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).