Thursday, August 07, 2014


Bad language

Polish MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke, one of the many recently elected anti-EU members of the EU's parliament, has been causing controversy:
Following Wednesday's debate on youth unemployment, MEPs call on far-right politician Janusz Korwin-Mikke to "apologise and step down" for using the word "nigger"

From the transcript of proceedings:
Janusz Ryszard Korwin-Mikke (NI). - Mr President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, introducing the first bill on the minimum wage, said, frankly, that it was to protect industry in the North from competition from cheap labour from the South. Four million people lost their jobs. Then it was four million niggers but now we have 20 million Europeans who are the negroes of Europe – a full 20 million young people are negroes from Europe. Yes, they are treated like negroes. We must destroy the minimum wage and we must destroy the power of trade unions because the trade unions…
…listen to me, the trade unions are the instruments of …
(The President cut off the speaker)
Mr Korwin-Mikke is unapologetic:
But Korwin-Mikke strongly refuted the accusations that he used racist language. When asked to comment by this magazine, he responded, "I used the word 'negro' and I do not see anything wrong in calling a negro a negro."

He further added "Using the word 'nigger' would be nonsense as my aim was to parody the phrase, 'Woman is a negro of the world'," a reference to a John Lennon and Yoko Ono song. The non-attached member also blamed his English for use of the word negro, saying, "my pronunciation is perhaps not the best also I have an earache".
And what is more:
He defended using the word negro, saying that he learnt his English by reading books written by Mark Twain who regularly uses the word 
Of course "negro" is not the word that was used by John and Yoko, or by Mark Twain for that matter, and nor is it the word that elicited the strong reaction to Korwin-Mikke's speech. He seems (or perhaps pretends) to confuse the two N-words, his English being, as he himself seems to recognize, far from perfect.

Not that poor command of English is an excuse. Korwin-Mikke chose to express himself in English, for reasons not immediately obvious, when he was free to speak his own language, as is the norm in the European Parliament. Members choosing to use a language other than their own do so at their own risk: the risk of not being intelligible, of not being convincing, of appearing ridiculous - or, as in this case perhaps, of causing offence by their ignorance of the other language's nuances. 

So whatever Korwin-Mikke may have thought he was saying, his utterance must surely be judged by an objective standard and, even in an international setting, that objective standard must surely be the native speaker/listener.

This incident contrasts with another N-word controversy of not too long ago, one involving the Uruguay soccer international Luis Suarez (recently again in the news for his teeth rather than his tongue). Suarez was given a lengthy ban  after a disciplinary tribunal, in England, where he was playing at the time, found that he had racially abused an opponent, Patrice Evra, a French player of Senegalese origin. Unlike the Polish MEP, Suarez was speaking his own language - Spanish - in a conversation initiated in that language by Evra. Unfortunately for all concerned, though Evra clearly fancies himself as something of a linguist (claiming to speak "a number of languages including Senegalese, French, Spanish, Italian and some Portuguese"), his command of Spanish appears to be quite limited (he admitted during the proceedings that he was “not exactly fluent").

From the report of the "FA Regulatory Commission" (as the the disciplinary tribunal is styled):
It seemed to us that Mr Evra's understanding of the Spanish word "negro" was influenced by his knowledge of Italian. In his interview with the FA on 20 October, Mr Evra said he though "nero" meant "black" , whereas "negro" meant "nigger". This is what he thought from his knowledge of Italian, and he went away to check the position in Spanish.
Suarez accepted that he did use the (Spanish) word "negro" at one point during the exchange and explained what it meant:
Mr Suárez said that he turned to Mr Evra and said "Por que, negro?". He said that he used the word "negro" at this point in the way that he did when he was growing up in Uruguay, that is as a friendly form of address to people seen as black or brown-skinned or even just black-haired. He said that he used it in the same way that he did when he spoke to Glen Johnson, the black Liverpool player. He said in no way was the use of the word "negro" intended to be offensive or to be racially offensive. It was intended as an attempt at conciliation
It was confirmed by the independent language consultants hired by the Commission that 
the use of ‘negro’ as described here by Mr Suarez would not be offensive. Indeed, it is possible that the term was intended as an attempt at conciliation and/or to establish rapport
They pointed out that the term “negro”
can also be used as a friendly form of address to someone seen as somewhat brown-skinned or even just black-haired. It may be used affectionately between man and wife, or girlfriend/boyfriend, it may be used as a nickname in everyday speech, it may be used to identify in neutral and descriptive fashion someone of dark skin; several famous people in Uruguay are known as “el negro/la negra such-and-such”.
But to no avail:
We remind ourselves that the test for a breach of Rule E3(1) is an objective test. That means that it is for us to form our own view as to whether Mr Suarez's words or behaviour were abusive or insulting. It is not necessary for the FA to prove that Mr Suarez intended his words or behaviour to be abusive or insulting. We are concerned with whether the words or behaviour were abusive or insulting when used in a football match played in England under the FA Rules [emphasis added]
Which would be fair enough - if the words were in the Queen's English: had Suarez been speaking English and called Evra a "nigger", as was initially alleged, and had he then claimed that he had not intended any offence, say on the basis that he did not realise the meaning or force of the word because of his poor command of English, or, à la Korwin-Mikke, if he had blamed Mark Twain, or John Lennon, or an earache (or a toothache!), then it would seem reasonable to apply an objective test and make a finding of abuse, with the objective meaning being ascertained by reference to a native speaker's understanding. But since Suarez was speaking not English but Spanish, and more specifically Rioplatense Spanish, it is surely the norms of that language that should apply for the purposes of an objective test .

What the tribunal in fact seems to do is to dismiss the subjective understanding of Suarez, a native speaker, and then to take as a proxy for an objective view the subjective understanding of Evra, a learner of limited competence.

Perhaps if the conversation had been initiated by Suarez, the native speaker, there would have been some onus on him to avoid any possibility of being misconstrued.

But whether offence results from an incompetent speaker, like Korwin-Mikke, or an incompetent listener, as in the Suarez-Evra case, the only objective criterion is surely that of the native speaker. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011



I have been reading (aloud, I hasten to add) The Lion the Witch the Wardrobe (1950), by C.S.Lewis. Remarkably, within the space of half a paragraph (at the end of Chapter 7) the author comes up with three different solutions to the same problem:

(...) Susan drained the potatoes and then put them all back in the empty pot to dry on the side of the range while Lucy was helping Mrs Beaver to dish up the trout, so that in a very few minutes everyone was drawing up their stools ...and preparing to enjoy themselves. There was a jug of creamy milk for the children (Mr Beaver stuck to beer) and a great big lump of deep yellow butter in the middle of the table from which everyone took as much as he wanted to go with his potatoes, and all the children thought - and I agree with them - that there's nothing to beat good freshwater fish if you eat it when it has been alive half an hour ago and has come out of the pan half a minute ago. And when they had finished the fish Mrs Beaver brought unexpectedly out of the oven a great and gloriously sticky marmalade roll, steaming hot, and at the same time moved the kettle on to the fire, so that when they had finished the marmalade roll the tea was made and ready to be poured out. And when each person had got his (or her) cup of tea, each person shoved back his (or her) stool so as to be able to lean against the wall and gave a long sigh of contentment.
In real life, I don't know anybody who applies the "rule" of English grammar that the masculine is the generic form, as in

Everybody who brings his lunch put it on top of his desk
which is an instruction given by the (female) narrator's (female) teacher to her class of boys and girls, in Chapter 2 of To Kill A Mocking-Bird (1960). The rule is followed not just by the teacher but also by the narrator. Here, in Chapter 26, for example:

Once a week, we had a Current Events period. Each child was supposed to clip an item from a newspaper, absorb its contents, and reveal them to the class. This practice allegedly overcame a variety of evils: standing in front of his fellows encouraged good posture and gave a child poise; delivering a short talk made him word-conscious; learning his current event strengthened his memory; being singled out made him more than ever anxious to return to the Group
In real life, the they/their option is the one people actually seem to use; he or she/his or her has a certain currency, particularly in writing; and the he/his option is used by virtually nobody.

Nobody, that is, except for translators (see earlier post for particularly egregious example).

I imagine there are two reasons why the rule is popular among translators:

1) it's a rule (you have the authority of the grammar books as a defence),

2) it's convenient (one less thing to think about: it allows a mechanical word-for-word substitution without your having to waste time pondering the underlying meaning).

The translator may also derive some gratification from notions of standing firm against insidious forces of feminism and political correctness.

But more often than not the problem with the practice is not he versus she, but he versus it.

Here is an example from a recent EU invitation to tender, for translators in fact, and itself obviously a translation:

The tenderer shall be bound by his tender throughout the performance of the contract, if the contract is awarded to him
The lack of thought behind the practice is then laid bare:

Each tender must be signed by the tenderer or his legal representative
i.e. if the tenderer is an individual the tender must be signed by the individual concerned and if the tenderer is a company then it must be signed by the person with authority to sign on its behalf.

But a tenderer having a "legal representative" can only ever be an it, never a he.

No doubt the French original had son which can be his, her or its depending on the antecedent. To use his here is mistranslation, pure and simple, under cover of a pseudo-rule of grammar.

Friday, June 17, 2011



For the day that's in it, the Irish Times reports that some spoilsport has gone and used a computer to crack Leopold Bloom's conundrum,“Good puzzle would be cross Dublin without passing a pub”.

Speaking of spoilsports, Bloomsday celebrations have up to now been inhibited by copyright restrictions but that is all set to change, as from next year:
THE EXPIRY of the copyright on James Joyce’s Ulysses next year will liberate the text from the “notoriously restrictive” instincts of his grandson Stephen Joyce, the co-ordinator of the Bloomsday festival has said.
Stacey Herbert said those trying to organise celebrations of the book often found themselves without permission to do so by Joyce’s Paris-based grandson.
To date the only place where public readings of Ulysses are allowed are on Bloomsday in the James Joyce Centre in North Great George’s Street.
As organisations and individuals as diverse as the State, the Abbey Theatre and Cork University Press have found, the Joyce estate, whose main trustee is Stephen Joyce, is fiercely protective of the writer’s work.
Not everything Joyce ever wrote will be coming into the public domain. His letters, for example, may still be subject to copyright. One of these was in the news recently when it sold for a princely £33,600 at auction in Bonhams. The letter was written in 1919, when Joyce was living in Trieste. It was sent to Carlo Linati, who was, according to the lot description
a distinguished Italian writer and translator of Yeats, Synge and LadyGregory, [who] had been asked by Joyce if he would like to translate Portrait of the Artist. Linati instead suggested that Exiles would be more suitable for the Italian public. He afterwards translated 'Arady' from Dubliners and a fragment of Ulysses
Here is an excerpt from the letter (found here)
For which the following translation is offered on the Bonhams website:
“...For the publication of Dubliners I had to struggle for ten years. The whole first edition of 1,000 copies was burnt at Dublin by fraud [some say it was the doing of priests, some of enemies, others of the then Viceroy or his consort, Lady Aberdeen. Altogether it is a mystery]”

Joyce was proficient in Italian and a fine translator so one wonders what he would have made of the hapless translation of
bruciata a Dublino dolosamente
burnt at Dublin by fraud
Bonhams' slice of that £33,600 must have been pretty thin if that was the best translation they could afford.

Even Google Translate manages a passable
intentionally burned in Dublin
Can it be that stately, plump Bonhams (Fine Art Auctioneers & Valuers: auctioneers of art, pictures, collectables and motor cars) cannot even afford Google Translate?

Bonhams, in Ireland, share a name with a kind of pig, so for them the Joycean connection goes back way beyond the recent auction: there is an actual mention in Ulysses, in the Circe episode:
He passes, struck by the stare of truculent Wellington but in the con vex mirror grin unstruck the bonham eyes and fatchuck cheekchops of Jollypoldy the rixdix doldy.

At Antonio Babaiotti's door Bloom halts, sweated under the bright arclamps. He disappears. In a moment he reappears and hurries on.)

BLOOM Fish and taters. N. g. Ah!

(He disappears into Olhousen's, the pork butcher's, under the downcoming rollshutter. A few moments later he emerges from under the shutter puffing Poldy, blowing Bloohoom. In each hand he holds a parcel, one containing a lukewarm pig's crubeen, the other a cold sheep's trotter sprinkled with wholepepper He gasps, standing upright. Then bending to one side he presses a parcel against his rib and groans.)

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