Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Languages As Toys

I was thinking about the fact that I spent quite a few hours reviewing my very rusty (30+ years old) university Russian language skills before my recent trip to St. Petersburg. I have even continued to spend a little time on it since I got back. Why? I probably won't spend much time in Russia in the near future, and even if I do, I could probably get by just fine with English, as most tourists do. There's very little chance of achieving fluency or even minimal competence at this point in my life, though I'm confident that I could do it if by some bizarre circumstances I ended up living in Russia for a while (I feel the same way about French and Japanese). Was it worth the effort for just a few brief interactions in Russian?

Oddly enough, yes, and I figured out the reason. For me, languages are toys or puzzles, fun to play around with in themselves.Consider if the first person on the Moon had been Russian, and he or she had said the same thing that Neil Armstrong had said with his first step, but in Russian. According to Google Translate, that would have been это один маленький шаг для человека, но гигантский скачок для всего человечества. Now anyone can do that with Google, but since I can still read Russian and understand a bit about the grammar, I can see that this is a plausible translation. I can also speculate that the well-known confusion about Neil's statement (did he say one small step for man, or for a man?) would likely not have happened in Russian, since для человека "dlya chelovyeka" (for person) and человечества "chelovechestva" (mankind) are quite distinct, while "man" (with no a) and "mankind" are roughly synonyms. Russian also doesn't have articles (a vs. the), but the forms (cases) of nouns usually make the meaning clear. 

I consider that sort of thing entertaining enough to buy books on subjects that interest me in other languages, as a stimulus to learn more of these odd bits. I don't buy as many as I used to do in French and Japanese, and I tend to buy children's books, since I am not very advanced. I found one cool one in St. Petersburg, a children's book called simply космос ("kosmos," space). I was disappointed that I couldn't find such a book with more focus on Russian spaceflight (it's a translation of a British book). But this turned out to be useful, since I was able to buy a cheap used copy of the English version on Amazon, greatly helping my study efforts.

Once a nerd, always a nerd? Yup.


Craig H Collins said...

You "might" be interested in this book by Douglas Hofstadter:


I can't recommend it because I've not read it - DH tends to get a bit repetitive - but it addresses the topic you have written about here, the fidelity and cultural factors re: translations.

BTW the captcha is annoying!:)

FlyingSinger said...

Thanks Craig. This looks like it would touch upon a number of my interests. I ordered a used copy on Amazon (most of DH's work are not available on Kindle).

FlyingSinger said...

Continuing in the "strange loop" of communicating through comments in our respective blogs...

My used copy of "Ton Beau" arrived today. I had ordered it from an arbitrary third party seller on Amazon (not completely arbitrary - I chose the one with the lowest price for a "good" used copy). There is something strange and vaguely special about this copy. It contained some 100 post-it notes with comments like "very bad page," and most of the pages have from a few to hundreds of letters circled in ink. On close examination, all of these letters have some typographical defect, like a gap or light areas.

At first I thought that this copy was owned by a nut-job with a typography fetish, but the title page has the handwritten name Douglas Hofstadter with a residential street address. The street is adjacent to the Indiana University campus where DH is a professor.

So it could be that this was something like a printer's proof copy that was marked up by DH himself, though it is in what appears to be a normal hardcover binding. Strange. Why circle so many bad letters on so many pages? I don't know. It appears to be an interesting but VERY long and verbose book. As expected.

Unknown said...

You know, unlike many other machine translation systems, Google uses self learning algorithm based on comparing versions of the same texts in different languages. Thus, it is very likely that Google borrowed the entire quote from a text translated by human. This exact translation is the most common, I suppose.
If you are interested in reading about spaceflights in Russian, I might suggest Левантовский В.И.: Механика космического полёта в элементарном изложении. You probably wouldn't be able to buy a hard copy, but there are lots of free download links findable by Google. Even though this book mainly focuses on theoretical facets, it provides many examples emphasizing achievements of the Soviet space program. Another option is Черток Б.Е.: Ракеты и люди. This book in 4 volumes describes the very beginning of the Soviet space program with many tiny details which are probably not covered in English books at all.
Как интересно случайно встретить человека, разговаривающего на тех же четырёх языках, что и ты! よろしくね。

FlyingSinger said...

You meet some interesting "fellow travelers" in the comments of blog posts.

Sometimes I browse through my own old blog posts just to remember things that I have done and said. So I found myself here...

I thought that I had updated this post, but apparently not. As it turns out, the copy of the book that I bought WAS a proofreading copy that was sent from the publisher to the author. I emailed Prof. Hofstadter to ask about this, and he replied. At the time he received the proofreading copy, he was quite annoyed at the number of poorly reproduced letters in the typesetting. It was he who went through and circled many of the letters and wrote comments in the margins. So it goes.

The other thing is, I found that I don't really like this book very much. I have kept it on my desk at work, and occasionally at lunch I will browse in it. I have found some interesting sections, but it is really hard to read on an extended basis. John Irving is an author I really like who is not a relative. I think it was in his book "The Hotel New Hampshire," that that some character says "you have to get obsessed and stay obsessed." As a dilettante with many varied but short-shrifted interests, I have often wished that I could accomplish this myself. Prof. Hofstadter very apparently can.