Found Language 006

Found Language #006

This is an entry in my notebook.

Nicole Krauss is one of my favourite authors. Here’s “The Last Words on Earth,” published in The New Yorker in 2004. Later on it became part of A History of Love, published in 2005, which is a book that has a special place in my heart.

“Sometimes I open my book and read from it at random. There are passages I know by heart. By heart—this is not an expression I use lightly. My heart is weak and unreliable. I try to burden it as little as possible. If something is going to have an impact, I direct it elsewhere. My gut, for example, or my lungs. When I pass a mirror and catch a glimpse of myself, or I’m at the bus stop and some kids come up behind me and say, ‘Who smells shit?’—small daily humiliations that are par for the course—these I take, generally speaking, in my liver. The pancreas I reserve for being struck by all that’s been lost. It’s true that there’s so much, and the organ is so small. But. You would be surprised how much it can take. When I wake up and my fingers are stiff, almost certainly I was dreaming of my childhood. All the times I have suddenly remembered that my parents are dead (even now it still surprises me to exist in the world while those who made me have ceased to exist): my knees. To everything a season; to every time I’ve woken only to make the mistake of believing for a moment that someone is sleeping beside me: a hemorrhoid. Loneliness: there is no organ that can take it all.”

Kaia Sands on Pacific poets imagining the future:

“…Sentences that predict the future are structured along particular grammars. Words like could, may,and might, tacked before other verbs, are ‘modals of probability’ (or possibility, or speculation) and indicate a possible but always uncertain future: ‘some studies suggest that sea-level rise could lead to a reduction in island size, particularly in the Pacific.’”

“We already know what the sun looks like over the horizon, but we need more imagination to know what happens when that sun overheats the ocean until it swells above Pacific shores. The conditions of the future will remain uncertain until it is our present, too late to change. This uncertainty has grammatical forms, but what other forms, what poetic forms might reconfigure thinking and action, our relation to this future?”

Lydia Davis on the power of language and translation:

“We must get to know our own language even better when we are translating. When we are writing our own work, our choices are less deliberate, more involuntary, at least in the first draft. It is our natural vocabulary that springs into our minds. As we translate, it is not our own choice that ­confronts us, but the choice of another writer, and we must search more consciously for the right words with which to convey it. It is then that we summon all the so-called synonyms in our own language, in the hope of finding just the right one. For of course they are not exact equivalents, they are all a little different, with different origins and different registers.

When we write our own work, we can be spontaneously, thoughtlessly confusing. But when we translate, we have to be deliberately confusing—­unless we translate closely and faithfully a confusing original.

And when we translate, as opposed to when we read passively, we can’t simply skip over the things in the original text that we don’t understand.”

Which brings me to Alastair Campbell writing about the genius of Jacques Brel:

“There is a view, expressed by his biographer Olivier Todd, that Brel is untranslatable and nobody but Brel can sing his songs. He has a point about translation. I explain to Mel Smith that, at the climax of Ne Me Quitte Pas, Brel is saying to his departing amour, ‘Let me become the shadow of your shadow, the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your dog.’ In English it sounds more like something from one of Smith’s sketches with Griff Rhys Jones than one of the most beautiful love songs of all time. Yet in French his lyrics take their place in anthologies of great poets.”

Ilya Kaminsky and Katie Farris on the agony of waiting:

“…when the laughter stops, I look into her face and see these waiting hours, this time zone called fear. I am looking into her face and see her say without uttering a word, We are here.”

There is no word for everything. Here’s a list of untranslatable words:

“11. Mono no aware (Japanese): an acute sensitivity to the transience of lovely things; a melancholy awareness that everything nice will fade combined with a rich enjoyment of this short-lived beauty. The sight of cherry blossom provokes the emotion like nothing else.”

Here is a poem:

Oscar Wilde

“I had wasted my boyhood, true:
but it was for you.
You had poets enough on the shelf,
I gave you myself.”

— Oscar Wilde, from Roses and Rue, III

But are words indeed untranslatable? Here is a different perspective:

“Untranslatability however is of course a myth; while a specific language may have a more efficient way of expressing a specific thing, this does not mean that another language cannot understand or perceive the same thing. At the same time however, this dismissal of linguistic evolution has in similar ways been used to support colonial powers linguistic expansion. The argument being that if every language is inherently capable of expressing every human experience, then the attempts to save an endangered language seems ridiculous. And indeed, many people argue that language revitalisation programmes constitute a waste of money, precisely because of the fact that they mean that it does not matter what language one speaks, as long as one speaks.

Or to paraphrase Shakespeare, a rose is a rose no matter what name it is given.”

A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. Here’s Gertrude Stein:

“When I said.
A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
And then later made that into a ring I made poetry and what did I do I caressed completely caressed and addressed a noun.”

— from “Poetry and Grammar,” Lectures in America (Beacon Press, 1985)

Finally, this word:

gibel [gee-bel]”
(noun) An untranslatable, Russian word, meaning not quite death or suicide but simply ceasing to exist; deteriorating in a way that is painful to others. Overall it has connotations of death, destruction and ruin.


Found Language is where I gather writing, turns of phrases, and other statements that I find interesting, exquisite, or thought-provoking.


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A rose is a rose is a rose by Gertrude Stein


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