And the Devil Take the Hindmost Meaning

Individual words often have a host of meanings of course, and it is the job of translators to possess as many of those meanings as possible in at least the two languages they are working with. “Table,” for instance, standing alone there could refer to a number of things in English and French, since it is written the same in both, from the flat, usually horizontal surface with at least one leg (a hinged version that attaches to the wall can be said to stand on one leg) or central post, to the food and drink served at meals (to keep an excellent table), to a series of printed characters in a book, a table of contents or a table showing the stagnating wages of translators from 1850 to the present (no “groaning board” that table), and so on. And while in French the form of the word immediately gives away whether we are dealing with the verb in the infinitive as opposed to the noun (tabler is an infinitive form and means to reckon on, count on, bank on), theoretically the above “table” could be a verb in English—and could conceivably have two diametrically opposed meanings. In British English, to table a bill is to submit it to a legislative body for consideration; in America, your tabled bill would now be moldering in legislative limbo (to table something in American English means to suspend discussion of it). In these particular senses then, table joins that lovely group of words in English that can mean one thing and its opposite, X and –X. This category of words has been dubbed an auto-antonym or autantonym (Joseph T. Shipley), or contronym (Jack Herring), and includes such examples as to sanction (to approve; to penalize or condemn) and to cleave (to separate or cut; to stick or hold together, to resist separation).

The context’s the thing—that and real-world knowledge. The detective dusted the room… The presence of “detective” here suggests that the dusting involved adding fine powder to surfaces to find fingerprints, and indeed we readily expect “…for fingerprints” or “…for prints” to follow. If we read something like, The detective dusted the room… while wearing a fetching little French maid outfit that he liked to wear on weekends, it is more likely he was removing dust from the said room. It is interesting to note that “to dust the room” and “to dust the freshly baked cookies” allow us to add a quiet, well-behaved verb like to dust to our list of autantonyms.

In an earlier post, reflecting on the semantic richness (polysemy) that all languages possess, I mentioned how a word can exist, even while surrounded by other words lending it context, in what I called a quantum state. This may be a misuse of the term strictly speaking, but the idea is probably clear. The story is an old one now. Back in the early years of the last century, it became clear to physicists that, for example, light behaved as either a wave or a particle (photons) depending on how you were looking at it. The notion that the observer has an effect on the observed became accepted science. In terms of language, to take our above example, the word table, shorn of all context, points in a number of directions. It is its use with other words normally that nudges it into one “state” or another. Thanks to context and real-world experience most native speakers of English would have no trouble understanding which sense of “table” is intended in “We need to add another table to the book.” Likewise for “The chair [chairperson] wants to table the discussion,” although it is true that the verb to table could mean two very different things here (it would be the translator working out of English who would have to make that call). And by this point, “The chair added a table to the book” is immediately understandable, albeit a slightly amusing turn of phrase. Even the Dodgsonian “The chair keeps a great table—it’s by the book” should pose no problem to the reader now. Interestingly, machine analysis can have the devil of a time with even the first (and probably least difficult) example above. It is one of the reasons I and my fellow translators are still in business by the by, and why machine translations can be so achingly funny when they aren’t attaining a very dubious kind of Dada poetry. Steven Pinker recalls the early computer work in sentence analysis in one of his eminently readable books:

“Computer parsers are too meticulous for their own good… One of the first computer parsers, developed at Harvard in the 1960s, provides a famous example. The sentence Time flies like an arrow is surely unambiguous… But to the surprise of the programmers, the sharp-eyed computer found it to have five different [readings]! …Among computer scientists the discovery has been summed up in the aphorism, ‘Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.’” (The Language Instinct, pp. 207-08)

The translator in such cases is often like the physics experimenter “deciding” the state of the system, although the translator should be consciously opting for one or another meaning. I faced one such example in French recently. Our English words “experience” and “experiment” are, in French, one and the same word, expérience. The text I was translating had to do with a contemporary-art venue in Marseille that had justement invited artists to work alongside and with local scientists. In at least one passage, the following two translations would have been possible, “This joint undertaking was an experience that…” or “This joint undertaking was an experiment that…”

Two different things in the end. In this case, the former meaning was probably the one the author had in mind, but had I put the question to her, she would have also admitted that, well, yes, the latter meaning is also there now that you ask… Pinker follows the passage quoted above with a discussion of two clever experiments (David Swinney, on the one hand, and Mark Seidenberg and Michael Tanenhaus, on the other) that show us that indeed the mind seems to activate both senses of such words if only for a short while. Swinney worked with words having at least two different meanings like bug (insect and listening device), while Seidenberg and Tanenhaus used terms that straddled part-of-speech categories like tires (a noun, the rubber things that go on wheels; and a verb, meaning the opposite of energized). See The Language Instinct, pp. 209-10.

Great literature is filled with examples of writers making words do double or triple duty of course, cases where the writer has so arranged the context, the folds of the fabric of language so to speak, that several senses are present simultaneously, and the devil take the hindmost—the poor translator. Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness. Keats famously introduces two themes with the word “still,” adjective meaning quiet and calm; and adverb modifying “unravish’d” and meaning “even now unravish’d bride.” Beckett pulled off a similarly brilliant coup when he gave to what was to be his final prose work the title “Stirrings Still,” which offers us both an oxymoron and a play once again on the adverbial sense of “still.” And finally this daring move by Gerard Manley Hopkins leaps back and forth across parts-of-speech categories in a single line in his sonnet “Spring”: “The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush/The descending blue…” As we read the line, “leaves and blooms” appear to be nouns, but the comma makes us pull up short: perhaps they are verbs after all, meaning the tree is putting out leaves and blooms, a happy use of the rare verb to leave in this sense. Then the pronoun “they” makes us stop again: no, the two words must be nouns in apposition to “they.” Needless to say, all this mental leaping to and fro reflects the spirit of the poem. Wave or particle? Noun or verb? Hopkins makes the words function simultaneously as both, quite a feat.

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