Pale Copies of American Literature

A Japanese writer on the dominance of English:

When published in 2008, The Fall of Language in the Age of English created a sensation in Japan, winning awards, becoming a bestseller, and igniting a furious online debate between its detractors and defenders. This first book of nonfiction by Minae Mizumura, whose four novels have all won national awards, was published last year in a superbly readable English translation. This powerful, insightful work analyzes the predicament of world languages and literatures in an age when English has become the universal language of science and the default language of the internet. Even for creative writers, it is the virtually inescapable medium for those desiring to be taken seriously in an age of globalized discourse....

The Fall of Language in the Age of English concludes with somber reflections on the internet and the implications for national languages and literatures of hegemonic English, the world’s de facto universal language. But Mizumura also criticizes self-defeating public policies that have impoverished the Japanese language, and Japanese literary works that “often read like rehashes of American literature.” She calls for teaching more Japanese to younger students, and mandating that older ones read the full texts of Japanese modern classics.

She ends her rich, profound meditation on language and literature by encouraging people in English-speaking nations to consider the possibility that the advantage of fluency in our age’s universal language can also be a disadvantage:

If more English native speakers walked through the doors of other languages, they would discover undreamed-of landscapes. Perhaps some of them might then begin to think that the truly blessed are not they themselves, but those who are eternally condemned to reflect on language, eternally condemned to marvel at the richness of the world.

ULT FTW: "Us Runs the Water in the Mouth Together"

English shop

A literal translation of the German phrase 'mouth-watering'. This is part of the thriving ULT (ultra-literal translation) subculture, whose patron saint is Heinrich "Equal Goes it Loose" Lübke:

The term Lübke English (or, in German, Lübke-Englisch) refers to nonsensicalEnglishcreated by literal word-by-word translation of German phrases, disregarding differences between the languages in syntax and meaning.

Lübke English is named after Heinrich Lübke, a president of Germany in the 1960s, whose limited English made him a target of German humorists. For example, it was alleged that Lübke said to Queen Elizabeth II when they were waiting for a horse race to start:

  • Lübke's statement: "Equal goes it loose."
  • The sentence Lübke had in mind: "Gleich geht es los."
  • Meaning of the statement: "It'll start very soon."

In 2006, the German magazine konkret unveiled that most of the statements ascribed to Lübke have been coined inside the editorship of Der Spiegel, mainly by staff writer Ernst Goyke.

I once saw a woman wearing a T-shirt saying "With me is not good cherry-eating". I told her "Your T-shirt favors me."

A Surgeon Who Leaves the Wound Half-Open

I noticed in the comments to my post about Denglish a few instances of what I call the "close is good enough" school of communication. Commenters took me to task for pointing out the error in the sentence, stating that it wasn't really important because, in context, the meaning of the sentence was clear. I supposed some of this is derived from descriptivism, the idea that however people are using language right now basically defines what's correct.

I have never understood this line of reasoning. A sentence which you have to think about and read over again to understand is a bad sentence, period. Forcing your reader to resolve extra complications caused by your mistake wastes their time. There is no gray area. There are no excuses. 

It's as if a surgeon left a wound half-open: "Meh, it'll heal up on its own anyway, no need to waste expensive surgical silk". Or a train conductor braking too hard, causing drinks to spill: "Meh, who cares, we got where we were supposed to, didn't we?" Even if the wound does heal on its own and the train does reach the station, the surgeon and the conductor both acted like lazy gits. It would have cost just a little extra effort to do the job right.

Why not just do it right?


German YouTube Produces The Most Widely-Seen Denglish Fail in Human History

As many of you know, Germany's music royalties organization, GEMA, has been locked in conflict with YouTube for years now:

According to a German court in Hamburg, Google's subsidiary YouTube could be held liable for damages when it hosts copyrighted videos without the copyright holder's permission. As a result, music videos for major label artists on YouTube, as well as many videos containing background music, are censored in Germany since the end of March 2009 after the previous agreement had expired and negotiations for a new license agreement were stopped. On 30 June 2015, Google won a partial victory against GEMA in a state court in Munich, which ruled that they could not be held liable for such damages.

This is the English-language version of the message you get when you try to watch a blocked video:


Along with hopeless confusion about until/by ("I'll have that report on your desk until 5, boss!"), mismarked relative clauses are quintessential Denglish errors. Oxford, refresh our memories:

A relative clause is one that’s connected to the main clause of the sentence by a word such as who, whom, which, that, or whose. For example:

It reminded him of the house that he used to live in.

The items, which are believed to be family heirlooms, included a grandfather clock worth around £3,000.

There are two types of relative clause: restrictive (or defining) relative clauses and non-restrictive (or non-defining) relative clauses. The difference between them is as follows:

  • A restrictive relative clause provides essential information about the noun to which it refers. It cannot be left out of the sentence without affecting the meaning. The highlighted section of the first sentence above is a restrictive relative clause. If it was left out, the sentence would not make sense:

It reminded him of the house. [which house?]

  • A non-restrictive relative clause provides information that can be left out without affecting the meaning or structure of the sentence. The highlighted section of the second sentence above is a non-restrictive relative clause. If it was left out, the sentence would still make perfect sense:

The items included a grandfather clock worth around £3,000.

You do not need to put a comma before restrictive relative clauses. On the other hand, non-restrictive relative clauses should be separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma or commas. For example:

A list of contents would have made it easier to steer through the book, which also lacks a map.

Bill, who had fallen asleep on the sofa, suddenly roused himself.

Now we see what's wrong with the GEMA message. The phrase "for which we could not agree on on conditions of use with GEMA" (which itself caused a fight between GEMA and YouTube, since GEMA thought it unfairly made them out to be the villain) is a restrictive relative clause, like "that he used to live in" in the Oxford example. Therefore, it should not be marked off with a comma.

But virtually all relative clauses in German are marked off with commas. So Germans frequently insert too many commas when they write or edit English. Any translator will tell you of epic, 79-email battles with German clients who think they know English and who insist on re-inserting commas. This usually culminates in an email from the translator which says "I'm really going to have to put my foot down about this. The comma must go, and it's not a style issue, it changes the meaning of the sentence. Trust me." but which really means: I AM A FUCKING PROFESSIONAL TRANSLATOR WHOM YOU HIRED TO TRANSLATE THIS FUCKING DOCUMENT BECAUSE I AM A NATIVE FUCKING SPEAKER OF ENGLISH. YOU ARE NOT. I AM RIGHT AND YOU ARE WRONG. IF YOU REINSERT ONE MORE FUCKING COMMA, I WILL FUCKING STRANGLE YOU.

The meaning of the GEMA warning is obviously incomplete without the clause about the GEMA conditions. Without that clause, the warning simply says you can't see the video "because it could contain music". The marking of the clause with commas tells an English speaker that the phrase "for which we could not agree on conditions of use with GEMA" is a non-restrictive clause, which would mean that it applies to all music in general: i.e., that GEMA and YouTube sat down to negotiate an agreement about all music ever created and failed to do so. With the comma removed, the sentence now correctly states that you're seeing the warning because GEMA and YouTube could not agree on terms for the music in this specific video.

It seems incredible, but YouTube obviously did not have this warning, which has probably been seen literally billions of times, checked by a native English speaker. I can just imagine some pompous, gel-haired German YouTube executive insisting it was correct, and zis konversation iss over!

Blegs: Japanese Readers, I Want Your Help

Over Christmas I visited Japan. Highly recommended and, thanks to the weak Yen, not at all expensive. I've posted some travel shots on my Flickr account for those who are into that sort of thing.

I thought I'd ask the cultured, worldly readers of this blog to help me with a translation or two. First, I bought a ceramic plate at a Nitten shop. Nitten is a nationwide arts and crafts exhibition that, as far as I can gather, is mainly aimed at lesser-known or amateur artists working in traditional Japanese pursuits such as ceramics, calligraphy, etc. People from all over Japan can submit works to be judged by the notoriously conservative panels, and winners are exhibited and some of their works sold in shops.

I bought this dish:

Ceramic Dish

The two women in the rather dusty shop were really excited that I'd chosen this dish, and pressed a piece of paper with the artists' biography into my hands. The only English they could speak was to point at a row of symbols and say 'famous Japanese art school!'

This is the piece of paper, first an overall view, then a detail of what appears to be the artists' biography. If anybody could give me the gist of it -- especially a transliteration of the artist's name -- I would be grateful.

Ceramic Artist Description Page

Ceramic Artist Description Page Detail

Baffling Signs and Posters

1. Schoolchildrens' Superhero or Demon? Japan is also renowned for its amusing/terrifying warning signs. Most of them are pretty self-explanatory because of the pictures, but this one still baffles me. I found it posted outside a school:

Yanaka poster with odd supervillian outside school

Yanaka poster with odd supervillian outside school detail

2. Uniformed People Kicking Ordinary Japanese For Some Reason. This was on the side of a nondescript building. My secret hope is that it's Japanese Communist Party propaganda:

Kyoto poster uniformed men kicking civilians

 3. Red Sash Women Marching. Finally, here is large poster on a wall near a florists' shop that depicts a large number of middle-aged women wearing red sashes marching. First a general view, then a closeup. Pardon the crappy quality, the poster was pretty soiled.

Tokyo red sash women marching-001

Tokyo red sash women marching detail

Any help interpreting these signs is gratefully accepted. I also have less-baffling Japanese signs which I will post in the next couple of days.

My Kind of Phrasebook

Just a note to my readers: I'll be visiting Egypt from 4 March to 19 March. Blogging will be intermittent, but perhaps I'll find the time to send in the odd update or two.

I bought Lonely Planet's Egyptian Arabic phrasebook. Among many other helpful phrases, it teaches you how to say "I'm a communist", "I'm an atheist", and "I'm a lesbian."

Perhaps not coincidentally, it also offers translations for "You'll be charged with anti-government activity" and "You'll be charged with murder", as well as "I didn't do it" and "We're innocent."

The only thing they left out was "It was like that when I got here."

The Saturation of the Deer

Yo, behold this pleasant 1846 painting by Moritz von Schwind:


I admired it in person at the Hamburger Kunsthalle last weekend. It seemed darker in person -- I think the digital version may have been brightened a little. Nevertheless, a nice chunk of late Romanticism, dusted with kitsch. The modeling of the buck's solid, sagging flesh and horns is nicely plastic.

Here is the translation of the picture's title:

Von Schwind

I chuckled over the translation of the German word tränken as "saturate". But then I became thoughtful, and stroked my chin. There's no easy translation for tränken. Tränken describes only how animals drink. Humans trinken, animals tränken. Same thing for eating: humans essen, while animals fressen. Add to that the fact that English has no simple transitive word for "give water to". You can "water" plants, but that always implies pouring water over or into something. You wouldn't water your dogs or your children, you would only give them something to drink.

The translators seemed to realize this, but then fatally chose "saturate" as the proper translation from the other entries on the list. But how can we blame them? The meaning comes across, sort of, and the only other alternatives would have doubled the length of the title, which doesn't seem right.

The other titles were translated quite well.

Merkel's Gherkins!

Kevin Drum quotes some article:

....Merkel called at the weekend for the government partners to bury the hatchet over their disagreements after a week when relations reached such a low that members of her government had variously referred to each other as "wild pigs" and "gherkin troops" (rank amateurs).

'Gherkin troops'? Any idea what German phrase this is supposed to be a translation of?

German Publishing: The Psychedelic Years

Right now I'm translating a document containing a bunch of boring legalese. But I could have it much, much worse. Back in the 1970s, somebody had to translate the poetry (temptation to use scare quotes barely resisted) of Gary Snyder:

Reihe Hanser Gary Snyder Gedichte

OK, I take that back. Snyder's poetry actually isn't all that regrettable, although lots of his poems smell faintly of patchouli oil

But the main focus of this post is the giant batch of Reihe Hanser books that my local antiquarian bookstore just received. The covers take passers-by on a trip back to the early 1970s, when all books were expected to be groovy, even biology textbooks. As you can see, the Reihe Hanser was basically dedicated to New Left social critique and mind-breaking textperiments -- and if the titles ('Mutant Milieu', '3:00 Fear', 'Farabeuf, or the Chronicle of a Moment', 'a-b Glow in the Clover: Psychopathological Texts') didn't tip you off to what was inside, then the book covers surely would. Many more below the fold:

Continue reading "German Publishing: The Psychedelic Years" »