Wednesday, March 27, 2013

With Friends Like This, Who Needs Enemies.

French and English look devilishly similar.  Many words like identical.  The meaning is obvious, right.  Like all booby traps, the first word booby meaning idiot, many has wise translator has fallen into the trap of the false friend, the word you thought knew what it meant and did not confirm its meaning.

I recently completed a translation of a service contract involving software, rather standard material.   As I carefully translated each sentence, one at a time, I often double checked certain words in my various resources to see if there was not some other meaning, unknown to me.  Here is a short list of the false friends I avoided:

L’object du contrat is the subject of the contract.
Le jour de signature du marché is the day of signature of the agreement.
Determiner la vacation is the set the hourly pay rate.
Le prix forfataire is the fixed price.
Article 25 est sans object means that is invalid.
Les delais de renumeration is the periods for payment.
Accuser reception is to confirm receipt.
Preparer un calandrier is to prepare a schedule.
Une copie du contract qui est retirée is a copy of a contract that is taken by the party.

I strongly believe that I missed all the traps, but it is often extremely hard to know who your real friends are in translation.  So, if you took French in High School and spent a summer in Paris, it does not mean you can translate a French contract into English.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Telling Boys and Girls Apart

In most languages, not including English, nouns have a gender, i.e. masculine, feminine, and sometime neutral.  The requirement to have adjectives agree with their nouns requires the speaker or writer to quickly identify the gender of the noun.  In speaking, a person can guess or fudge the sound.   This is not true in writing.  Alas, some languages are more user friendly than others.

Italian makes life the easiest.  If the noun ends in o, it is masculine; if in a, it is feminine.  So, Italians say uno bello carro but una bella casa.  If the ends in an e, it can vary.  You have to memorize those.  So, uno fabricante is masculine while una delusion is feminine.  All, it is not too difficult for the learner, as is typical for Italian in general.

French is a different story.  I personally have spent hours checking and rechecking the gender of nouns.  The only rule that seems to stay in my head is that nouns ending in ion and é are feminine.  To see the problem, look at this site:  It reinforces my sense that the rules are only indications of probability.  A learner either has to have a good ear and memory and do what I do, check it in the dictionary.  La vie est dure sans confiture.

Hebrew is not too bad.  If a nouns ends in a consonant except for ת  (tov) or ה (heh), it is masculine, with only a few exceptions.  So,  כותבת(kotevet – address) is feminine while מכתב (miktav – letter) is masculine.   Hebrew is an easy language to learn in this sense.

By contrast, Russian is a challenge. It adds a third gender, neutral.  Moreover, whatever rules exist are more than equally matched by the exceptions.  The indications on this site,, are a bit misleading.  A comprehensive Russian grammar book can provide a rather long list of exceptions to every rule.  Sometimes I wonder if native Russian speakers get it right all the time.

Clearly, English is the easiest – there are no noun genders.  There are few feminine forms of professions – stewardess, waitress, and actress, to name a few.  However, those are fairly obvious.

So, not languages are equally kind to their learners.  Just having long hair and an a at the end of the word may not be enough to say whether it is a girl.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Right and Wrong

There is an American story, whose name I have forgotten, about a man who gets a parking ticket and refuses to pay it.  He asks for a trial, which orders him to pay the fine or go to jail.  Always claiming to be right and refusing to pay, he ends up in prison.  It is clear to all of the readers, or 99% of them at least, that how matter how “right” the man s, he is wrong, i.e. stupid.

On a larger and more tragic scale, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a similar theme.  It began on a small scale in the 1920’s, when Jews began to arrive in Palestine, first in trickles and then in tens of thousands in the 1930’s.  It is clear this entry of people from a different culture and religion would cause hostility.  The Jews were a clear psychological threat, whatever economic benefits their arrival brought.

This clash of cultures implied and still implies the impossibility of unity in terms of government.  According to a book that I am reading, The Palestinian Arab National Movement 1929-1936 by Y. Porth, the British in 1936 in one of their endless and futile attempts to make peace here, proposed a division of Palestine based on the population concentration at the time.  Specifically, the Jews would get the coastal plain, Tel Aviv, and Galilee.  Jerusalem and Tiberias would be administered by the British.  The rest would be run by Abdallah, King of Jordan.  While some of the Arab leadership was ready to accept the deal, the more active Palestinian leaders rejected it out of hand, rightly or wrongly.

 Jumping ahead, in 1948, the UN, the next organization to try to fix this mess, partitioned the country.  This time, the Jew would get the coastal plain, Galilee, Eilat, and half of Jerusalem.  This time, the Palestinians would have a country with the rest of the area.  After painful soul-searching, Ben Gurion and the Jewish leadership accepted this compromise.  The Palestinians, encouraged by Arab leaders, rejected this idea.  The result of the War of Independence was more land for Israel and no country for the Palestinians.

From 1948 to 1967, the Arabs and Palestinian leadership tried to use economic means to destroy Israel, refusing to negotiate.  The result was the 1967 war, which added the West Bank and Golan Heights, not to mention the other half of Jerusalem, to Israel. Of course, the Palestinians still had no state.

The Americans tried their hand as peacemakers.  The Oslo Agreement seemed to open the way to a Palestinian state, setting up a recognized Palestinian negotiating partner on sovereign territory.  Alas, the “all or nothing” mentality led to two intifadas and an extremist government in Gaza.  In the meantime, the Jewish population in Judea and Samaria has expanded, effectively expanding the size of Israel.

This is clearly a tragic story for millions of people on both sides of the conflict.  The responsibility for the Palestinian failure to accept, however grudgingly, a land compromise lies on the regional Arab leaders, local Palestinian leaders and, ultimately, the Palestinians themselves.  Just as the Irish people stopped supporting radical IRA and Protestant leaders and ended, however imperfectly, that “hopeless” conflict, so the Palestinians theoretically could one day have a viable state of their own. 

I am not so naïve as to believe in friendship in the next few generations, but it is time to end the validity of the famous comment “The Palestinians never miss any opportunity to miss an opportunity.”  Israelis and Palestinians are stuck together in a Catholic marriage.  Once that is accepted, a way to live together in harmony, if not love, can be found.  If not, it doesn’t make a difference what the policy of the Israeli government is.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Fungal Roots

Like Merry in Lord of the Rings and Alice in Alice in Wonderland, to name a few, I am fond of mushrooms, even picking them in the field with my partner.  Recently, I noticed that the word for these fungal growths is extremely different in each language, even among Indo-European ones.  Therefore, I looked in the sources of its name, which were almost all, surprisingly, quite obscure.

The English word mushroom comes from old French meisseron.  According to one article, located at, the root either means moss or, take a deep breath, mucus.  This old French root sounds quite similar for the ancient Greek word for slime.   Of course, it is impossible to prove; so you can choose that accept the more sympathetic connection between moss and mushrooms.

The French use the word champignon, which comes from the Latin campaniulis, field.  Since some mushrooms are found in fields, that is quite logical.  I am a bit confused why the Italian funghi, funguses, never transferred to French as in the much more modern espresso/expresso.

The Russian word call it гриб [grib].  According to one source, it appears to be derived from one of a few words describing a mound or hill, грести [gresti] or горб [gorb].  Again, the topographical feature, albeit different from the French, seems to be determining.

By contrast, the Hebrew word פטריות [petriot], mushroom, and its cousin תפטיר  [taftir], mycelium or spores, appear in the Bible.  It is a bit of a chicken and egg problem, but actually posed an issue for the matter of blessing.  The decision was that mushrooms are not blessed like fruit and vegetables, not being sufficiently earthy.  Another theory is the root of these words is פטר  [ptor], which means break.  The logic is that mushrooms break the earth.  So, Hebrew takes a biological or agricultural approach.

The origin of the mushroom is like its nutritional value.  It may be poor or obscure, but that doesn’t stop people to adding it to salads, sauces, or omelets, to name a few.  Mushrooms are funghi to pick, prepare, and eat, wherever they come from.