are music shops selling instruments, tuning forks, metronomes and ‘How To’ books by the score. And scores by the score. Instructional videos abound. I can buy digital keyboards linked to programmes that plug into my computer and guide me through the rudiments, monitoring my progress and accuracy. I start with scales and move on to chords and arpeggios. There are horsehair, rosin and catgut, reeds, plectrums and mouthpieces. There are diminished sevenths, augmented fifths, relative minors, trills and accidentals. There are riffs and figures, licks and vamps. Sonata, adagio, crescendo, scherzo and twelve-bar blues. Reserved modes and materials. The tools of the trade. A new jargon to learn. A whole initiation into technique, form and style.
To help us further there are evening classes, clubs and groups. Pack up your easel and palette and go into the countryside with a party of like-minded enthusiasts. Sit down with a friend and learn a new chord on the guitar. Join a band. Turn your watercolour view of Lake Windermere into a tablemat or T-shirt. Burn your version of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ onto a CD and alarm your friends.
None of these adventures into technique and proficiency will necessarily turn you into a genius or even a proficient craftsman. Your view of Snow on York Minster, whether languishing in the loft or forming the basis of this year’s Christmas card doesn’t make you Turner, Constable or Monet. Your version of ‘Fur Elise’ on electric piano might not threaten Alfred Brendel, your trumpet blast of ‘Basin Street Blues’ could be so far from Satchmo that it hurts and your take on ‘Lela’ may well stand as an eternal reproach to all those with ears to hear. You may not sell a single picture, be invited even once to deputise for the church organist when she goes down with shingles or have any luck at all when you try out for the local Bay City Rollers tribute band. You are neither Great Artist, sessions professional, illustrator or admired amateur.
So what? You are someone who paints a bit, scratches around on the keyboard for fun, gets a kick out of learning a tune or discovering a new way of rendering the face of your beloved in charcoal. You have another life, you have family, work and friends but this is a hobby, a pastime, FUN. Do you give up the Sunday kick-around because you’ll never be Thierry Henry? Of course not. That would be pathologically vain. We don’t stop talking about how the world might be better just because we have no chance of making it to Prime Minister. We are all politicians. We are all artists. In an open society everything the mind and hands can achieve is our birthright. It is up to us to claim it.
And you know, you might be the real thing, or someone with the potential to give as much pleasure to others as you derive yourself. But how you will ever know if you don’t try?
As the above is true of painting and music, so it is true of cookery and photography and gardening and interior decoration and chess and poker and skiing and sailing and carpentry and bridge and wine and knitting and brass-rubbing and line-dancing and the hundreds of other activities that enrich and enliven the daily toil of getting and spending, mortgages and shopping, school and office. There are rules, conventions, techniques, reserved objects, equipment and paraphernalia, time-honoured modes, forms, jargon and tradition. The average practitioner doesn’t expect to win prizes, earn a fortune, become famous or acquire absolute mastery in their art, craft, sport-or as we would say now, their chosen leisure pursuit. It really is enough to have fun.
The point remains: it isn’t a burden to learn the difference between acid and alkaline soil or understand how f-stops and exposure times affect your photograph. There’s no drudgery or humiliation in discovering how to knit, purl and cast off, snowplough your skis, deglaze a pan, carve a dovetail or tot up your bridge hand according to Acol. Only an embarrassed adolescent or deranged coward thinks jargon and reserved languages are pretentious and that detail and structure are boring. Sensible people are above simpering at references to colour in music, structure in wine or rhythm in architecture. When you learn to sail you are literally shown the ropes and taught that they are called sheets or painters and that knots are hitches and forward is aft and right is starboard. That is not pseudery or exclusivity, it is precision, it is part of initiating the newcomer into the guild. Learning the lingo is the beginning of our rite of passage.
In music, tempo is not the same as rhythm, which is not the same as pulse. There are metronomic indications and time signatures. At some point along the road between picking out a tune with one finger and really playing we need to know these distinctions. For some it comes naturally and seems inborn, for most of us the music is buried deep inside but needs a little coaxing and tuition to be got out. So someone shows us, or we progress by video, evening class or book. Talent is inborn but technique is learned.
Talent without technique is like an engine without a steering wheel, gears or brakes. It doesn’t matter how thoroughbred and powerful the V12 under the bonnet if it can’t be steered and kept under control. Talented people who do nothing with their gifts often crash and burn. A great truth, so obvious that it is almost a secret, is that most people are embarrassed to the point of shame by their talents. Ashamed of their gifts but proud to bursting of their achievements. Do athletes boast of their hand-eye coordination, grace and natural sense of balance? No, they talk of how hard they trained, the sacrifices they made, the effort they put in.
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp
Or what’s a heaven for?
Robert Browning’s cry brings us back, at last, to poetry. While it is perfectly possible that you did not learn music at school, or drawing and painting, it is almost certain that you did learn poetry. Not how to do it, almost never how to write your own, but how, God help us, to appreciate it.
We have all of us, all of us, sat with brows furrowed feeling incredibly dense and dumb as the teacher asks us to respond to an image or line of verse.
What do you think Wordsworth was referring to here?
What does Wilfred Owen achieve by choosing this metaphor?
How does Keats respond to the nightingale?
Why do you think Shakespeare uses the word ‘gentle’ as a verb?
What is Larkin’s attitude to the hotel room?
It brings it all back, doesn’t it? All the red-faced, blood-pounding humiliation and embarrassment of being singled out for comment.
The way poetry was taught at school reminded W. H. Auden of a Punch cartoon composed, legend has it, by the poet A. E. Housman. Two English teachers are walking in the woods in springtime. The first, on hearing birdsong, is moved to quote William Wordsworth:
TEACHER 1: Oh cuckoo, shall I call thee bird
Or but a wandering voice?
TEACHER 2: State the alternative preferred
With reasons for your choice.
Even if some secret part of you might have been privately moved and engaged, you probably went through a stage of loathing those bores Shakespeare, Keats, Owen, Eliot, Larkin and all who came before and after them. You may love them now, you may still hate them or perhaps you feel entirely indifferent to the whole pack of them. But however well or badly we were taught English literature, how many of us have ever been shown how to write our own poems?
Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to rhyme. Don’t bother with metre and verses. Just express yourself. Pour out your feelings.
Suppose you had never played the piano in your life.
Don’t worry, just lift the lid and express yourself. Pour out your feelings.
We have all heard children do just that and we have all wanted to treat them with great violence as a result. Yet this is the only instruction we are ever likely to get in the art of writing poetry: Anything goes.
But that’s how modern poetry works, isn’t it? Free verse, don’t they call it? Vers libre?
Ye-e-es…And in avant-garde music, John Cage famously wrote a piece of silence called ‘4 Minutes 33 Seconds’ and created other works requiring ball-bearings and chains to be dropped on to prepared pianos. Do music teachers suggest that to children? Do we encourage them to ignore all harmony and rhythm and just make noise? It is important to realise that Cage’s first pieces were written in the Western compositional tradition, in movements with conventional Italian names like lento, vivace and fugato. Picasso’s early paintings are flawless models of figurative accuracy. Listening to music may inspire an extraordinary emotional response, but extraordinary emotions are not enough to make music.
Unlike musical notation, paint or clay, language is inside every one of us. For free. We are all proficient at it. We already have the palette, the paints and the instruments. We don’t have to go and buy any reserved materials. Poetry is made of the same stuff you are reading now, the same stuff you use to order pizza over the phone, the same stuff you yell at your parents and children, whisper in your lover’s ear and shove into an e-mail, text or birthday card. It is common to us all. Is that why we resent being told that there is a technique to its highest expression, poetry? I cannot ski, so I would like to be shown how to. I cannot paint, so I would value some lessons. But I can speak and write, so do not waste my time telling me that I need lessons in poetry, which is, after all, no more than emotional writing, with or without the odd rhyme. Isn’t it?
Jan Schreiber in a review of Timothy Steele’s Missing Measures, says this of modern verse:
The writing of poetry has been made laughably easy. There are no technical constraints. Knowledge of the tradition is not necessary, nor is a desire to communicate, this having been supplanted in many practitioners by the more urgent desire to express themselves. Even sophistication in the manipulation of syntax is not sought. Poetry, it seems, need no longer be at least as well written as prose.
Personally, I find writing without form, metre or rhyme not ‘laughably easy’ but fantastically difficult. If you can do it, good luck to you and farewell, this book is not for you: but a word of warning from W.H. Auden before you go.
The poet who writes ‘free’ verse is like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island: he must do all his cooking, laundry and darning for himself. In a few exceptional cases, this manly independence produces something original and impressive, but more often the result is squalor—dirty sheets on the unmade bed and empty bottles on the unswept floor.
I cannot teach you how to be a great poet or even a good one. Dammit, I can’t teach myself that. But I can show you how to have fun with the modes and forms of poetry as they have developed over the years. By the time you have read this book you will be able to write a Petrarchan sonnet, a Sapphic Ode, a ballade, a villanelle and a Spenserian stanza, among many other weird and delightful forms; you will be confident with metre, rhyme and much else besides. Whether you choose to write on the stupidity of advertising, the curve of your true love’s buttocks, the folly of war or the irritation of not being able to open a pickle jar is unimportant. I will give you the tools, you can finish the job. And once you have got the hang of the forms, you can devise your own. The Robertsonian Sonnet. The Jonesian Ode. The Millerian Stanza.
This is not an academic book. It is unlikely to become part of the core curriculum. It may help you with your English exams because it will certainly allow you to be a smart-arse in Practical Criticism papers (if such things still exist) and demonstrate that you know a trochee from a dactyl, a terza from an ottava rima and assonance from enjambment, in which case I am happy to be of service. It is over a quarter of a century since I did any teaching and I have no idea if such knowledge is considered good or useless these days, for all I know it will count against you.
I have written this book because over the past thirty-five years I have derived enormous private pleasure from writing poetry and like anyone with a passion I am keen to share it. You will be relieved to hear that I will not be burdening you with any of my actual poems (except sample verse specifically designed to help clarify form and metre): I do not write poetry for publication, I write it for the same reason that, according to Wilde, one should write a diary, to have something sensational to read on the train. And as a way of speaking to myself. But most importantly of all for pleasure.
This is not the only work on prosody (the art of versification) ever published in English, but it is the one that I should like to have been available to me many years ago. It is technical, yes, inasmuch as it investigates technique, but I hope that does not make it dry, obscure or difficult-after all, ‘technique’ is just the Greek for ‘art’. I have tried to make everything approachable without being loopily matey or absurdly simplistic.
I certainly do not attempt in this book to pick up where those poor teachers left off and instruct you in poetry appreciation. I suspect, however, that once you have started writing a poem of any real shape you will find yourself admiring and appreciating other poets’ work a great deal more. If you have never picked up a golf club you will never really know just how remarkable Ernie Els is (substitute tennis racket for Roger Federer, frying pan for Gordon Ramsay, piano for Jools Holland and so on).
But maybe you are too old a dog to learn new tricks? Maybe you have missed the bus? That’s hooey. Thomas Hardy (a finer poet than he was a novelist in my view) did not start publishing verse till he was nearly sixty.
Every child is musical. Unfortunately this natural gift is squelched before it has time to develop. From all my life experience I remember being laughed at because my voice and the words I sang didn’t please someone. My second grade teacher, Miss Stone would not let me sing with the rest of the class because she judged my voice as not musical and she said I threw the class off key. I believed her which led to the blockage of my appreciation of music and blocked my ability to write poetry. Fortunately at the age of 57 I had a significant emotional event which unblocked my ability to compose poetry which many people believe has lyrical qualities.
So writes one Sidney Madwed. Mr Madwed may not be Thomas Campion or Cole Porter, but he believes that an understanding of prosody has set him free and now clearly has a whale of a time writing his lyrics and verses. I hope reading this book will take the place for you of a ‘significant emotional event’ and awaken the poet that has always lain dormant within.
It is never too late. We are all opsimaths.
Opsimath, noun: one who learns late in life.
Let us go forward together now, both opsimathically and optimistically. Nothing can hold us back. The ode beckons.
In a book called A History of Kanarese Literature, by Edward Rice (1921), he makes the following comment (p. 106):
The other is that a Kanarese poem defies anything like literal translation into another language. To give any idea of the spirit of the original it would be necessary to paraphrase freely, to expand the terse and frequent metaphors into similes, and to give a double rendering of many stanzas. An example will make this clear. The opening stanza of the Jaimini Bharata is given in Sanderson’s translation as follows:
May the moon-face of Vishnu, of Devapura, always suffused with moonlight smile, full of delightful favour-ambrosial rays—at which the chakora-eye of Lakshmi is enraptured, the lotus-bud heart of the devout expands, and the sea of the world’s pure happiness rises and overflows its bounds—give us joy.
The following is an attempt, by means of a freer rendering, to retain something of the spirit of the original:
When the full moon through heaven rides,
Broad Ocean swells with all its tides ;
The lotus blossom on the stream
Opens to drink the silv’ry beam ;
And far aloft with tranced gaze
The chakor bird feeds on the rays.
So, when great Vishnu’s face is seen,—
Whom men adore at Devapore—
Like to the sea, the devotee
Thrills with a tide of joy ;
Like to the flower, that blissful hour
The heart of the devout expands ;
And Lakshmi Queen, with rapture keen,
Watches with ever-radiant face
For her great Consort’s heavenly grace.
O may that grace be ours !
I’m wondering about this change. Apart from the versification—you know, being an actual poem instead of stilted prose—when it comes to just the idea, is it better? Why? How? Is it more readable? More understandable? Most importantly, does this change better “retain the spirit of the original”?
[Aside: just to be mischievous, we can with the wonders of technology do the following:
|Vishnu’s face||smile||his grace||Lakshmi’s eye||heart of the devout||world’s happiness|
to ruin the poem.]
For one thing, he has changed the metaphor (rūpaka) of the original into simile (upamā).
Probably the reason is that the compressed quality of the original, a prominent characteristic of Sanskrit and other classical Indian literature, is unsuitable for English, whose readers are typically unprepared for it. Is there more to it? Is this a general difference between the two literary cultures?
I’m wondering all this because Daniel Ingalls says something along similar lines in his honestly-written general introduction “Sanskrit poetry and Sanskrit Poetics” (from his translation of the Subhāṣita-ratna-kośa anthology):
As a result, Sanskrit is lacking in what is perhaps the chief force of English poetry: its kinesthetic effect. What I mean can be shown by an old ballad:
Martinmas wind, when wilt thou blow
and shake the green leaves off the tree…
One can feel the leaves shaking, and one shivers in the next line to the “Frost that freezes fell / and blowing snow’s inclemency.” One can find verses that produce this muscular effect in Bengali, and although I cannot speak at first hand of other modern Indian literatures, I imagine that one can find the effect in them as well. But it is only rarely that one finds it in Sanskrit. The powers of Sanskrit are of a different order.
[The following verse] is by Yogeśvara, an excellent poet who is capable of better things. In it he uses a strikingly elaborate metaphor:
Now the great cloud-cat,
darting out his lightning tongue,
licks the creamy moon
from the saucepan of the sky.
The effect here is gained by intellectual, entirely rational means. The metaphor is complete in every detail: cat, tongue, cream, and saucepan—cloud, moon, lightning, and sky. It is almost like an exercise from a manual of logic under the chapter “Analogy.” Compare the verse with a well-known passage of T. S. Eliot which uses several similar ideas, but uses them very differently:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains, …
This from one who is often called an intellectual poet. And yet Eliot gets his effect in every line from the irrational, the strong but imprecise memory we have of fog and cats, the childhood associations of certain words and idioms. Consider the line: “Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening.” It brings to sudden flower certain homely and completely natural phrases: “licks his tongue around the bowl,” or “licks his tongue into the corner of the dish.” The idiom is suddenly transfigured by bringing it into juxtaposition with the last three words, “of the evening.” This transfiguration of language becomes impossible without a natural-language basis.
Is there a general point here that English poetry uses vague, fuzzy, but “kinesthetic” effects where Sanskrit (or classical Indian) poetry uses compressed metaphors that paint a precise and detailed picture? I think there is some merit to the idea that, by and large, Sanskrit poetry is “static”, not “dynamic”. It is not a stream in motion; it hasn’t any “flow”. It is more a pearl in itself, that dazzles as you read. If poetry is imagination and the evocation of something other-worldly, it seems to me that Sanskrit poetry in general / at its best, conjures a world that one can calmly dwell in for a while, not an evocative fleeting idea that escapes as you try to grasp it, one which has appeal more in the chasing. Consider the importance accorded ultimately to stability / sthāyī-bhāva in all Indian arts, from poetry to theatre to dance.
This requires more thought and elaboration, but one may as well quote the final lines of Ingalls’s introduction (emphasis mine):
One may argue today, as the Sanskrit critics argued in the past, the relative importance of the various factors of Sanskrit verse which I have discussed. Vocabulary, grammar, meter: these are all necessary. Figures of speech, both verbal and intellectual, furnish delight. Mood is what is sought, though the grand successes of Sanskrit I would say go beyond mood to a sort of universal revelation, to what James Joyce, drawing on the vocabulary of religion, called an epiphany. To achieve this success impersonality is a prerequisite and suggestion is the chief instrument. If I were to single out for admiration one factor above the others in this complex it would be suggestion, not because it is unknown in other languages but because the Sanskrit poets use it with such brilliance and because it seems to me the most intimately connected of all the factors with the excitement, the sudden rushing of the mind into a delightful, calm expansion, that one occasionally derives from Sanskrit poetry and that brings one who has once known it constantly back for further draughts.
The absence of a Kannada dictionary online has been a source of pain for a while (unlike Sanskrit dictionaries). Mohan pointed me to the one at kannadakasturi.com with the warning that it is very slow. He also found that the Internet Archive has a scanned copy of the Kittel dictionary (A Kannada-English school-dictionary : chiefly based on the labours of the Rev. Dr. F. Kittel, by the Rev. J. Bucher (1899)). This is actually a fairly good dictionary and could serve most common purposes. Until someone digitizes it and puts it online (this version at least is out of copyright), we will have to make do with looking up words in this scanned copy. To make it easier to find the right page, below is an “index” to the dictionary. Look down the second column in the table below to find the approximate position of the word you want, then click on the corresponding link in the left column. The gap between successive entries is at most 10 pages, so you should be able to find any word with a click and at most 3 page flips.
- Extend this data to all pages in the dictionary (around 454/2 = 227)
- Write a web interface where you can type a word/prefix and be taken to the exact page
Feel free to take it up.
[Originally posted to paronomasia/pun-ctilious.]
Charles Dickens at 24 was writing his first novel The Pickwick Papers, which was being published serially like all novels of the era. Sales were chugging along decently for the first three months, until the character Sam Weller was introduced. The career of Dickens would never be the same. The novel became a publishing phenomenon and from that moment on he was a star, and new instalments of Dickens’s novels were often more eagerly awaited than any Harry Potter book has been.
Among the characteristics that made Sam Weller so popular with the masses were his linguistic charms, one of them a form of quotation known as a Wellerism. This survives in American popular culture as the rather lame and narrow-in-scope “…that’s what she said” (or the British “…as the actress said to the bishop”), but turning to samples from Dickens himself:
“out vith it, as the father said to his child, when he swallowed a farden.”
“How are you, ma’am?” said Mr. Weller. “Wery glad to see you, indeed, and hope our acquaintance may be a long ‘un, as the gen’l’m’n said to the fi’ pun’ note.”
“All good feelin’, sir—the wery best intentions, as the gen’l’m’n said ven he run away from his wife ‘cos she seemed unhappy with him,” replied Mr. Weller.
“There; now we look compact and comfortable, as the father said ven he cut his little boy’s head off, to cure him o’ squintin’.”
“Yes, but that ain’t all,” said Sam, […] “vich I call addin’ insult to injury, as the parrot said ven they not only took him from his native land, but made him talk the English langwidge arterwards.”
“Sorry to do anythin’ as may cause an interruption to such wery pleasant proceedin’s, as the king said wen he dissolved the parliament,” interposed Mr. Weller, who had been peeping through the glass door;…
More examples not from Dickens, from Wikipedia and elsewhere:
“We’ll have to rehearse that,” as the undertaker said when the coffin fell out of the car.
“Simply remarkable,” said the teacher when asked her opinion about the new dry-erase board.
“Don’t move, I’ve got you covered”, as the wallpaper said to the wall.
‘It all comes back to me now’, said the Captain as he spat into the wind.
‘Eureka!’ said Archimedes to the skunk.
“Each moment makes thee dearer,” as the parsimonious tradesman said to his extravagant wife.
“Capital punishment,” as the boy said when the teacher seated him with the girls.
“I’ve been to see an old flame,” remarked the young man returning from Vesuvius.
“I hope I made myself clear,” as the water said when it passed through the filter.
“I’m at my wit’s end,” said the king as he trod on the jester’s toe.
“These are grave charges,” murmured the hopeless one, as he perused the bill for the burial of his mother-in-law.
“Notice the foot-note at the bottom of the page,” laughed the court fool, as the royal attendant’s shoes emitted a squeak.
“That’s my mission in life,” said the monk, as he pointed to his monastery.
“Oh, how blue I am,” mourned the poet, as his fountain pen spattered upon him.
“That’s an old gag,” said the cashier, as the bandit stopped up his mouth.
“My business is looking good,” said the model.
See also this post by Krish Ashok, which has a stream of examples culminating in
“Looks like we still have gaps”, he pointed out, like Aamer Sohail to Venkatesh Prasad.
A subgenre is the “Tom Swifty”, with a pun on the adverb:
“The doctor had to remove my left ventricle,” said Tom half-heartedly.
“The situation is grave,” Tom said cryptically.
“I’ve joined the navy,” Tom said fleetingly.
“I have a split personality,” said Tom, being frank.
“This is the real male goose,” said Tom producing the propaganda.
“I won’t finish in fifth place,” Tom held forth.
[See the paronomasia archives for more Tom Swifties from its members, like
“Let’s put them in to bat now and bowl them out,” Tom declared.
and of course everywhere on the internet.]
Continuing with the theme of translation…
If you have ever watched Indian movies with English subtitles, you will be aware of how uniformly terrible they are. Everything is usually translated over-literally, into phrases that make no sense in English even for ideas common enough that non-literal equivalents exist. (Remember those award-winning regional-language films that Doordarshan used to broadcast at 11:30 pm on Sundays, which you used to watch after your parents had gone to sleep, and where you always had to guess what was meant by translating the English subtitles back into an Indian language?)
Sometimes—very rarely—the subtitles are done with more care, and any successful translation is always worth applauding.
Here is a post on the subject by Carla FilmiGeek, where she mentions a trailer in which a character is in a screen test, saying lines like Kitne aadmi the?, while the subtitles have lines like “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender” and “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”
That is to say, instead of literally rendering the famous lines from the Hindi films (“How many men were there?” &c.) the subtitler chose a conceptual translation that slipped the category of “famous lines from Hindi films” to “famous lines from Hollywood films.” This rendition conveys the force of what is happening on the screen – the dog is reenacting famous movie scenes – much better than could have been done by a literal translation. […] ; it is not a linguistic translation only, but also a cultural translation.
The comments there also mention this from Hum Aapke Hain Kaun:
“daal mein kuch kaala hai, bhaiyyaji”
“mujhe kaali daal to pasand hain”
Literally this translates to something along the lines of:
“there is something black in the lentils, brother”
“I love black lentils”
but the subtitles instead read:
“something is fishy!”
“I love fish”
This post was occasioned by the few Hindi movies I saw over the last couple of years—though I would have preferred watching them without subtitles, it’s hard not to read them when they’re forcibly displayed on screen—and was impressed by the English subtitles at times. I don’t think this is a general trend of better subtitles (though foreign markets are slowly growing in importance for Bollywood), but merely isolated examples.
The first was Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na, where I was more impressed by the uniformly high quality of the subtitles than by the film. What I found most impressive was that the song lyrics were translated into rhyming verses while still remaining reasonably song-like: where the Hindi lyrics say:
Nazre milaana, nazre churana
kahin pe nigaahen, kahin pe nishaana…
the subtitles say:
The secret look. The stolen gaze.
Finds it’s mark, and yet it strays.
and so on. It may not mean exactly the same thing, but is close enough to whatever extent anyone pays attention to the meaning of song lyrics. Despite the “it’s”, I found it amazing how much care the subtitlers had taken throughout the film in finding the right phrases. Cliches are translated into cliches, colloquialisms into colloquialisms, and everything suggests much thought has gone into it. Subtitlers never get credit for their hard work, so let me acknowledge their names: the credits attribute “English subtitling” to “Renuka Kunzuru” and “Chirag Todiwala” (who also appear in the credits as the actress (“Renuku Kunzru”) who plays the character the film is being narrated to, and an assistant editor respectively).
The second example was the Munnabhai films. These are a special challenge because the films often rely for effect on slang Hindi, puns, cultural references and the like (you don’t realise how much until you try translating). The first film has passably decent and thoughtful subtitles, given the constraints, with even a few inspired choices. But the subtitles of the second film, Lage Raho Munnabhai ambitiously overextend themselves, often to lame effect. They so often make up new material that they seem to construct an entire (irrelevant) parallel literature: For instance, where in the original ‘Circuit’ politely explains at knifepoint to the professor that they should help each other in life, and that in exchange for information on Gandhi, he’d be perfectly willing to impart knowledge on “Shakeel Heda, Dagdu Dada, Afzal Tonda”, the subtitles mention “Franky four-fingers, Bullet-tooth Tony, Boris ‘the blade'”. This seems less an intentional tribute to Guy Ritche’s Snatch (nowhere present in the original) than simply a failure of imagination in coming up with gangster names, and distracts from what’s happening onscreen. Philip Lutgendorf seems to feel the same way; he dislikes Shah Rukh Khan and Dilip Kumar being mapped to Brad Pitt and Robert Redford, and that “clever Hinglish puns are replaced by irrelevant and less-than-clever English word-play”.
The moral, I guess, is that though “cultural translation” can be better than literal translation in conveying the intended effect, and is always worth attempting, it is not the point in itself, and must be carried out only so far as the result is palatable, and the translation does not draw undue attention to itself.
(Aside: it is interesting to read about Bollywood from the perspective of non-Indians; one gets to learn about one’s own films by seeing what they “get” and don’t get, what they observe and find notable that we’d take for granted. Hilarious initial reactions are one thing, but for reviews by people intimately familiar with Hindi cinema (who have probably watched more Hindi films than I have), among the many many Bollywood blogs present online, I especially recommend Filmi Geek and “philip’s fil-ums”. Lutgendorf, for instance, seems to often pick up references to mythology that we’d not even notice, as we’ve internalized these stories so deeply.)