Monthly Archives: May 2015

How Do You Say That In English?

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Each language looks at the world through a slightly different lens and develops its own idiosyncratic expressions. To be sure many experiences are common to humans everywhere and many ideas are expressed in similar ways. But certain perceptions escape this shared sameness and generate their own vocabulary. The Germans, for instance, have their own Weltanschauung. But wait, say you. Isn’t that a fancy word for worldview? Certain linguists maintain that it represents a more comprehensive outlook, a more exalted vision than the pedestrian “worldview.”

Two more such ostentatious German words have invaded our language: Zeitgeist is a one-word way of saying: “the intellectual fashion of the day.” Its virtue is brevity. Gestalt refers to “the whole nature of something.” It too is a useful shortcut. There are some more: Leitmotiv is used in music and literature. It is a recurrent theme associated with a character or a situation. Still another German word is considered to be untranslatable: gemutlich, which has a connotation of cozy and pleasantly comfortable. I think that “comfy” conveys the same feeling.

I am not aware of any Russian words that have entered the English language but Vladimir Nabokov who wrote both in Russian and in English cites two that have no equivalents: Toska means “spiritual anguish tinged with nostalgia.” Poshlost refers to a certain vulgarity of taste and moral tackiness. It is a little like the German word “kitsch” which we have adopted. The Germans have also given us “ersatz”. During World War II it was used to describe a poor imitation. When there was no real butter or leather there was ersatz. Nowadays we like to say”faux” (like faux fur) to designate a fake.

The French say the word “depaysement” cannot be adequately translated. Literally it means being out of your country, something like: out of your comfort zone. And while we are talking about French, “enjoy your meal” is just not the same as “Bon Appetit.”

The whole Yiddish language is in a category by itself. It is much easier to steal it wholesale than to develop satisfactory equivalents. Isn’t “Oy vey” more expressive than “Woe is me?” Doesn’t kvetch sound better than complain and isn’t “schlep” a lot more colorful than drag? “Schmooze” conveys something different from just mingling and “chutzpah” will beat nerve or audacity any day.

Saul Bellow says that oppressed people tend to be witty. Being self-deprecating is a defense mechanism. You laugh at yourself to disarm “the enemy.” It is a preemptive strike against them laughing at you.

Finally I have come up against two Hebrew words for which there is truly no translation. The first one is used when a woman is wearing a new outfit which you have never seen before. You are then supposed to say”titkhadshi lakh” which means roughly “renew yourself.” For a man, it’s tikhadesh lekha.
The other word is “davka” which has no equivalent in English. It has a number of uses and meanings and contains elements of contrariness, emphasis, paradox, irony and spite. Example: “She knows I am here every day except Friday. Davka she came on Friday.”

Do you know other untranslatable words or expressions? I would love to hear about them.

Opera and Life

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In my youth, music came from the radio or via records played on a gramophone. Each record was printed with a dog attentively listening to the sounds emanating from a record player’s big horn. The text read, “His Master’s Voice.”

What kind of “tunes” was I listening to? Mostly opera arias by the great singers of the time: Caruso, Nicolai Gedda, Jussi Bjorling, Chaliapin and others. Yes, many of them were males. But I also liked the pop music of the day. Back then there was not such a divide between the two genres. Many singers had a foot in each camp: Mario Lanza,Ezio Pinza, Grace Moore, Lily Pons, Deanna Durbin were some of them. It was the golden age of the movies and they all appeared on the screen. Films were the great unifier. One pop singer was called Tino Rossi . He was the Andrea Boccelli of my youth and appealed to the sentimental sensibilities of the 1930s.

Back then I thought opera was just a collection of beautiful solos. We had no opera house and I had never seen a complete opera performance. And then one day I witnessed an amateur rehearsal of “Cavalleria Rusticana” by Mascagni. Suddenly my whole musical world was totally changed. Although I had never been in love, I completely identified with Santuzza pleading with Turiddu not to abandon her. Her pain became my pain. I understood that opera was much more than bel canto. It was drama, tragedy, poetry, farce, all of it enriched by music. And music often expressed those sentiments better than words alone could. What would seem absurd, even excessive if spoken suddenly seemed absolutely right when sung. In the famous quartet in Rigoletto four people speak at the same time and instead of resulting in cacophony, each voice is heard and understood while they blend at the same time. When listening to Violetta (in La Traviata) sacrificing her own happiness to that of Alfredo, you cannot help crying.

The same scene in Dumas’ “La Dame aux Camelias” might seem mawkish and over the top because our sensibilities are not the same as those of the 19th century. “La Dame aux Camelias” was inspired by the real life story of Marie Duplessis an ignorant peasant girl in Normandy whose brutal father beat and raped her. When she was fourteen, he sold her to an old man of 70 who took her to Paris. Within a few years she changed her name from Alphonsine to Marie and totally remade herself into the most famous courtesan of the day. She lived by her wits and prospered. She died of tuberculosis at age 26. Her story inspired a novel, a play, several movies (including one starring Greta Garbo), a ballet and Verdi’s La Traviata.

Sometimes an opera plot is so absurd that it is only held together by the music. In Verdi’s Il Trovatore, you will find revenge, abduction, mistaken identities, a baby thrown into flames. It is so ludicrous that no matter how much you would wish to suspend disbelief it is impossible to identify with it. It is only held together by Verdi’s glorious music.

And sometimes the union is perfect: Don Giovanni goes to Hell in style and The Marriage of Figaro ends with everybody living happily ever after to Mozart’s uplifting music.

A Muslim Woman of Valor

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Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1969. As a 5-year-old she was subjected to genital mutilation. Her family moved to Saudi Arabia, then Ethiopia and Kenya. Throughout this time she was a fervent Muslim. In 1982, refusing to submit to a forced marriage, she fled to the Netherlands escaping from her family. In 1992 she was granted asylum. She learned Dutch, went to University and became a member of Parliament. She then began to speak publicly against the repression of women under Islam.

In 2004 she collaborated with Theo Van Gogh on the film “Submission” based on the book she had written about the suffering of women, including honor killing in the Muslim world. Van Gogh was assassinated by a radical Islamist who left a letter threatening Hirsi Ali pinned to his chest with a butcher’s knife. Aayan then went into hiding (like Salman Rushdie). The Dutch Government, in an effort to placate its Muslim community, refused to grant her protection.

Eventually she moved to the United States. Here, no liberal institution wanted anything to do with her because of her outspoken criticism of Islam as a whole. She is now a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
In her book Heretic, Hirsi Ali says that Islam is ready for a major overhaul and that it needs to find a way for its vast majority (more than a billion people all over the world) to express their condemnation of a murderous minority.

Because of such utterances, she has been accused of Islamophobia. She says: “If Islam is like any other religion, why can’t people criticize it or leave it? Is it controversial to say that women and men should be equal? Most of the suffering attributable to the religion is visited on Muslims themselves. If you say, for instance, that Mormonism has some ridiculous beliefs, no one will try to kill you. Moderate Muslims hate me because I make them feel uncomfortable.”

Other religions have shed the most barbaric aspects of their creed and have been weathered by humanism, reformation, science and secularism. Ayaan Hirsi Ali believes that Islam, unreformed, when put into practice leads to dystopia.

She has found an admirer in Sam Harris, the author and bio scientist. He says: Ayaan has surveyed every inch of the path leading out of the moral and intellectual wasteland that is traditional Islam. Christopher Cadwell writes in the New York Times: “Voltaire, who spoke out against religion in the 18th century, did not risk his life with every utterance, making a billion enemies who recognized his face and could, via the Internet, share information instantly with people who aspired to assassinate him”. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a brave woman and deserves the support of all thinking individuals.