The semen is mighty

One of the choirs I sing in is rehearsing Monteverdi’s Beatus vir qui timet domini (Blessed is the man who fears the Lord) (Psalm 112). Among other things (verse 2):

Potens in terra erit semen eius 

His – um – semen will be mighty in the earth

Except that Latin semen has more senses than in English, including seed (of plants), child, descendant, cause and essence (compare the seed of an idea or the seeds of doubt). Of the 55 translations on Bible Gateway:

descendents 26 descendants [seed] 1
seed 12
children 9
offspring 5
[spiritual] offspring 1
zera 1

Zera is the Hebrew equivalent, and is used by the Orthodox Jewish Bible, “an English language version that applies Yiddish and Hasidic cultural expressions to the Messianic Bible”. That verse reads, in full, “His zera shall be gibbor ba’aretz; ; the dor (generation) of the Yesharim (upright ones) shall be blessed”. If you know that many Hebrew/Yiddish/Hasidic words (I don’t), you may as well read it in Hebrew anyway (I don’t). Various Hebrew dictionaries give a similar range of definitions as the Latin.

In English, the meanings of semen, seed and descendants/children/offspring have diverged. You can’t show a photo of your children and grand-children and say “These are my semen” or “These are my seed”. You probably can’t even say “These are my descendants/children/offspring”.

(I am reminded of the book/tv series Game of Thrones. In a quasi-mediaeval fantasy world, the king’s chancellor is investigating an important secret. His last message before he is killed is “The seed is strong”.)

The other places we find semen in English are seminars and seminaries, were seeds are (meant to be) sown, or at least scattered.

Not surprisingly, semen is found in a number of European, mostly Latinate, languages with either or both the seed or reproductive meanings, and as a noun and/or verb. 

In other, unrelated languages, it has different meanings which might prove unfortunate if mixed up, including Indonesian, in which it also means cement, Maltese butter (from Arabic samn) and Mauritian and Seychellois Creole road, street (from French chemim), but those are all loan words.

See also the Russian speed skater Семён/Semion/Semen/Semyon Elistratov, who I mentioned in this post, whose name is the perfectly good Russian equivalent of Simon. 


What big mystery

Four years ago I posted about the Latin text O magnum mysterium, and explored the links between the words in it and modern-day English words. Given that English is not a Latinate language, it is perhaps surprising that all but two of the Latin words have related words in English. Or perhaps not, because Latin was the primary language of the Christian church in England for at least approximately 950 years. 

One of the choirs I sing in recently sang the anthem to this text by Francis Poulenc. On the first page of the printed score was a French translation. French is a Latinate language, and it was interesting to see the similarities and differences between the Latin and French texts. Some words are very similar, some have been changed almost beyond recognition and some have been substituted for other words.

The Latin text is:
O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, iacentem in praesepio!
O beata virgo, cuius viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Iesum Christum.

The French text is:

Quel grand mystère et admirable sacrement, que des animaux aient pu voir, couché dans une crèche, le Seigneur vient de naître!
Bienheureuse Vierge dont les entrailles ont mérité de porter le Christ – Seigneur.

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God is terrible

This idea is scattered throughout the bible, if not in exactly that form. I probably knew it first and certainly know it most familiarly through Ralph Vaughan Williams’ anthem on Psalm 47, O clap your hands.

O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph.
For the Lord most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth.

English has a number of words derived from Latin terror (noun), terrēre, terrificāre (verbs) and terribilis (adjective), including terror, terrorism/t, terrify, terrorise, terrible, terrifying and terrific. Terrific is now positive (though I remember a primary school teacher telling us that it should only be used in contexts of terror), terrifying is negative and terrible sits uncomfortably between the two.

As is usual with biblical words like this, there are many translations. In the 54 English versions on Bible Gateway:

awesome 18 awesome beyond words 1 awesome and deserves our great respect 1
awe-inspiring 3 

to be feared 9 to be feared [and worshiped with awe-inspired reverence and obedience] 1 fearsome 1 fearedful (to be feared/to be revered) 1 fearful 1 

terrible 10 
excites terror, awe, and dread 1

wonderful 3 wonderful [awesome] 1

stunning 1 

We must fear the Lord 1 We must fear Yahweh, Elyon 1

most of which have other problems, especially these days awesome. If “Everything is awesome” then there’s nothing special about God. At least no translations use awful (see this post, towards the end) (or dreadful).

(Another choral setting of the same psalm, by John Rutter, uses to be feared.)

Lying behind all of these is the Hebrew word נוֹרָא (nora, Modern Israeli Hebrew pronunciation noˈʁa). I will let an actual Hebrew speaker pronounce it and explain. So, awesome or awe-inspiring, or terrible or awful, even in Hebrew.

My problem with all of these is that if God is terrible, to be feared or even awesome, then our response will be terror, fear or awe, but will not and cannot possibly be love, and certainly not with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength.

It is noticeable that most of the verses describing God as terrible (in whatever words) are in the Old Testament (the one exception being the Old Testament-focused Hebrews). Elsewhere in the New Testament, we get “God is love” (not “God is loveable”!).

(I possibly have more to say about this, but would be venturing too far into theology for my comfort.)

Fortunately not

A Facebook friend posted some stunning photos of herself and friends hiking in Jirisan National Park. Facebook’s auto-translation of the post included the rather worrying “Cancer is not an option to postpone”. Reading the Korean original and some research allayed my concerns, fortunately. The Korean original is 사성암은 미룰 수 없어요. I know that 암 is used in the names of usually smaller Buddhist monastic establishments, usually translated as hermitage, by far the most famous being 석굴암, Seokguram. But 암 by itself doesn’t mean hermitage any more than 사 by itself means temple

So how did the translator get to cancer? The Korean word for cancer is 암, which I previously didn’t know because it’s not included in Korean for beginners or travellers books. The translator encountered a word it didn’t recognise and instead of simply transliterating it (which it did with several other proper nouns in the post), it guessed that the 암 on the end was the relevant part of the word.

Online translators don’t do much better. Google and Bing offer Sandstone cannot/can’t be postponed and Papago (which I have found to be the more accurate overall) the meaningless I can’t delay tetragonal cancer. But sandstone is 사암; 사성암, if it means anything at all, is four star cancer, compare 삼성, three stars. Even though it was the worst translation overall, Papago at least attempted to translate the whole of 사성암. [PS the next day: I commented on my friend’s post and she replied that 사성암 is ‘four saints hermitage’.]

The bigger issues here are how translators deal with proper nouns, and how they recognise that they are proper nouns. Do they transliterate them (eg 경복궁 as Gyeongbokgung) or (attempt to) translate them (eg as Brilliant Fortune Palace or Greatly Blessed by Heaven Palace, just the first two meanings I found)? I suspect that the more famous a place is, the more it is transliterated rather than translated. (There is a map of world countries giving the literal meaning of their name. I am typing this in Southern Land.)

A related issue is the use of common nouns as names. Two Korean-Australian friends named their first daughter 사랑, so once a year I see photos of “Love’s birthday party”. A Korean friend and his wife named their son 우주, so one post included the startling “I put the universe in the car”. 

A blog post about a Korean movie with a very long title

I have posted before about the ways in which the titles of Korean movies are rendered in English: either the Korean name is retained (Silmido), or the English title is an exact or approximate translation of the Korean (Parasite), or the English title is more or less completely different (The host), or the Korean title is itself a transliteration of English (Oldboy). 

I recently discovered the website, which I first assumed was an official site, but which turned out to be the private site of Darcy Paquet, now best known for his collaboration with director Bong Joon-Ho on the English subtitles for Parasite, assisted by a team of volunteer reviewers. The site gives the title of each movie in Korean and English, but otherwise refers to each by its English title. With some knowledge of Korean, the strategies I listed in the first paragraph can be seen. Sometimes the reviewer discusses the Korean title when it sheds some light on the meaning of the movie. 

The champion in the ‘more different’ category is surely the 2004 movie 어디선가 누군가에 무슨일이 생기면 틀림없이 나타난다 홍반장 (eo-di-seon-ga nu-gun-ga-e mu-seun-il-i saeng-ki-myeon teul-rim-eob-shi na-ta-nan-da hong ban-jang), which is rendered in English as Mr Handy, or Mr Hong, or Mr Handy, Mr Hong, but which translates literally as If something happens to somebody somewhere, he always shows up, Chief Hong. This was the basis for the 2021 tv series Hometown Cha-cha-cha, which I mentioned here (in the PS at the end). ban-jang by itself usually translates as class monitor or class president at a school. Calling him Chief Hong makes it sound like he is the chief of police. Three major translation tools don’t even bother with the last word(s), Google giving If something happens to someone somewhere, it will definitely show up, Bing If something happens to someone anywhere, it will surely appear and Papago If something happens to someone, he will definitely appear

gentleness, moderation, softness

One of the readings at church last Sunday was from Philippians 4, starting Rejoice in the Lord always, and continuing Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The preacher spoke mainly on the idea of gentleness. 

As a choral singer, I know two anthems on that text, one by Henry Purcell (which my number one commenter of recent times, Batchman, mentioned in a recent comment) and the other by Anon or John Redford. The first uses the text Let your moderation be known and the second Let your softness be known, so obviously there are different translations out there. In fact, Bible Gateway has 25 overlapping translations of these words in 62 versions. These can be divided into noun( phrase)s (typically Let your N be known, or Let everyone see your N) and adjectives (typically Let everyone see that you are Adj). 

gentleness 20
gentle spirit 3
gentle spirit [your graciousness, unselfishness, mercy, tolerance, and patience] 
gentle attitude
gentle nature 
moderation 5
forbearance 4
kindness 3 
graciousness 2
gracious attitude  
reasonableness 2 
chassidus (piety) 1
modesty 1
patience 1
patient mind 1
unselfishness (your considerateness, your forbearing spirit) 1

gentle 3
gentle and kind 3
gentle and gracious 
gentle [kind; considerate; patient]
considerate 3
reasonable and gentle 
unselfish and considerate 

Two are very different: the Message version, which has Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them and the Worldwide English version, which has Let everyone know that you think kindly of others before yourselves.

The Greek word behind all these English translations is ἐπιεικής, epieikés, from epí upon and eikos equitable, fair. It is an adjective; the equivalent noun is epieíkeia. Bible Hub explains: epieikḗs (“justice beyond ordinary justice”) builds on the real intent (purpose) of what is really at stake … and hence, is true equity that appropriately fulfils the spirit (not just the letter) of the law. 

I first said to the preacher that the best word out of all those seems to be moderation, but I later thought of the rather cumbersome equitability  and equitableness, which, not surprisingly, none of the translations uses.

If any Greek (or Hebrew) word has 25 different (but overlapping) meanings in English (or any other language), can we say what the bible says (or even means)? I’m sure it is possible to worry too much about this, as I have probably just done.  

Kingdoms and empires

The hymn The day thou gavest, Lord, has ended (Wikipedia, performance) has as its last verse:

So be it, Lord; Thy throne shall never,
Like earth’s proud empires, pass away:
Thy kingdom stands, and grows forever,
Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.

We quite often refer to God as king and to God’s kingdom or the kingdom of God, but we almost never refer to God as emperor or to God’s empire or the empire of God, even though King of kings and Lord of lords is more analogous to an earthly emperor than a king. 

The only reference to empire/emperor/imperial in the King James/Authorised version of the bible is in the comparatively late OT book of Esther (1:20):

When the king’s decree which he will make is proclaimed throughout all his empire (for it is great), all wives will honor their husbands, both great and small. 

(The king being Ahasuerus and the empire being Persia.)

Of the other 27 translations on Bible Hub, one uses realm, four use empire and the rest kingdom.


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Either way, don’t beg the question

Some prescriptivists insist that beg the question means, and can only mean, assume the conclusion of a philosophical argument, and doesn’t mean, and cannot mean, raise the question. The esteemed Mark Liberman of Language Log traces the whole history from Greek to Latin to English in probably more detail than you will ever need or want (brief summary: almost everyone now uses it to mean raise the question) and concludes: 

If you use the phrase to mean “raise the question”, some pedants will silently dismiss you as a dunce, while others will complain loudly, thus distracting everyone else from whatever you wanted to say. If you complain about others’ “misuse”, you come across as an annoying pedant. And if you use the phrase to mean “assume the conclusion”, almost no one will understand you.

My recommendation: Never use the phrase yourself — use “assume the conclusion” or “raise the question”, depending on what you mean — and cultivate an attitude of serene detachment in the face of its use by others.

The reason I am mentioning this is that a few days ago I was watching a TED-X Talk in which the (native US English) speaker said:

Which begs me to ask another question …

No it doesn’t.

PS 26 Aug: A commenter on a Language Log post seems to have used the phrase in its original sense, judging by his punctuation: “”Is this the best way to approach the problem of the lack of scientific terminology in African languages ?”. I think that this begs the question. Is there any evidence that the lack of scientific terminology in African languages is a problem ?”

the short and long of it

Before I went to Korea for the first time, I bought, among other things, the then-current edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Korea. In the Culture section, it says:

Traditional saying provide an uncensored insight into a nation’s psyche.

An unblemished character is a Korean’s most treasured possession. To avoid any suspicion of being a thief, ‘Do not tie your shoelaces in a melon patch or touch your hat under a pear tree.’

Yesterday evening I was browsing through TV Tropes and found its page for Translation: “Yes”, which it explains:

While we commonly expect short phrases in one language to be equally short in another, sometimes short phrases are translated into surprisingly long ones: however, many shows parody this completely by having a single word become a long phrase in English, or a ridiculously long phrase to a single English word, often the word ‘Yes’.

I noticed this many years ago when proofreading transcripts of court proceedings against the audio recording. There would be exchanges like:

Barrister (in English): Did you see the accused do something on the night in question?
Interpreter (in other language): [Approximately that long sentence.]
Witness (in other language): [Very long sentence.]
Interpreter (in English): Yes. 

The judge and barristers never seemed to notice or question this.

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More biblical Greek

About six weeks ago I wrote about four words in biblical Greek, namely μαθητής mathetes (singular), μᾰθηταί mathetai (plural), usually translated as disciple (from Latin discipulus), απόστολος apostolos (singular), απόστολοι apostoloi (plural), usually apostle, γραμματέας grammateas (singular), γραμματείς grammateis (plural), usually scribe, and ῥαββί rhabbí, rabbi.

About a week ago there was a post on Language log about “A revolutionary, new translation of the gospels” by Sarah Ruden. It links to the Kindle sample of her book, including an extensive introduction in which she explains some of the principles she developed to guide her work (among them “to deal with the Gospels more straightforwardly than is customary”), and “A discursive glossary of unfamiliar word choices in English”, including the four words I wrote about.

One noticeable choice she made is to render the names of people and places as straight transliterations of the Greek, so she has Iēsous travelling from Galilaia through Ioudaia to Ierousalēm with Simōn Petros, Andreas, Iakōbos and Iōannēs (and others), making them all sound rather more Greek than they actually were.

Some people may find her translation too straightforward, but they should not let that stop them from reading and reflecting.