Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘language’

24 NOVEMBER, 2014

Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Catalog of Beautiful Untranslatable Words from Around the World

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The euphoria experienced as you begin to fall in love, the pile of books bought but unread, the coffee “threefill,” and other lyrical linguistic delights.

“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf said in the only surviving recording of her voice, a magnificent meditation on the beauty of language. But what happens when words are kept apart by too much unbridgeable otherness? “Barring downright deceivers, mild imbeciles and impotent poets, there exist, roughly speaking, three types of translators,” Vladimir Nabokov opened his strongly worded opinion on translation. Indeed, this immeasurably complex yet vastly underappreciated art of multilingual gymnastics, which helps words belong to each other and can reveal volumes about the human condition, is often best illuminated through the negative space around it — those foreign words so rich and layered in meaning that the English language, despite its own unusual vocabulary, renders them practically untranslatable.

Such beautifully elusive words is what writer and illustrator Ella Frances Sanders, a self-described “intentional” global nomad, explores in Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World (public library | IndieBound), published shortly before Sanders turned twenty-one.

Norwegian, noun

Japanese, noun

From the Japanese for leaving a book unread after buying it to the Swedish for the road-like reflection of the moon over the ocean to the Italian for being moved to tears by a story to the Welsh for a sarcastic smile, the words Sanders illustrates dance along the entire spectrum of human experience, gently reminding us that language is what made us human.

Arabic, noun

Norwegian, noun

Japanese, noun

In addition to the charming illustrations and sheer linguistic delight, the project is also a subtle antidote to our age of rapid communication that flattens nuanced emotional expression into textual shorthand and tyrannical clichés. These words, instead, represent not only curiosities of the global lexicon but also a rich array of sentiments, emotions, moods, and cultural priorities from a diverse range of heritage.

Yiddish, noun

Hindi, noun

These words invariably prompt you to wonder, for instance, whether a culture lacking a word for the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees is also one lacking the ennobling capacity for such quality of presence, for the attentive and appreciative stillness this very act requires. Our words bespeak our priorities.

Japanese, noun

Sanders writes in the introduction:

The words in this book may be answers to questions you didn’t know to ask, and perhaps some you did. They might pinpoint emotions and experiences that seemed elusive or indescribable, or they may cause you to remember a person you’d forgotten. If you take something away from this book … let it be the realization or affirmation that you are human, that you are fundamentally, intrinsically bound to every single person on the planet with language and feelings.

Swedish, verb

Portuguese, noun

Tagalog, noun

Italian, verb

Yiddish, noun

Swedish, noun

Complement Lost in Translation with Orin Hargraves on how to upgrade our uses and abolish our abuses of language, then treat yourself to this illustrated dictionary of unusual English words.

Illustrations courtesy of Ella Frances Sanders

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06 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Language of Lying: Animated Primer on How to Detect Deception

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The four most reliable telltale signs of the 10 to 200 lies we tell and are told each day.

Our yearning to discern deception so that we can protect ourselves from abuse, is ancient and almost primal — a marketable commodity for mystics and media manipulators alike. In one of the best explorations of the subject, Sam Harris defined lying as “both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood.” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary that “ordinary language is an accretion of lies.” But language itself, it turns out, is a remarkable lie-detector — the closest we can get to peering into another’s mind to understand motive and recognize deception.

From Noah Zandan and TED Ed comes this revelatory short animation on how to spot a liar, using communications science and linguistic text analysis to explore the four most common patterns in the subconscious language of deception.

  1. Liars reference themselves less when making deceptive statements. They write or talk more about others, often using the third person to distance and disassociate themselves from their life.
  2. Liars tend to be more negative because, on a subconscious level, they feel guilty about lying.
  3. Liars typically explain events in simple terms, since our brains struggle to build a complex lie. Judgment and evaluation are complex things for our brains to compute.
  4. Even though liars keep descriptions simple, they tend to use longer and more convoluted sentence structure, inserting unnecessary words and irrelevant but factual-sounding details in order to pad the lie.

Much of Zandan’s narrative calls to mind the work of Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception (public library), which examines truth-telling and its opposite through the trifecta of facial expression decoding, interrogation training, and behavioral psychology research. In her own 2011 TED talk, Meyer dives deeper into the tell-tale signs of lying:

On a given day, studies show that you may be lied to anywhere from 10 to 200 times.

[…]

Lying is complex. It’s woven into the fabric of our daily and our business lives. We’re deeply ambivalent about the truth. We parse it out on an as-needed basis, sometimes for very good reasons, other times just because we don’t understand the gaps in our lives… We’re against lying, but we’re covertly for it in ways that our society has sanctioned for centuries and centuries and centuries. It’s as old as breathing. It’s part of our culture, it’s part of our history. Think Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible, News of the World.

[…]

When you combine the science of recognizing deception with the art of looking, listening, you exempt yourself from collaborating in a lie. You start up that path of being just a little bit more explicit, because you signal to everyone around you, you say, “Hey, my world, our world, it’s going to be an honest one. My world is going to be one where truth is strengthened and falsehood is recognized and marginalized.” And when you do that, the ground around you starts to shift just a little bit.

In Liespotting, Meyer goes on to explore the evolutionary value of lying, the single most telling facial expression during deception, and the five-step method that most reliably flags lies in interviews, dates, negotiations, and various other interpersonal exchanges. Couple it with Sam Harris on lying then, for a complementary counterpoint, see David DeSteno’s remarkable work on the psychology of trust.

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23 OCTOBER, 2014

Once Upon an Alphabet: Oliver Jeffers’s Imaginative Illustrated Stories for the Letters

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A warm and wonderful celebration of the paradoxes and perplexities that make us human.

In the 1990s, three decades after the debut of his now-iconic grim alphabet book, the great Edward Gorey reimagined the letters in a series of 26-word cryptic stories. Now comes a worthy modern counterpart by one of the most original and imaginative children’s book storytellers and artists of our time: Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters (public library | IndieBound) by Oliver Jeffers — an unusual and utterly wonderful tour of the familiar letters that takes a whimsical detour via quirky, lyrical, delightfully alliterative tales for each, and makes a fine addition to the canon of offbeat alphabet books.

Jeffers’s art is subtle yet immeasurably expressive. His stories brim with the fallible and heartening humanity that makes up our vastly imperfect but mostly noble selves — our paradoxes (A is for “astronaut,” and Edmund the astronaut is afraid of heights), the silly stubbornnesses (B is for “burning a bridge” and we meet neighbors Bernard and Bob, who have spent years “battling each other for reasons neither could remember”), the playful flights of curiosity (E is for “enigma,” like the question of how many elephants can fit inside an envelope), the existential perplexities (in P, a “puzzled parsnip” spirals into anguish over realizing that he is neither a carrot nor a potato), the self-defeating control tactics we employ in attempting to assuage our fear of impermanence (the robots in R are so terrified of rusting that they steal the rainclouds from the sky and lug them around in carts).

There are touches of loveliness and thoughtfulness: The budding scientist (M is for “made of matter”) is a little girl and the manly lumberjack (L) lucubrates by lamplight, reading a copy of Once Upon an Alphabet.

There are also charming winks at continuity: The nun in N flips the enigma from E and posits that “nearly nine thousand” envelopes can fit inside an elephant; the fearless owl and octopus duo in O, who roam the ocean searching for problems to solve, come to the rescue when a regular cucumber plunges into the ocean in S (for “sink or swim”) because he “watched a program about sea cucumbers and thought it might be a better life for him,” only to realize he didn’t know how to swim; when Xavier in X wakes up one morning and is devastated to find out that his prized X-ray spectacles have been stolen, he rings the owl and the octopus for help.

There is, too, a sprinkle of Goreyesque darkness alongside the delight, speaking to Maurice Sendak’s conviction that children shouldn’t be sheltered from the dark: In T, a writer sits in front of his “terrible typewriter,” which has the uncanny ability to make his stories come true, until one day he is eaten by a monster he wrote. (The creature, coincidentally, is reminiscent of Sendak’s Wild Things.) In H, Helen lives in a half house, the other half having been swept into the sea by a hurricane; “being lazy, and not owning a hammer,” she hadn’t quite got around to fixing it yet” — so one day, she rolls out the wrong side of the bed and plummets into the ocean.

Once Upon an Alphabet is immeasurably wonderful in its totality, both sensitive and irreverent, kind and quirky. Complement it with Jeffers’s Stuck, then revisit a few other marvelous alphabet books by Gertrude Stein, Quentin Blake, and Maurice Sendak.

Illustrations courtesy of Oliver Jeffers; photographs my own

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