Friday, 20 March 2015

Lost in Translation


In which I'm a complete spoil-sport. Tell me if you think I'm missing the point.


Prepare to be amazed, for there's a collection here of ‘‘foreign words so rich and layered in meaning that the English language, despite its own unusual vocabulary [whatever that means] renders them practically untranslatable.’’ Except that the compiler, one Ella Frances Sanders, despite over-egging each lexical pudding, manages to make the meanings clear enough. Sanders makes Susan Polis Schultz sound hard-boiled:

The words in this book may be answers to questions you didn’t know to ask, and perhaps some you did. They might pinpoint emotions and experiences that seemed elusive or indescribable, or they may cause you to remember a person you’d forgotten. If you take something away from this book … let it be the realization or affirmation that you are human, [it's easily forgotten, after all] that you are fundamentally, intrinsically bound to every single person on the planet with language and feelings.
Writing her review, Maria Popova is as rapt as Sanders. She wants to know '...what happens when words are kept apart by too much unbridgeable otherness?' Anybody want to take that one? I haven't a clue what she means, so let's move on. On the Japanese word komorebi meaning ‘sunlight filtered through the trees’ Popova goes all precious on us:

These words invariably prompt you to wonder… whether a culture lacking a word for the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees is also one lacking the ennobling capacity for such quality of presence, for the attentive and appreciative stillness this very act requires.

Yawn. You can appreciate the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees whether you call it 'komorebi' or ‘the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees’. But language fanciers are usually more impressed by words than by phrases, subscribing to the fallacy that one word always equals one meaning, and that if language A lacks a word found in language B, then that concept is lost to speakers of A. The fact is that one meaning potentially gives rise to many words and phrases, and this Japanese word is not a single block of meaning like table or milk. Ko-more-bi can be analysed as ‘tree-leak-sun’, i.e., ‘sun leaking through the trees’, a phenomenon frequently observed and appreciated by people who live where there are trees, whatever they choose to call it. 


The Yiddish word Luftmensch ‘air person’ is one of the more interesting words in the collection, because it immediately brought to my mind the English ‘airhead’. But beware connotation: the English word means a person with not a lot up top, whereas the Yiddish means an impractical dreamer. I think connotation might be a bit too prosaic for Sanders: she’s for awe, life-affirming interconnectedness and umm, stuff like that. In search of these, she often homes in on a single use of a common word and presents it as an amazing affirmation of the fundamental intrinsic human bonds and what-not that she’s blathering on about. I submit that it would not be unreasonable to suppose that the rest of the words in her book are as easy to demystify as komorebi and these five after the jump. (Go on, jump.) 

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Of Aging, Yoga and Demons.



It’s my birthday again today. I’d swear that this is becoming a biannual event. (Christmas, too.) ‘It’s only a number!’ people tell you cheerily. Yeah, yeah. I mentioned the other week that a student told me he was forty-four, and added ‘I think same like you?’ thus underestimating my age at the time by eleven years. I felt quite chuffed. Then last week a dental hygienist making small talk asked me ‘so what do you do then? Are you retired?’ effectively transposing the digits of my real age as they stand as from three o’ clock this morning. I wanted to tell her that holding hairdresser-like conversations with people whose mouths are full of tubes and mirrors is pretty pointless, but couldn’t because my mouth was full of tubes and mirrors.

I decided last week it was about time I started to take more exercise, so I dragged my yoga mat out of the cupboard and began once again to yoge. Nine years ago in Kalamata I had a private teacher and was quite good. Nothing rubs in the fact of aging like restarting yoga after nearly a decade off: I felt as if I were wearing full armour. The pose janusirshasana, or head-to-knee forward bend, is one I could do quite comfortably back then but is now among the many I can’t even contemplate for the time being. The site from which I took the photo lists diarrhoea among the counter indications for the pose and it’s easy to see the logic here, though why anyone with afflicted with the shits would even attempt it is harder to fathom. 


You might think that the risks of yoga would be confined to trying too hard and thereby pulling muscles, snapping tendons or stippling the wall with your channa daal. But you’d be wrong. Some grey-faced drama queens in the Catholic Church have warned us of the unsuspected dangers of trying to put your forehead on your knees. Gabriele Amorth is the Vatican’s chief exorcist and so presumably has lots of spare time to think on these matters. He says that yoga is of Satan and it leads to evil ‘just like Harry Potter’. (He's not mad keen on sex, either.) One Fr Roland Colhoun has recently made a tit of himself by telling his flock that yoga may lead Christians to the Kingdom of Darkness. Apparently ‘there is a great body of research (theological, spiritual and psychological) already done on it.’ I’m very curious as to what ‘theological and spiritual research’ might be, and how it is undertaken and especially how it is peer reviewed. Do they have evicted demons on the panels?

Well anyway. Happy birthday to me.

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