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.

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