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Alaskan Range: Culturally Untranslatable

So what is the meaning of the Bangladesh saying "Don't oil your mustache in anticipation of the jackfruit tree bearing fruit."?

Greg Hill venures into untranslatable realms.

Confucius stated, "I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand," but understanding's easier when a good author's involved. Donna Leon is an American who's taught English literature in Venice for twenty-five years and written nineteen mysteries recounting the adventures of Venetian police detective Guido Brunetti.

For an American expatriate woman writing about an Italian man for an America audience, Leon does it remarkably well, along with conveying the flavor of modern-day Venice. Her adept turns-of-phrase are so evocative that my wife and I are devouring Leon's books at an unusually rapid rate. Sometimes I wonder how peculiarly English sayings come across in Italian, like when Brunetti's wife uses the phrases "milk of human kindness" and "lily-livered."

Shakespeare coined both, but in his day the liver was considered the seat of human passion, and a pale, bloodless liver connoted cowardliness. The phrases come out in Italian as "milk of human courtesy" and "livered of lily," and while that doesn't cut it, they're closer than many examples from an Internet site titled "What Are Your Favorite Culturally Untranslatable Phrases?"

Most of the samples listed are unprintable for family newspapers, but a decent example is the Bangladesh saying that translates as, "Don't oil your mustache in anticipation of the jackfruit tree bearing fruit," which means, "Don't count your chickens before they hatch." The national fruit of Bangladesh, Jackfruit's been cultivated for 6,000 years, despite a flavor that's described kindly as "like a tart banana," and less kindly as "milder than durian but even if slightly overripe smells like diarrhea."

Consequently, hirsute jackfruit fanciers oil their mustachios to diminish residual aromas.

Cross-cultural translations arose recently in another book, John Vaillant's "The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival," about a marauding tiger. It terrorized part of the Russian Far East in the mid-1990s, killing several men while hunting Markov, a part-time hunter-poacher, whom it perceived as a threat. Markov was popular in his remote village, particularly for his sense of humor, partly because he did good impressions of Radio Armenia. The fictitious Armenian Radio was a major source of Soviet-era amusement, especially its question-and-answer format, such as "This is Armenian radio; our listeners ask 'What is the difference between capitalism and socialism?'. We're answering: "In a capitalist society man exploits man, and in a socialist one, the other way around." Stalin sent 200,000 people to prison for telling jokes, so circumspection was required.

Many American books were forbidden during Stalin's reign, but millions of Russians, including Markov, enjoyed reading books about the American frontier by Captain Mayne Reid. Reid was born in Northern Ireland in 1818 and abandoned his clerical studies for adventure in New Orleans. In nine years he was fired for refusing to whip slaves, opened a school in Tennessee, was a storekeeper in Mississippi, a Santa Fe trader, a St. Louis hunting guide, supposedly for John James Audubon, acted in Cincinnati, wrote plays in Philadelphia, where he befriended Edgar Poe, enlisted for the Mexican-American War, was wounded at Chapultepec and mustered out a captain.

Back in England Reid wooed an aristocrat's 13-year-old daughter and wed her two years later. About this time his most popular adventure books came out, like "The Headless Horseman" and "The Rifle Rangers." The Dictionary of Literary Biography says, "Although appropriated by the juvenile reading public, these and over two-dozen other novels were aimed at an adult audience an audience that delighted in the fast-paced narrative, the exotic settings, and the admixture of sentimentality and sensationalism."

Reid's best writing dried up by 1870, but he recycled plots and characters for another decade of cock and bull stories. "Cock and bull" comes from the wild yarns shared at two Stony Stratford, England taverns, the Cock and the Bull. The Stony Stratford Library currently has no books on its shelves. When the local government announced plans to close the library to save money, the citizenry checked out every book on the shelves in protest. One townsman told the Guardian newspaper, "The library is the one place where you find five-year-olds and 90-year-olds together, and it's where young people learn to be proper citizens. It's crazy to even consider closing it." But as Eleanor Roosevelt pointed out, "Understanding is a two-way street."


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