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As I mentioned in my earlier post Adventures in Russian Translation, I read a lot of foreign books. Nowadays, I estimate that I read more books that have been translated from foreign languages than originated in my own. I’ve even bought foreign books in their original language just so I can chip away at them slowly (I’m looking at you, Koji Suzuki). And I always make an effort to learn at least the fundamentals of any language that I read a translation of. It may sound crazy, but my father became fluent in ancient Greek just so he could read the original text of the Bible. So in comparison, I may be overenthusiastic, but I’m not that overenthusiastic.

What I mean is that I have a lot of experience in reading translations from foreign works, and I know what I’m talking about when I recommend one translation over another. I once sat on the floor of the bookstore with five different versions of Anna Karenina open in front of me, just comparing passages for twenty minutes before deciding on one. Of course I can’t suggest this for everyone, because most people won’t care enough to spend the time. But, for anyone looking to buy a foreign book of which multiple translations exist, I can help simplify the process with a few key points to look for that, in my own experience, tend to mark a high-quality translation. For some quick-and-dirty “cheats” that only take a few seconds each to find all these things in a text, scroll to the bottom.

1. A good translation is the truest to the language and culture.
First and foremost, something truer to the original language is always preferable over a version that has been Americanized or “smoothed over” to make it an easier read. Some translations of Tolstoy’s (non-War and Peace) work play down the Russian culture and time period so much that you might think it was all going on in your own backyard. What the hell is the point of that? If you’re going to read a classical foreign novel, for God’s sakes, read it right. Things like original names and slang of the time/place are a must. But more about that later. Bottom line: pick the translation closer to the original language. There are extremely rare exceptions; chances are yours is not one of them.

2. A good translation uses original character names, including prefixes, suffixes, nicknames, and traditional formats.
This is very important, especially in languages like Japanese or Russian where nicknames and suffixes are crucial parts of character relationships.

Example: You cannot properly read a Japanese novel or manga or whatever without honorific suffixes. You just can’t. All those -sans, -chans, and -kuns are absolutely crucial; it’s not just a way of saying “Mr” or “Miss”. In Japanese, suffixes are almost always used for any relationship. Only some family members and good friends are allowed to drop suffixes, and even then, they are still occasionally used.

Suffixes hint at social hierarchy and the closeness of relationships. Girls and small children are often given the suffix -chan (as in, Ayumi-chan), which means small, and it can be used to indicate cuteness or perceived cuteness. It can be added on to last names or first names. The suffix -sama is given to those above one’s own position, or whom one respects (as in, Yamaguchi-sama). There are others: -kun indicates a friend or someone one is familiar with (usually male); -dono is an archaic term for ‘Lord’ or ‘Lady’ or someone to be greatly respected, and is essential to be retained in classical Japanese literature; -senpai is used in high school dramas to indicate an upperclassman. These suffixes hint at the nature of relationships between the characters, and it can be a big deal in a story when a suffix is dropped or an honorific is changed from -chan to -san, or from -senpai to -kun. They represent growing relationships between the characters.

Similarly, classical Russian literature has characters referring to others by nicknames that can reveal the nature of their relationship. In The Brothers Karamazov, for instance, almost everyone in the book refers to the character Aleksey Fyodorovich Karamazov by his nickname ‘Alyosha’. his indicates that he is well-liked and on informal terms with everyone he knows. On the other hand, he mostly refers to other characters by their given names, being more polite. His brother, Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov, is by contrast very serious and morose; he calls everyone except Alyosha by their formal names and no one, not even his brothers, call Ivan by any nickname. This suggests rightly that none of the characters are close to Ivan. Their father, Fyodor, constantly refers to his son by extremely “cute” names (Alyoshechka/Alekseychick, Vanechka, Mitenka) while drunk; the drunker he gets, the “cuter” and more elaborate his nicknames for them become.

The only exception to this rule is when an extremely literal phonetic rendering of a name spoils the intended meaning. For instance, the Japanese manga/anime Death Note has a main character named Light (actually written in Japanese to sound like the English word, not the Japanese word for light). Some translations give the the character’s name in English as “Raito”, which is how it is written with the Japanese alphabet; however, it is written to be pronounced as close to “Light” in their language as possible, because there isn’t an “L”- or terminal “T”-sound in Japanese. “Raito” is just an extremely literal rendering of “Light”, but English audiences that don’t know anything about Japanese would never pick that up, and besides, it ruins the author’s original intentions for that name. Translations that do this sort of thing are just silly. My name written with the Japanese alphabet spells “Kurisuteiin”, but would I ever want it translated back into English as that mess of letters instead of “Kristine”? No. That’s just stupid. That kind of phonetic rendering has no meaning outside of its home language and shouldn’t be translated literally anywhere.

3. A good translation retains language-specific words that cannot be directly translated.
Words that do not have any direct translation, such as a kind of food or clothing, should not be omitted from a translation. They are much more descriptive than another language’s attempt to work around them. A footnote and explanation is always, always superior to a smoothing over of the text. There aren’t any exceptions to this one. Aside from cultural things like food and clothing, some languages have words for things that others do not, and they should be properly explained in a footnote rather than indirectly translated.

For example, the English version of the popular anime series Inuyasha translated the Japanese concept of youkai to “demon”, which is not culturally correct. In Japanese folklore, a youkai is kind of a supernatural creature or spirit that typically has both human and animal body parts. Depending on the subtype, their behavior ranges from melancholy to mischievous, to neutral or destructive. In our language, a demon is something evil and associated with religion and Satanism – very far from the concept of Japanese youkai. Introducing the creature called “youkai” to western audiences would have been preferable to associating it with Satanism.

4. A good translation retains original puns and references to something about the language.
It’s better left intact and explained with a footnote than worked around or ignored altogether. Would Shakespeare’s plays with puns upon puns be as effective in French or Japanese? Of course not. References to aspects of the language are just as important.

For instance, this scene from The Brothers Karamazov makes a reference to an aspect of the French language, which both of these Russian characters are aware of: the use of the informal tu over the formal vous to mean “you”. In this scene, the character Ivan is having a hallucination, and he is aware that the person he is speaking with only exists in his head and is an extension of himself.

“I am pleased that you and I have passed straight to addressing each other as ‘tu‘,” the guest began.
“Fool,” Ivan laughed, “do you suppose I would address you as ‘
vous‘?”

This is important, because in context, it shows us that even while Ivan is hallucinating, he is aware of it, and is able to understand that the person he is talking to is just himself – he is commenting on how strange it would be to refer to “himself” by the formal vous. The hallucination’s goal in the conversation is to convince Ivan that he is real, and not just a figment of Ivan’s imagination; addressing his hallucination as tu over vous shows that Ivan is resisting and remains firmly convinced that his hallucination is his own mind playing tricks on him. In comparison, this is the original and more popular translation (it was the first on the market) of the same passage by Constance Garnett:

“I am glad you treat me so familiarly,” the visitor began.
“Fool,” laughed Ivan, “do you suppose I should stand on ceremony with you?”

In this translation, you don’t see the same amount of detail that you do in the previous one. The concept of tu and vous is ignored altogether, and while it does still indicate that Ivan realizes his hallucination for what it is and refers to it informally, it’s not as obvious. It could just as well mean that Ivan doesn’t feel like wasting formality on this guest he does not want. The superficial meaning of his words is retained, but the deeper meaning is lost.

5. A good translation is true to the writing style and “voice” of the original author.
This can be the rare exception to #1 that I mentioned above: a translation that retains many aspects of the original language is nothing unless it can imitate the voice of the original writer. This isn’t easy to spot, because if you’re looking for a translation, theoretically you don’t know the original language and can’t judge the original voice of the author. Try anyway. A linguistically correct translation of Voltaire is worth nothing if it doesn’t read easily like the original French, or if it downplays his casual and witty way of writing. Translators of authors with a very unique writing style sometimes have to omit technical correctness in favor of style, and that’s fine. Optimally, though, you should be able to find a translation that preserves both the original voice and is true to the original language. As a warning, this is particularly hard to do for Asian languages (which really don’t translate well into English, especially Chinese!). However, there are many, many good translators who recognize this and try to compensate it as best they can. If their translated work shows many of the qualities of the above, chances are they’ll be respectful to the voice of the author as well.

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So how do you actually pick a good translation without meticulously going through every point above?

Well, I’ll share a secret with you about that: there are seven quick-and-dirty ways that I’ve found to cheat on determining all of the above. Each of them only takes a couple of minutes tops. When you want to determine the quality of a translation in a few minutes or less, here are some very quick things to look for that can signal high-quality right away.

QUICK AND DIRTY “CHEATS” TO FINDING A QUALITY TRANSLATION:

a. Footnotes.
Are there any? Look both at the bottom of the pages and the back of the book. A version with plenty footnotes is almost always preferable to a version with little or none. What kind of footnotes are they? Do they explain foreign phrases, puns, cultural aspects, historical background, relevance to the author’s personality or experience, the author’s original intent? Are there any footnotes where the translator explains a passage that could be translated ambiguously? (‘Yes’ answers are all desirable here.)

b. A long and thorough preface or introduction by the translator.
You don’t have to read it, just see if it’s there. This can replace footnotes if they’re not present (though they should be). Take a quick look at what it includes. Does it explain anything about historical background? The author’s life and views? Translation notes? Themes to look for while reading? Again, you don’t have to read the whole thing, but a good, thorough introduction is often a sign of a dedicated translator.

c. Use of foreign words and phrases when appropriate.
If a word cannot be accurately translated into English (see above), it is usually italicized and possibly footnoted. Flip through the book and look for italicized words. Even if they’re not explained on that page or footnoted, it might mean that they’ve already been used once or twice and explained then. Looking for italicized words is a quick and dirty way to judge the translator’s attention to accuracy.

d. Rendering of names, if appropriate.
If you know anything about the original language, flip through the body of the book and see if you can pick up anything about the character’s names, especially when spoken by another character. If the language attaches any suffixes or prefixes to names or otherwise renders them in a different way from English (eg, Russian), then it should be apparent in the text.

e. Obvious “fudges”.
This one is hard to explain, but just use common sense. Skim a couple of pages and use what you know. If you know that the book is supposed to take place in 19th century Russia and all the main characters’ names are in English throughout the book, that should be a red flag going up in your head. Or if the book takes place in medieval China but the main character’s name is Fred for some reason. Just use your common sense to look for obvious fudges.

f. Consistencies between translations.
This one requires a bit of comparison, if you have the time, but it’s very simple. If the accepted, translated title of a book is The Brothers Karamazov and is titled thus by a dozen different versions, a lone translation that calls it The Karamazov Brothers may not be as “standard” as the others, which may cause confusion if you try to discuss a particular passage with someone. This is particularly for classical literature. (However, it’s not always accurate; most translations of TBK call the main character “Alexei”, whereas my personal favourite calls him “Aleksey”.)

g. Detail and consistency in the first paragraph.
If you have the time, read the first paragraph of each translation. How do they differ? Which ones go into more detail? Which ones strike you as more accurate? Which ones are you more comfortable with? Any versions that see wildly different from the majority of the others should usually be discarded.

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Of course, not all of these things need to be present in a book for it to be a good translation. If you can find one with all of the above, that’s the optimal, but shoot for the translation with the most. Read the opening paragraph of each version. Think about the time period and country or origin and look for cultural hints like rendered names and italicized words. Look at the quality of the footnotes and the introduction. The most important thing is that you think about whatever you do and use your own judgement and common sense to pick the best translation, especially if it isn’t apparent. And the more foreign books you read, the better idea you’ll have of what else to look for in a translation.

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As you may have noticed, I’ve been on another hiatus lately… November has been an extremely busy month for me. I’m participating in the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this month and it’ll be zapping all my writing energy until December. In other news, I have a brand-new laptop, an HP Pavilion DV2620CA (CA is the country code for Canada; it’s DV2620US in the States). It’s very lovely, and it came with one of those 3-in-1 printer/scanner/copier things. Score!

(If anyone has any opensource software recommendations for a Vista Home Premium… you know where the comment link is)

Today’s post is a little different from the gifted kick I’ve been on lately. It’s more in the spirit of an earlier post of mine from last April, A Quick Dabble in Mandarin Chinese. Languages are just such a fascinating topic to me, and today’s subtopic is translation, which is just as interesting.

I first have to say that I read a lot of (translated) foreign books, and nowadays almost more than I read English books; I’ve been doing it for years. This is the most important piece of advice I can give to someone looking to read a translated work: Be extremely picky about the translation you get, and learn a little bit about the original language. The difficulty is that the things you usually need to learn about the original language to properly understand it usually come from a good translation, and you can’t know how to pick a good translation unless you know something about that original language and what to look for.

It’s worth always worth the attempt; you miss out so much in a novel that is poorly translated.

Here’s an example from my favorite novel, The Brothers Karamazov, originally published in Russian. I was lucky enough to accidentally pick a good translation (the most recent Penguin Classics edition, translated by David McDuff) from a shot in the dark, and I learned so much about the Russian language from it. Looking at key passages the other translations of it that exist, I’ve realized just how lucky I was.

For instance, one of the things to look for in a good Russian translation, something that you cannot ignore when reading a Russian novel, is the proper rendering of the characters’ informal nicknames. Good translations can initially be confusing if they don’t explain why each character has multiple names at the start, and some translations don’t use them or use Americanized versions of them to avoid overwhelming the average reader. Settle for the initial confusion.

What each character calls the other characters and vice versa is important in understanding the relationship between them. In these Russian novels, each character has three parts to their name, much like the first-middle-surname approach of Western cultures. The first and last names are the same as in western cultures. The middle name is a patronymic, or a name derived from the father. For the character Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov, for instance, Ivan is his given name, Karamazov is his surname, and Fyodorovich indicates that his father’s name was Fyodor.

But each character also has a set of nicknames derived from their given name, and this can confuse western readers who don’t know much about Russian. The type of nickname used can often indicate a character’s relationship with someone else. A general rule of the thumb is, the longer the nickname, the “cuter” it is considered.

The character Aleksey (Or Alexei) Fyodorovich Karamazov, for instance, has many nicknames. The narrator and most everyone in the story call him “Alyosha”, his most basic nickname. The fact that everyone calls him by his informal nickname of Alyosha is important: it indicates that he is on informal terms with nearly everyone he meets. His more “cutesy” nicknames are Alyoshka, Alyoshechka, Alyoshenka, and Alekseychick. The only characters who ever call him by these names are the playful and promiscuous Grushenka (a cutesy nickname for another character on informal terms with everyone) and his father. Interestingly, the drunker his father is, the cuter his nicknames for Alyosha (and everyone else) get. Alyosha’s brother Dmitry also refers to him fondly as “Lyosha”, which is affectionate, but not necessarily “cute”. Alyosha’s other brother, Ivan, only ever calls him Alyosha, indicating rightly that he is not as close to Ivan as he is to Dmitry, something that is missed in some English translations.

Ivan, on the other hand, is a more serious and brooding character, and is never referred to by his nickname, Vanya. His two brothers call each other by nicknames all the time, but always refer to Ivan as just “Ivan”. Everyone else, even the woman Ivan loves and occasionally the narrator, call him by his most formal name: Ivan Fyodorovich. This is important, because it indicates that no one in the story, not even his own brothers, are close to Ivan; or else that Ivan considers himself too serious to be called by a nickname. His nicknames of Vanya, Vanka, and the cutesy Vanechka are only used once in the novel, by his extremely drunk and (at the moment) overly-sentimental father.

The way certain characters use the nicknames of others also hints at their personality. Ivan never uses nicknames except for his younger brother, Alyosha, once again indicating that he has no close relationships with anyone. Alyosha calls most of the characters (with the exception of his brother Dmitry and the woman he was briefly engaged to) by their given names alone, indicating that he is very polite. Their father Fyodor is a very sentimental drunk, and is always drinking; therefore he often calls his sons by their nicknames, and the nicknames he uses for them get cuter the more he drinks. Grushenka, a very playful and capricious character, calls everyone by cutesy nicknames to sound cute herself. The very proud female character Katerina Ivanovna is often called Katya by the male characters, but never to her face until the end of the novel, when her pride begins to melt.

These are subtle but important parts of characterization in The Brothers Karamazov. It’s possible to pick up these same things in an inferior translation that either omits or Americanizes the use of nicknames, but the nicknames are just such a wonderful indicator of a character’s relationships. This is very apparent in The Brothers Karamazov, which is all about the lives and personalities of the characters, but applicable to any classic Russian novel. My copy of Crime and Punishment omits nicknames and Americanizes them where they can’t be ignored, and I do feel like I’ve missed an important part of the story’s depth (which is why I bought a second copy, a better translation). When picking a translation of Anna Karenina, I found a passage that used a character’s nickname and looked at how it was translated in each version to find the one most true to the original Russian. It was worth it.

I’ll be posting my own guide on picking a good foreign language translation sometime in the near future, so look for it coming soon!

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Since my cousin moved back to Vancouver from Manhattan, I’ve noticed that she has a strange, urban serendipity about her: every time she walks to a street corner, the light instantly changes in her favor. I’m not kidding about this; every time I walk with her downtown, she never has to wait for the ‘Walk’ signal. It comes on the second she approaches the curb, and with no conscious effort whatsoever on her part. And, since I first noted this in my cousin, I’ve been seeing the same crazy luck in both my aunt and her boyfriend – who, like my cousin, are self-proclaimed urbanites living in a very trendy part of downtown.

It was all a strange coincidence – until it started to happen to me, too. Whenever I approach a street corner downtown (this does not work in the suburbs), the light just seems to change in my favor, regardless of my intent to catch it. I used to have the worst luck with my timing downtown, always just missing the light I wanted. Now… well, I don’t think I’ve had to wait for a light to change in weeks. Even my friends are pointing out to me that I have the greatest luck with these things.

I have a theory about this urban serendipity. Cities really do have a pulse. That pulse becomes the pace of the whole city… and that pace is the speed at which each traffic light turns after the other. I think that people who spend a lot of time in the city, like my urbanite family members and now myself, start to fall “in tune” with the pace of the city. Over time, we just develop the perfect pace of walking that gets us between streets right as the lights turn, because it’s such a consistent rhythm.

(This kind of pulse isn’t something I see much of in the suburbs, but I think that it has to do with the lack of traffic and the length of suburban blocks. Suburban streets are more likely to be empty, so we tend to jaywalk more often. And, at least in my neighborhood, the blocks are much larger than those in the city, so it takes a long time to walk from one street to the other – long enough to distract someone from developing the rhythm a city would have.)

With or without the logical explanation for it, the idea of being “in tune” with a city – belonging to a city – is so romantic to me. There’s comfort in knowing and loving a city inside out so much that everything between the limits feels like home. My favorite expression of belonging and comfort in a city are the opening lyrics of “Under the Bridge” (1991), the most successful and best-known song by the Red Hot Chili Peppers:

“Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a partner
Sometimes I feel like my only friend
Is the city I live in, the City of Angel
Lonely as I am, together we cry

“I drive on her streets ’cause she’s my companion
I walk through her hills ’cause she knows who I am
She sees my good deeds and she kisses me windy
I never worry, now that is a lie”

Then, later on in the song, is my favorite verse of music:

“It’s hard to believe that there’s nobody out there
It’s hard to believe that I’m all alone
At least I have her love, the city, she loves me
Lonely as I am, together we cry”

Lead singer and frontman of the Chili Peppers, Anthony Kiedis, actually wrote the song about his former heroin addiction – and the full lyrics strongly hint but not explicitly confirm this (though Kiedis himself has). This song once almost lost the potential to become the hit it did because Kiedis had hid the lyrics due to their personal nature. I thought this was odd because Kiedis has sung some pretty wicked-crazy stuff over the years. And those are just the lyrics I don’t feel guilty linking to; some are so explicit I wouldn’t even dare – and some of the above are still pretty graphic. Point is, this is not a guy who’s afraid to put it out there. (Much too literally sometimes.)

Many other musical artists and writers have similarly paid tribute in some way to the cities they love. The cities that seem to get the most love are New York City and pretty much anything in California. Wikipedia has lists (linked in the previous sentence) of hundreds of songs dedicated to NYC, the state of California, cities in California, and even individual streets in California. New Yorkers and Californians really love their homes.

Yet there are hardly any songs (I found two, neither are known widely enough to have lyrics posted anywhere online) dedicated to my city of Vancouver, even though we’re ranked third internationally for quality of life. Canadian cities just don’t get the love they deserve.

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I usually try to save my links until Saturday, but holy crap.

BOSTON – An adjunct professor was fired after leading a classroom discussion about the Virginia Tech shootings in which he pointed a marker at some students and said “pow.” (Yahoo! News)

This just came to my attention via Digg. Listed in the page comments was the video of the professor defending himself (it’s actually part 1 of 4) on YouTube. I’ve only watched a small bit, but it’s there if you’d like to see it.

Here are a couple of things that just irk me:

“During the demonstration, Winset pretended to shoot some students. Then one student pretended to shoot Winset to illustrate his point that the gunman might have been stopped had another student or faculty member been armed.”

So clearly the students weren’t disturbed, and in fact were actively participating in the discussion. This wasn’t a professor just trying to freak out his students (if it ever was). In further support of that:

“Student Junny Lee, 19, told The Boston Globe that most students didn’t appear to find Winset’s demonstration offensive.”

I can’t imagine who would.

Also:

“He said administrators had asked the faculty to engage students on the issue. But on Friday, he got a letter saying he was fired and ordering him to stay off campus.”

Isn’t that just funny? If the whole thing wasn’t so pathetically horrifying, it would be.

In personal news, I get to teach my Social Studies class tomorrow morning – at least, for a little while. Today we were given a chart of the political spectrum, and if you recall from an earlier post of mine, I know my political spectrum. This chart that they gave us, I kid you not, was literally right-wing propaganda. Listed on the left side were traits of communism, and there was clear distaste for it (“Unjust conditions exist because power and wealth are not shared fairly”? That does not sound like an unbiased point). On the right side of the chart, however, the author did their best to represent rightism as the land of the free and righteous. I thought McCarthyism had for the most part ended (this is Canada, for God’s sake), but the chart we were given as a reference still seems to think that left = commies and right = freedom.

I approached my teacher about it and she agreed that the chart had a very unfair bias, but that it had come to her from another teacher and she wasn’t responsible. So, I told her, “Just give me ten minutes at the board, and I can give a better explanation,” and she offered to reserve time for me at the start of the next class. I’m also planning to highlight the difference between socialism and communism, since my classmates often use the terms synonymously, and the question has come up several times before.

Later on the same day, I get to give a speech in favor of a (Canadian) political party of my choice as part of a class project. I love these rare occasions when school and my interests blend!

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As those who know me interact with me on a regular basis in real life will attest, I am rarely seen without a cup of coffee in hand. In fact, if asked to describe me to someone else, my closest friends and family would use the word ‘coffee’ at least once in the first sentence. ‘Coffee-addicted’ is even the first word (pair of words, really) in my blog profile on the right. The truth of the matter is that I actually do not always have a cup of coffee in hand, but those moments are depressing and mostly incoherent. When the blood starts to resurface in my caffiene-veins, I tend to lose interest at an alarming rate.

It may seem a bit odd for me to dedicate a post solely to coffee and my experience of it, but I figure if George Orwell can write an entire essay about optimal tea preparation, I’m entitled to a measly post about the drink that makes me tick. (That sort of rhymes! <–this is me when the proportion of blood to caffiene raises; laaame…)

I read Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article called ‘Java Man’ last night, and it inspired me to dedicate a post to coffee. It’s a very fascinating essay about the history of coffee as an influence in major intellectual and revolutionary movements (namely, the American Revolution and the Enlightenment). I very highly recommend it to fellow coffee enthusiasts and the generally curious.

Wikipedia has an entire article titled ‘social aspects of coffee’. This is not just a drink, folks. Coffee is a way of life. As hippie-esque and fridge magnet-y as that sounds, Gladwell and Wikipedia have nailed it. Coffee changes lifestyles, and coffee is a lifestyle. Need more proof? Wikiquote has a list of coffee-related quotes from well-known people who feel the same.

The coffee lifestyle is so much my own I can hardly remember what it felt like otherwise. As a student of knowledge and slave to my writing, coffee is just so… useful. There’s definitely practical value in it; for myself, often struck by inspiration just before bed, it’s an effective way to keep myself up through the night to get my thoughts to paper. It even cushions the impact of the consequences, because when I wake up half-dead the morning after a thought-binge, there’s a steaming pot of coffee ready to keep me from passing out in my morning classes. (Obviously, this is not the healthiest lifestyle, but chosen insomniacs know that some things can be sacrificed for art, and sleep can always be made up later.)

As aspiring intelligentsia, too, and having the setback of being so young, I benefit from the social aspects of coffee. There is certainly social advantage in drinking coffee or tea, at least in these circles of discussion. Being fifteen, I can hardly expect to be included when dinner party conversation turns to politics or economics (in my extended family, it often does). It seems an unwritten rule, though, that once I accept a cup of coffee, people pay attention. If I don’t have a cup of coffee in front of me, I tend to be tuned out in favor of the ‘adult’ opinions, but once it’s acknowledged that I, too, drink coffee, my opinion on the global economy is suddenly valid. It’s a curious thing.

Consider this: in the eighteenth-century, the coffeehouse was the place for intelligentsia discussion. Through clouds of nicotine and over cups of java, key ideas of the Enlightenment were discussed and debated, and some of the first democratic ideals were uttered. Coffee brings people together, now as it did then. Its reputation as the ‘thinker’s drink’ did not emerge because someone thought it sounded cool.

Ironically, this post was not actually written while drinking coffee (it’s midnight–even I have my limits). This is my excuse for the choppy-ness of the writing and lousy structure. You’ll have to excuse me; there’s blood in my caffeine.

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Colloquialism

While reading an article posted by College Parent in her blog College Admissions Madness, I came across the following phrase: “…and every teenager is spoiled with too many luxuries.” It provoked one of those thoughts that has come in and out of my mind before (a la my first post), this one being, ‘Spoiled’? That sounds pretty bleak. Are children/teenagers like milk, with specific instructions like, ‘Keep Refrigerated’? Can you honestly ruin a child?

This sort of thing has been on my mind a lot lately, the words so integrated into our social vocabulary that we use them without thinking. It’s astonishing how many of them there are: simple phrases like, “No way!”, “No matter,” or “Do you mind?”. Recently, I’ve sort of taken a step back and have started to examine what I say and why I say it.

Take my own examples. “No way!”; what does it really mean? It’s a phrase indicating an incredulous response (for the most part). We drop the phrase without thinking, but when you break it down and consider it, it’s like saying, “There’s no way (‘way’ as means) that could be true.” Similarly with a phrase like, “No matter.” What does it mean? Probably something along the lines of, “It’s no matter (‘matter’ meaning an issue) worth worrying about.”

“Do you mind?” is a tricky one to pinpoint, though, and there are a lot of similar phrases that I have to ponder over for a while to figure out why they mean what they have come to mean. We use “Do you mind?” as a way of saying, “Do you care?”, but why? My very confused grasp of guessing the reasons behind things (I have no talent for it at all) seems to think that ‘mind’ evolved into ‘care’ by ‘mind’ having, at some point, a transititory definition like ‘being of the mindful opinion’ and eventually came to mean what it does now.

It’s an interesting thing to think about how much of our vocabulary is socially derived. By that, I mean the phrases purely social in usage with no real meaning anymore, because of course our entire language is socially derived. It seems like such an insignificant thing to think about, I know, but consider a language that is pure colloquialism; such a language would be impossible to translate, and even harder to learn.

I’m very heavily reminded of a passage from Orwell’s Politics and the English Language; in fact, it says with clarity in one paragraph exactly what I spent several struggling to articulate (the asterix footnote is my own):

DYING METAPHORS. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e. g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are*: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a ‘rift’, for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.

OPERATORS OR VERBAL FALSE LIMBS. These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formations, and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, having regard to, the fact that, by dint of, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved by anticlimax by such resounding commonplaces as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and so on and so forth.

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

 

I applaud Orwell’s superior grasp of the English language. I really do. Politics and the English Language is solid proof that this is a man who knows how to write. For those of us who weren’t already convinced with Animal Farm and 1984, I mean. Ah, to have Orwell’s writing prowess… sadly, I’m guilty of many of the writing sins he condemns.

 

*Yes, most of these examples are quite obscure nowadays, but they were apparently very popular in mid-20th century Britain.

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“Someday.”

Ever have one of those persistent-yet-passive thoughts? Think, “I should write a novel someday,” after you read a nice book? Wonder why the sky is blue, then fail to follow through with your curiosity? Contemplate starting a personal project, think of it in passing every so often, but never actually complete it?

I’ve experienced all of the above, but the one that currently holds my attention is the last one. There is a list (rather, there would be a list, if I got around to making one) of creative projects I’ve been looking to take on–some for a rather long time, and some that have been plaguing me since I was a very small child. But where I’m actually going with this is that for the last month or so, I’d been thinking that I ought to have a ‘serious’ blog. This was prompted by several things at once: a desire to seem more professional in my art (musing on paper), my growing adoration for essayists, and the fact that I would never let the URL of my personal blog near people who take me seriously.

So, this is my attempt at a ‘serious’ blog, one that I dearly hope I will never be ashamed to hand out the URL to. It’s a pseudo-companion to my as-yet-uncompleted online writing portfolio, Wandering Ink, but you don’t have to bother with it unless polished fiction and the occasional essay is your thing. And even then, I don’t believe I take editing as seriously as I should.

Concluding a first post with a pair of quotes may be a bit tacky, but I have far too many of them at my disposal.

 

“The book fascinated him, or more exactly it reassured him. In a sense it told him nothing that was new, but that was a part of the attraction. It said what he would have said, if it had been possible for him to set his scattered thoughts in order. … The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already.”

George Orwell, ’1984

“Divide mankind into twenty parts: nineteen consist of men who work with their hands and will never know that there is a Locke in the world, and in the remaining twentieth part how few men you will find who are readers! And of those who read, twenty read novels to one who studies philosophy. The number of those who think is exceedingly small, and they are not interested in upsetting the world.”

Voltaire, ‘Letters on the English Nation’

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