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11 OCTOBER, 2011

What Translation Reveals about the Human Condition

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How to get a tarantula off your southwest leg, or what Astérix has to do with religion and the Manhattan grid.

Language is one of the most fascinating technologies, a human invention so central to our social function and very survival it’s practically indistinguishable from life itself. Yet languages are incredibly intricate, complicated, culture-specific organisms, and much of their delicate complexity can get lost in translation. In Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, a fine new addition to our five favorite books on language, translator, biographer, and Princeton professor David Bellos explores the mystery of how we come to understand what someone else means, using translation as a lens on empathy in the human experience. Intelligent, entertaining, and brimming with delightful, surprising factoids, it’s a cross-disciplinary lens that spans from the evolution of written language to Astérix cartoons and a wealth in between, revealing how translation shaped everything from the propagation of religion to the literary legacy of famous authors.

The practice of translation rests on two presuppositions. The first is that we are all different: we speak different tongues, and see the world in ways that are deeply influenced by the particular features of the tongue that we speak. The second is that we are all the same—that we can share the same broad and narrow kinds of feelings, information, understandings, and so forth. Without both of these suppositions, translation could not exist. Nor could anything we would like to call social life. Translation is another name for the human condition.”

~ David Bellos

This charming kinetic typography trailer by Matt Young, full of fascinating trivia-worthy bites of knowledge, is the ultimate cherry on top, and an instant addition to our favorite book trailers:

From what Manhattanese has in common with the Kuuk Thaayorre language of South Australia to why we don’t have a word for all things with chrome handlebars, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything dances across linguistic fascination, cultural history, and pure wit to deliver a unique meditation on mankind’s ever-evolving tango with global communication.

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10 OCTOBER, 2011

Poets Ranked by Beard Weights

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Calculating aptitude by way of facial hair, or what Walt Whitman’s “hibernator” has to do with phrenology.

It’s common knowledge that a poet is only as good as his beard. Or so went the wisdom of Poets Ranked by Beard Weight, a privately printed subscription leaflet authored by Upton Uxbridge Underwood and distributed by the Torchbearer Society of London across the reading bins and cocktail tables of turn-of-the-century parlor cars and smoking lounges to keep the era’s literati informed and entertained. The exceedingly rare work eventually became a prized collector’s item for bibliophiles and beard-historians alike, and inspired many of today’s beard-grooming competitions.

Poets Ranked by Beard Weight: The Commemorative Edition, flagged by the ever-fascinating 50 Watts, collects the best of this Edwardian esoterica in an entertaining volume based on the original 1913 edition, resurrecting the seminal text from out-of-print obscurity and into hipster-readiness. From comparing how Walt Whitman’s “Hibernator” beard stacks up against Henry David Thoreau’s “Wandering Jim” to perusing the code of beard poses and gestures found in the Fundamentals of Beard Flirtation, the tome even peeks inside Underwood’s curious beard-sorcery. Critic and literary historian Gilbert Alter-Gilbert writes in the preface:

The Language of the Beard [...] vaunts the premise that the texture, contours, and growth patterns of a man’s beard indicate personality traits, aptitudes, and strengths and weaknesses of character. A spade beard, according to Underwood’s theories, may denote audacity and resolution, for example, while a forked, finely-downed beard signifies creativity and the gift of intuition, a bushy beard suggests generosity, and so on. Moreover, in keeping with the tenets of such sister systems as palmistry, numerology, and phrenology, Underwood posits the power of the ancient art of pogonomancy, or divination by beard reading, to foresee future events.”

The beards are ranked on Underwood’s Pogonometric Index of 0 (“Very very weak”) to 60 (“Very very heavy”), which attributes numerical values to “poetic gravity” and relative “beard weights,” citing 10 to 24 as the normal range for the average person, with the exceptionally gifted scoring upwards of forty. Though the book features only black-and-white illustrations, 50 Watts’ Will Schofield, whose 2009 post on beard weights inspired the book, has culled some photographic examples of the beards in Underwood’s ranking.

Samuel Morse (1791 – 1872)

Beard type: Garibaldi Elongated

Typical opus: What Hath God Wrought

Gravity (UPI rating): 58

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 1882)

Beard type: Italian False Goatee

Typical opus: The Blessed Damozel

Gravity (UPI rating): 38

Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)

Beard type: Wandering Jim

Typical opus: Within the Circuit of This Plodding Life

Gravity (UPI rating): 29

Sidney Lanier (1842 – 1881)

Beard type: Spade

Typical opus: The Song of the Chattahoochee

Gravity (UPI rating): 41

William Cullen Bryant (1794 – 1878)

Beard type: Van Winkle

Typical opus: To a Waterfowl

Gravity (UPI rating): 43

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552 – 1618)

Beard type: Van Dyke

Typical opus: The Lie

Gravity (UPI rating): 27

Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892)

Beard type: Hibernator

Typical opus: O Captain! My Captain!

Gravity (UPI rating): 22

As for the obvious “What about the lady-poets?” question, lest we forget what era we’re dealing with here, here’s a proper map of woman’s heart to remind us.

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10 OCTOBER, 2011

Animation Pioneer Max Fleischer Illustrates 1944-1945 News Wires

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From the most expensive kiss on record to university classes on how to choose and keep a husband.

We’ve previously seen artists visually capture the news, from Félix Fénéon’s illustrated three-line “novels” circa 1906 to Sophie Blackall’s brilliant illustrated Craigslist missed connections. In 1944-1945, iconic animation pioneer Max Fleischer, while heading the animation department at the Handy (Jam) Organization (remember them?), created a series of humorous “news sketches” based on human interest stories from the Associated Press wires.

If the stop-motion timelapse editing and Fleicher’s illustration style look familiar, they should be — they presage the excellent and ever-popular RSA animations by over half a century and no doubt inspired everyone’s favorite intellectual sketchnote-storytelling.

The film is now in the public domain and available as a free, legal, remixable download courtesy of the Internet Archive.

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