The naming of deer (EN, DE, FR)

Because Melinda and I just had a conversation about this:

  • Alces alces — AmE: moose; BrE: elk (mostly); DE: Elch; FR: élan or orignal.  The word moose seems to be borrowed from an Algonquian language, while elk is a cognate of alces and many other names in Germanic, Slavic languages as well as Greek. The etymology of the French words is surprisingly complicated (I’m reading about Basque for orignal and Lithuanian for élan — to be confirmed!).
  • Cervus canadensis — AmE: elk or wapiti; BrE, FR: wapiti; DE: Wapiti or Wapitihirsch. _Wapiti_ is from a Shawnee or Cree word. German speakers who don’t know the correct name would sort this one under Rothirsch.
  • Cervus elaphus — EN: red deer; FR: cerf élaphe; DE: Rothirsch. This is the animal European German speakers think of when they say Hirsch, or the French when they say cerf — the prototypical deer of the continental European forests. The American elk (wapiti) was believed to be a sub-species of this (apparently incorrectly), and would be naively considered as a large red deer by Europeans.
  • Dama dama — EN: fallow deer; FR: daim; DE: Damhirsch. Apparently introduced to Europe from the Middle East/Western Asia as a huntable deer species by the Romans.
  • Capreolus capreolus — EN: roe deer; FR: chevreuil; DE: Reh. The Latin/scientific and French words make me think that for some time the animal was grouped with goats.

In German, the general term for a member of the deer family (Cervidae), of which all of the above are members, is _Hirsch_. Colloquially, a red or fallow deer, or a member of a non-native species such as a Sitka deer, wapiti or white-tailed deer would be referred to as a generic Hirsch, but a roe deer would be a Reh and a moose/elk an Elk. I’ve heard young Germans refer to an image of a Chinese water deer as _Säbelzahnreh_ (saber-toothed roe deer).

When I was a child, seeing roe deer on a drive through the countryside was a moderately rare treat. Very very occasionally you might spot a red deer. The question “War das ein Reh oder ein Hirsch?” was common, and it’s hard to translate because English has no word for deer that excludes the roe deer. So you might go for something indirect (“Was this a roe deer or some other kind of deer?”) or, better, for something more specific depending on what other kinds of deer would be around (“Was this a roe deer or a white-tail? a roe deer or an elk? a roe deer or a moose [um, these two are hard to confuse]?).

A construction the likes of which I’ve never been able to let go

So an Air France Airbus A330 disappeared over the Atlantic last night. It’s a frightening event, and the quasi-certainty that 228 people died, maybe without a trace, in a cataclysmic accident, is terribly sad.

BBC news quotes the French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s public address: “It is a catastrophe the likes of which Air France has never seen.” The wording of the quote made me think. It sounds a bit overly convoluted to my ear, but then, this may very well express a level of pathos appropriate to the situation. Sarkozy, of course, spoke French. Interestingly, this exact wording is all over the English-language press. It must have come from an early press release: it’s doubtful there are official English translations of the pronouncements of the French president.

What is the French original? The paper Libération’s habit of publishing such things verbatim — though cleaned up — helps us out. Here is the first bit of Sarkozy’s public declaration:

Cette nuit nous avons perdu la trace d’un avion d’Air France avec 228 personnes à bord, passagers et personnels d’équipage. Nous n’avons aucun élément précis sur ce qui s’est passé. C’est une catastrophe comme jamais la compagnie Air France n’en avait connue.

The French construction employed by Sarkozy, which has no one-to-one correspondence in English, goes a long way to explain the translator’s choice. Ne … jamais can mean “never” or “ever”, depending of polarity, and there’s the partitive pronoun en, which refers back to une catastrophe. We could gloss the French as “This is a catastrophe like never the airline Air France [of it] had known,” or, using the more idiomatic present perfect, substituting seen for known, and cleaning up the word order, “This is a catastrophe like the airline Air France has never seen.”

The translator’s thought process now becomes clearer:

  • They aimed at preserving the comparison “like”, but getting rid of the informal aspect
  • They were quite happy to preserve the partitive en, somehow

“Like” therefore becomes nominalized as “the likes of which”.

In order to to get input from other English speakers, I asked around on Twitter and Facebook, provocatively, whether “the likes of which Air France had never seen” sounded clumsy. Several people were kind enough to reply:

  • Some found nothing remotely remarkable about the formulation, or even consider it the preferred way of rendering the original French
  • Some came out close to my gloss, with “a catastrophe such as Air France has never seen” or even “a catastrophe like Air France has never seen”
  • Some preferred turning “never” into “ever” (or left it out) and “like” into “unlike”, and even managed to slip the en back in in the form of “any”: “a catastrophe unlike any Air France has (ever) seen”
  • Some, including myself, went for a bold recasting: “an unprecedented catastrophe for Air France”
  • Finally, the linguist John Lawler came out in favour of “a catastrophe like Air France hasn’t never seen”, but implicitly admitted this version was really quite impossible, adding: “Alas, English Negative Concord was lost with the Dative case, and has been replaced with Negative Polarity.”

Quite a cornucopia of choices here.

Bilingualism FAIL.

Is it futile to blog a phenomenon already noted by BoingBoing and Language Log? Probably, but does it matter?

As reported by the BBC, Swansea council neglected one of the basic principles of multilingual publishing: employ competent proofreaders for each of the languages you’re publishing in. Even if you have an in-house translation service, as is the case of Swansea council.

When officials asked for the Welsh translation of a road sign, they thought the reply was what they needed. Unfortunately, the e-mail response to Swansea council said in Welsh: “I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated”.

The English's fine, the Welsh is an out-of-office reply
The English's fine, the Welsh's an out-of-office reply

The only similar example I’ve recently seen was the Chinese dining hall (located on the Beijing-Taiyuan expressway) that was advertised as “Translate server error” on a billboard.

The Chinese read "dining hall"
The Chinese reads "dining hall"

Here in the West, we like to make fun at the sometimes misguided Chinese efforts to adopt English in public signage alongside with the local language. And face it, they are funny. What we may be forgetting is how easy it is to fall into the same trap if you have similar requirements, as is the case for public officials in bilingual areas, who are likely to have a legal duty to promote languages they may not, themselves, master.