Poets not linguists should do linguistics

image Much of what we do on this blog involves analyzing the meaning of our own language. But that is easier said than done. Mostly because the act of analysis is done using the thing being studied. We use English to talk about English and very often we are just plain deluded. Not intentionally. But rather blindly because it is impossible to see our own language objectively. Linguists should study a language that is not their own. Leave the mother-tongue to the mother and the poet. Poets make no pretentions to understanding their own language. They have a hard-wired code in their head telling them how they should write. And also all the rules that their English teacher taught them about dangling participles and the use of “whom.” But most poets I know delight in breaking the rules. In essence, they are saying, “Yes, my language can do that.” In my own writing I frequently use words like oompf and trumble. I delight in scrumbling grammar rules. Sentence fragmentization. Syntax synning. I stretch my language because as a linguist and a poet I know it is far more flexible than we give it credit. Children often say, “I branged it.” Instead of “I brought it.” Is branged an error? Personally I like that word a lot and I kind of hope it catches on.

This monologue was inspired by a recent post on Language Log bad-mouthing Orwell’s famous essay, “Politics and the English language.” The writer points out just how many times Orwell breaks his own rules. This is ironic on two levels. First, Orwell, the superb writer of English, is contradicting at almost every turn Orwell, the prescriptive grammarian. The blogger writes, “Orwell’s Politics and the English Language is a beautifully written language crime, though it pretends to lay down the law.” This brings us to the second irony. Orwell was laughing at the same “laws” he was laying down but the blogger missed that part. Orwell is speaking, not exactly tongue-in-cheek, but with a heavy sense of self-referential mockery. That’s the true beauty of his final escape clause: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

The final irony for us is that when we are talking about translation we are really on thin ice. It is seldom simple to determine how the original writer meant to be interpreted since writers sometimes (or should I say most times?) say things without fully understanding them. And then in the act of translation we often render things in subtle ways without fully being able to articulate why we said it that way. “It just sounds right” is not a very satisfying answer for a linguist. But it is music to the ears of a poet. And that is the point at which translation passes from the science of linguistics through the art of poetry and into the realm of magic.

P.S. I’ve never used the word trumble before but I think it should mean “trundling around grumbling about Bible translations.” 🙂

19 thoughts on “Poets not linguists should do linguistics

  1. J. K. Gayle says:

    You branged it! And I don’t care if that’s what you intended. You branged it nonetheless 🙂

    (which makes me often wonder in my own smarty-pants sort of way whether I can always see or even intend my own “heavy sense of self-referential mockery” all the time? didn’t even jesus, if we believe his translators, sometimes get amazed when someone else, a real bar-barian too, came back at him with a statement that made him stop in his tracks and turn and say aloud as if in a goyim mother tongue: “λέγω ὑμῖν οὐδὲ ἐν τῷ Ἰσραὴλ τοσαύτην πίστιν εὗρον”?

    mark adds “καὶ ἐθαύμαζεν διὰ τὴν ἀπιστίαν αὐτῶν” [“and without really intending to be, he was absolutely stunned by the insiders’ absolute lack of belief”] but this greek mother in her own mother tongue tells him something that makes him change his mind about making her be a linguist who speaks his language only: she so knocks his socks off that he says, “καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῇ διὰ τοῦτον τὸν λόγον” [well, I say that mark says, “and he says to her, by your very own statement I’m absolutely stunned. That was poetic. And I got it. Actually, you branged it lady. So you and your daughter get what you want!”])

  2. David Ker says:

    Good thing I checked Urban Dictionary before publishing this.

    Before I added the neologism “trumble” to this post I had “grundle” which it turned out is a rather vulgar slang term. “Brang” is far more common than I realized at least by googling it and looking at the entries in Urban Dictionary.

  3. John Hobbins says:

    I don’t fully understand you, David, and yes, that is a compliment. After all, as you say, you don’t fully understand yourself. Communication is terribly interesting.

    Umberto Eco is big on this, how the intent of a work of art (attention: personification alert) transcends the artist. In a sense, the intent of a work of art finds its ultimate limits in God alone, who is infinite, which, I hear, is pretty big.

    Thanks for this thoughtful post.

  4. David Ker says:

    Isn’t this a way of dipping our toe into the subject of divine inspiration? God spoke through his prophets in ways they couldn’t fully understand. And a translator is capable (even unwittingly) of rendering God’s message in an inspired way without being fully in control of the information.

    I’ve admired Eco from afar but never had the doggedness/brains to make it through one of his books.

  5. J. K. Gayle says:

    God spoke through his prophets in ways they couldn’t fully understand. And a translator is capable (even unwittingly) of rendering God’s message in an inspired way without being fully in control of the information.

    David,
    Why this emphasis on what’s not understood, not controlled, not retained by translation (i.e. what’s “lost in translation”)? Why is the linguist not a poet, the poet not a linguist? Why can’t they be both? Why would Kenneth Pike tell poems at the end of his monolingual “linguist” demonstrations? Why would scientist-turned-novelist Alan Lightman confess to me that he wants the translators of his novels (now in 30 different languages) to be not only “scientists” but also “artists” of language? Why does Jesus tell parables and not always give the interpretation, and never to everyone? Why does he seem so content not to know everything, not to have control over all information? Why does Luke not say that Jesus ever stops growing (in wisdom, in stature, in favor – from humans and God)?

    Why is what we don’t know “magic”? or “divine inspiration”? (i.e. something the science of linguistics can’t get at and something the art of poetics won’t bother with?) Why is Eco’s title, Il nome della rosa, so mysterious? Why does its translation, The Name of the Rose, seem to give us English readers a little less mystery? Why does it matter that the last line of this novel by Eco invites interpretation? It is “Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.” Why is the literal translation into English (i.e., “Yesterday’s rose endures in its name, we hold empty names”) sometimes interpreted as a mistranslation? In other words, what if Eco overlooked a textual variant of the line he quotes as the last line? What if his “magic,” his inspiration, is really a mistake? Why would it matter if he’d “correctly” quoted the line as “Stat Roma pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus”? (i.e., “Yesterday’s Rome stands only in name, we hold only empty names”)?

    Why does the linguist presume not to be a poet but to have as his high job to know and to explain it all in “normal” language for everyone for ever? Why do we think the un-known is so ab-normal and so un-desirable? Why is the divinely inspired so different?

  6. CharlesPDog says:

    Poetry here has often been derided explicitly, as well as implicitly, as not making the Bible accessible without effort

    My question then, “Why such constant derision of bibblish?”

  7. David Ker says:

    Charles, I think Peter’s comments are worth checking out…

    JK, if I take your many questions as statements, I think I can affirm most of them. I think most translators do aspire to poetry.

  8. CharlesPDog says:

    I guess I just am slow. I think when most people here say something is Biblish, it means something that is not part of the original text, what I would call an affectation of language and that most scholars should avoid it. Maybe, it has to do with the word gibberish which sounds to similar to me.

    No, Peter doesn’t say that in that thread. Are you saying that somehow I have the wrong impression then, because of this one thread, and this one person’s post?

    Also, “The word of God” as a phrase in or out of the Bible doesn’t particularly remind me of something that one would want to categorize as being Biblish anyway (like Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, does). I can’t imagine attempting to categorizing its use as meaning the same thing in all contexts either, i.e, it doesn’t always mean the message of God which BTW is not as poetic to me as the word of God.

    FWIW, I am not a “speaker” of Biblish because I understand much of the archaic language of the KJV. I would say that because of my age I am more familiar with the sound of that version that an inner city youth. Maybe we need to introduce old f*rt neutral language versions.

    I am currently reading Ken Bailey’s, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, and it seems to me than many times Jesus spoke in metaphor and parable, which I honestly admit often confuse me. Reading the Message Bible, which I really like, and is simple to understand, isn’t going to give me any better understanding of the nuances of the meanings of the parables. Additional effort and thought are sometimes beneficial to spiritual growth.

  9. David Ker says:

    Sorry about that, Charles. Let me back up to your first comment. Were you saying that this blog derides poetry? If so, you might be right if by poetry you mean Elizabethan/Jacobian English, or unnatural English that in trying to follow the source text too slavishly breaks universal rules of English grammar. I agree that poetry and dense literature of any kind should require an effort to decode. But we shouldn’t be expending our effort to unpack unnatural or archaic English. The text is often difficult enough by itself without an added layer of difficulty.

    Instead, I do favor saying as clearly as possible what we understand the original idea to be and then relying on helps (footnotes, commentaries, pastors and Sunday school teachers) to help us navigate the parts that are still incomprehensible.

    For an example, take John 14:1, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me.”

    “Let not” is not a common way of making negative English commands. Instead we say, “Don’t let your heart be troubled.” Or even more contemporary language would be something like, “Don’t be concerned” or “Don’t worry.” So, we have eliminated the archaic English. But perhaps we don’t want to lose the expression “heart be troubled.” So we might footnote it as “The Greek expression is…”

    Same thing for the rest of the verse. We might want a footnote that says, “Or: “You believe in God, so believe in me as well.”

    You’re right that there are simply parts of the Bible that are going to be incomprehensible to us no matter how they’re translated. A book like Bailey’s can help give us insights into the background of a passage that shed new light on old truths.

  10. CharlesPDog says:

    Sorry you don’t like the language of the KJV, Psalm 23 always really does it for me. I prefer it to Alter’s version, BUT his attempt to join proper translation and poetry, with a bunch of clear notes absolutely astounds me sometimes. In general I stand in awe of his translation of the psalms.

    As I said, I understand clearly what Let not…….. means, and I prefer its rhythm. I understand others don’t……..lots of room here

    “footnotes, commentaries, pastors and Sunday school teachers) to help us navigate the parts that are still incomprehensible.”

    They can also be biased and have hidden agendas and the history of organized religion is full of these corruptions, because men are fallible. For that reason I still feel it is important to do as best as one can to sort out the wheat from the chaff and attempt to understand the Bible on their own. I am very grateful for translations such as the Message, and what I can glean from the Net Bible so far. It does seem to me that the TNIV and ESV have “religious” biases. I don’t particularly like the way the ESV version what trodden into the dust by whoever, but the problem really is agenda not Biblish.

    I do, however, appreciate David, the way you address people and their concerns, so I must say,

    In Christ,
    Paul Larson

  11. Rich Rhodes says:

    Paul, I’m probably the loudest voice for the position that the Bible should only be translated into Biblish, when it was Biblish to the original audience. One can make a very strong arguments that in the original languages much of the Bible was NOT poetry, and, for that matter, was not particularly eloquent. To the extent the language of the translations in the KJV tradition makes it seem like the Bible is more poetic or more eloquent than it was, I claim that is a mistake — something added in translation.

    David, I don’t know if you remember that last year I included something about poetry and translation here. There are actually a lot of “capital L linguists”, as you have called them (us), who have tried their hand at creative writing, some better, and some worse. (Two of the more successful are Donna Jo Napoli and Suzette Haden Elgin.)

    I should also point out that for capital L linguists, working on one’s native language is highly valued. One can recognize a lot of subtleties that are lost on non-natives. I have to work very hard to figure things out in Ojibwe and Métchif and Sayula Popoluca and Spanish and German and, of course, Koine, that a few brief moments of critical introspection clarify in English.

    Furthermore, capital L linguists are quick to point out that (like the critique of the Orwell article) that the best writers are almost universally bad a doing linguistic analysis. Being a good linguist and being a good writer are two very different things. A possible analogy from sports might be the difference between players and coaches. The best players don’t automatically make the best coaches, and there are plenty of great coaches who were never particularly good players.

  12. Aaron Armitage says:

    David Ker:

    “Same thing for the rest of the verse. We might want a footnote that says, “Or: “You believe in God, so believe in me as well.””

    1) If that’s your footnoted version, what exactly would you like to see in the main text?

    2) “Believe in God” is an imperative, “You believe in God” is most naturally read as an indicative. Which is the Greek?

    3) Is there anything in the Greek text corresponding to “so” or therefore?

  13. David Ker says:

    1. If the text read, “Believe in God. Believe also in me.”
    2. It’s ambiguous in the Greek. He could have been saying either.
    3. Again there’s ambiguity here. I could take the KAI to mean “and” or “also” so I interpret the second proposition to be the consequence of the first.

    These are quick answers so don’t anybody quote me on this… 8)

  14. Aaron Armitage says:

    I knew that. Is it the word behind “also” in this particular translation of this particular verse?

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