Losing Things

I just read Gina Barreca's post, Everything You Lose Makes Room for Something New and it reminded me of two things. One, a vilanelle by Elizabeth Bishop that I have a love-hate relationship with called 'One Art'. Although it's 'about' the death of her partner, my favorite lines are:

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

The whole poem is here.

The second thing this post reminds me of is my own just-so postcard that Shanti sent me from Geneva when I was studying in Lahore. The quote, from Jules Renard, reads:

Ecrire, c'est une façon de parler sans être interrompu.

On race

PBS in the US did a documentary on race a while ago. I haven't seen it, but I did come across the companion website, Race - The Power of an Illusion, recently. Being a show made by and for Americans, it traces the history of race in the US, but it does give a glimpse of what race meant - or didn't mean - before European settlers arrived in the Americas. It also points out, as the title suggests, that race is not a biological fact but a social construct. The terms we use so casually today - 'white', 'black', 'caucasian' - have an interesting history. It doesn't call for the abolition of racial categories though because they are useful in determining such things as social equality, which suggests that current social inequality is a function of the arbitrary classification of human beings into nonexistent subcategories, and not vice versa. And if you'd like to see evidence of how arbitrary this classification is, take a look at this page, where you are given 16 photographs to classify under four racial categories. Give it a go and see how many you get right.

But what's most interesting and, I think, most relevant to Australia is the section titled What's Race Got To Do With It? The third presentation, called "The Elephant in the Room" seemed the most directly applicable to what I've seen in Australia. I should point out that I don't know all that much about the social and racial history of Australia and what I do know comes from references made in articles and conversations about current issues (such as the Apology to Indigenous Australians made by the Prime Minister earlier this year, the portrayal - or lack thereof - of Indigenous Australians in the media and art, and Australia's rather intersting immigration policies through history). I have however been living here for just over two years now and while I honestly find it a wonderfully welcoming place, I have also found it to be one where racism is incredibly deeply ingrained. Not in the classic American sense of being discriminated against on the basis of your skin color (though it's been known to happen) but in the constant classification of people into categories and sub-categories. People born and bred in Australia are still referred to by their parents' race or, if they are of European ancestry, by their forebears' country of origin. Nobody, it seems, is just Australian. Given the intermittent noise in the media about 'Australian values' and identity, that's just bizarre.

The racism is so casual you almost don't notice it. For instance, upon meeting my husband, several people have remarked that he wasn't what they expected. They were expecting a Pakistani - and therefore presumably Muslim - male but he 'doesn't look like one.' As if that wasn't galling enough, some have remarked on how lovely that is and how lucky I am.

Another example is language. I have lost count of how many times I've received compliments on my command of English or been asked outright where I learnt it because it's really rather good. I don't think any of the people who have complimented me have meant any harm by it and have no idea that they were being insufferably patronizing. I have decided however that, rather than get annoyed, the simplest thing to do is to compliment theirs in return. You know, one native speaker to another.

My personal favorite is people who must assert a cultural difference no matter what. Everyone being spoken of belongs to some neat little category that immediately explains everything about them. What a convenient way to view the world.

Given the history of racism, these are minor irritations. But they indicate nonetheless how deeply ingrained the assumptions based on race actually are, even though most people would be hard put to explain why some people are categorized according to race while others are defined by their ethnicity, nationality, or religion and would be surprised to learn how often they conflate these categories themselves.

You need to read this

This was published over at the Science-Based Medicine blog a few months ago and caught my attention thanks to today's blog post over there. It's a droll account of how the nonsense that is 'Complementary and Alternative Medicine' managed to sell itself not just to the public but to the medical establishment to the point that it gets written about in medical journals and taken seriously by people who should know better.

What is particularly interesting to me in this is the use of language to effect this coup. Change language and you change perception indeed.

Well, Jeff, quackery is a pejorative term. Some time ago we recognized that words raise emotions and mental pictures. We recognized the cognitive dissonance raised by them, so we tried to eliminate quackery. We recognized the cognitive dissonance raised when one discusses acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, and healing at a distance as if they were quackery when we made claims. For a century, most people just could not allow for the possibility that these things really work.


So over time we recognized that we had to do something about our language. That would be the first step in enabling the thought revolution that is upon us, and changing the paradigm in medicine and science. We simply changed the adjectives, and gave alternate names to the methods, added a few phrases to eliminate negative reactions, and shifted the negative terms to descriptions of the Medical Establishment (and, note the caps in that one.)

And along with that, we took advantage of a shift in perception, to be sure that the public would adopt a non-judgmental attitude. Of course, we had to wait decades for that attitude to mature to the point that they would be willing to give our claims a hearing, whereas just thirty years ago they would have dismissed the claims out of hand.Not only did we get that non-judgmental mind-set, but with it, a strong negative reaction to a description that contained an opinion or one that used any kind of loaded language to describe an underdog - no matter how true or justified that language happened to be. Fortunately for us, a wave of change spread across the intelligentsia, especially in the universities and the literary community, reinforced by the press.

Thoughts inevitably turn to Orwell, but also to Deborah Tannen, Francis Wheen, Barbara Ehrenreich and many others who've been trying, each with the tools at their disposal, to point out that what we're doing is tantamount to, as my brother put it, 'shooting ourselves in the foot while being chased by a steamroller.'

Who says?

An interesting post over at Language Log discusses how, apparently, native speakers of French, intended to serve as a control group in a second-language acquisition experiment, were remarkably inconsistent in the genders they assigned to nouns. This is important because native speakers are generally assumed to be fairly consistent and correct in their use of the language and it is this usage, alongside written grammars, that is therefore used to measure the success of non-native speakers' language acquisition.
Ayoun was investigating second-language learning of grammatical gender in French -- a major difficulty for learners from non-gender languages like English. She had constructed a couple of tasks: grammaticality judgments of sentences where there was a gender agreement mismatch, and a gender-assignment task, where subjects were given a noun and had to choose among "masculine", "feminine", "both", or "I don't know".

In both tasks, to her great surprise, she found a great deal of disagreement among her native-speaker controls! In these tasks, there is always a normatively 'correct' answer -- French dictionaries and textbooks all agree on what the genders of nouns are, and how gender agreement in sentences should turn out -- in the same way they agree on how to form relative clauses, and how to form passives, and where to put clitic pronouns, and so on. Native speakers would be expected to perform close to ceiling on this grammatical task, as on others. But, surprisingly, they don't.

What is interesting is that the greatest variation existed among the youngest participants.
On most grammatical tasks, for all intents and purposes, teenagers' native-language abilities are identical to adults' abilities. But when she broke down the gender-assignment task results by age, she found that teenagers showed considerably more variation than the adults. On the 50 feminine nouns, for example, the 14 adults all agreed on 21 of them, while the 42 teenagers agreed on only one: cible, 'target'. Of the 93 masculine nouns, the adults agreed on 51 of them, while all adults and teenagers agreed on only 17 (of 93!!)

Apparently, no systematic study of native French speakers' assignment of grammatical gender has been done for about 30 years, so we don't know when or how this inconsistency developed. It's interesting though, because it makes me wonder whether it has anything to do with the increasing amount of 'noise' being overlaid on language. Teachers and all manner of pedants have been bewailing the deterioration of language quite possibly since we started using language in the first place. What I find odd though is not just the change in the way people use language, but the fact that they don't really seem to 'have the idiom', as it were. I hope that's not just me turning into a stuffy old lecturer before my time and ranting about 'kids these days' - I'm particular about usage, certainly, but I try not to smother living language.

As the post points out, the experiment was not set up to provide answers to questions regarding the variation between native language speakers so we'll have to wait for another study before we can do more than wonder out loud. But in the mean time, I shall happily speculate to my heart's content.

Language habits

Scientific American interviews Alice Gaby, a linguist working at UC Berkeley (and a University of Melbourne alumna), about her research on how language affects our perception of the world. She explains, however, that language isn't some sort of "straitjacket" that limits us to thinking in only one way, but rather a "habit" of mind that we fall into and that can and does change. Culture both reinforces and results from these habits.

The discussion ranges over other interesting topics, including Gaby's project regarding the concept of time in language, which sounds fascinating.

SciAm promised a transcript of the interview a week from the post, but nothing's been posted yet. I'll link to it as soon as it's up.

Multilingual poetry!

I found this bit of gorgeousness via languagehat, a blog I've only just started reading.

Antoine Cassar writes in five different languages, but rather than write one poem in one language, he has attempted to "braid" all five together into single poems, called Muzajik or Mosaics. The results are intriguing. The first and third link will take you to some of his poems, and while you're there I'd recommend listening to the posted recordings. I've found, in my brief encounter with them, that the different languages gel well with each other and form very interesting poetry. He's woven the sounds of the different languages together wonderfully in the poems I've heard so far (Go listen).

In the Chimera piece(first link), Cassar says:

"...the mosaics are more than a mere linguistic challenge. Having lived in five different European countries and languages, I find it difficult to decide which tongue I feel more at home with. Although I still write monolingual poetry occasionally (particularly in Maltese), I believe that selecting one, or even two, would mean sacrificing others, and to a certain extent, I feel that making a choice would also imply a political decision. Why the fixation with one as opposed to many?"

I think that's what immediately appealed to me. Being multilingual, one tends to code-switch - or at least want to code-switch - quite a bit, and it is sometimes frustrating to have to limit oneself to just one language when another would fit a particular situation so much better. Given that there are probably more bilinguals and multilinguals in the world than monolinguals, it is worth asking why the majority has to limit itself for the sake of the minority. (And the over-generalized answer, probably, is that the minority is more powerful or influential - neither of which is to be construed as pejorative.)

There are more things to address here, not the least of which is Cassar's project to include languages he does not speak into the mosaics, but as the project is, as far as I can tell, still gathering steam, I expect there will be more opportunities to do so. In the mean time, I'm just going to go enjoy what there is.

It's official

I'm enrolled in the PhD program. Till 2012. And I'm being paid to do it, which is utterly cool.

There were delays, of course - it's taken almost a month and a half to process everything. You'd think, with an unconditional offer and two full scholarships, there'd be no reason for any holdups, wouldn't you? I thought so too. I have seldom been so horribly wrong.

See Australia requires international students to have health insurance while they're in the country. In itself, this is not a problem. It becomes a problem, however, when you want to switch insurance companies. They don't like each other and while they're happy to have you, you need to be punished for ever going over to the competition in the first place. Once they work you over good and proper and make you swear a blood oath to never ever leave the fold again on pain of torture by red tape, you are finally redeemed and accepted into the fold.

You can imagine, then, what the company you're leaving does to you. Honestly, if my parents had divorced when I was 12 and I'd been forced to choose between them, it could not have been worse.

The incompetence of the people who are supposed to 'handle' us international students  was the next hurdle. Yes you need health cover for three years. No you don't. Yes you do. No you don't. Unfortunately, it was 'yes you do' when I went to accept my offer and I was sent packing straight to the insurance company with offerings of money and vows of eternal fidelity. They were in a benevolent mood - and hey, who isn't when you give them money - and back I went to finally, finally accept my offer. And then, naturally, I find out that the department of immigration only requires you to have cover for the first 12 months of your degree, after which it is your responsibility to keep it updated.

That stupidity aside though, it's done and I'm ready to start. I'm quite excited and nervous, but I have about four years to get over that.  I've started exploring German on my own, though I'll sign up for proper classes once I sort out where to go. I'm also sorting through what resources I've found at the library and looking for stuff online, though the amount of material searches turn up is a little frightening. Ah well, as I said, four years to go through it all.

I realized something else that's 'official', or at least will be by the time I finish: in 2012, I will have lived in Melbourne for just under six years - that's longer than I've ever lived anywhere before.  Who'd'a thunk?


The Australian Association for Literary Translation had its second public lecture at Monash University's Caulfield Campus yesterday. It's just as well I checked the newsletter one last time before leaving or I would have ended up in Clayton which is a good deal farther away. I'm glad I got to the right place and in time though, because it was just so good to talk to people about the work I'm doing, the work they're doing, about language acquisition, linguistic shifts, choosing languages, who 'owns' language, writing in another language, picking up other languages through the languages one already knows, translation, interpretation, regional variants in language, accents, the linguistic/cultural dominance of English-English vs US-English...and all this is before the actual lecture. *swoon*

Dr Jean Anderson teaches at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and "fell into" translation. She translates into French and her lecture was primarily about issues of cultural difference when translating literature from the Pacific island nations - a group of which she contends New Zealand is a part. Her particular problem had to do with translating work that, while written, comes from a highly developed oral tradition into French, which has fairly rigid conventions. Repetition, she said, was one example. Where a Mao'hi writer could repeat words, 'good' French writing demands that a particular word not be repeated until several paragraphs after its first appearance. Such conventions, be they in whatever language, throw up interesting quandaries for translators and quite often one has to make a decision based on what will ultimately be most acceptable to readers.

That raises the question of domesticating a text: risking the elimination of the original voice of the text by absorbing it too deeply into the target language (and culture).  And that in turn raises the question of why a translation shouldn't 'look' like a translation. Why shouldn't it look foreign if that's what it is? All of which constitutes a fairly long-standing debate in the field of translation.

 I don't know if translation studies is where I want to go necessarily; it represents to me a fairly black-and-white approach to language that I don't think I'm entirely comfortable with. I prefer a more nebulous approach to language and that may well have to do with having grown up speaking three languages. I never had to 'learn' any of them formally although I've had lessons in all three at one time or another. Actually, when you think about it, it's odd that this should come as a 'surprise' to translators because I'm hardly alone. The majority of the world's population does grow up multilingual - there's usually a national language as well as a regional language or dialect at the very least, as well as English and any other languages that may be relevant. It's people in English-speaking countries who have to make an active effort to learn a new language, and those who do constitute a fairly small minority of language learners. And yet our theories of language acquisition center on the latter approach to language learning. ...I have to go read me some more Venuti, I think.

One down…

I handed in my final assignment for my research course yesterday. Yes, it's silly to have to write a research proposal for a thesis that's due in a few weeks, but that should actually make it easier to write. I took it as a good sign that I got it done without bursting into tears - that means I actually do have some idea what I'm doing. Yaay.

The creative component was fun though, specially since I've opted to not include a creative component in my thesis and I wanted to see what I might have come up with if I had.  I thought of doing an 'imitiation' of Faiz in English, but discarded that idea pretty fast since I'd need my examiner to be able to read the original for it to make sense. What I did take from Faiz was the images and sentiment he uses in "Aaj Bazaar Mein Pabajaulan Chalo" which translates roughly as "Come to the marketplace in shackles today".


I've tried translating that one line over and over and simply cannot come up with any kind of phrasing in English that manages to convey the right combination of grief or determination or resignation or any of the other emotions that one line carries. 'Aaj' means today. 'Bazaar' is not just a marketplace, it's the town centre or square where the business of living, not just trade, is carried out. 'Mein' is 'in'. 'Pabajaulan' means 'with shackled feet. 'Chalo' means 'walk' but it can also mean come or go. But that doesn't really help because we don't know who the line is addressed to. It could mean: 

  • come with me to the marketplace in shackels

  • let us go to the marketplace in shackles today

  • I must walk in shackles through the marketplace today

  • walk in shackles in the marketplace today

  • We have come to a time when we must walk in shackles in the marketplace

So which is it? The problem is, it's all of them. The poet himself actually did have to pass through the marketplace in chains one day because he needed to see a doctor and one couldn't come to him in prison that day(Faiz was jailed because the government didn't like his political opinions). The idea of having to walk chained in his own country for the crime of actually caring about its people stayed with him. It is also a comment on subjugation and the idea that, visible or not, everyone living under an oppressive regime is in shackles in public. It is also not only touches on (and the poem later discusses it explicitly) the humiliation faced by those with the will to fight but suggests that the brave come out in shackles willingly and take whatever other punishment the 'oppressors' wish to heap on them. Yes this is still the one line.


 Since I've been reading Ilhan's book at the same time and given my own interest in the ancient history of the land, I also picked up the image of the Dancing Girl of Mohenjodaro and again used Faiz's idea of her 'birth' as the moment when time began (until we figure out what the real myths of the time were, I suppose we'll just have to make up our own). Combine that with the Indus River (because I can) and you have a narrator all set to tell the story of a land in political turmoil. It was also easier to use the dancing girl as the speaker than myself because I feel my own emotional connection to the land is quite tenuous, despite my anger at the current situation there. (But that division is a whole other post.)

Overall, I'm not unhappy with the stuff I turned in. I'm avoiding reading it because I know I'll find something I could have put better or should have left out or something. Plus I have my Writing the Unconscious assignment due next and have to go look up stuff on Jung. A jungian short story. What the hell was I thinking?!

Urdu poetry

The Urdu Poetry Archive is probably the most comprehensive Urdu poetry site I've come across so far. It contains over 1,800 poems by about 343 poets and has an alphabetical listing of both, which makes it easy to locate whatever you're looking for. It hasn't been updated for a few years though and I hope it hasn't been abandoned - it's a fantastic resource and, since the poems are transliterated (according to a painstakingly uniform system that it's worth your while to get to know), people who speak urdu but have trouble with the script can still access the poetry. There aren't any translations up though, but I suppose that would be a whole other project.

Of trochees and iambs, or how we pick up language

If you've ever wondered why our voices go up a few octaves and become distinctly sing-song-y when we talk to children (and yes, even a misanthrope like me does on occasion talk to children), Professor Steve Jones may have an answer.
And thereby hangs a tale; for rhythm is essential to language. Children pick up the pulse of speech well after they have learned its vocabulary and grammar. That explains in part why they sound childish and why adults talk to them in such an embarrassing way. The young pick up trochees first (which is why "Twinkle, twinkle, little star" - a perfect example of the form - is so popular and may even lie behind Shakespeare's use of the same rhythm for the child-like figure of Puck). An ability to respond to the ponderous iamb takes much longer to emerge. When faced with a complicated word like "banana", infants often turn it into a tasty trochee, or "nana".

Useless Information

So I now have a huge stack of books threatening to topple onto my poor little laptop and crush it under their weight. All about translation, of course. As if I'm going to be able (through osmosis, maybe?) to absorb all their relevant content and produce an elegantly argued thesis clearly well-grounded in the current literature of my field. In a word, gah.

What's fun though is coming across information that I have absolutely no use for but that is fascinating anyway. I love the physicality of language, or, put more boringly, the way we use the identical vocal apparatus to produce such a wide variety of language sounds. The most vivid example I remember is watching my mother on the phone once (before New York, so I would have been about 12) when she was conducting two simultaneous conversations, one with my father on the official line and the other with two friends on the other phone. It was fascinating to see her face literally rearrange itself while she switched from Turkish (dad) to French to Urdu/English. She speaks each with its 'proper' accent so I expect the realignment was even more exaggerated than it would have been if she'd kept the same accent. (But how do you learn a language without learning the accent or at least something like it? Isn't it integral to understanding and picking up speech?) The way her cheeks and mouth were placed almost seemed to shift and her entire expression, tone, and volume would change. I keep thinking of the term 'acrobatics' and I suppose, in a sense, it's an apt description.

The other thing, which is related in a way to the first, is the way one's attitude changes in different languages. I speak French with a lower tone, with many more 'throat-clearers' (non, fin, tu vois, et bien, quoi, etc.) than I do English. I also speak it slightly slower than English or Urdu, probably because I go so long between conversations, but also because I tend to trip myself up when I speak too fast in any language and French is harder to disentangle. Technical difficulties aside, my attitude is also more relaxed in French--even my gestures which, in Urdu, can get almost frantic, are larger and smoother. The emotional connection with French actually made itself felt when my mother-in-law died and I found that while functioning in Urdu and even English was a massive effort--I couldn't remember the simplest of words at times and spent much of my time gesturing and nodding--my French revived and supplanted both as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be babbling away in French during funeral preparations in Pakistan. I think it may be that because I spoke to my mother in French as a child--she was particularly pleased by how quickly I picked it up and it's been 'our' language ever since I can remember--I associate a cetain amount of emotional stability with the language. It's what I speak when I want to talk to just her, even though my father is familiar with it and my brother has a fair command of it too. In fact, when we're in an 'us vs. them' type of situation, Ilhan and I will usually fall into it too.

My Urdu has always been somewhat careful, but became far more fluent when I moved to Lahore for college and then to Islamabad. It's already slipping away again though, to the point where Ameel gets a good laugh out my failed attempts to speak it exclusively--we're more diglossic than bilingual in that sense. He ups the ante by responding in Punjabi, which is grossly unfair because it's not a language I claim to speak, regardless of how well I understand it. I speak Urdu very fast though--faster than English--and gesticulate quite a lot (things have been known to fly off the table). I guess I'm never really sure when it's going to run out. I was quite happy to learn to cuss well in it though, since the ability to lose your temper in a language is one good way to measure your grasp of it. But I'll still revert to English when I'm paticularly angry. It's very clearly North American for just being rude or loud or both and my trusty RP for sarcasm and being generally poisonous. So far, luckily, I have not had to do both simultaneously.

Time and Translation

Time seems to fly and crawl simultaneously sometimes. I don't quite get it, but there you go. I'll be slogging away at something utterly boringly unending and suddenly the week's gone. Again. It's like being stuck in a vacuum while time rushes past around me.

The new semester starts on the Feb 26. I'm quite ready to go back to school again, although what with it being the last six (five, really) months of my thesis and tutoring thrown in as well, it should be nice and stressful, but in a good I'm-doing-what-I-want-to-be-doing kind of way. At least that's the idea.

I've been reading buckets on translation and the upshot seems to be that, at present, everyone's got a different take on it and everyone thinks that their take works for them well enough but that obviously others have their own way of doing it, although they couldn't possibly do it that way themselves. Isn't that nice?

What many do agree on is that the choice of what to translate is usually personal, particularly when it comes to poetry. Even when translators work with 'informants' who know the language of the original text, they seem to want to connect with the ideas expressed and explored before they feel able to actually render the same poem in the target language (English in almost all the cases I've read so far). At the same time, most acknowledge that a perfectly literal translation is impossible simply because no two languages are alike enough for a text to travel intact between them. But that's why they do it. Because even though the exact sense cannot be conveyed, something of the essence of the poem can, and that, they feel, is the point. Better to have an imperfect rendering of , say, Homer than none at all.

What any of this means for my thesis remains to be seen, unfortunately. The only thing I have been able to conclude so far is that there has been extremely little contact between Urdu and French. What contact there has been says to me that the two languages should cross-pollinate--the lyrical quality of each seems to me to travel well despite the distance between the languages and I think something in each manages to capture something very basic in the other in a way that English translations of Urdu and French poetry do not. But then for me there already exists a basic connection between Urdu and Frenchbecause I've heard them used in tandem my whole life. There's no such relationship between them and English for me though, even though I've used that my whole life as well--more so than the other two. That's odd.