Taking words out of context

Out of contextCouncil, along with the media, the auditor general, the CBC, our MP and MPP,and a few others, were recently sent a letter complaining about council’s decision to build new, year-round recreational facilities without raising taxes.

Fair enough. Everyone has the right to write letters. We’re open to public criticism, even after the issue has been decided, contracts signed, and council (and most of the town) has moved on. You can read the letter on the EEU.

The letter contains two quotes – both by dead Americans – to open and close the letter.

Because I am a bit of a quote-authenticity fanatic (see my other blog posts about quotations and mis-attributions, here and in the archives), I immediately did some online sleuthing to see if they were actual quotes, not the usual internet/Facebook misquote. I also wanted to learn under what context they were written. I naturally assumed the letter writer chose them for some relevance to the issues raised in the body of the letter.

Here’s the first one:

“It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.” Thomas Jefferson

Yes, indeed, to the writer’s credit, that was written by Thomas Jefferson. However, it is significantly out of its original context here. It comes from Query VII of Jefferson’s book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1781, revised 1782).

Thomas Jefferson wrote his book in response to several questions about Virgina posed by a “Foreigner of Distinction.” Query VII is a response to the question, “The different religions received into that state?”

Here’s a fuller quote – not all of his response by any means – from Jefferson’s reply to that question. The line that was taken out of context is highlighted. You can see that Jefferson’s comments were made in relation to how science (reason) was treated by religious authorities in historical times:

“Government is just as infallible too when it fixes systems in physics. Galileo was sent to the inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere: the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to abjure his error. This error however at length prevailed, the earth became a globe, and Descartes declared it was whirled round its axis by a vortex. The government in which he lived was wise enough to see that this was no question of civil jurisdiction, or we should all have been involved by authority in vortices. In fact, the vortices have been exploded, and the Newtonian principle of gravitation is now more firmly established, on the basis of reason, than it would be were the government to step in, and to make it an article of necessary faith.

“Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desireable? No more than of face and stature. Introduce the bed of Procrustes then, and as there is danger that the large men may beat the small, make us all of a size, by lopping the former and stretching the latter. Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion.”

To me, the telling points come later in this excerpt: Jefferson’s comment about the coercion of public opinion by fallible men (referring to the fallibility of government or church to determine a question outside its demesne), and the undesirability of uniformity of opinion (referring to the church’s insistence in uniformity of belief in the face of such challenges).

Both might be considered somewhat relevant to politics, but were not chosen, perhaps because they might be construed as unflattering to the cause of the writer.

Jefferson’s book – his only work published in his lifetime – is a rambling commentary on the State of Virginia, religion, law, reason, morality, geography, trade, faith, science, agriculture and politics. His words have nothing to do with Canada, Ontario, Collingwood, or municipal recreation. Canada barely gets a mention in this book – in reference to the height of Niagara Falls.

Does the writer draw some connection between Galileo and the Inquisition, and Collingwood Council and a swimming pool? Adams might have some fun with that on his Eastend Underground blog, but I struggle to see the connection. Perhaps I’m too close to the issue to see such metaphorical relationships.

The full text can be read here: avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/jeffvir.asp

Jefferson also wrote (in Query VI) what strikes me as more relevant to the debate:

“Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.”

To be fair, he was writing about the origin of the then-mysterious fossil seashells in limestone, not about ice pads and swimming pools. However, that again might have been turned back on the writer, so perhaps it was also ignored for chance of being misunderstood.

My favourite Jefferson line from that book is also from Query VI:

“Our quadrupeds have been mostly described by Linnaeus and Mons. de Buffon. Of these the Mammoth, or big buffalo, as called by the Indians, must certainly have been the largest.”

This, I realize, may have equally small relevance to recreational facilities, but calling a mammoth a “big buffalo” does sound swell. I’m sure I can find a use for that some day.

Let’s move on.

The second quote is this:

“Whenever men take the law into their own hands, the loser is the law. And when the law loses, freedom languishes – Robert Kennedy”

Again, the writer was correct: it was actually written by Robert F. Kennedy. But I had to find out when and why. That took a bit more work, because the entire text it was gleaned from is not online in one place (unless it is sequestered in Google Books). However, enough of it is extant that I could piece together a significant portion, and appreciate his intent.

Robert – Bobby – Kennedy was the US Attorney General in 1961. He spoke these quoted words in an address to the Joint Defence Appeal of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, Chicago, July 21, 1961. That speech was a comment on the evils of segregation, then being challenged in the US courts and on the streets of the southern states. These excerpted lines are in particular reference to the actions of the state police who were beating and jailing the Freedom Riders (anti-segregation activists) in Alabama.

You can learn more about that speech and about the civil rights movement in a book called, The Politics Of Injustice: The Kennedys, The Freedom Rides, And The Electoral Consequences of Moral Compromise, by David Niven: buy it on Amazon.ca

Civil Rights protestIt’s a fascinating period: the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, the beatniks, the Kennedy-Nixon debates, the Berlin Wall, Khrushchev, the Avro Arrow,the Diefenbaker-Pearson debates, the Space Race…. Although I was young then, I still remember the TV news showing the marches and the protests. I remember rather fondly the folk music of the day. However, I would hesitate to equate the Freedom Riders – who put their lives on the line to end a social injustice in America – with a protest against an ice rink. I am quite sure we did not engage the dogs or the water cannons on the protesters, even though they were demanding higher taxes.

In that same speech, Kennedy said,

“My faith is that Americans are not an inert people. My conviction is that we are rising as a people to confront the hard challenges of our age-and that we know that the hardest challenges are often those within ourselves. My confidence is that, as we strive constantly to meet the exacting standard of our national tradition, we will liberate a moral emery within our nation which will transform America’s role and America’s influence throughout the world-and that upon this release of energy depends the world’s hope for peace, freedom and justice everywhere.”

See here. Kennedy was speaking about the injustice of the segregation that kept African-Americans from enjoying the same rights that their white counterparts in the south enjoyed (like being able to vote, attend university, eat in any restaurant). Kennedy was a very vocal advocate for civil rights. Canada, on the other hand, had civil rights, and shared none of the social unrest around this issue.

I don’t recall that Kennedy ever turned his oratory skills on the issue of municipal swimming pools, but I have not read all of his speeches. I just know this speech was not about them. Without that context to link them, I’m sorry, but I just can’t see the relevance of this quote.

If we’re going to pull phrases out of context, I would prefer to use this one from the same speech, noted above:

“Americans are not an inert people. My conviction is that we are rising.”

Like the lines used in the letter, it has nothing to do with Canada, municipal politics, or swimming pools, but it sounds like something you can have fun with. What’s life without a sense of humour, eh?

Kennedy made another speech to the B’nai B’rith in Chicago, in October, 1963. You can read it here. It’s quite powerful – again it’s mostly about freedom and civil rights. But like all of his speeches I’ve read, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Collingwood or municipal process.

I digress. The issue is about using words taken out of context as inspirational quotes, or to ascribe some credibility to an argument. When readers realize neither quotation is relevant to the issue, it makes you wonder why they were chosen. Without contextual relevance, where is the meaning? That’s a question wise readers will ask, and they may extend it to the rest of the letter.

Jefferson and Kennedy made many wise, pithy comments in their lifetimes, and deserve our respect and recognition for their lives and their wisdom. That doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to take their words out of context for your own agenda.
~~~~~
PS. The answers to the questions posed in that letter can be read here: here, here and here. You can also watch Rogers Cable 53 for a re-run of the council meeting where our CAO, Mr. Houghton, made his public presentation explaining the process and how staff arrived at a recommendation (which was not provided to the local media, however). All questions have been answered. Many times over. There are no more answers because the town, and council cannot continue to say the same thing over and over.

And again, more mis-attributed quotes online

Faux Mark Twain quote, but not by him at all“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled.” Allegedly by Mark Twain, but unlikely, and not found in any published source I have of Twain’s quotations. Online sources, of course, don’t count as authorities because they lack all credibility.

As one person commented on Yahoo,

The fact that “Quora attributes it to him” is worthless. Quora is yet another one of those idiotic “quote websites” that misquote and misattribute things all the time.
Note that Quora doesn’t bother to give an actual citation — what book was it from, what page, etc. Without a full citation, you have no assurance that this was said by Mark Twain or Herbert Hoover or some random dude who made it up yesterday.
It doesn’t appear (as Twain’s or anybody else’s) in either the 14th or 15th edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I suppose it’s possible that it comes from the newly released edition of his Autobiography, but I think it’s more likely that it’s just something misattributed by some stupid “quote website.”

These comments are applicable to almost every quote site I’ve found, with rare exception such as wikiquote.org. Most of these so-called quote sites are wastes of electrons because they share without qualification, without verification, without confirmation.

Faux Picasso quoteEvery Child is an Artist. The problem is staying an artist when you grow up. Pablo Picasso. Again, another unsourced quote that does not appear in any reliable printed source such as Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations or the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, or on Wikiquotes. In fact, not of the reliable quotations from Picasso I have read ever mention children at all.

Sometimes this comment is noted as “”Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Other variations include “Every child is born an artist” and this one: “Every child is born an artist. The problems begin once we start to grow up.”

I have not been able to identify the actual source of these words; every Internet site I have encountered sheepishly repeats the words or images, without bothering to identify where or when Picasso said them. Personally, I expect to discover they were made by some more modern educator rather than the late artist Picasso. Or perhaps part of it was taken from this Talmudic comment on poem by Isabella McCullough:

Every child is a poet.
Every child is an artist.
Every child is a philosopher.
Every child is a theologian.
Every child is an actor.
Every child is a dancer.
Every child is a nature-lover.
Every child is an explorer.
Every child is a comedian.
Every child is a skeptic.
Every child is a teacher.
Every child is a boundary pusher.
Every child is a truth speaker

Martin Luther King half-quote“Everything we see is a shadow cast by that we do not see. The invisible is a shadow cast by the invisible.” Martin Luther King Jr. This is actually a quote by King, but not the full portion, so it’s misleading. It has been taken out of context and turned into a soppy, New Age bumper sticker slogan.

It is taken from a sermon given by King on April 21, 1957, titled “Questions that Easter Answers.” The full quotation is:

Easter tells us that everything we see is a shadow cast by that we do not see. The invisible is a shadow cast by the invisible.

In other words, King wasn’t making some deep Platonic comment about the shadow-vs-truth nature of the world, but rather a very specific observation on the nature of Christian belief, and even more specifically about what the Christian observance of Easter teaches Christians. It is not a general comment on life, nor was it ever meant to be used as such.

Comments taken out of context like this are as dangerous and stupid as mis-attributed quotations.

Mark Twain actually said, (in a letter to George Bainton, 15 October 1888, solicited for and printed in George Bainton, The Art of Authorship: Literary Reminiscences, Methods of Work, and Advice to Young Beginners (1890), pp. 87–88.
sourced from Wikiquote): “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

Literacy comment A book commits suicide every time you watch Jersey Shore. Also noted as a “reality” show (in quotes because they are not reality but highly scripted works). Just a peripheral comment on the nature of literacy; watching TV rather than reading is one of the reasons people are not critical thinkers, able to actually identify or confirm whether these are real or faux quotations. Most people simply pass them along unchecked because they confirm some sort of existing belief – “epistemic closure” it’s called.

English suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous punctuation

Grammar TalesThere’s a chip wagon in town that offers “fresh cut fries.” When I see that sign, I always wonder what “cut fries” are, and how they compare with uncut fries. Does this chipster offer stale cut fries as well as fresh ones?

The former library is becoming an old building. The sign in front tells us a “senior facility” is coming soon. Sad to see a relatively new building forced to age.

A sign in a local department store advises me “video’s” are on sale. A grocery store offers “mango’s” and “avocado’s”. These common ‘apostrophe catastrophes‘ can be seen daily on signs and in official documents pretty much everywhere English is misspoken.

I was warned to “drive safe” when I left a store on a blustery winter’s day. I responded that the safe didn’t have an engine, so I could not possible drive it. When told to “dress warm” I asked “dress a warm what?”

A local restaurant calls itself the Olde’ Towne Terrace. Aside from the inappropriate apostrophe dangling at the end of the word, olde was a correct spelling in earlier forms of English, but not today. As this sites notes, it’s just an affectation today: “Other ways of pretending to be ancient are the addition of unnecessary ‘e’ at the end of words, ‘olde’, ‘shoppe’, again a holdover from Middle English where the ‘e’ was pronounced… fake English spelling affects all parts of the English-speaking world.”

ToonpoolI suppose I’m urinating against the wind here. There are hundreds of sites and blogs dedicated to documenting and correcting the tsunami of improper spelling, punctuation and grammar all around us. My protest is a mere ripple in comparison. Some writers offer constructive correction (like Melissa Donovan in Writing Forward), but people don’t check before they make signs. It strikes me the job of creating those messages is always assigned to the least literate employee.

There’s the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks, a Flickr collection of signs with bad grammar and spelling (and not just at Tea Party rallies, either!) and another set here, here, and here.

Canada’s favourite coffee shop annoys me daily with its incorrect punctuation: Tim Hortons (sic). According to Wikipedia, this error was actually a conscious decision: “The chain’s first store opened in 1964 in Hamilton, Ontario, under the name “Tim Horton Donuts”; the name was later abbreviated to “Tim Horton’s” and then changed to “Tim Hortons” without the possessive apostrophe. The business was founded by Tim Horton, who played in the National Hockey League from 1949 until his death in a car accident in 1974.”

Why, you ask, would any company deliberately dumb-down its signs and open itself to ridicule? To appease the anglophobes in Quebec: “Some older locations retain signage with the company’s name including a possessive apostrophe, despite the fact that the official styling of the company’s name has been Tim Hortons, without an apostrophe, for at least a decade. The company had removed the apostrophe after signs using the apostrophe were considered to be breaking the language sign laws of the Province of Quebec in 1993. The removal of the apostrophe allowed the company to have one common sign image across Canada.” I can only feel for the franchise owners who stubbornly refuse to give in to corporate silliness. The company will offend millions of English language speakers by making an egregious error in punctuation, but not anyone in Quebec. Nice message to send the rest of us, eh? Seems the missing apostrophe has even spawned boycotts of the place and petitions to have it restored.

Fortunately, Collingwood Council has not gone the way of Birmingham, England, and declared apostrophes outdated on its signs. I treat this declaration with the same reverence I treat my dog barking at a squirrel that eludes it: pointless and annoying. Birmingham has become the “city where apostrophes arent welcome” and ridiculed for the decision in the media.

If you don’t think punctuation matters, read this story about a comma that cost Rogers $2.13 million!

Does all this matter any more? Is the number of people who care about language usage, about punctuation, grammar and spelling dwindling, fighting a losing battle against tweets and text messages? I fervently hope not. Even some Chinese cities have undertaken campaigns to correct English on their signs. If they care that much about English, surely we, its native speakers, should do so, too.

Maybe Canada needs a National Punctuation Day (Sept. 24) or a National Grammar Day (March 4) like the US has. Would it make any difference? Aside, that is, from giving geeks like me something else to whinge about?

You really think they’re, like, linguistic pioneers? OMG!

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fGZtrBeDcQ&feature=fvst”]
Are the Kardashians, Valley Girls or the Jersey Shores’ starlets pioneers of language? Or just inept, barely literate, somewhat dim young women of dubious talent? I tend to believe the latter. Writer Douglas Quequa suggested the former in the New York Times this week. He opens with this line:

“Whether it be uptalk (pronouncing statements as if they were questions? Like this?), creating slang words like “bitchin’ ” and “ridic,” or the incessant use of “like” as a conversation filler, vocal trends associated with young women are often seen as markers of immaturity or even stupidity.”

Well, of course, yes. If you speak like an idiot, people naturally assume you are one. Language conveys the speaker’s intelligence, education, upbringing, experience and communications skills. Anyone who sticks “like” into every sentence does not come across as a particularly well-educated or even bright communicator. Anyone who thinks the Kardashians are brilliant orators is, like, oh-my-god, a moron.

It doesn’t have to be women: men do it too albeit usually with different words and cadence (the affected pseudo-“homie” talk of young men is particularly painful to listen to), but the cultural stereotype of the mindless, barely literate babble has been rather unfortunately pinned mostly on young women. Sadly, a few, it seems, deserve the label:
[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lj3iNxZ8Dww”]

But linguists — many of whom once promoted theories consistent with that attitude — now say such thinking is outmoded. Girls and women in their teens and 20s deserve credit for pioneering vocal trends and popular slang, they say, adding that young women use these embellishments in much more sophisticated ways than people tend to realize.

“A lot of these really flamboyant things you hear are cute, and girls are supposed to be cute,” said Penny Eckert, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University. “But they’re not just using them because they’re girls. They’re using them to achieve some kind of interactional and stylistic end.”

I agree that these verbalizations fulfill a stylistic function, but interactional? It’s difficult to interact properly with someone who peppers “like” throughout a sentence. When someone says “I’m, like, happy,” should I ask what being similar to happy means to them?

If you mean “um”, say “um,” and not “like.” Basically both are an interruption of thought, but “like” has become an accepted stylistic form among some groups, spread like a virus, without deliberate effort. The abuse of the word “like” in speech is a bad gene on the language chromosome we need to expunge. Quequa writes,

The same can be said for the word “like,” when used in a grammatically superfluous way or to add cadence to a sentence. (Because, like, people tend to talk this way when impersonating, like, teenage girls?) …while young people tended to use “like” more often than older people, men used it more frequently than women… The use of “like” in a sentence, “apparently without meaning or syntactic function, but possibly as emphasis,” has made its way into the Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition — this newspaper’s reference Bible — where the example given is: “It’s, like, hot.” Anyone who has seen a television show featuring the Kardashian sisters will be more than familiar with this usage.

Making it into any dictionary does not convey credibility or even acceptability. Dictionaries document use, but don’t make any effort to correct usage. They are tools for mapping the language, not arbiters of its use. Words also disappear from dictionaries, but not because they’re worthless. They may be expunged simply for lack of space. How many dictionaries still carry the word “mumpsimus”?

As an editorial note, Quequa doesn’t qualify his statement as to how (or even if) his quoted sources, “once promoted theories consistent with that attitude.” We never get any inkling of what those those earlier theories say. Or even if they are theories (they could be mere hypotheses…)

I suppose if I really wanted to be hip (wait, does that colloquialism show my age?) I’d write Valley “Gurlz” because the rage among the marketing and advertising illiterates is to replace a proper ‘s’ with a ‘z’ and pretend they’re actually the same sound (they’re not, but it’s like arguing cosmology with goldfish…). These are the same dimwits who brought us “lite” instead of light and “E-Z” instead of easy. Pay no attention to them and they will probably slink back into their caves.

Girls and women in their teens and 20s deserve credit for pioneering vocal trends and popular slang, they say, adding that young women use these embellishments in much more sophisticated ways than people tend to realize.

Oh, puh-leez. That’s codswallop. That’s akin to saying my dog is pioneering veterinary treatments because she got better after the medicine. The spread of linguistic forms is often little more than mimicry based on popular culture and pressure from peer usage. It’s just like fashion and popular culture. Just look at Internet memes and viral videos. Pioneering requires someone or some group to actually do the pioneering, not simply repeat what others do. I am not a pioneer of the telephone simply because I use one.

In the Sixties we talked about “rip offs” and said “cool, man”; in the Fifties it was “Daddy-oh” and “hipster.” Were we language pioneers or just parrots? These young women are products of their age and pop cultures, influenced by TV, the Net and movies to absorb these aspects.

Every generation has its own language, its own slang. But slang and sociolects age like political humour, losing their relevance within a few years and get dropped. Who today uses terms that were once in daily speeeh in the 1920s? Who says twenty-three skidoo or  see you later alligator?

What Quequa overlooks is that the patois of Valleyspeak and its ilk are not evolving languages as much as they are variant sociolects that have become a cross-pollinating meme. A sociolect, or social dialect, is, according to Wikipedia:

…a variety of language (a dialect) associated with a social group such as a socioeconomic class, an ethnic group, an age group, etc… interaction in written and other media can also lead to sociolects, and many can be found in online communities.

There’s nothing wrong with slang or sociolects; they’ve been around since language was invented. But there’s a world of difference between pioneering language forms and merely using them. And certainly a difference between pioneering and parroting.

Language is a tool. It can be used with finesse, like a scalpel, or bluntly and coarsely, like a chainsaw. Girl slang is certainly closer to the latter than the former as a mode of communication. Shakespeare was a pioneer of language, introducing many neologisms and developing new forms of expression. I simply cannot countenance putting the Kardashians on the same level as Shakespeare.
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On translating Chaucer and the joys of Middle English

Geoffrey ChaucerIn my last two visits to the nearby Chapters, I picked up from the bargain books section two recent, hardcover, versions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. One is a new verse translation by Burton Raffel published in 2008, the other a prose translation by Peter Ackroyd, from 2009.

These join the dozen or so other versions of Chaucer’s works I already have on my bookshelves: the Riverside Chaucer (third edition), several venerable Penguin editions (both original and translations), the New Cambridge edition, the Portable Chaucer, Hopper’s interlinear translation, and a few others. What always surprises me is how widely these translations range in wording, rhythm and style.

Chaucer, of course, wrote in Middle English, a form of English that’s not quite like our speech today, but close enough that anyone can stumble through most of it without needing a glossary. I have only skimmed some works on learning Middle English, not studied it beyond casual reading. For me, trying to read and understand Chaucer in his original tongue is part of the pleasure of it. I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I figure out a verse that looked cryptic at first but clarity has broken upon me, or when the words coalesce into a tale.

There are four things to keep in mind when reading Chaucer. First is to try to read it aloud. The sound and rhythm of the spoken word often helps makes the meaning evident. Chaucer wrote to be heard, not just read. You can hear some Chaucerian poetry online to get a sense of how it sounded – a lot more Germanic than it does today. But just reading him aloud helps you appreciate his work.

Second is the pronunciation. Many words and letters were pronounced somewhat differently in Chaucer’s day, much more like Romance languages: most letters are pronounced and few are silent. For example, what we would see as a silent ‘e’ at the end of a Chaucerian word, such as ‘grete’ and likely pronounce as “greet” today would have been sounded as ‘eh’ in Chaucer’s day” ‘grey-teh’. You can get basic pronunciation guides online, too. It’s not difficult.

Third is the spelling. Chaucer didn’t use spell-check (neither, it seems, do most Facebook posters, but I digress). He was not always consistent in his spelling. Many common words in his day were also spelled differently than today. These words can look odd, but when you say them aloud, you realize they’re familiar words with different spellings. For example, these lines from the Knight’s Tale (Knightes Tale, lines 2160-64):

“His coat-armure was of clooth of Tars,
Couched with perles whyte and rounde and grete.
His sadel was of brend gold newe y-bete,
A mantelet upon his shuldre hanginge
Bret-ful of rubies rede, as fyr sparklinge.”

You should understand most of that pretty easily. Shuldre today is shoulder, sadle is saddle, perles are pearls, clooth is cloth, and so on. But what is y-bete, or brend, or armure? That’s where translations or glossaries help.
In prose translation, this can be rendered:

His tunic, blazoned with his arms, was of cloth of Tartary, laid with pearls, white, round, and great. His saddle was of burnished gold, freshly forged. A short mantle hung upon his shoulders, stiff with red rubies sparkling as fire.

And here it is in poetry (from an online interlinear site):

His tunic with his coat of arms was of cloth of Tarsia (in Turkestan)
Adorned with pearls white and round and big;
His saddle was newly adorned with pure gold;
A short cloak hanging upon his shoulder,
Brimful of rubies red as sparkling fire;

Raffel, I see, translates Tars as “Persian”:

…His coat was Persian silk,
Embroidered with pearls, great, and white as milk.
His saddle was hammered out of bright new gold,
And the mantle hanging high across his shoulders
Was heavy with fire-red rubies, sparkling in sunlight.

Fourth reminder is that words come and go in English, and can even change meaning from one period to the next. In Chaucer’s day, for example, the word silly meant “happy, blissful, blessed or fortunate.” By the early-16th century, it meant “deserving pity or sympathy.” It took on its current meaning of “empty-headed” or “lacking good sense” by the early 17th century. (See Steinmetz: Semantic Antics). When you read Chaucer, you will find words no longer in use, as well as words that have shifted meaning since his day. That’s one reason having a modern translation is handy. When you come to an incomprehensible line, you can see how it gets translated into today’s speech.

The structure of Middle English – the grammar – is similar enough to modern English that it’s not hard to figure out. Adjectives tend to follow nouns rather than precede them (“perles whyte” rather than “white pearls”). But if you have no problem with the syntax of Shakespeare or the King James Bible, Chaucer won’t pose significant problems,

Ah, but you also need to know where you’re reading in order to find the translated lines. In Hopper’s edition, those lines above are numbered 1303-06. In Raffel’s new translation, we find them at 1290-94. But the Riverside, New Cambridge and Penguin (original spelling) versions all use the numbering noted above.

It can be tricky finding the reference. Many translations are unnumbered, making it difficult to locate a particular line. Ackroyd’s prose version has no references, either (the lines above appear about a third of the way down on page 57):

His coat of arms was woven of rare silk and embroidered with white pearls; his saddle was of newly beaten gold, and the mantle around his shoulders was studded with glowing rubies.

Morrison’s translation in the Portable Chaucer (revised edn), is:

Over his gear a Tartar coat; each fold
With large pearls was embroidered, round and white.
His saddle was of forged gold, beaten bright.
A little mantel from his shoulders spread
Brimful of fiery rubies, glittering red.

Coghill’s translation in the Penguin Classics edition reads,

His surcoat was in cloth of Tartary,
Studded with great white pearls; beneath its fold
A saddle of new-beaten, burnished gold.
He had a mantle hanging from his shoulders,
Which, crammed with rubies,dazzled all beholders.

Here a re a few other translations of those four lines from the Web. First this one:

His coat-of-arms was cloth of the Tartars,
Begemmed with pearls, all white and round and great.
Of beaten gold his saddle, burnished late;
A mantle from his shoulders hung, the thing
Close-set with rubies red, like fire blazing.

Which I find a bit stilted (begemmed, rubies red, etc.). Then this one:

His coat of arms of cloth from Turkestan,
Adorned with large round pearls of polished white;
His pure gold saddle was a wondrous sight;
A short cloak on his shoulders all admire,
Brimful of rubies red as sparkling fire;

And this prose version:

His tunic, blazoned with his arms, was of cloth of Tartary, laid with pearls, white, round, and great. His saddle was of burnished gold, freshly forged. A short mantle hung upon his shoulders, stiff with red rubies sparkling as fire.

And this poetic version:

His surcoat was of cloth from Tartary,
With all the large white pearls that it could hold.
His saddle, newly forged, was burnished gold.
A mantle from his shoulders hung, attire
Brimful of rubies sparkling red as fire.

And finally this verse translation:

His surcoat was of cloth of Tartary,
Adorned with pearls, white, round and bold.
His saddle of pure freshly-beaten gold,
A short mantle on his shoulder hanging,
Dense with rubies red, like fire sparkling.

You can see how different each version is, yet how similar. The original is not really very difficult to understand – at least to my eyes – but every translator finds in it a different sense or colour. Every version above sounds particularly different from the original when read aloud, both in wording and in poetic rhythm.

Are any of them better? Is there a definitive modern translation? I have not the academic background to judge. I enjoy reading Chaucer in almost all forms, including my stumbling and fitful attempts to master the original. But these two latest versions of the Canterbury Tales are among the most enjoyable I have read in a while, and I would recommend them to anyone. You merely have to decide whether you want to read Chaucer as epic poetry (Raffel) or stories constructed like modern fiction (Ackroyd). I like both, and of course the bargain-book price didn’t hurt.

All of this is to explain why, despite several translations on my bookshelves already, I continue to purchase – and delight in reading – new translations of Chaucer.

Slowly dies: another bad Internet meme

I came across a fascinating poem, translated into English as “Slowly Dies.” There are numerous translations online, many by amateurs, but some very well crafted. It goes something like this (a portion from one translation):

Dies slowly he who transforms himself in slave of habit,
repeating every day the same itineraries,
who does not change brand,
does not risk to wear a new color and doesn’t talk to whom doesn’t know.
Dies slowly he who makes of television his guru.
Dies slowly he who avoids a passion,
who prefers black to white
and the dots on the “i” to a whirlpool of emotions,
just those ones that recover the gleam from the eyes,
smiles from the yawns,
hearts from the stumbling and feelings.
Dies slowly he who does not overthrow the table when is unhappy at work,
who does not risk the certain for the uncertain
to go toward that dream that is keeping him awake.

It’s a powerful, moving piece. However, the poem is not by Neruda, as is commonly and frequently claimed on the many sites where the poem appears. I became suspicious when I couldn’t find it in any of my collections of Neruda’s works (printed books). A little deeper surfing turned up that uncomfortable fact: it has nothing to do with Neruda.

In the past, I wrote about how quotations and poems have been mis-associated by people online who either were misinformed or were too lazy to actually look them up and confirm the source. Here’s my original piece on a mistaken Shakespearean quote and another post on a bad Thoreau quote. Sadly, these mistakes take on the patina of credibility.

Martha MedeirosThis is now the Medeiros meme. A meme is, as you know, the self-propagating cultural equivalent of a virus, but rather than spreading its DNA, a meme spreads ideas, cultural practices, thoughts, symbols, ideals, aesthetics and icons of popular imagination. Like a virus, it can be good or bad. In this case, it’s bad because it’s wrong and contributes to our collective stupidity. It gives credit to the late Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda but it really belongs to the talented Brazilian, Martha Medeiros.

Poetry isn’t the big part of our cultural life that it was a couple of generations ago. How many people actually call themselves poets today? How many books of new poetry are published by mainstream publishers these days? Few, I think.

In the mid-1970s, I had the honour of working as a sales rep for Canadian publisher, McLelland & Stewart, in the heyday of Canadian poetry, when poets like Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Earle Birney, Irving Layton, Al Purdy, Susan Musgrave and others were still publishing and, more important, being read and bought. In fact, books of poetry were even bestsellers then – Rod McKuen’s books sold millions in the late 60s and early 70s (personally I thought his writing was thin and shallow, but apparently I was in the minority).

Did you know that a unique form of poetry – the viator poem – was actually invented in Canada, by poet Robert Skelton? Just one of those bits of trivia to amaze and amuse your friends. We have a quite a rich tradition of poetry in this country, although you’d be hard pressed to tell by browsing through most of the bigger bookstores. You’ll usually find the few shelves of poetry hidden somewhere near a back wall, sandwiched between teen-read vampire trash and comic books (oh, excuse me: graphic novels).

When did poetry slip from its height and become a fringe art instead of a mainstream one? There are poets and poetry sites online, and I’ve seen a minor revival of some forms like haiku (and some entertaining Twitter-based forms). But I’d suggest there are more sites dedicated to World of Warcraft or Call of Duty games than to poetry. There are certainly more sites dedicated to astrology, UFOs, angels and other claptrap than to poetry. That deserves a sprightly limerick in itself.

I’ve always enjoyed reading poetry. Among my books, I have a battered, well-read paperback collection of poems by Wallace Stevens I picked up in 1972. I also have books of poems by Li Po, Gary Snider, Leonard Cohen, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Allen Ginsburg, Baudelaire and other poets> Most I bought in the late 60s and early 70s, but a few in the 80s. I still like to pick up a collection and spend an hour or two in an easy chair reading poetry, savouring the words, the construction, the imagery. Poetry has the power to move me; like music, but in different ways.

As one of the various translations of this poem goes,

Slowly dies he who doesn’t travel, he who doesn’t read,
he who doesn’t listen to music…

to which I would add, “he who doesn’t read poetry…” In poetry there is magic, wonder, and imagination to be found it its swirling depths. But poetry itself is not the point of Medeiros’ poem: the point is rather that life is painted on a large canvas, something to be lived, not merely observed, not ignored or controlled by habit.

Let’s avoid death by small doses,
remembering always that being alive
requires a much larger effort
than the simple act of breathing.