Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Schwarzkopf and the harpsichord

Quirks of a translator's life – sitrep

In the course of my translation work (towards the Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation mentioned before in some recent posts to this blog), I've come across a word with a fascinating cluster of meanings. I've also started to use a new function of Google Sheets – a function that provides a Google Translate version (one word) on the fly.

The syntax of the new function is


for example


(This function call tells Google Translate to look at the Portuguese word in cell A4 and translate it into English.).

As anyone involved with language knows, meanings of words depend almost entirely on context. So the disembodied words thrown up by Google Translate in its Google Sheets incarnation  can be a bit off-the-wall.

I rather forced that incarnation into the last sentence, as it provides a link to one of the meanings of the keyword, the Portuguese cravo. This can mean "carnation", a meaning that possibly has a more than accidental link with "incarnation", if the derivation for that word (Etymonline lists several possibilities) is the Latin for flesh:

...Or it might be called for its pinkness and derive from Middle French carnation "person's color or complexion" (15c.), which probably is from Italian dialectal carnagione "flesh color," from Late Latin carnationem (nominative carnatio) "fleshiness," from Latin caro "flesh" (originally "a piece of flesh," from PIE root *sker- (1) "to cut"). OED points out that not all the flowers are this color. 
More here
Another possible meaning of cravo is (my source here is the Collins Portuguese Dictionary) "harpsichord". But these language1-to-language2 dictionaries often raise more questions than answers in a translator's mind; I suspect that the equivalent instrument might rather be a clavichord which doesn't sound or behave the same.
A strangely neglected album has Oscar Peterson playing with Joe Pass in an arrangement of excerpts from Porgy and Bess for clavichord and guitar, exploiting this unique quality of the clavichord: that the thing that strikes the string also defines its length. 
<aside subject="defines">
A deliciously apposite word. The word "determines the length" would be similarly appropriate for those of an etymological bent, as the tangent (that's what the doofer inside a clavichord is called) provides the terminus ad quem the string vibrates.
This lets the keyboard  player bend a note, as does a blues guitarist.
In a harpsichord, on the other hand,  the strings are plucked.
(On the other hand, the clavi- bit of the word just means key [as in clef, clavicle, or the French clé] so any keyboard instrument might have been called a "clavi<something>". The makers of the Clavinova were the second (after whoever named the clavichord)  to exploit this neologizing open goal.)
Yet another possible meaning of cravo is "nail" or "stud", which – if you think of a nail driven home so that only its head is visible – accounts for the metaphorical use which for reasons best known to Google is the meaning fixed on by Google Translate (try putting that function call 


into a Google Sheets spreadsheet and you'll see what I mean: hint – Schwarzkopf.)


Update: 2019.05.28.08:55 – Added PS

PS In my rush to hit the <Publish> button yesterday I left out the one meaning of cravo that applied to the passage I'm translating. Again, it's metaphorical, but unlike blackhead (aha – THAT was it, Schwarzkopf, geddit?) which is animal, this meaning is vegetable: clove.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Knowing when to fold

I just heard Terry Wogan on Desert Island Discs Revisited using the expression (when talking about ending his career) "I'll fold up my tent".

I wrote about metaphors for arriving and leaving over 3 years ago (here) but I think it's due for a new outing. As so often in this context, I quote The Man:
Elcock explains: 
While VENĪRE remained everywhere the usual verb for 'to come', two new terms conveying a more visual image were  borrowed from maritime language. The older of these, which prevailed in Spain, was PLĬCARE, first used with reference to the folding of sails (cf Port. chegar, Sicilian chicari). In Rumanian a pleca means inversely 'to go, to depart'; this is because the metaphor there was military, and referred to the folding up of tents  (cf. Eng. 'to decamp').  AD-RIPARE, 'to  come to shore', was a somewhat later creation which found favour in Gaul (cf Prov. arribá [HD: Elcock does not mention plegar here, but he has already mentioned it in another context]. From Provence it spread to Catalonia, and during the Middle Ages was carried thence to Sardinia, as arribare.   
The Romance Language (I've given this source more than once, but make no apology for that: it's very good.)
So, whereas I had hitherto relied on the decamp example as a metaphor for leaving in English, I can now add to my body of examples (in that Terry Wogan quote) the explicit metaphor of folding a tent.
As it happens, as that edition of Desert Island Discs dates from before the beginning of the Harmless Drudgery blog, in fact the example was already there, waiting for me to hear the repeat. But anyway...
But, I was thinking of the spoken language. As I said in that earlier post
Catalan often straddles the French/Spanish camps, so I expected a pair like the Provençal ones. But Cat. plegar has a different metaphorical use: stop work, knock off  – reminiscent of primary school teachers' instructions: When you've finished, FOLD your arms on the desk in front of you.
And the arm-folding image as a sign of work done is unequivocal ...
(not the most apt of words in this context, considering the last two syllables...
Hmm. There's something to be said on each side of that argument. If all the arguments were on the same side, it'd be univocal. 
[The metaphor that evokes univocality is "singing from the same hymn-sheet" {unless harmony's involved, of course, but this is getting silly {Getting?}}]
... but you know what I mean – clearly meaningful)
...  in an English context (and I imagine in many others).

And apropos of nothing (I just happened to see it in a fruitless quest for information just now)...

The dates of these restrictions 
may be subject to change.

No, no  no.  They ARE subject to change. What they MAY be is changed, in which case they would be subjected to change.

I do wish people wouldn't toss the subjunctive around willy-nilly with some vague it's-not-my-fault-guv "meaning".  But I must take a deep breath and ignore it. There are worse things, I know...
Anyway, I think it's time I folded my arms.


Wednesday, 8 May 2019

More power to you

A CXL blog post does what it announces (but I suggest that you don't spend too long there, or prepare to repel "free" offers):

Error Messages: Common Mistakes, Best Practices,
and Lots of Examples

Your users will make mistakes. It’s inevitable. That’s what error messages are for – but so many companies
fail to follow best practices, and they’re pissing off potential customers in the process...

Error messages can be so frustrating. How many times have you went [HD sic] to fill out a form to create an account, only to receive a message like this:
password-req-1 (1)
But computers aren't the only source of error messages.

My rechargeable  radio, for instance,  has an annoying drawback (among many – it  was a Bad Buy). When it runs down, with its dying breath it remembers its current state (On, of course). I then recharge it, and when it's done this a helpful message appears on its screen "Fully charged – unplug charger".

But secretly – I don't have the headphones on at this stage – it remembers that it's On; so that  when I go to switch it on again it's already  flat.  But, to the cognoscente of engineer-speak, there is a clue to this  annoying behaviour: the expression Powering off.

<autobiographical_note date_range="1984-1998>
When I began working for DEC, in the mid-'80s, I noticed what I at the time took to be a barbarism in the books I was editing; it kept telling the user to "power off" the computer. Being something of a chauvinist I thought things like "Now hold on a moment my good fellow, "powering off" may be something that goes on in the colonies, but here in dear old Blighty we switch off, turn off, cut the power, unplug... – there are many options, but "power off" isn't one of them."

That's what I thought. But there were other more pressing and more significant battles to be fought, and I often turned a blind eye.
"Americanisms" often provoke in me a yawn reflex. Some people get het up about them (my grandfather did: he avoided even the most useful imports, words such as boyfriend). But there's a lot to be said for American English. Words get borrowed, first by younger people, and ultimately they become part of the scenery. I have bugbears, as any opinionated old curmudgeon will – words such as attendee and sentence-defining hopefully – but what will be will be.

There aren't many British English dictionaries that recognize "power off" (as a phrasal verb),  but usage is gradually winning. Onelook lists only one General Dictionary – the Johnny-come-lately Wordnik, but look on Google and you will find millions (even if you use the searchstring power off :uk). Of course, many of the hits are for accidental collocation: "he turned the power  off", for example. But many of them are for the phrasal verb (and by now I think it's OK to write "the" there, rather than some mealy-mouthed circumlocution like "a supposed new 'verb'".
Another feature of a technical writer's life (this was a few years later,  and I now wrote the stuff, is that engineers blithely say (when questioned about what the user sees when something goes wrong) "Oh, in that case I just generate an error message".

Error messages can vary in quality and usefulness; and in literacy. A writer learns to keep an eye on what appears on a screen the  user sees.

Another of the annoying features of my radio is  the care one must use when switching off. There is a multi-function switch, which – if given too short a press – doesn't switch anything off, but simply toggles between DAB and FM (another cause of flat batteries at the next time of use). To switch off, you need to press the button for about two seconds; the exact time is probably documented somewhere. But there's a helpful message that reads "Switching off", so you wait for that to appear and then release the button. 
<possible_experiment value="0">
The radio doesn't switch off after a long press (if the button is still held down). Theoretically, one could hold the switch down and pour withering scorn on the silly thing. "'Switching off', you say, but you're not switching off, are you? How long can you keep up this pretence?"

Possibly after some time (a minute? 5?...) it would give up the attempt to switch off and do something else.
But a curious thing happens when the battery runs down in normal use. Just before it gives up the ghost it generates a different error message: Powering off.

There are two possible explanations for this apparent inconsistency:
  1. It's not inconsistent, but rather subtle: Switching off is something a person does, whereas Powering off is something that the device does.
  2. The developer produced the words Powering off in both cases.  The writer – taking into account what the user needed – saw only the case that involved the user, and required the change to Switching off. This left Powering off in the other case (which the user typically doesn't see).
I'm inclined to suspect the latter.