A few thoughts on dictionaries

A few thoughts on dictionaries
Elliott batTzedek

     Translating, and reading about translation, has made me hyper-aware of dictionaries. There are, in turns out, many different kinds, each with its own purpose and usefulness.

     The “dictionary” most of us know is a book that is a collection of words with information about those words. It is monolingual (or intralingual), and it exists to explain words to people who already understand the language. While most pretend to be neutral, they are not – to explore the editorial policy of a dictionary, look up any controversial cultural term – lesbian, abortion, sex, or any racial or sexual insults. Does the definition satisfy you or just make you angry? One linguist I know, the radical lesbian feminist writer Julia Penelope, once had a job as the “offensive usage” editor for a dictionary, deciding and marking which words were sexist, racist, age-ist, etc. Imagine using THAT dictionary, what values it would express! I only wish I could remember what dictionary it was….

     And, of course, we all know how dictionary definitions can be infuriatingly obtuse or self-referential. Look up a word like “afraid,” for example, and you might find “the state of being in fear.” All fine and well, IF you know what “fear” means. If you don’t, you’ve learned nothing. There is an amazing dictionary for adults learning English, the Oxford American Dictionary for learners of English, which defines words clearly and simply, and never uses a word in the definition of itself. It has photos, illustrations, and guides to types of language, such as which kinds of words are used in a resume vs a casual email. I had one, once, and spent hours leafing through, delighted with what I was learning about my own language, but gave it away to someone trying to refine his English enough to look for a better job. (I really wish I could find a similar dictionary for modern Hebrew, for I need the information about the qualities and contexts of words, not just their “definitions.”)

     Dictionaries also define only one word at a time, or at most a short phrase that carries a single unit of meaning. They are, in this way, like looking through a microscope, trying to get a sense of an animal by searching a single cell at a time.

     Bilingual (interlingual) dictionaries are a beast of a completely different nature. They are actually more a lexicon than a dictionary, in that they exist to map one word to another and not really to define words. They are based, in the words of Jorge Luis Borges, “on the hypothesis – obviously an unproven one – that languages are made of equivalent synonyms.” And of course languages aren’t, which is why using a bilingual dictionary is only barely related to understanding or translating a language. If I look up the word “run,” for example, it will list several Hebrew words, nouns and verbs. If I look up each of those, it may say only “run.” (With a pronunciation guide, and, for Hebrew words, the gender of the nouns and class of the verbs.) But what do I then know? Does the word mean to run, to jog, to sprint, to flee for one’s life, to give someone the run around, to run for cover?

     And, within those limitations, bilingual dictionaries, like monolingual dictionaries, have editorial policies. My Hebrew/English dictionary doesn’t have the word “fuck” in English or Hebrew, and that’s a word my poet uses, as well as related concepts also missing. I probably need a Hebrew slang dictionary, if such a thing exists, as well as a Hebrew for speakers of other languages dictionary. Online interlingual translation sites help fill some of those gaps for me, although I’ve not yet found a Hebrew equivalent of an “urban” dictionary with all the pop culture references and slang terms and usages.

     Contemplating all of this is only the background to actually translating! Some days, staring at a word that ought to make sense and doesn’t, and being unable to figure out why, I do wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. Translating is incredibly hard. It is also incredibly rewarding, the same “ahhh” as dropping the right piece of a jigsaw puzzle into place and having a whole section become clear. Well, it’s like that if what you have is a pile of puzzle pieces but no picture of  what you are building, only a title that gives you a general sense and lots of shapes that look familiar.

A few more thoughts on dictionaries, from the translator’s best friend, Willis Barnstone, in his The Poetics of Translation:

A dictionary is monolingual or bilingual in format and intralingual or interlingual in purpose. With it one confronts the unknown.

An interlingual dictionary is a bible for the translator, containing official law for transferring meaning between languages. Laws, however, even holy ones, are not always perfect. An interlingual dictionary enlightens and deceives.

An interlingual dictionary provides a mirror image of the unknown in a known language, but for there to be a meaning, to be semiosis, the translator must intervene with her interpreting mind, actively choosing what amid the new data provides equivalence.

A monolingual (or intralingual) dictionary defines by explanation and synonymity. A bilingual (or interlingual) dictionary seeks equivalence and does not primarily define. It tries to translate. It tries to do so faithfully and literally, but leaves the decision of the right choice to the translator.

A bilingual dictionary is not prepared to handle sentences, since it has no memory of syntax and cares nothing about grammar. A dictionary has a multitude of cyclopses looking out from its pages. When a lexical cyclops takes on a second or third eye right in the middle of its brow, the hybrid monster is so cross-eyed it cannot see or be seen unless one focuses in one eye alone.

God as Translator

two quotations from Willis Barnstone The Poetics of Translation, pp 130-131

God created through the word. And what did God do with that word? With its utterance God translated divine sound into matter and being, thereby bringing the cosmos, the earth, and the earth’s inhabitants, great and small, into temporal existence. Since clock time did not exist before this act of cosmic creation, of transforming significant noise into time and space, clearly the first act of translation in the history of the profession occurred with those sacred Hebrew words y’hi or: “Let there be light.” And just as the pious know that ultimately our souls will, on the day of judgment, be translated back into heaven, so on that first day of creation God initiated and spoke the first sentence for the history of translation.

Willis Barnstone

In the beginning was the word and the word was translation, and with it God translated the heaven and the earth. But the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the word moved upon the face of the waters, translating the light from the darkness.

Pierre Grange, “God the Eternal Translator,” Dream Time and Other Earthly Signs

In which I let Rabassa and Barnstone duke it out about memory, error, and the ethics of translation

In his book If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, Gregory Rabassa asserts lots of interesting and valuable stuff, then this clinker on pp. 61-62:

The completion of work is best done in translation, where the translator can work at things denied the author in his own language, even the way Saint Jerome mistakenly implied the cuckoldry of Moses which Michelangelo then wrought in enduring stone.

In case you don’t spend hours a day considering the history of Christian Anti-Semitism, Rabassa is referring to St. Jerome who mistranslated the Hebrew word for “ray” to mean “horns,” leading to a tradition of picturing Moses with horns coming out of his head, which Michelangelo then made flesh (marble flesh) in his famous statue of Moses. Horns on the head are, in some pagan traditions in Europe, understood to mean than the man wearing them has been cuckolded—that is, his wife has had sex with other men.

That cuckold charge, which is not common when discussing Jerome’s “horns,” is not as important to me as Rabassa’s assertion that the mistranslation which came to be both a statue and a common, enduring myth that Jews had horns was a good thing, a “completion” of something the original text could not say. Huh?? The issue is that the Hebrew “couldn’t say” that Moses had horns, or that his wife/wives were not faithful? Are you kidding me? And that’s without understanding that plenty of Christians see those horns as images of the devil, not images of a cuckold.

While translations do build on each other across time, this is not, by far, always a positive thing. Mistranslations, for nefarious, controlling, purposes, can be introduced into texts and mutate from there until the product people “know” is more a history of prejudice or ignorance than a translation. For a crystal clear example of this, I turn to translator Willis Barnstone’s The Poetics of Translation, to his sub-chapter “How through False Translation into and from the Bible Jesus Ceased To Be a Jew.” While his argument, incredibly well-documented, is lengthy, these little excerpts carry the spine of it:

Since early Christian leaders, saints, and followers were both Jews and gentiles, pursuing the Jewish dream of an announced Messiah, how could two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism be based largely on their Scriptures, that is, on the New Testament, a collection of revolutionary texts born from the depths of the rabbinic tradition?

By sleight-of-hand editing and translating, only certain figures of the Christian Scriptures remain clearly identifiable as Jews—not John the Baptist, not Mary, not Jesus, nor James and Paul: even their names are not Biblically Jewish. This disguise is in place by the time of the Greek Scriptures and is reinforced in translation into other languages. […] The Christian scriptures are different because, in the Jewish world that they describe, all the good people are Christians and the evil ones Jews. […] How could Jewish authors produce such a fearful world of fatal hatreds? They did not. The original stories, in the process of telling and writing, redaction, and translation, were transformed to produce a narrative that excluded Jews from the messianic happenings in their land.

Barnstone continues, showing how yeshua (Joshuah) became Jesus, mashiah became Christ, and rabbi became Master, all intentional mistranslations to erase Jews from the text, and how “Jew” was slyly transformed description to the name of the enemy. Eventually, Barnstone says, the people who are allied with Jesus are just people, while the people who oppose him are “the Jews.” As Barnstone summarizes,

Christian anti-Semitism begins with and derives historically from the New Testament, from the falsifying translations into and out of the Christian Scriptures in which Jesus ceases to be a Jew. The result of this transmission of the history of Joshua the Messiah has been two millennia of hatred and extermination, from diasporas and ghettos to pogroms and holocaust.

So what has that to do with Rabassa’s St. Jerome saying “something” in translating that the original text “couldn’t say”? This: translating matters, and because it matters, it must be aware of culture, bias, social power, linguistic power, prejudice, hatred. To assume that my job as a translator is to say what the author couldn’t say in her/his culture seems dangerously arrogant, especially since I am the citizen of a (declining) superpower and the speaker of a language whose culture is an invasive species, wiping out native tongues and cultures daily. My job is NOT to say what some other culture couldn’t say, but to show, value, bring into my language what their culture CAN and DOES say, know, value, communicate, worship, want, need. The line from scriptural sources to St. Jerome to Michelangelo was not a good thing for my people, the Jews, which is certainly one big understanding I carry into this new skill I am building.

Against Rabassa’s assertion of finishing an author’s work by adding what a different culture knows, I assert Barnstone’s linguistically AND socially responsible analysis of the power of language to be used as a weapon:

The primary method of destabilizing and deracinating a people is to rename them and their land. Consequently, the first strategy of the recorders and translators of the Christian scriptures was to remove Jesus from his Jewishness.


Note from my own political life: one of the first actions of the Zionist government in the new state of Israel was to erase all Arabic village, street, and place names and replace them with Hebrew names, thus trying to physically erase Arab/Palestinian history from the land itself. For more information on this, see the wonderful Israeli activist group Zochrot (Remembering). In the photo below, Zochrot members are restoring the name of a Palestinian mosque in Arabic and in Hebrew.

Thank you, Mr. Barnstone

When, among a group of translation students, I got to have a long and winding conversation with Willis Barnstone, he said many many smart (as in genius-level) things about translating. One of those has become not only my favorite, but my guiding mantra for poetry:

When it seems impossible, try a little harder and it will be easy

Tonight, working on a chapbook manuscript that was utterly flat and awkward, I tried that little bit harder, opened my mind a little farther, and, sure enough, it got easy.

Nu – if that advice worked for him translating the New Testament and Sappho and the Gnostic gospels and Greek and Chinese and Spanish and who knows how many other languages, how could it not work for me?



Psapfo, Latinization, and voiceless bilabial fricative f

from Willis Barnstone’s translation of Sappho’s poems, a footnote on the intricacies of the pronunciation of her name.

I leave the hardest part of this essay to a footnote, still pondering on phi and eta, whether Greek phi = English ph or f, and whether Greek eta = e or i, and a few other enigma. My reasonable premise is that a literary translation is not a chart for imitating ancient phonemes. While it is fun to have an approximate knowledge of ancient Greek phonology, such knowledge is marginal in our pact with the original poet to be a poet in English faithful to song.

McCulloh correctly notes that the phi in ancient Greek was not a voiceless bilabial fricative f but an aspirated plosive p, like the p in pot.

Our traditional preference for the Latin ph misleads us as a good emissary for a Greek utterance. Roman Latin construed the double consonant ph to represent the Greek aspirated p. It worked until approximately the fourth century b.c.e., when the aspirated Greek p evolved into a fricative f. In Latin the ph evolved into a fricative f, which is how it remains today. In English the initial ph reveals only that etymologically the word came to us through Latin from Greek, a nice trophy, but offering just f. No more.

How can we hear an ancient Greek voice, since for most of us Latin ph fails? No way. English is not Greek. In modern tongues and by international phonetic convention, phi is not a plosive p but the voiceless bilabial fricative f. Hence, when the English name is not too sacred to change, I like to render phi as f rather than the Latin ph, keeping us close to Greek and escaping a Latin presence.

To be loyal to an ancient aspirated phi we should write pilosopy. Then, then initial p would be a plosive p and a bit closer to the classical and archaic phi. No one offers this nutty solution. Latin tongues don’t bother. Spanish gives us filosophia. Why are we loyal to a sign that no longer signifies an original sound in Greek? The strong tradition of shuffling Greek words through an adoptive Latin gives us Alcaeus, not Alkaios, for Sappho’s contemporary poet friend in Lesbos. I find the preponderance and authority of Latinization tough to swallow. As Greece becomes a vivid entity, it is easy to switch to Alkaios. Plato remains Plato, not Platon, the “broad-shouldered.” And when writing about Sappho, it is Sappho. But in her poems, she is Psapfo and, for all the reasons given above, not the mixed signal of Psappho.