Thursday, January 17, 2008


Ex Caelis Oblatus

Still with Umberto Eco it appears that, like the 23rd archbishop of Paris André Vingt-Trois and anyone called Esposito or Colombo (including Christopher Columbus?), he is descended from a waif:

Eco’s grandfather claims to be a foundling, and that he was given the name Eco by “an inventive civil servant.” Supposedly the name is an acronym for ex caelis oblatus, or “offered by the heavens.”
How apt that the classically erudite Umberto should have a Latin acronym for a surname.

As regards his relationship to this foundling ancestor, his Mouse or Rat book has an interesting discussion of the Italian word for grandchild, which happens to be the same word as for nephew or niece.
But the fact that there is only one word does not mean that Italians do not see any difference between the child of one's son or daughter and the child of one's sister or brother. They see it to such an extent that even in the case of death duties the two kinds of relatives pay a different tax
This illustrates admirably a point often lost on those who translate: it's not the words themselves that matter, it's what they refer to.

Even the simple fact that one language can have one word where another has two is not always appreciated. It seems to have escaped even the redoubtable Mark Liberman at Language Log in a post which includes some translation from French to make a point about the expression vertical politics:

Underlining how flexible the metaphor of horizontal/vertical politcs can be, a quick web search for the French translation politique verticale turns up two radically different interpretations (neither of which has any connection with the current American presidential campaign):
(link) ... le développement d'une politique verticale visant à encourager la participation des jeunes, la liberté de création, la divulgation de l'information ...

... the development of a vertical politics aiming to encourage the participation of young people, the freedom to create, the release of information ...

Like Italian nipote, however, French politique corresponds to more than one word in English, and here it clearly translates as policy not politics. Vertical policy is something quite different from vertical politics.

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