Lingo – a language spotter’s guide to Europe

Why is Basque so baffling, and which language sounds like a machine gun when spoken? Which Iranian language is represented in Europe and where is Gagauz spoken? Why has Frisian been elevated the rank of official regional language and how come tiny Slovenia has so many regional linguistic varieties? Answers to all these questions and much more can be found in ‘Lingo – a language spotter’s guide to Europe‘ by Gaston Dorren, a book I discovered when I attended The World in Words, an event at Edinburgh Book Festival with the author and Ann Morgan. Gaston Dorren is a Dutch linguist with proficiency in fifteen languages. Originally published in Dutch as Taaltoerisme (‘Language tourism’) and translated into English by Alison Edwards, Lingo packs 60 chapters into less than 300 pages, divided into various themes such as languages and their families, history, grammar, politics, or vocabulary, as well as linguists who left their mark (mostly on stamps 😉 it turns out). Almost every chapter ends with a word or two that English has loaned from the language under discussion, as well as a word from that language that doesn’t exist in English but perhaps should. Here are a few snippets from the book to whet your appetite:

'Lingo, a language spotter's guide to Europe' by Gaston Dorren

‘Lingo, a language spotter’s guide to Europe’ by Gaston Dorren

  • Life of PIE: Of all the world’s living languages, Lithuanian is the one that most closely resembles Proto Indo-European (PIE), the linguistic reconstruction of the common ancestor of the Indo-European languages.
  • Did you know that two centuries ago Danish was spoken on four continents in an area twelve times the size of Great Britain?
  • I had heard of Bokmål and Nynorsk, but didn’t know the difference. In the book I learnt that all Norwegians speak a regional dialect, and that the aforementioned are just two of the four existing versions.
  • Sweden’s well-known linguistic informality only dates from the 1960s when the incoming Director-General of the Public Health Board announced that he intended to address all employees by their first name and would like them to do the same for him.
  • ‘Moped’ is a portmanteau word of Swedish origin (from motor (engine) and pedaler (pedals).)
  • Iceland is the only country in Europe that has a language that’s unique to that country. No other European country has identical political and linguistic boundaries.
First words of a modern Icelandic Bible

First words of a modern Icelandic Bible

  • Modern Greek contains loan words such as farmakología and sti̱thoskópio that are actually foreign-built compounds created from Classical Greek.
  • Most Portuguese loanwords in English come from the colonies, such as ‘fetish’ or ‘caste’ (Portuguese words for colonial phenomena) and ‘banana’ or ‘dodo’ (local words).
  • While most languages translate the names of famous cities into their own tongue, Latvian has the unusual tendency to translate all names. Thus Charles de Gaulle becomes Sharrl de Goal and Miguel de Cervantes is Megell de Therbahntess.
  • Diminutives are found throughout Europe except for Scandinavia.
  • Breton has a vigesimal numeral system, based on sets on twenty. Thus 45 is ‘five-and-two-twenty’; 77 is ‘seventeen-and-three-twenty’. (The same number in Welsh is ‘two-on-fifteen-and-three-twenty’).
  • Basque has a useful, single word for the act of translating from one’s own language into a foreign one: erdaratze.
  • Irish has the second oldest literary tradition among living European languages, after Greek.
The Irish language on a sign in Connemara (with English defaced)

Irish language on a sign in Connemara (with English defaced)

  • Manx has no words for ‘yes’ or ‘no’. (If someone asks a question, you have to answer with a verb in the correct tense).
  • Finnish has 15 cases, and ‘234’ written out in the sixth case becomes kahdestasadastakolmestakymmenestäneljästä because every individual component must receive its own case ending.
  • If you’re European, words from which Afro-Asiastic language are printed on your passport? Which is the only Semitic language to be written in the Latin script? Maltese.
  • Sign language family groupings are different from spoken languages groups: one group includes Sweden, Finland and Portugal, while another includes France, USA, Ireland, Netherlands. The British manual alphabet (used to spell out names or concepts for which the signer doesn’t have a sign at their immediate disposal) is two-handed, while most others are one-handed.
  • One fascinating chapter lists all the clues that can help you identify an unknown language. What diacritics or unfamiliar characters does it use? What frequent letter combinations or odd letter patterns rarely turn up in another language?

These are just a few excerpts from the book, which seems to have something fascinating to point out about every European language. I found the section on languages and their grammar slightly less interesting than the eight other sections, but that’s purely due to my English-native-speaker’s grammar prejudice rather than to any shortcoming of the author’s. And I although I no longer live in the UK, I was fascinated to learn so much about the languages of the British Isles about which I know so little: Anglo-Norman, Shelta, and Manx to name but a few. Now all we need are similar books about other continents’ languages!

P.S. In his Further Reading section the author lists David Bellos’ ‘Is That a Fish in Your Ear?‘ as “the only book on translation you ever need to read, unless you want to make it your job. Erudite, recalcitrant [sic] and fun”. You can read my blog post about that book here.

Further reading:

Related blog posts:

Edinburgh Book Festival 2015

Travel plans to see family have once again coincided with the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Founded in 1983 the Book Festival was initially biannual, then started to be held yearly in 1997. It now welcomes more than 800 authors in over 700 events every year, and is billed as ‘the largest festival of its kind in the world’.

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Two years ago I went to see a translation duel there, where it was mentioned that it was the first such event to be held at the festival. As 2015’s theme is ‘Around The World’, translation and language have played a more prominent role this year, with 32 events under the Talking Translation banner. I chose to attend six of them:

  1. Bestselling Books Abroad saw crime writer Peter May and children’s author Julia Donaldson look at how a writer’s work travels to other nations, and how authors keep ownership of their translations. We were even treated to a multilingual sketch of The Gruffalo! Interestingly Peter May, a Scot who lives in France, had been unable to find a publisher in the UK for his crime novel but a French publisher bought world rights, had the book translated into French, and only later did it become a bestseller in the UK, having first become successful in France. The talk was very smoothly chaired by historian and Italian to English translator Lucinda Byatt.
  2. Penguin Classics have embarked on a 7 year project to retranslate Georges Simenon’s work and the tagline of the Celebrating Simenon talk was ‘Retranslating a Literary Legend’. Despite being chaired by translator Daniel Hahn, it was more an exploration of Georges Simenon’s life, work and legacy with the late writer’s son, John, than a discussion about translation. It was nevertheless very interesting, and I came away with the desire to (re)read some of Simenon’s novels. However I’m having trouble picturing Rowan Atkinson playing the lead role in the new ITV Maigret series … (filming starts September 2015 in Budapest).
  3. The following day I attended my second-ever French Translation Duel. Chaired by Daniel Hahn, Ros Schwartz and Frank Wynne politely crossed verbal swords over the translation of a 400-word passage from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. As was the case on the previous occasion, the time spent poring over the nuances of just a few sentences absolutely flew by, and I found it totally engrossing. On leaving the tent I heard other audience members remarking they hadn’t realised how complex a process translation could be.
  4. David Crystal‘s Accents Speak Louder Than Words looked at dialects and then accents. David is a well-known  British linguist, writer, editor, lecturer and broadcaster. He’s also a lively and entertaining speaker (during the second half he was also joined by his actor son Ben), and there was some interaction with the audience when he asked us if we knew such Scots dialects words as ‘chirp’ (to emit a creaking sound), ‘fouter fouter’ (to walk in an effeminate way), ‘dabberlick’ (a mildly insulting way of talking about someone who is tall and skinny) and – my personal favourite – ‘mumple’ (to seem as if going to vomit).
David Crystal and his son Ben.

David Crystal and his son Ben.

5. The World in Words saw Gaston Dorren and Ann Morgan talk about the joys of languages and literature in other languages. I’ve blogged before (here and here) about Ann’s challenge to read a book from each of the world’s 196 nations, so I won’t go into too much detail in this post, but one thought-provoking moment for the audience was when she mentioned that if she looks at the shelf with 144 hardcopies of books she read she can only see one translator’s name on the spine. Gaston discussed and read excerpts from his book ‘Lingo’, an entertaining trip through Europe’s languages which includes anecdotes about everything from Esperanto to Limburgish. His enthusiasm convinced me to break my strict rules about luggage limits and buy his book; watch this space for a blog post about it soon.

6. The final talk I attended was Stories Without Borders with Ann Morgan and German to English translator Michael Hofmann. Chaired by Daniel Hahn, this event looked at whether it matters to readers where a story originates or in what language it was first written, and what is gained from knowing the linguistic identity of a book.

Michael Hofmann, Ann Morgan and Daniel Hahn

Michael Hofmann, Ann Morgan and Daniel Hahn

My attendance at the festival should normally have ended there, but circumstances meant I found myself back a few days later helping out at The Spectacular Translation Machine. This free, drop-in event involved translating an entire book from French into English in one day using a collaborative approach. Organised by award-winning translator Sarah Ardizzone, we helped members of the public create an English version of Bessora and Barroux’s graphic novel Alpha: Abidjan-Gare du Nord, about a man’s journey from the Ivory Coast to France in search of his family. It was great fun, and I really enjoyed seeing the translation take shape over the course of the day, as well as helping out the Edinburgh public.

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During The Spectacular Translation Machine (Sarah Ardizzone and the illustrator Stéphane-Yves Barroux are standing at the back right of the photo)

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During The Spectacular Translation Machine

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Some translations

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Some finished translations

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The cover of ‘Alpha Abidjan-Gare du Nord’

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Snippets from ‘Reading The World’

Here are a few translation-related snippets from the book ‘Reading the World – Confessions of A Literary Explorer’ by Ann Morgan. The book was the logical next step for Ann after her 2012 blog in which she read her way around all the globe’s 196 independent countries plus one extra territory chosen by blog visitors, sampling one book from every nation.

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Rather than a blow-by-blow description of each country’s book – material that is already in the blog – she covers the background to her quest (“I glanced up at my book shelves, the proud record of more than twenty years of reading, and found a host of British and North American greats staring down at me … I had barely touched a work by a foreign language author in years … The awful truth dawned. I was a literary xenophobe“) followed by themes: censorship, culture shock, representations of the west, etc, and a penultimate chapter on ‘Crossing the language barrier’, (although references to translation aren’t limited to that section):

page 77: “… according to English PEN, in British schools and universities there is no chance of gaining sufficient grapes of a foreign language to become a translator…”

page 77: “in the words of Josep Bargallo … ‘translation is the lifeblood which sustains and nurtures literatures’ …”

page 79: quoting Katherine Rucker “… books that are invisible to translators stay invisible to everyone else, too.”

page 248: “We are vulnerable when we read translations. We leave ourselves open to deception and betrayal.”

page 255: “… for all their linguistic skills, translators often struggle to articulate what they do and how others should go about it.”

Two-thirds of the books Ann read were translated, so translation played an important role in her project. She is probably one of the few people to have had a book translated especially for her after a group of linguists pitched in to translate a book from São Tomé and Principe. Closer to home it was shocking to learn that not a single Malagasy novel had been translated into English, despite the fact that Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, has a population of 23 million.

Ann's bookshelf in December 2012

Ann’s bookshelf in December 2012

Other difficulties Ann encountered included sourcing a book from South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, and realising partway through the year that the choice of 196 nations was itself somewhat arbitrary; maybe “the number of countries depends what world you come from”? (page 30).

The book is published in the US as 'The World Between Two Covers'

The book will be published in May 2015 in the US as ‘The World Between Two Covers’

For my reaction when I first discovered Ann’s blog, see the post: Books about Reunion and worldwide literature.

Reviews of Reading the World – Confessions of A Literary Explorer:

Books about Reunion and worldwide literature

A recent exchange with Ann Morgan, who’s currently reading her way round the world, got me thinking about Reunion Island books in English. As far as I’m aware, with the exception of ‘Bourbon Island 1730’, the list I came up with contains only books that I have been written directly in English and not translated. In fact as far as I know there are no English translations of books by well-known Reunionese authors like Daniel Vaxelaire or Axel Gauvin, although the latter’s books have been translated into German.

Books about Reunion I haven’t read myself (but which are all on my Bookmooch wish list!):

  • Reunion: An Island in Search of an Identity by Laurent Medea
  • Monsters and Revolutionaries: Colonial Family Romance and Metissage by Françoise Verges
  • Island Born Of Fire: Volcano Piton de la Fournaise by Dr Robert B. Trombley
Cover of

Bourbon Island 1730

Books I’ve read myself:

I’ve written reviews of all of the books above.

Also: Bonnes Vacances!: A Crazy Family Adventure in the French Territories by Rosie Millard which is about a 4-month tour of the DOM-TOMs Rosie made with her husband and four young children to film a documentary series for the Travel Channel (“Croissants in the Jungle”). Its final chapter covers Réunion (briefly); see my review here.

In the introduction I mentioned Ann Morgan who is currently reading her way around as many of the globe’s 196 independent countries as she can, sampling one book from every nation. (She’s also recently included a Rest of The World wildcard section, hence our exchange about Reunion Island). However as she asked herself: what counts as a story? Is it by a person born in that place? Is it written in the country? Can it be about another nation state? While in some respects she’s still answering that question she had to lay down her terms and so decided to limit herself to all narratives that could be read to full effect by one reader on their own e.g. memoirs, novels, short stories, novellas, biographies, narrative poems and reportage, but not non-narrative poetry and plays.

It got me wondering about which countries I’d already read literature from, and after a quick tour of my bookshelves (and my memory!) this is the (non-exhaustive) list I came up with, in English and French:

Cover of

The Kalahari Typing School for Men

  • Canada – Where White Horses Gallop – Beatrice McNeil [Author/Setting]
  • Central African Republic – Princesse aux Pieds Nu – Evelyne Durieux [Author/Setting]
  • Burma – The Piano Tuner – Daniel Mason [Setting; Author is British]
  • China (Yunnan) – Leaving Mother Lake: A Childhood at the Edge of the WorldYang Erche Namu [Author/Setting]
  • Czech Republic – L’Insoutenable légèreté de l’être [The Unbearable Lightness of Being] – Milan Kundera [Author/Setting]
  • Cuba – Our Man In Havana – Graham Greene [Setting; Author was British]
  • Democratic Republic of Congo – The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver [Setting; Author is American]
  • Denmark (& Greenland) – Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow – Peter Høeg [Author/Setting]
  • Egypt – Woman at Point Zero – Nawal El Saadawi (translated by Sherif Hetata) [Author/Setting]
  • French Polynesia (Tahiti) – Breadfruit: A Novel – Célestine Hitiura Vaite [Author/Setting] [August 2014 – I read the French translation L’Arbre à Pain by Henri Theureau]
  • Germany – The Book Thief – Markus Zusak [Setting; Author is Australian]
  • Haiti – Island Beneath the Sea – Isabel Allende (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden) [Setting; Author is Chilean American]
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“Island Beneath the Sea”

Samarcande

Notes:

  • I’ve arbitrarily excluded the UK, France and the USA as I’ve read so many books from these countries I’d have trouble choosing just one!
  • If I’ve read several books from a country I’ve generally just listed my favourite.
  • I’ve also taken liberties by listing some non-independent regions (e.g. Rodrigues, Hawaii, Tibet, Tromelin).
  • I excluded some books (such as Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, or William Boyd’s African novels) that take place in unidentified countries.
  • I also excluded books (such as Elie Wiesel’s Night) whose action takes place in several countries.
  • If I’ve read a book in French but an English translation exists I’ve added the English title in brackets [].
  • I’ve included books not written by natives of the country in question.

My conclusions:

  • I have vast swathes of the planet where I haven’t read any literature from, for example South America or the Pacific! Places like South East Asia or Central Asia are patchy too. Although I list Paul Coelho and Isabel Allende the books of theirs that I read were not set in their native countries. And despite living and travelling for three years in Asia I’ve mainly read Korean books (North and South) but very little from the many other countries we travelled to in the region. I need to broaden my horizons even more.

What about you? Do you enjoy reading books from other countries? Do you have any books to recommend? Is literature from your native (or adopted) country easy to find in English?

P.S. Here’s the link to Ann Morgan’s blog: A Year Of Reading The World. Other reading around the world blogs I’ve come across are: Reading the WorldThe Rushlight ListWorld Lit Up and Around the World in 180 books (specialised in children’s literature).

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