Monthly Archives: May 2009

Strong-pun translations

First a note on how I think about puns:

I classify puns as either “strong” or “weak.” In a strong pun, the phonetic/linguistic connection between two words or phrases is accompanied by a genuinely meaningful semantic connection, and the deeper the meaning, the stronger the pun. In a weak pun, the linguistic connection is all there is, and the pun is enjoyable only because of its sheer improbability and the ingenuity required to construct it. Some weak puns are delightfully clever, and I enjoy them as much as (or more than) the next guy, but in the end a weak pun is just showing off, whereas a strong pun can be poetry.

The same principle applies to such things as anagrams, which I consider to be puns in the larger sense. Whoever first noticed that “H. Ross Perot” is an anagram of “sports hero” was undeniably clever, but it’s still a weak pun. A much stronger one is “Clint Eastwood” as an anagram of “Old West action.” Nicknames can also be pun-like and can be strong or weak. As nicknames for George W. Bush go, Shrub is weak; Dubieux (a Nostradamus reference, punning on “Dubya”) and George III (alluding to the many similarities between the third President George and the third King George) are much stronger.

If Piers Anthony (creator of such characters as the Junk Male and the Ice Queen Clone) is probably the king of the weak pun, the undisputed master of the strong pun would have to be James Joyce. Though nothing can make Finnegans Wake actually worth reading, its profusion of very clever puns, strong and otherwise, certainly rewards the occasional browse. My personal favorite is the Gracehoper, as Aesop’s grasshopper is very appropriately called in Joyce’s retelling, a pun so perfect that it’s a shame it had to be paired with the junk-pun Ondt. When Joyce introduces the fable with a reference to “Jacko and Esaup,” he simultaneously puns on the name Aesop and alludes to the parallel story of grasshopper-like Jacob and ant-like Esau. This is a good example of the power of the punplex, a set of interrelated puns which, aside from being clever in its own right, often provides a context which can turn what would otherwise be a weak pun (such as Esau/Aesop) into a strong one.

In this post I want to look at translations — or, more properly, linguistic borrowings — that are strong puns. When you want to import a foreign word into your language, you have two basic options. Since different languages will have different sound-meaning mappings, you can copy the original sounds without the original meaning, as in kung-fu, or you can preserve the original meaning without the original sound, as in Indian names like Sitting Bull. In English we generally go for the former option, since we can usually do so without any semantic confusion. Spaghetti didn’t mean anything at all in English until we imported it from Italian, so we were free to copy the original Italian word and assign it the original Italian meaning.

In Chinese, though, the situation is different. You can import a foreign string of sounds, but you still have to write it in Chinese characters, and each character is associated with a meaning as well as a sound — most likely a meaning that has nothing to do with the original meaning of the borrowed word. For example, Chinese has borrowed the word bagel as 貝果 (pronounced bei-guo), which literally means “seashell-fruit.” In contrast, when English first borrowed the word bagel from Yiddish, the word didn’t have any “literal” English meaning; it was a semantic blank slate, free to mean bagel and nothing else. Due to this problem of unwanted semantic baggage, Chinese borrowings from other languages more often translate the meaning instead of copying the original sounds. While “hot dog” becomes hot-dog in French, хот-дог in Russian, and so on, in Chinese it’s 熱狗, which literally means “hot dog” but is pronounced ri-gou.

Sometimes, though, Chinese manages to pull off the seemingly impossible — to find Chinese characters that approximate both the original sound and the original meaning of the borrowed term. The result is a pun — a strong pun — which I tend to find very aesthetically satisfying. Here are a few examples:

  • The word llama has entered Chinese as 駱馬, which is pronounced luo-ma and literally means “camel horse.”
  • The English term UFO becomes the Chinese 幽浮, pronounced you-fu and meaning “secret floating” — a good approximation of the idea of an unidentified flying object.
  • Worldwide web is sometimes ingeniously rendered as 萬維網, literally “net of ten thousand links,” which is pronounced wan-wei-wang, thus preserving the abbreviation WWW.

Strong-pun translations seem to be rare even in Chinese, and English doesn’t seem to do them at all, which is just too bad. If I could introduce one into the language, it would be Greased, to replace Christ as the English version of Χριστός. That’s right, Jesus Greased, Greasedmas, the anti-Greased — you get the idea. Not only is /grist/ actually closer to the original Greek pronunciation than /kraɪst/ is — you might say I’ve “Greeced” the word by taking it back to its Hellenic roots — but it also preserves the original meaning of “anointed,” that is, “smeared with oil.” (If you think that’s an almost blasphemously bad translation, don’t blame me. I got the idea from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose version of the Bible routinely uses “grease” for “anoint.” Psalm 23, for example, contains the line “With oil you have greased my head.”) I might also mention that the one who greased Jesus was none other than the Lard God, and that Jesus Greased would fit right in with other religious founders like Gautama Butter, but such decidedly weak puns would just be flies in the ointment.

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Exploiting the anticipated rhyme

People will sometimes set their audience up to anticipate a particular rhyme and then fail to deliver. This is usually done in a pretty unsubtle way for comic effect either by cutely not cussing (“Ra ra ree, kick ’em in the knee! Ra ra rass, kick ’em in the other knee!”) or by pretending to be too dumb to think of the obvious rhyme (“I’m a poet and I didn’t realize it”). This can be entertainingly clever at times, but it’s not exactly poetry. But can the basic idea be used in a subtler, more poetic way?

Moving up the scale just a little bit, we have this line from the They Might Be Giants song “Kiss Me, Son of God”:

Now you’re the only one here who can tell me if it’s true
That you love me and I love me

Still pretty unsubtle, but it’s a step up from “Roses are red / violets are blue / Some poems rhyme / But this one doesn’t.” It doesn’t subvert the rhyme just for the sake of subverting the rhyme; instead, the dissonant unexpected non-rhyme is used to express an dissonant unexpected thought. However, it’s so heavy-handed that it still registers as a gag, not poetry.

But consider this example, from the Moxy Früvous song “Down from Above”:

Your mother made you cry
When she told you about the womb
And how people die
Watching over you when you were young
Smiling when you learned to crawl
You don’t know her at all

This one is subtle enough that you probably don’t consciously notice the subverted rhymes at all. I think they’re there, though, and are at work at a subconscious level to make the verse more satisfying. When the second line ends with “womb,” it sets you up to expect the usual rhyme, “tomb.” That rhyme is not forthcoming; but the third line, while rhyming with the first, also contains the idea of the tomb that the second line prepared you to subconsciously expect.

There’s something similar at work in the next two lines, though I can’t properly call it a subverted rhyme. “Watching over you when you were…” makes you anticipate “small” at least as much as “young.” “Young” is the word they actually use, but the word “small” has still been primed in your mind, making the next two lines, which rhyme with “small,” more satisfying.

The song is hardly great poetry, but at least it is poetry, not a gag, and demonstrates the legitimately poetic possibilities of this technique of creating anticipations and then subverting them. And, unlike the previous examples, this one doesn’t dissonantly fail to rhyme. On the contrarty, its subverted expectations serve to bind the poem more tightly together.

Finally, here’s an example of my own — just some doggerel I slapped together as an experiment:

The lily and the gentle dove
Remind me of the one I fear.
Yes, I allude to you, my dear,
For I do fear to fall in love.

What do you think? It’s not Shakespeare or anything, but I think it works. First you expect the second line to end with “love,” then the third line, and then the fourth line finally delivers. As in good music, the dissonance is followed by a pleasing resolution. And as in “Kiss Me, Son of God,” the form reflects the content, as the second line uses the unexpected non-rhyme to express an unexpected feeling.

I intend to spend some more time tinkering with this technique, and I would be grateful to any commenters who can point me to other examples of this kind of thing in poetry.

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More Gemoetry

I’ve decided to call this stuff Gemoetry (from gematria poetry) instead of the Poetry of Calculation. It’s shorter and more convenient to say, and as a side benefit it’ll bring in more traffic from people who can’t spell geometry. As you will recall, in Gemoetry two lines are considered to “rhyme” if they add up to the same sum in S:E:G: (A=1, Z=26). Here are some of my older Gemoetry efforts.

First, two biblical couplets:

137 In the beginning
137 God created heaven.

Later I’ll try to expand that to cover the whole creation story. Here’s another:

666 Wisdom: Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast,
666 for it is the number of a man. Check his number: six hundred sixty-six.

Here’s one I wrote before the 2004 U.S. presidential election:

130 A Two-K-Four
130 thingummy:
130 Come November,
130 the USA will
130 choose either
130 George W. Bush,
130 John F. Kerry,
130 or Ralph Nader
130 as president.

And a post-election postscript:

130 Bush won? Man,
130 not that again!

And finally, an ode to Gemoetry itself:

132 Gematria maketh
132 the poetry
132 of calculation
132 characterizable.
132 Isopsephy
132 pleasurably
132 constrains
132 creativity.

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The favorite authors of those who should know

If you’re going to take book recommendations from strangers — or, as I more often do, from statistics derived from large sets of strangers — how do you know which strangers’ opinions to take into account? Considering all opinions indiscriminately — the “bestsellers” approach — is clearly suboptimal. It’ll point you to some good books, but also to a lot of least-common-denominator crap.

Another approach is to use a few books you personally like as a litmus test; if somebody else also likes those books, you’ll trust their taste. This is the idea behind the “people who like this book also like…” feature found on Amazon, LibraryThing, and various other book websites. This unfortunately, tends to point you to books that are already on your radar anyway; it doesn’t expand your horizons. And if you’re not really all that extraordinarily well-read, why on earth should you take your own personal favorites as the standard by which to judge everyone else’s taste? Maybe there’s a whole universe of books out there that you would love but which you’ve never heard of because they’re far removed from the kind of stuff you usually read. Getting your recommendations from other people who read the kind of stuff you do won’t help you find them.

So, here’s an alternative standard: The more books you’ve read, the more weight I give to your opinions about books. It makes sense, doesn’t it? I’d be more likely to take restaurant recommendations from someone who’s eaten at hundreds of local restaurants than from someone who’s only been to a few. The same logic goes for books. If you say Author X is one of the best you’ve ever read, that simply means more if you’ve read thousands of books rather than dozens. Of course not everyone who’s read a lot is going to have good taste, but statistically, it seems that they’d be much more likely to have good taste — to be making informed judgments — than your average joe.

So here’s what I did. LibraryThing Zeitgeist offers statistics on which users have the largest libraries. Of course not everyone who catalogues 10,000 books on LibraryThing has actually read all 10,000 of them, but still, statistically speaking, these people are likely to be very well-read. Of the users on the biggest-libraries list, I ignored anyone whose profile didn’t list any favorite authors. Of those who remained, I looked at the 50 with the largest libraries, collected their favorite authors, and saw which authors turned up the most frequently.

Among these 50 presumably well-read people, the most popular author was Shakespeare (considered a favorite by 12 out of the 50), closely followed by P. G. Wodehouse and James Joyce. If, on the other hand, we look at the most-favorited authors of the LibraryThing community at large, we find J. R. R. Tolkien, Jane Austen, Neil Gaiman, and J. K. Rowling neck-and-neck for the top position (their exact ranking changes every day, but it’s always those four). This has a certain face validity. Everyone knows that Shakespeare is universally considered the greatest of the great by people who know literature, and that the Harry Potter books are notable for being read by people who wouldn’t otherwise be reading anything at all.

Without further ado, here are my results: a list of all the authors who are considered favorites by at least 5 out of 50 of the well-read users in my sample. The list is in alphabetical order, with the number of favorites in parentheses.

  1. Douglas Adams (5)
  2. Margaret Atwood (5)
  3. Jane Austen (6)
  4. Samuel Beckett (7)
  5. Jorge Luis Borges (5)
  6. Lois McMaster Bujold (8)
  7. Italo Calvino (5)
  8. Anton Chekhov (5)
  9. C. J. Cherryh (5)
  10. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (5)
  11. Charles Dickens (6)
  12. Umberto Eco (5)
  13. George Eliot (5)
  14. Neil Gaiman (8)
  15. Gabriel García Márquez (6)
  16. Nikolai Gogol (6)
  17. Henry James (5)
  18. Diana Wynne Jones (8)
  19. James Joyce (10)
  20. Franz Kafka (7)
  21. Mercedes Lackey (5)
  22. H. P. Lovecraft (5)
  23. Anne McCaffrey (5)
  24. Robin McKinley (6)
  25. Vladimir Nabokov (5)
  26. Patrick O’Brian (5)
  27. George Orwell (6)
  28. Mervyn Peake (5)
  29. Terry Pratchett (7)
  30. J. K. Rowling (6)
  31. Dorothy L. Sayers (5)
  32. W. G. Sebald (5)
  33. William Shakespeare (12)
  34. Stendhal (5)
  35. Leo Tolstoy (7)
  36. Mark Twain (5)
  37. Evelyn Waugh (5)
  38. Oscar Wilde (6)
  39. P. G. Wodehouse (11)
  40. Virginia Woolf (6)

Many of these authors are also popular with the LT community at large — there’s quite a lot of overlap, actually — but the rankings tend to be very different. Among the 50 users I looked at, for example, Jane Austen is only half as popular as Shakespeare, compared to four times as popular in the general population. Of the authors on this list, the least generally popular are Stendhal, Gogol, and Sebald. (By “generally popular,” I mean considered a favorite by a large number of LibraryThing users.) The most generally popular authors who do not make this list are J. R. R. Tolkien, Stephen King, C. S. Lewis, and Kurt Vonnegut.

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Cracking the Mormon dress code

A warning to the reader: If you are a Mormon, you will probably be uncomfortable with my references to various things not normally discussed outside the walls of the temple. (I don’t actually reveal anything that templegoers are sworn not to reveal, but I come very close at times.) If, on the other hand, you are not a Mormon, you will be unlikely to understand anything I’ve written here and even less likely to care. So, whoever you are, consider yourself warned.

Still here? Right then.

I have this theory that the so-called knee mark on the Mormon garment is located at the knee for practical reasons only and that, in terms of symbolism, its “true” location should be considered the mouth. Why do I think that? Here are a few reasons:

1. First, there’s the hypothetical plausibility of the idea. An undergarment doesn’t cover your mouth, so if there were meant to be a mouth mark, you’d have to put it somewhere else.

2. When the marks are explained in the endowment ceremony, they are introduced in the following order: square, compass, navel, knee. This order parallels that of the signs of the four tokens of the priesthood. The first sign involves raising the right hand (square on right breast), the second involves raising the left (compass on left breast), and in the third sign both hands are held down near the belly (navel mark). The final sign seems to break the pattern, since it doesn’t involve the right knee at all; it does, however, make prominent reference to the mouth.

3. The explanation of the knee mark links the knee to the mouth by quoting the biblical “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess.”

4. The breasts, navel, and mouth are a natural set, being the four points at which nourishment passes into or out of the body. Nourishment enters the body through the navel while in the womb (the endowment makes clear reference to this) and through the mouth thereafter, and the body gives out nourishment through the breasts. The right knee doesn’t fit into this picture.

5. In addition to their thematic union, the mouth, breasts, and navel are situated in a perfectly symmetrical pattern on the body, as seen below (sorry, Leonardo). No such pattern exists if the right knee is used in place of the mouth.

The significance of the Hebrew letters in the above diagram is left as an exercise for the properly initiated reader. I will point out, though, that פ signifies the mouth in Hebrew, and that the Hebrew ל is cognate with both the Latin L (looks like a square) and the Greek Λ (looks like a compass).

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Mormonism and the Watchers

This is my collection of apparently coincidental parallels between the story of the Watchers (fallen angels who married human wives and begot giants, as alluded to in Genesis 6 and related in more detail in the Book of Enoch and other apocryphal literature) and Mormonism, all three topics (Watchers, Mormonism, and coincidences) being special interests of mine.

Nephites and Nephilim:

In the Bible, when the “sons of God” (fallen angels) marry the daughters of men, their offspring are the Nephilim, usually translated as “giants.” The Book of Mormon deals with the race of Nephites (which would be Nephiim in Hebrew), the descendants of Nephi. Just as the Nephilim are giants, Nephi mentions on several occasions that he is “large in stature,” and there are hints that his progeny, too, are physically larger than their enemies, the Lamanites. For example the Book of Mormon twice uses phrases like “a day’s journey for a Nephite,” implying that Lamanites (being smaller?) would travel at a different pace. Near the end of the book, when the Nephites fall into wickedness, they are cursed by God and become “weak, like unto their brethren, the Lamanites” — implying that ordinarily a Nephite would be much stronger than a Lamanite.

(For some of these references I am indebted to an online article called “Nephite Stature,” by a Strangite Mormon with a Slavic surname. Unfortunately I can’t recall his name, and the article in question seems no longer to be online, so I’m unable to give him proper credit. His conclusion was to equate the Nephites not with the Nephilim, but with Bigfoot. [Update: I’ve located this article. The author’s name is James D. Hajicek, and the article is archived here.])

The angel who appeared to Joseph Smith and told him about the Book of Mormon, though usually known as Moroni, is also called Nephi in some early tellings of the story.

Baurak Ale and Baraqel:

Two of the code names Joseph Smith used for himself are Enoch and Baurak Ale. While the latter is usually understood as coming from the Hebrew barak-el, meaning “blessed of God,” it also matches Baraqel (“lightning of God”), the name of one of the fallen angels listed in the Book of Enoch. (The angel Moroni/Nephi is is described by Smith as having a “countenance like lightning,” a phrase which comes from the Bible but is nevertheless interesting in this context.)

(I remember reading something by the Mormon apologist Hugh Nibley which makes the connection between Baurak Ale and Baraqel, though in a somewhat disingenuous way. Nibley discusses a badly fragmented document which contains a conversation between Enoch and one of the giants, including a reference to “Baraqel my father.” Nibley tries to put the line in Enoch’s mouth, saying that Baraqel must be another name for Enoch’s father Jared and thus an appropriate name for Joseph Smith — but, given Nibley’s obvious familiarity with the Enoch literature, I’m quite sure he must have known that Baraqel was one of the Watchers and therefore the giant’s father, not Enoch’s.)

The Book of Enoch mentions Baraqel together with another angel, Kokabel (“star of God”), saying that Baraqel taught men astrology and Kokabel taught them the constellations. Joseph Smith also taught esoteric astrology, in his Book of Abraham, in which he uses the Hebrew word kokob (“star”) and its plural, which he spells kokaubeam.

Another of the fallen angels mentioned in the Book of Enoch is Asael (apparently a variant of Azazel), which happens to have been the name of Joseph Smith’s grandfather.

Marriage pacts:

In the Book of Enoch, Semjaza, the leader of the Watchers, fears that the others will back out of their plan to go down and take earthly wives, with the result that he alone will be punished. So he has all the earthbound angels meet together on the summit of a mountain, where they swear an oath, binding themelves under mutual imprecations, that they will go through with their plan to marry mortal women.

Like Semjaza, Joseph Smith had plans to enter into forbidden marital relations. (He secretly married 30-odd women, some of whom already had husbands; polygamy later became a public practice under Brigham Young, but Joseph Smith kept it secret and publicly denied it all his life.) And like Semjaza, he gathered together a select group of loyal friends, had them also marry polygamously, and bound the group together with oaths of loyalty and secrecy. The whole ritual apparatus of the Mormon temple, beginning with a Masonry-inspired initiation in which oaths of secrecy are administered and culminating in a special marriage ceremony which the uninitiated are not allowed to attend, is an outgrowth of the measures Joseph Smith took to keep his polygamous relationships secret and safe.

Just as Semjaza and company made their covenant on a mountaintop, the Mormon temple is often referred to with the biblical phrase “mountain of the Lord.”

Angels even enter into it. Smith reportedly convinced some of his wives to marry him by saying he had been so commanded by an angel with a drawn sword, who threatened him with death and damnation if he failed to comply. (One can easily picture the Watchers using similar methods to enforce their oath.) And of course nearly every Mormon temple — not the churches, but the temples, where the initiatory and marital rituals are administered — is topped, not with a cross, but with the figure of an angel.

Also relevant is the Mormon teaching that marriage — that is, the “celestial marriage” administered in the temple, which was originally polygamous in nature — is necessary for full exaltation. With celestial marriage, it is possible to become a God; without it, one can rise no higher than the comparatively lowly position of “ministering angel.” Read with this doctrine in mind, the Watcher story takes on a whole new meaning, with the angels motivated not by mere lust (why would angels be subject to lust?) but by a hubristic desire to rise above their appointed station and become Gods.

Erasing the Watchers:

For all the links between Mormonism and the story of the Watchers as told in Genesis and elaborated in the apocryphal Enoch literature, the story itself has been expunged from Mormon scripture. In the Book of Moses (Joseph Smith’s revision of the first few chapters of Genesis, with some added material about Enoch), the phrase “sons of God” refers not to the angels but to Noah and his sons, and in any case it is not the sons of God themselves, but their daughters who sin — by marrying the “sons of men.” In Smith’s telling, what angers the Lord is not that women are marrying the sons of God, but that they are failing to do so! Giants are mentioned, but no longer in connection with the intermarriage business. It’s easy to see this as a pro-Watcher version of the story, covering up the sins of the angels.

What to make of it?

I’m not the only one to have noticed some of these parallels (though I think I’ve collected more of them than anyone else), and there are a few fringe Christian websites, like this one, that try to make an anti-Mormon argument out of them. These people maintain that the Watchers are real and that it was they who, masquerading as angels of light, appeared to Joseph Smith, revealed the Book of Mormon, and directed the founding of the Mormon church for their own nefarious purposes.

Since I’m not the kind of guy who believes in Gods or angels, or who looks to the Book of Genesis, much less the Book of Enoch, for reliable information about the history of the world, I obviously don’t have much use for theories of this kind. Nor do I have any alternative theory of my own. I simply list the parallels for whatever they’re worth and file them away for (in the unlikely event that it should ever prove necessary) future reference. I suspect that, like so many of the other intriguing parallels that catch my attention, they’ll ultimately turn out to be nothing but a mass of superficially interesting coincidences, nothing but a very clever punplex, fun to think about and tinker with from time to time, but ultimately signifying nothing.

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The Poetry of Calculation

In the Poetry of Calculation, two lines are considered to “rhyme,” not if they end with the same sound, but if they have the same gematria value. Here I use S:E:G: — Simple English Gematria (A=1, B=2, . . . Z=26). The value of a line is found by adding up the values of its constituent letters. The name “The Poetry of Calculation” is an example of itself:

132The Poetry
132of Calculation

Here’s another simple example:

127Roses are red.
166Violets are blue.
127Sugar is cheap,
166And so, dear, are you.

And here’s a longer one — a paraphrase of the Ten Commandments such that every line adds up to 173 — the value of the phrase “Ten Commandments” — in S:E:G:

173Ten Commandments:
173Thou shalt not
173favor gods other
173than Hebrew Jehovah.
173Thou shalt not
173 make earthly images
173of anyone in heaven.
173Thou shalt not
173name deities in vain.
173Thou shalt not
173burden Saturday
173with vain labors.
173Thou shalt not
173displease Mom or Dad.
173Thou shalt not
173murder, taking life.
173Thou shalt not
173take other women
173adulterously.
173Thou shalt not
173take any’s things.
173Thou shalt not
173slander colleagues.
173Thou shalt not
173 covet other dames,
173 oxen, houses, etc.
173So saith the Lord.

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