Sunday, August 23, 2015

A View of DFW From Israel: Assaf Gavron on David Foster Wallace

I’ve been thinking about David Foster Wallace a lot lately -- catalyzed by the release of the movie End of the Tour, reading David Lipsky’s book on which it is based, and re-reading some of DFW’s pieces, both fiction and non-fiction.  When I read about Wallace and his all-too-short life, I feel sad -- but when I read Wallace himself, I don’t feel that way at all; rather, intensely stimulated by his intellect and humor. It was natural to me, given my other interests, to wonder if Wallace had ever been translated into Hebrew. He would be a challenge to translate into any language, since his style incorporates so much idiomatic American speech.  Judging from this article,  a few books of his have indeed appeared in Hebrew translation (all after his death), though no one (apparently) has yet taken on the task of rendering Infinite Jest into Hebrew.

That doesn’t mean that DFW has no admirers in Israel, however.  The above cited Wikipedia article has a link to an appreciation of Wallace that appeared shortly after his death, written for the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth by the novelist, musician, and translator Assaf Gavron, which appeared on October 3, 2008.  Since we have a natural interest in views of American letters from abroad, I have undertaken to render this piece of Gavron’s into English, which I give below. Occasional short comments from me are in square brackets.  Footnoted comments by me are signaled by asterisks.

TRAGIC-COMIC GENIUS by Assaf Gavron

David Foster Wallace has not been translated into Hebrew [no longer true--EMC] and it is reasonable to assume that he never will.  For this reason, his suicide two weeks ago, in contrast to the flood of eulogies and memorials overseas, passed here in complete silence. 

For several years I tried to interest at least five publishers in Israel in putting out his long article “A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again,” from the collection of the same name. I called. I had meetings.  I sent the book. One of the publishers, it doesn’t matter which one, even lost my copy, so I bought another one. I said, “This is the funniest thing you will ever read in your lives.” I said: “You will cry, it’s so funny.”  I said: “This guy, you just don’t ....” They didn’t go for it. No one other than me (and I don’t have the means, although I swore that I would do it when I did) wanted to bring out in Hebrew David Foster Wallace’s impressions of his voyage in a luxury cruise ship in the Caribbean, impressions written originally for the periodical Harper’s and published there serially [actually not serially-EMC] in the ‘nineties.

For starters, allow me to give you a short paragraph, footnote 53 of the text, and it doesn’t matter what the footnote refers to: *

53 This is counting the Midnight Buffet, which tends to be a kind of lamely lavish Theme-slash-Costume-Partyish thing, w/ Theme-related foods--Oriental, Caribbean, Tex-Mex--and which I plan in this essay to mostly skip except to say that Tex-Mex Night out by the pools featured what must have been a seven-foot-high ice sculpture of Pancho Villa [the Hebrew translation actually reads “a famous Mexican general”] that spent the whole party dripping steadily onto the mammoth sombrero of Tibor, Table 64's beloved and extremely cool Hungarian waiter, whose contract forces him on Tex-Mex Night to wear a serape and a straw sombrero with a 17" radius53a and to dispense Four Alarm chili [Hebrew paraphrases as: “spicy chili”] from a steam table placed right underneath an ice sculpture, and whose pink and birdlike face on occasions like this expressed a combination of mortification and dignity that seem somehow to sum up the whole plight of postwar Eastern Europe.
53a (He let me measure it when the reptilian [rendered as “lowly”] maitre d' wasn't looking.)

This is just a small sample, but it is pure David Foster Wallace. The footnote, the footnote-within-a-footnote, an entire paragraph which is only one breathless sentence, a description of a static scene that somehow, from buffet meals on a luxury cruise, gets to the political situation in postwar Eastern Europe -- and, most importantly, the humor.

I first encountered (the works of) David Foster Wallace in January 1997, in a big bookstore in New York. On a table there was a giant pile of copies of a giant book by the name of Infinite Jest. This was the edition in soft cover of the book that had come out in the previous year. The picture of the author, 34 years old at the time, the pure chutzpah of a writer at such an age putting out a 1079-page novel, the flood of reviews from all the important newspapers, and several sentences that I sampled at random from the book -- all these convinced me to buy it.

I don’t remember a lot from that first reading. I remember that it continued through some long nights. I remember superfluous pages, arcane descriptions, but I remember most of all excitement and amazement. I remember laughing out loud. What is certain is that the experience of reading Infinite Jest was enough to cause me to buy and read every word that Foster Wallace had published.

Infinite Jest is a funny novel, full of imagination and excitement, about a tennis academy in North America in the not-too-distant future (if I am not mistaken 2011, that is, 20 years from the time that the novel was written). It is also about Alcoholics Anonymous, Quebecois freedom fighters, differential equations and more. It is a parody of an America addicted -- to drugs, alcohol, sports, sex, entertainment and more, bubbling with humor and creative energy.

Infinite Jest tested the infinite possibilities of the novel.  Wallace broke down the format and put it back together again in unexpected ways.  He wrote sentences several pages in length.  He switched from style to style.  He turned the footnotes (which take up almost 100 pages of the 1079) from a tedious academic tool to a creative and sexy technique.

The contemporaries of Foster Wallace, like Jonathan Franzen (who was his best friend), Jeffrey Eugenides, Rick Moody, Michael Chabon and others, noticed these experiments , used them as a template, and refined them,  for novels which were more coherent, more accessible, and shorter, easier for people to buy and easier for literary juries to award prizes to. I would like to think that I too learned a thing or two from Infinite Jest, both in fiction and in experiential journalism.

Infinite Jest was to be his last novel**. He had published a novel before it, as well as a collection of short stories, and after it two more collections.  Although his rare talent was evident, the last story collections (Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Oblivion) were uneven, and went in darker and gloomier directןons. They include, along  with flashes of brilliance, some absurd stories that were in part unreadable. Other than fiction, Foster Wallace, as noted, published a few collections of essays that had previously appeared in all of the important periodicals in the US.

He maintained that journalism was not suitable for his style (for example as a writer who does not believe in limitations of space and word count), but evidently he was wrong.  Among his brilliant essays there are profound analyses of cooking lobsters, tennis (he was a professional*** player at the youth level), mathematics, and a visit to the State Fair in Illinois, the place of his birth.****

Concerning the experience of watching the tennis player Roger Federer he wrote for the New York TImes, “It was impossible. It was like something out of ‘The Matrix.’ I don’t know what-all sounds were involved [rendered in Hebrew as “what sounds came out of my throat”], but my spouse says she hurried in and there was popcorn all over the couch and I was down on one knee and my eyeballs looked like novelty-shop eyeballs [rendered as “eyeballs from the all-for-a-dollar store”].”

David Foster Wallace was not the greatest or most successful writer of his generation.  But he was perhaps the most impressive.  Daring, intellectual, pure, uncompromising, exciting, and a comic genius. His experiments were a catalyst for many writers who were very distant from him.

Foster Wallace suffered from clinical depression.  Last summer he stopped using a particular medication because of severe side-effects, and from that point on his condition grew steadily worse. On Friday, September 12, he hanged himself.

FOOTNOTES TO TRANSLATION [EMC]
*All quotations from DFW are given in the original English. The footnote from “Fun Thing” is from page 296 of the paperback edition.

**The Pale King was published posthumously in 2011.

***He was not a professional,but was a regional youth league player.


****Actually, he was born in Ithaca, N.Y., but was raised in Illinois. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The grammar of "Dylan goes electric"

As many have noted, this past week saw the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan's famed electric set at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, preceded by the publication of Elijah Wald's book Dylan Goes Electric (which sounds like a good read).

While I am interested in the subject itself, I also have to confess an interest in the grammar of the short sentence "Dylan goes electric." My first idle question to myself was, What grammatical role does the adjective "electric" play in the sentence? My first idle answer was that it was functioning as an adverb, but a moment's thought demonstrated the wrongness of that answer. "Dylan goes electric" is not synonymous with "Dylan goes electrically"; i.e., "electric" doesn't describe how Dylan went.

But it's also not where he went, although the verb "to go" typically takes a complement indicating location. "Dylan goes electric" is not the same type of sentence as "Dylan goes home."

The key is that "to go" in the sentence is not functioning as a motion verb, but, as it often does, as a kind of linking verb, like be (prototypically), become, appear, seem. "Dylan goes electric" has a family resemblance to "Dylan is electric," "Dylan becomes elecric," "Dylan appears electric," "Dylan seems electric," or to non-Dylanesque sentences such as "Maggie went native" or "The lake goes flat when the wind subsides." NOUN + GO(linking) + ADJECTIVE means "NOUN adds property ADJECTIVE."

"Electric," then, is a predicative complement. But also the word "Dylan" requires a certain amount of semantic unpacking. In the sentence it is straightforwardly a Noun used as a Subject.  But it can't be interpreted straightforwardly as a proper noun, denoting the person Bob Dylan, who did not become electric. Here "Dylan" refers via metonymy to "Bob Dylan's music."

But "Dylan" = "Dylan's music" is not so simple, either. There is an overtone to "Dylan goes electric" that is not found in the paraphrase "Bob Dylan's music changed to electric (=using amplified instruments)." Some people blame or praise Dylan for going electric, which would make no sense if Dylan, the person, was not volitionally involved in the process. The thing is, "Dylan" has to refer simultaneously to the performer and the music.

The linguist James Pustejovsky has a name for words that display this kind of two-sidedness: dot objects. Dot objects display "inherent polysemy," that is, entities that can simultaneously be interpreted as two different types of entity.  One example is "book," which can be simultaneously "tome" and "content": "The book with a green cover [physical object] is interesting[story]."

This is signified by a dot: tome•content. One of the dot-object types is performer•product, which licenses "Dylan [performer•music] goes electric." The "performer" facet licenses the volitional feature of "goes," while the "product" licenses the predicate complement "electric."

By the way, judging by the video, the most "electric" part of the set was not Dylan's Stratocaster strumming, but the late Michael Bloomfield's face-melting Telecaster licks. In my opinion, the wrong guitar gets all the credit. Where is Bloomfield's Telecaster now? (EDIT: here.)

BIBLIOGRAPHY: James Pustejovsky, The Generative Lexicon (MIT Press, 1996); Elijah Wald, Dylan Goes Electric: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night that Split the Sixties (Harper Collins, 2015).

Friday, July 03, 2015

A Response to Kaufman's Review of DQA

S. A. Kaufman has taken in hand to offer some critiques and corrections to my recently published Dictionary of Qumran Aramaic.  Some of his remarks deserve consideration, while others reflect plain misreadings of the book or of the texts in question.  While I am grateful for the attention paid to the book by such an eminent Aramaist, and for the occasional faint praise, I deplore the overall snide and bullying tone of the piece, as well as the liberal, and unwarranted, use of the rhetoric of certainty, wherein Kaufman, speaking de haut en bas, frequently attaches “clearly” and “surely” to his own unsupported pronouncements.  

One of the drawbacks to Kaufman’s review is that he evidently failed to read the introduction, in which he would have found discussions of some of the issues he raises.  For instance, he regrets that I did not include the vocabulary of the Geniza Aramaic Levi Document, a decision that I discussed on page xviii.   I still believe that this is a reasonable choice.

He also has no use for or, apparently, comprehension of, some of my remarks on prepositions (he uses the word “gibberish” at one point), although I briefly discussed the rationale for including them on p. xix.  The problem with prepositions is that their meaning is typically vague (in the technical semantic sense),  highly dependent on context for their construal, and therefore dictionary entries of them tend to be long lists of contextual senses or translation equivalents.   I find this unsatisfactory, and I look with favor on semanticists who attempt to find some unity in the multiple uses of a preposition. Some do this by the identification of an invariate core, others by tracing the ramifications of metaphorical extension.  My brief characterizations of some of the prepositions in DQA were at least a gesture toward this semantic project, and an attempt to bring them into practical lexicographical use.  None of these issues are on Kaufman’s radar at all.

He also apparently did not read, or take to heart, my explanation of why Greek and Hebrew equivalents were included (p. xvii).  In no case are they used, or appealed to, as determining the sense of a particular word (except for rare words or problematic cases).  He believes, for some reason, that I translated דרתה in 4Q197 (Tobit) as “courtyard” simply because the LXX uses αὐλῆς for דרתה; and that context favors simply “house.”  But private houses at that time, even small ones, were typically built around a central courtyard through which entrance was gained; so that when Reuel is found sitting “before the gate of his courtyard” it means exactly the same as sitting “before the gate of his house.”  Presumably in later dialects (such as the Jewish Babylonian Aramaic appealed to by Kaufman) דרה came to denote “house” simpliciter via metonymy. But evidence is lacking to show that this was the case in QA.

Another case of Kaufman’s misconstrual of my purposes is also found in Tobit (4Q196), [ולא ]בר לה אחרן, which I translated as “he has no other child.”  Kaufman believes that I included the gloss “child of either sex” for בר with this citation, solely because the LXX translates it by τέκνον.  But this is not so.  In context (Tobit 3:15), Sara, Reuel’s daughter, is speaking, and she says, “I am the only child of my father; and besides me, he has no other  בר.” Since Sara is a female, she must be included in the wider meaning of בר.  This is clear without appeal to the Greek, and in fact I made no appeal to the Greek.  

Finally, I shall address Kaufman’s characterization of DQA as a whole, namely, that it is not an “academic lexicon” because it lacks “an indication of the vocalization and morphological structures of well-known words, lists of derived forms for verbs, or even a guide for students as to what words are common elsewhere in Aramaic and what are relatively or extremely rare.” This suggests that Kaufman has not fully understood the purpose of a specialized lexicon for a very small corpus such as QA, which contains only about 20,000 word tokens and about 1,500 word types. With such a small corpus, it is possible to include most of the occurrences in the entries, but it is not possible to provide, say, “lists of derived forms for verbs” because the occurrences of all but extremely common verbs are too few for such a list -- as pointed out on p. xix of the introduction that Kaufman ignores, where the question of vocalization is also addressed. With respect to “morphological structures,” I am not sure what Kaufman is referring to, or what information in addition to the headword, root, and exemplification might satisfy him.   As for the last point, I fail to see the purpose of providing a guide for what words are common or rare in other Aramaic dialects; DQA is not a textbook for introductory classes in Aramaic.

It should also be pointed out that the Qumran Aramaic corpus is different from other, larger, Aramaic corpora, in that each text in the corpus has been published in DJD with detailed notes and concordances,  collected and re-collected in a variety of anthological publications, and several have been the subject of encyclopedia articles, commentaries, and popular books. There are at least two book-length grammars of QA (by Schattner-Reiser and Muraoka), a separate printed concordance with full line references, and a variety of electronic publications, including CAL, which makes retrieval of all the data quite straightforward.  Therefore Kaufman’s complaint about the lack of “an index to cited passages” is captious in the extreme.  (The forthcoming electronic publication of DQA will also make such an index superfluous.)

As for the rest, it would be tiresome, and tiring, to register counter-comments to each of Kaufman’s comments, nor do all of them warrant opposition.  I shall limit myself to a few cases, especially those where, in my opinion, Kaufman has overlooked evidence or committed an egregious error.

For זעק, Kaufman says that the Aphel “makes no sense morphologically or semantically” and says it must be Pael; and yet in CAL s.v. zʿq the root appears only in the G, C (Aphel), Gt, and Ct stems. The root does not appear to be used in the D stem (Pael) at all in Aramaic.

In connection with a citation under the root חלם II, Kaufman says, “This reading and interpretation of לבר is impossible”; but he offers no reasons for this opinion and no alternative.  I would readily accept, by the way, an emendation of  המון to מנהון (in the phrase לבר המון) although it is drastic.

With regard to the entry חתף, Kaufman says, “But since when does a Qumran Aramaic imperfect express the general present as in SBH [Standard Biblical Hebrew]?” Well, two possible examples are in the Genesis Apocryphon: ‏כל בתולן וכלאן די יעלן לגנון לא ישפרן מנהא, “no virgins or brides who enter the bridal canopy are more beautiful than she” (20:6), although these could be construed as modals. But חדה לחדה ידבקון, “each clings to each” (11QtgJob 36:1-2) is an undeniable example of an imperfect used as a general present.

Kaufman’s note on יאש is to the point; if the opportunity arises for a second edition, I shall incorporate it.

Kaufman says “ ‘chastisement’ [יסור] elsewhere is always a plural form.” Always? Not in Tg. Jeremiah 30:14 יִסּוּר אַכְזְרָאִין, “chastisement of cruel men.” If Mishnaic Hebrew is relevant, then we also have אין ייסור גדול מזה (b. Sanh. 45a).

For נגד I and II, he says baldly, “This is a single root.”  I would like to see some justification for this, since prima facie there is no semantic connection between “pull, lengthen” and “scourge.”

For נחיר, Kaufman says the lemma should be plural or dual. In response, I can do no better than to cite CAL s.v. nḥyr: “normally in the pl. (originally: dual!), but with some major exceptions, especially in poetry.” In general, words for body-parts (such as יד or רגל) are not given dual forms in dictionary headwords, although in use they may be predominantly dual or plural. (This is also relevant for Kaufman’s remark on חלץ.)

For סגר, Kaufman says “it only acquires the connotation ‘to hand over’ when used with ביד.” And that is how it is used in the cited passage (1QGenAp 22:17)! Kaufman’s remark is inexplicable.

For the preposition על, Kaufman claims that English “over” can be used as a translation equivalent in “virtually” every case.  Really? For עלת על בתאנוש, for instance, what is better, “I came to Bitenosh” or “I came over Bitenosh” (1QGenAp 2:3)? This is a silly suggestion.

Kaufman makes the following remark: “קץ n. m. time; end: The examples of ‘end’ (קצוי) are from קצה not from קץ.” In DQA the forms קצוי are in fact booked under קצה, so Kaufman’s “correction” is to an entry that does not exist.

*Edited later to remove personal expressions of pique, which I regret.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Eleventh (!) Annual Ralphies


It has been a quiet year for Ralph, as has become usual.  Because of things originally written in this space, I found myself co-featured in a couple of books about Bob Dylan (The Dylanologists by David Kinney, and Time Out of Mind by Ian Bell), and named by Rolling Stone as Bob Dylan's 7th most crazed fan, which says something about that once-great magazine's current level of insight.  Would you like to know how many media calls I got after all this pub? Zero. I'm not complaining.

On to the awards ....

MUSIC: Since we're talking about music, let's do that first. It seems to me that this was a good year for music -- better than last year, for sure.  My impression is that indie rock, the category I pay most attention to, made a turn towards pop this year. Again, I'm not complaining.  Some songs like I'm Callin' (Tennis), How Can You Really (Foxygen), Do You (Spoon), and Talking Backward (Real Estate) are just great pop songs and you wouldn't guess that these were indie bands, with the Pitchfork seal of approval.  In a rational society, there would be a Top 40 based on record sales and radio play, and these songs would be on all the time. But my Song of the Year Ralphie goes to Water Fountain by tUnE-yArDs, and if this song doesn't make you bop across the living room with a smile on your silly face, check your pulse. As for Album of the Year, that goes to Rips, from Ex Hex, a three-piece band that arose from the wreckage of the late great Wild Flag.  This is what used to be called power pop, and for all I know still is. Mary Timony's guitar lines are pretty amazing, in that they are just as hummable as the vocal melody, if nor more so. (Here's a sample.)

MOVIES: Ehhh ... we only saw two movies all year. Guardians of the Galaxy, which was OK, I guess? I love comics, but, honestly, most of the comic book movies out there, no matter how jolly, are not good translations.  People think of movies as a long-form art -- like novels or TV serials -- but they're not. Movies are essentially short stories, and the best ones pack a punch like a great short story. That means that things that require a lot of exposition, like biographies, epics, or novel adaptations, are diluted on the big screen. Comic book stories (good ones) are long-form, and to put them on screen a lot of the character development has to be left out or taken for granted. GOTG was no different. It was noisy, and a little too pleased with itself. The other movie we saw was The Theory of Everything, about Stephen Hawking. It was interesting, but not a great movie. Same problem.  So no movie award, as per usual.

TV: There was not a single current TV show that I watched regularly this year. However, I did catch up with Breaking Bad and binge-watched most of it. I thought it was fantastic, and the last few episodes unfolded like a Greek tragedy. When Walter died (c'mon, too soon? this isn't a spoiler, is it?), I felt like someone I knew had passed away. Powerful stuff. It's true, like the pundits say -- TV has taken over from movies as the genre of choice for quality plot and acting. What I said above about long vs. short form applies here. Breaking Bad is a great novel.

BOOKS, FICTION: Although I didn't see the movies based on them, I did read two best-sellers made into movies that came out this year: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Both were excellent works of their kind -- Gone Girl, in particular, I just couldn't put down -- and I'm glad to have made the acquaintance of these authors. But the best read of all was  Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation, and its two sequels, Authority and Acceptance.  It was like watching Lost, without the disappointing ending.  Runner-up goes to an  Israeli mystery novel by Dror Mishani, אפשרות של אלימות (Possibility of Violence), which is now out in English translation.

BOOKS, NON-FICTION: I read a lot of non-fiction.

OK, kids, see you next year! Might be a more active year for Ralph, who knows?

Monday, May 26, 2014

Chewing the Quail

In Numbers 11, we have the story of God's miraculous provision of quail for the children of Israel, who were tired of eating manna all the time. Although the quail was provided in massive quantities, the Israelites, according to the standard translation of v. 33, did not so much as eat a single bite before the Lord punished them with a plague: "But while the meat was still between their teeth, before they chewed it, the anger of the LORD burned against the people, and the LORD struck the people with a very great plague" (NET Bible and many others).

The phrase translated "before they chewed it" is טרם יכרת, literally, "before it was cut off." It strikes me as unlikely that the Niph'al of the root krt would mean "chew"; the default gloss for the verb is "be cut, cut off." The Aktionsart of the verb is normally telic (a Vendlerian "achievement") and not iterative (an "activity"). But words develop their little quirks and it's not out of the question that something like "chew" (or "bite") could develop out of "cut off" (and compare the NEB "they had not so much as bitten it"). Nevertheless, this verse seems to be the only one where נכרת is translated "chew."

The ancient versions, however, unanimously render the phrase with words meaning finish, be over: "While the meat was still between their teeth, before it failed" (πρὶν ἢ ἐκλείπειν, LXX), "before it ran out" (nec defecerat, Vulgate), "before it stopped" (עד לא פסק, Onkelos), "before it went away" (ܘܥܕܠܐ ܥܒܪ., Peshitta). The ancient translators apparently took the phrase to refer to the month-long period that the quails were available for eating (Num. 11: 19-20), so that an overall paraphrase of v. 33a would be "While they were still (daily) eating the quail, before the supply ran out ..." (Rashi mentions both interpretations but favors the translation of Onkelos.) This makes a lot more sense to me, since the episode presupposes that the Israelites consumed a lot of quail.

There does not seem to be any straightforward reference to "chewing" in the Hebrew Bible. The animals that "chew the cud" (Lev. 11:3 and elsewhere) actually "bring up" (מעלה), regurgitate, the cud. The standard verb in later Hebrew (including Modern) meaning "to chew" is לָעַס, which, as far as I know, is first attested in the Mishnah. I have a hunch, though, that Hebrew speakers chewed things before then and probably referred to the act with the same verb.

Monday, March 10, 2014

You Won't Believe These Unbelievable Aramaic Expressions!!


As an Aramaist, I'm always interested to see what people think about Aramaic, which seems to have become a symbol of different things in popular culture. Thanks to its usage in Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ, many people are now aware that it was the (or a) language used in first-century Palestine. It also has become, perhaps for the same reason, an "occult" signifier, appearing in movies or books whenever something magical-sounding is required, as for instance in the movies Constantine and Stigmata, or the book The Celestine Prophecy, about an ancient Aramaic occult manuscript found in Peru (!).

Most recently Aramaic pops up in Lev Grossman's The Magician King (2012) as follows:


The quoted text is from Genesis 1:2 according to Targum Onkelos. I'm not sure if Quentin recited the text from right-to-left, in which case the sentence runs backward (although the words are not backwards), or left-to-right (in which case the words are backwards, but the sentence gives the correct word order). Maybe it's a Unicode thing, or just a magic thing.

I was surprised, though, to hear Aramaic used in the scripts of the series Spartacus on the Starz network. The series (now defunct, I understand) narrates the "lives and loves" of characters in an ancient gladiatorial training academy, and makes liberal use of cable TV's license to display nudity and use profanity. Interestingly, beginning in the second season, a number of foreign gladiators enter the "ludus": Ashur and Dagan, "a hulking Syrian." The Romans speak English -- the producers apparently unwilling to emulate Gibson and put Latin in their mouths -- but not these new guys. They speak potty-mouthed Aramaic. 

I've not found out who did the Aramaic, but I infer from the scripts (which are available here) that the language consultant employed mainly Talmudic Aramaic, as in the following, from "Paterfamilias":
ASHUR (to Dagan, in Aramaic)
Hze aykh hane mistaklin ‘alan. Kma Had minhon. [See how they look to us. As one of their own.]
Hane (הני) "these, they" is found only in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic. One could quarrel with some of the other details, but, hey, it's cable, right? 

Also interesting are the "four-letter words" (obscene language). We don't have any obscene language from ancient Aramaic -- as far as I know -- and it therefore presents a vexing problem in back-translation. I'm not going to go through all of them, lest I arouse distaste in some of my readers. However, the four-letter word par excellence, the F-word, gets a thorough workout in the scripts, and the back-translation is interesting, if not historically valid. The following also is from the episode "Paterfamilias":
Ashur and Dagan, bruised from yesterday’s altercation, glare from the sidelines. Ashur eyes Auctus and Barca, spits.  
ASHUR (in Aramaic)
Hare mezayyne. [Fucking shits.]
It is clear from this and other passages that the language consultant, at a loss for an Aramaic equivalent to "fucking," employs the modern Hebrew equivalent mezayyen (Piel participle from the root זין) with the Eastern Aramaic emphatic plural ending.  Problem solved, and who's paying attention, anyway? (Besides me.) However, in attested ancient Aramaic, the root means "to arm, provide a weapon" and the active participle would mean "someone who is arming (e.g. a soldier)." As for the other word, Aramaic חרי does indeed mean "dung, droppings," but this is not necessarily the same register as "shit." 

However, how might the equivalent concepts in the appropriate register (slang + obscenity) have been expressed in ancient Aramaic? We shall probably never know. As C. S. Lewis has argued, four-letter words are generally found only in (a) scurrilous abuse or (b) comedy. Ancient Aramaic is sadly lacking in both types of discourse.

(Apologies to Buzzfeed and that ilk for the title)

BIBLIOGRAPHY; C. S. Lewis, "Four-Letter Words," in Selected Literary Essays (Cambridge, 1979). 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013 Ralphies: The Grumpy Edition

No other year in recent memory has so much brought to mind Hemingway's 1923 couplet (originating as a parody of Ezra Pound):

And in the end the age was handed
The sort of shit that it demanded.

This is especially true of American culture in the broader sense, which continues its decline. Americans  this year have cheered, among other things, grotesque social innovations, public skankiness, and dumb books about Jesus.  I survey the cultural landscape with a cold eye, and pray for a charitable heart.

On TV I found little to watch this year. I failed to get on various bandwagons in time. Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey have had to get along without me.  I did fall hard, though, for Call the Midwife, a lovely, lovely show on PBS, and very much enjoyed about half of The Bridge on FX, before the killer was identified and all the air went out of the storytelling.

Cinema was a correspondingly vast wasteland, although I have not yet seen Inside Llewyn Davis, which I expect to enjoy.  I watched Iron Man 3 at home, and likewise Looper, Prometheus, Oblivion, and Kick-Ass 2 (I like sci-fi).  Some of these entertained for longer stretches at a time than others, but none of them stuck with me for long. That privilege belonged to an older film, The Wrestler (2008) which touched me.  I've never much liked Mickey Rourke, but that performance is a keeper.

My favorite literary discovery of the year was the Aubrey-Maturin sea novels of Patrick O'Brian: terrific storytelling, characters, historical background, and style. For my summer reading project, I read 10 of the 20, and will read the other 10 next summer, God willing. I also re-read with great appreciation Charles Williams's All Hallows Eve. Non-fiction? I read of ton of it -- my job requires it -- but, of many worthy books and articles, nothing that demands a mention.

The musical idols of today also leave me cold.  I discovered Ryan Bingham through his haunting music for The Bridge, and he's a better Bob Dylan right now than the original.  Pop-wise, the most infectious contributions (and I mean serious earworms here) came from Au Revoir Simone, although I have to give an honorable mention to Parquet Courts.

Probably the most profound cultural experience I had this year was visual, in the form of the Albrecht Dürer exhibit at the National Gallery.  The depth and solidity of Dürer's vision is something the country could use -- a new reformation, perhaps?