concept to publication

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Left: Capuchin. Right: Cappuccino. The drink takes its name from the color of the monks' robes.

Left: Capuchin. Right: Cappuccino.

The drink takes its name from the color of the monks’ robes.

Tom Christensen reading José Ángel Valente at the Library of Congress

Reading Valente at the Library of Congress

Just found out today (from someone who actually watched it) that this is online. I guess it’s been up for years.

Do you not be happy with me as the translator of the books of you?

“Shamed by you English? You can speak soon and write like a graduate college if me let you help for a day of 15 minutes.”

Fun with verbs

How does a hurricane move? It “barrels” and “churns,” to judge from the most popular verbs. “Lumbers” is the oddest verb choice, yet it is used rather often, I guess to convey a large scale (hearing it on the radio this morning led me to this investigation). But can a hurricane really “march”? I guess that’s to show inexorability. Can it “aim”? Here’s just a small sample of today’s journalistic prose at work.

  • “Hurricane Irene … makes its way toward the US mainland.” –ABC News
  • “Hurricane Irene [is] churning toward the New York/New Jersey area.” — ESPN
  • “Hurricane Irene churned on a northwest track.” –Scientific American
  • “Irene churns toward North Carolina.” — Bloomberg
  • “Hurricane Irene … advances toward the East Coast.” —
  • “Hurricane Irene may be hurtling menacingly toward the coast.” — Wall Street Journal
  • “Hurricane Irene … barrels toward the East Coast.” — Technolog
  • Hurricane Irene barreled toward the region. — Boston Globe
  • Hurricane Irene made its way toward the region.” — Boston Globe
  • Irene continues to steam through the ocean.” —
  • “Hurricane Irene … roars toward the U.S. East Coast.” Los Angeles Times
  • “Irene lumbered into the Bahamas.” —
  • “Hurricane Irene … bore down on the Bahamas.” — PBS
  • “Irene … spins toward the Bahamas.” –WSBTV
  • “Hurricane Irene slammed the Bahamas [and] heads toward the East Coast. — Washington Post
  • “Irene takes aim at Long Island.” NY Daily News
  • Hurricane Irene aims its fury toward the North.” —
  • “Hurricane storms toward Philly region.” —
  • “Hurricane Irene moves toward the Carolinas.” — Charlotte News
  • “Irene continued its march across the Caribbean toward the U.S.” — Fox News
  • “Hurricane Irene marched north.” — Wall Street Journal

Another new book: Selected Poems of Jose Angel Valente

Jill Schoolman of Archipelago Books asked recently if I would be interested in translating the major twentieth-century Spanish poet Jose Angel Valente.  As it happens I would, and I am grateful to her for thinking of me. Valente is a kind of platonist of the word, who seeks to ruthlessly strip bare received language and produce a vitalized text of absolute immediacy. (I’m far from an expert on twentieth-century poetry of Spain, so I’ll need to work at getting up to speed in better understanding his place in the scheme of things.)

I will select roughly eighty poems from his body of work. Unfortunately, I won’t have the sustained time to work on this project until I finish my work on 1616, but I’m looking forward to this challenge. Here’s a very preliminary example:

The wine was the indeterminate color of ash.

I drank it with residue of dark
shadows, shadows, a wet
body on the sands.

You arrived,
You came tonight.

The insidious depths of the glass
conceal an anonymous god.
+++++++++++++++++++++You gave me
blood to drink
of the god drunk to the dregs.


By the way, I think I finally figured out how to keep WordPress from stripping out spaces when you have to indent lines in irregular ways like this. You can insert invisible characters, with this kind of code:

<span style=”visibility: hidden;”>++++++++++++++++++</span>


UPDATE: Looks like the hidden style attribute doesn’t work with RSS.


World Book News: Dictionary of Americanisms

El Pais is talking about a new Dictionary of Americanisms (Diccionario de americanismos) published by the Asociación de Academias de la Lengua in Madrid under the direction of Humberto Lopez Morales, secretary general of the academies. Lopez Morales, though now a resident of Madrid, was born in Cuba and lived in Puerto Rico.

Americanisms are a more vexing problem in Spanish — the second most spoken language in the world — than in English. Travelers across the Americas have to learn new words even for simple things like straws, napkins, and avocados as they travel from Mexico to Argentina.

And of course the language is always changing. While dictionaries of Americanisms exist, there has not been a major new work in this area for twenty or thirty years. This book fills that void.

Logging in at 2,500 pages, the dictionary costs 75 euros — about a hundred U.S. dollars — but for those of us who sometimes translate from Latin American Spanish it will be an essential reference to own or at least consult.

Can you read this?

early english inscription

This may be the earliest example of written English to survive in a British church. Recently discovered on a wall in Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire, it probably dates from the fourteenth century. But what does it say?

Dr John Crook, who produced the digitally enhanced image of the text shown above, is asking the public for help in deciphering the incomplete inscription. “If anyone thinks they can identify any further letters from the enhanced photographs,” he said, “please contact us via the Salisbury Cathedral website…. It would be wonderful for us to solve the mystery.”

Read more at the Daily Mail Online.

Say what?

“Hilburn . . . had the access and longevity to get to know musicians better than few in the media do today.”
— Associated Press

Is “better than few” the same as “less well than many”?

Mailbag: A book of idioms

Right Reading  received the following e-mail (slightly edited) from Jag Bhalla.

Better brains through foreign-language learning

A study by a research team appointed by the European Commission finds that multililngualism may benefit brains in a variety of ways:

  • learning in general
  • complex thinking and creativity
  • mental flexibility
  • interpersonal and communication skills
  • delay of age-related mental diminishment

“It is obvious that enhanced memory can have a profound impact on cognitive function,” says David Marsh, specialized planner at the Continuing Professional Development Centre of Jyväskylä University, who coordinated the international research team behind the study. ” This may be one reason why the multilingual shows superior performance in handling complex and demanding problem-solving tasks when compared to monolinguals. They seem to be able to have an advantage in handling certain thinking processes.”

Apparently learning a language as a discreet subject does not work as effectively as embedding second-language learning into other subjects. The methodology of the study is unclear to me, but I haven’t read the whole report.


Image from Nature magazine


A universal story

As I have mentioned, I’ve just returned from a vacation in Italy, and some posts will be a little off-topic for the next few days. Somewhere along the line I acquired Italian phrasebooks by the Rough Guide and by Langenscheidt, and we took these with us as a hedge against pointing in the supermarket and babbling “that one.” The Langenscheidt got no use, except for one evening when I pulled it out and soon found myself convulsed with laughter.

Pop quiz: 10 word sources

Have you ever noticed that the longer you look at any word the stranger it begins to seem? The other day a squirrel ran in front of my car, and I thought “Squirrel is an odd English word — I wonder if it comes from the French.” That guess (a guess, because I couldn’t remember the French écureuil) turned out to be right (ultimately the word has a Greek origin, skiouros), but that was just luck. I wondered how people would do at identifying the origins of some of the odder words in English, and so I created this quiz. Select the best answer for the origin of each of the 10 words.

Pop Quiz: Identify the Commonality

What do these words have in common?

awkward birth both cake dirt gap get give ill mire muggy ransack root rotten rugged same scant scathe scowl seem skill skin skirt sky sprint steak their them they wand wrong

Answer after the jump . . .

Norwegian Hell Children

Do they sound tasty? Google Translate thinks so (if they’re marinated). Via Google Blogoscoped:


Is none singular? Are none plural?

“Good sense is a thing all need, few have, and none think they want.” — Benjamin Franklin

“I strove with none; for none was worth my strife.” — Walter Savage Landor

Whether none should be singular or plural is the kind of question that makes the nonprescriptive linguists feel smug and superior. But people who work in publishing know that some standards are needed — even if not the same ones for every book.

So, which is correct?

  1. None of the editors really understands language.
  2. None of the editors really understand language.

A role for the copy editor

Some authors rail against copy editors, and, sadly, the editors sometimes bring the enmity upon themselves. The latest author with a copy editor horror story is George Lakoff, who reports that his classic Metaphors We Live By would have been called Metaphors By Which We Live if his University of Chicago Press copy editor had his way.

According to Language Log

Lakoff wrote a 23-page single-spaced blast against this man’s recommendations, showing in detail and with clear arguments the nature of the hole up which the editor’s head was. And then unusually it turned out to be all happy endings: the linguists won, the editor resigned from the project, the editing changes were not made, the title was kept, and the book was a huge hit.

Is a happy ending from editing so unusual? Is there then no useful role for the copy editor? Of course there is. These folks can and often are quite helpful — even to nonprescriptive linguists — but they need to bring the proper attitude to the job. (It shouldn’t be necessary to say this.) Rather than seeing their role as grammar dominatrices they need to recognize that their assignment is to help authors realize their goals according to the strategies implicit in their works.

Years ago one of my favorite free-lance editors was an aspiring actress. Working with her I realized that copy editors are not unlike actors. Both are trying to immerse themselves in and in effect embody an author’s words. Copy editors need to be flexible, let go of their own voice, and adapt to the author’s individual style. Each edit should be a collaboration between the author and the editor, a unique work of art.

Some editors, though, can’t let go in that way — they stick to their guns come hell or high water. But don’t damn the whole profession because of them.


image via


Whos to say whats best?

I once edited some books by Guy Davenport, who said that he didnt want any of those hideous quotation mark thingees to appear anywhere in his books. As it turned out, that wasnt really a big problem for anyone.

Now some folks are proposing that we also ban apostrophes, claiming that its easy to read text without them. Considering that hardly a day goes by that one doesnt wince at wrongly used examples, the proposal has a certain appeal.


Copper Canyon to publish Chinese anthology

Copper Canyon has been selected by the NEA be the U.S. publisher for its International Literary Exchange with China. According to Publishers Weekly, “Copper Canyon will receive $117,000 to support the translation, publication and promotion of a bilingual anthology of work by about 35 Chinese poets born after 1945.”

This is an excellent choice. Copper Canyon has been a reliable publisher of international poetry for decades, and all of their books are prepared with care and attention to detail. Bravo!


The Old Man’s Verses

I’m on the road and having trouble with my internet connection. So this will be brief.

I’ve mentioned I’ve been helping to judge a translation award. Now that a set of finalists has been announced (although the Chronicle, true to form, omitted the translation category from their story; I’ll list the finalists later) I can say that the book I especially liked among the eligible titles was The Old Man’s Verses byIvan Divis, translated from the Czeck by Deborah Garfinkle.

It’s urgent!

Via Craigslist:



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