Long Pork

Brazilian translatology has made an important contribution to translation theory in the guise of cannibalism. And here we come full circle. Many say that transubstantiation in itself is a form of cannibalism as Christ transformed the bread and wine into his own body and blood. Not surprising then that many Catholic children abhor the transubstantiation element of the Mass. The priest announces: “Eat my flesh and drink my blood” – a gory prospect, indeed. Brazilian cannibalism in translation owes much to the Modernist movement of the 1920s, especially the writings of Oswald de Andrade who wrote the Cannibalist Manifesto. The idea is that the colonised nation (for example, Brazil which was colonised by Portugal) consumes everything given to it by the alien culture. However, the colonisers do not swallow the alien cultural flesh whole but spit out what is inedible. What they keep of the foreign culture they change and assimilate to their own culture. A bloody business…


Language has a quirky way of throwing up bizarre cultural references when you’re not looking. Especially when we decide to juxtapose equivalents in two different languages. Let us take the hairstyle made famous by the Red Indians of North American. The reference is, of course, to the Mohican or Mohawk hairstyle. The very fact that there are two terms for this particular haircut is, in itself, fascinating. What is interesting is the fact that this terminology is rather confused and confusing. What Westerners and Europeans refer to as Mohican is in fact an artificial amalgam of both the Mahican and Mohegan tribes and languages, not helped by James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans which confuses the two tribes. Commonality between the two languages can be found in their shared roots as both Mahican and Mohegan belong to the Algonquian language family.

To make matters more confusing is the other term, that is Mohawk, which refers to yet another language and tribe coming from a completely different language family – Iroquoian. Therefore, in English alone we have two terms for one hairstyle that in some way reference three different native American tribes and languages belonging to two different lanaguge families.

The Polish term for the Mohican or Mohawk hairstyle is Irokez, which of course is a reference to the Iroquais Indians, a cover term which includes the Mohawks (but not the Mohegans nor the Mahicans). What is fascinating is the level of generalisation and specification used in English and in Polish. English refers to particular tribes, whereas Polish uses the cover term yet both refer to the same thing.

Interestingly, Polish culture has had an important influence on the hairstyle and the Polish Mohawk/Polish Mohican is a type of inverted Mohawk (made famous by Keith Flint of The Prodigy).

A simple haircut…

Translating Culture

OK, how do you go about translating something that cannot be translated? The best examples that come to my mind are literature of the magical realism variety where absurd plots unravel and bizarre happenings take place so outlandish that often the native mind has problems grappling the meaning of the words and the intention of the author. We have to remember that before any translation takes place, an interpretation of sorts has to take place. Translation is – in effect and in a very real practical sense – an interpretation of an interpretation (ad infinitum). The writer interprets ideas and transforms them into words on a page; we then interpret his/her message (which may or may not be in tune with the author’s original intent) and then go about transforming the words again into another lanaguage and culture. The reader then makes yet another interpretation on reading our work. OK, let’s look at an interesting little example. How would you translate the meaning and true essence (not just the words) of the following short extract from Freedom and Death by Nikos Kazantzakis. Explain to yourself what it really means and think about how to translate it into another language, what characteristics Cretans possess that make them different from other Greeks, what significance eggs have in this culture. There are a whole host of questions we can ask…

“The eggs had already been eaten, shells and all. Now Captain Michales with a blow from his fist, smashed the pottery eggcups and distributed them to his guests to eat. Bertodulos, terrified, took his piece and clung breathless to a cask. With goggling eyes he watched the Cretans at his feet bite their bits of clay and chew them until they became sand and grit, which they swalled with a snigger.
There are three sorts of men, Bertodulos slowly explained to himself: those who eat eggs without the shells, those who eat eggs with shells and those who gobble them up with the shells and the eggcups as well. The third kind are called Cretans.”

Tempus Fugit

Tempus fugit is actually the Latin for “Time flees” and not “Time flies”. You may not think there’s much of a difference but rest assured the difference is quite important. “To flee” is to run away quickly usually from something or some sort of danger. “To fly” is simply to run away quickly. The difference may be in the nuance but that is surely the point. A ripple starts off as a tiny point in the ocean, the wings of a butterfly… etc. Nuances are what make different languages. Semantic ripples are what distinguish a superlative translation from an average one. Yes, “Time flies” does sound better than “Time flees”, but does that mean that the former is a better translation than the latter?


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