Thursday, July 06, 2006


I sure am prolific. At not posting. I've been out of town working on a very exciting project, the details of which I'll share when the project is complete. "And if that don't fetch 'em, I don't know Arkansas."

There's been a bit of contention lately at Language Log over Geoff Pullum's discovery - and condemnation of - what he dubs linguifying: to take that claim and construct from it an entirely different claim that makes reference to the words or other linguistic items used to talk about those things, and then use the latter claim in a context where the former would be appropriate. Most of his examples have involved claims like "the words 'hard' and 'worker' have never been used in the same sentence to describe me" or "'musical' and 'The Shaggs' have never been used in the same sentence." What irks Geoff, and not without reason, is that these claims are usually absurd beyond the degree to which they're meant to be absurd. For instance, if I were to say "'musical' and 'The Shaggs' have never been used in the same sentence" to mean "The Shaggs are not musical" - well, you see where I'm going with this.

Part of Geoff's claim is that this is a new phenomenon, and he asked for examples from before 1987. Mark Liberman took him up on this, but broadened it to include sentences like "'The Shaggs' and 'musical' should not be uttered in the same breath." Of course, this allows him to find much older examples. And this brings me to my topic.

There is a sort of professional translationese when it comes to published translations from Yiddish into English - conventions of how to render common bits of Yiddish into English. One of these involves the now-archaic seeming phrase about uttering x and y in the same phrase. It's used to translate the slippery Yiddish expletive "lehavdl," which literally means 'to distinguish,' and in practice is thrown in when making an unseemly comparison, i.e. between Begin and Rabin, lox and bacon, people and animals, Jewish things and non-Jewish things, etc. I have no problem with this convention, and can't think of a better way to translate 'lehavdl,' really.

But other such Yiddish translationisms grate on my nerves somewhat. For instance, the word 'heymish,' meaning home-like and thus comfortable and familiar, is sometimes rendered 'homely.' Yes, I know 'homely' can mean just that in British English. That doesn't excuse it. These are usually Americans, who ought to know better.

A strange bit of translationese is using the English phrase "neither here nor there" to render the Yiddish phrase "nisht ahin, nisht aher," which literally means "neither thither nor hither" and figuratively means "in between," which is a far cry from the sense of "neither here nor there" that I'm familiar with, that is 'unimportant.'

But my least favorite translationism is 'just so.' Anytime I see this I know that it is an attempt at translating 'glat azoy/stam azoy,' which means 'just 'cause,' not 'just so.' This is a calque of the common slavic phrase that in Russian is 'proste tak.' The Yiddish calque of this was in turn calqued into Israeli Hebrew as 'stam kaḥa.' Funny how that works.

I'm left wondering, then, if this happens with all translation, i.e. that little conventions develop that aren't always accurate. Since Yiddish and English are the only languages I read (and I don't read either language that well) I can't generalize beyond what I've presented.

1 comment:

Nomi Lubin said...

Huh. That's interesting about "nisht ahin, nisht aher." While of course you're right, that typically in English "neither here nor there" means "unimportant," (or, sort of, "not the point"), whenever I hear the Yiddish expression, I always think of it as meaning "in between," even though I do mentally translate it as "neither here nor there." I never thought about the discrepancy before.