The following post by Alex Niemi is the first in a series entitled “Origin Stories.”  Alex is our associate editor.


My mother’s good friend Bonny once told me that I became interested in languages when I heard her blithely chatting in Mandarin at Hunan Spring with Uncle Peter.  This was a favorite restaurant with a killer crab special and Uncle Peter was always smilingly generous with shots of whiskey.  Bonny informed me that up until knowing her, I had only been interested in video games, which, given the hours I spent playing Zelda as a child, could be entirely true.  I’ve slowly started telling this story myself and over years of doing so, it is the only genesis story I remember and hence the one I’m telling here.  But I loved languages early.  I read my high school French textbook out loud in my room (we sadly didn’t offer Mandarin).  I argued with my counselor to let me take more languages instead of computer tech.

While studying Romance languages in college, I somehow cultivated a desperate desire to become an Early Modernist.  I studied travelogues from the sixteenth century.  I’m not really sure why the sixteenth century, other than the fact that my advisor was a very kind man who loved Montaigne and something about spending a lot of time in archives seemed sort of dreamy.  I was distressed to notice, however, that spending a lot of time in archives and rewriting the politics of Jean de Léry made me unexpectedly sad.  I didn’t think Jean de Léry would appreciate my views on the body and empire.  I felt a little like I was being rude, telling my two readers what his descriptions of cannibalism really meant.  I still loved French, though, and abandoned my archival work for a seminar on translation.

At this point my language wanderlust had also gotten me tangled in Russian because I was dating a guy who told me that Russian poetry was, in no uncertain terms, the best poetry and that my poor Anglophone brain would never get it (I know that sounds like an irrational reason to learn a language, but I don’t think any of us got here through our staunch utilitarianism).  So I tried very presumptuously to translate Pushkin for my first ever workshop.  This professor was also kind and encouraging, telling me to try my hand at some simpler texts and maybe, if I had the drive, apply to a master’s in translation.  And I did. There I was, having been told to do many things, deciding myself to abandon many others, toting strange language books around in my bag in Iowa on days when the weather depressed me, but mostly overjoyed.  Translation is such a love thing.

But now that I’ve shared my origin story, we at M-Dash would like to know, how did you wander into translation?         

Alex Niemi, Iowa City, IA



“Origin Stories” is a series on M-Blog about how people find translation as a hobby, love, or vocation.  If you would like to contribute an “Origin Story” to M-Blog, write to us at mdash.ahb@gmail.com.

The Untranslatables: Lucas Klein

The following contribution from Lucas Klein is our first post in a blog series we’re calling “The Untranslatables.” Klein was awarded the Lucien Stryk Prize in 2013 for his translation of Xi Chuan’s Notes On the Mosquito: Selected Poems, which he discusses here


there is a crowd of commoners as purple as red cabbage—the line, from my version of “The Distance” 远方, epitomizes something of Notes on the Mosquito (New Directions, 2012), my translation of the selected poems of contemporary Chinese poet Xi Chuan 西川. While my version figures the metaphor in terms of a distinctly European ingredient, as Xi Chuan wrote them, the purple commoners are perhaps paradigmatically Chinese, which is to say their description speaks to Chinese conceptions of reality in colloquially Chinese idioms: 有一群百姓像白菜一样翠绿.

Neither the grammar nor the vocabulary of the line is particularly complex or obscure in its language of composition:

有                 yǒu                    there is / are

一群             yìqún                a group of / crowd of

百姓             bǎixìng            “hundred surnames”

像                 xiàng                like / as

白菜             báicài               bok choy

一样             yíyàng             same as

翠绿             cuìlǜ                 jade green


“There is a group of ‘hundred surnames’ as jade green as bok choy.” Nor is the cultural knowledge very advanced: “hundred surnames” is a very old (as in, millennia old) expression still in use that refers, as almost all students of Chinese learn in their first semesters, to common people, the families who do not constitute the nobility; additionally, it helps to know that bok choy (whose English comes from the Cantonese pronunciation) means “white cabbage.” This explains the poetry of the line: “there is a crowd of non-nobles as jade green as white cabbage.”

The line deals with the essences of Chinese, but with a twist. While many scholars have codified the Chinese aesthetic as metonymic and literal, the poetry of Xi Chuan’s line operates by revealing the fiction in the Chinese language’s conceptualization: white cabbage is not white (that it is modified by the quintessentially Chinese “jade green” twists the twist with even more torque). At other moments in my translation I have left the Chinese allusion for the educated reader to follow or the interested reader to look up, such as in Eagle’s Words 鹰的话语:

32. An enthusiast of the Analects of Confucius refutes another enthusiast of the Analects of Confucius to a bloody pulp.

33. Du Fu has received too much exaltation, so no other Du Fu could ever win anything.

32. 一个熟读《论语》的人把另一个熟读《论语》的人驳得体无完肤。

33. 杜甫得到了太多的赞誉,所以另一个杜甫肯定一无所获。

In this instance, though, I sacrificed the insinuation about Chinese in particular to imply that all languages may contain such falsehoods and misnomers: as purple as red cabbage, because, of course, red cabbage is not red. And to reproduce the poïesis of Xi Chuan’s alliteration, such as with the chiasmus of /b/ and /x/ (IPA [ɕ]) and the repeated /c/ (IPA [tsʰ]) in yǒu yìqún bǎixìng xiàng báicài yíyàng cuìlǜ, I preceded it with, there is a crowd of commoners.

Lucas Klein, Hong Kong



“The Untranslatables” is a series on M-Blog about those words or phrases that give us pause as translators, that stump us and then, sometimes, enlighten us. In other words, those fragments of a text that can be so hard to translate but also so utterly satisfying when and if we finally find a way to say in our language close to what they mean in another one. If you would like to contribute an “Untranslatable” story to M-Blog, write to us at mdash.ahb@gmail.com.

Excerpts: Foreign Words

Last week, World Literature Today named the AHB book Foreign Words one of “25 Books that Inspired the World.” The novel by Vassilis Alexakis was translated by Alyson Waters, who we interviewed in the latest issue of M-Dash.

It’s a beautiful novel, filled with smart, insightful ruminations on language and on the small eureka moments that come sometimes when learning a new one. Much of the book is excerpt-able, but we’ll settle for the following short passage. Enjoy.



I try to play my two roles—professor and student—to the best of my abilities. As soon as I learn a word, I hasten to teach it to myself:

“Do you know how to say ‘tomorrow’ in Sango”


When I was in school I never asked my teachers questions. I was bored in class. Just the sight of the blackboard was enough to depress me.

“How?” I ask again.

I make myself wait for my answer in order to pique my curiosity.

Kekereke!” I declare at long last.

“Why, it’s an onomatopoeia!”

“Precisely. You will notice that one says cocorico in French and koukourikou in Greek. Is this because the rooster’s cry varies slightly from one country to the next? Well, it doesn’t matter. In Sango, this onomatopoeia was used to form a noun that means ‘tomorrow.’”

Sometimes the affected manner I take on in my role as teacher makes me want to laugh.

“And how do you say ‘today’?” I ask slyly.

“We’ll look at that later.”

“Kekereke?” I suggest.


How many words have I retained in six weeks of work? Not many. I learned more quickly when I was younger. My mind is slow to cross the distance that separates words. It lingers on the blank spaces as if they too were part of the language. Will I have the strength to make it to the end of the task I have set for myself? I realized just how huge it was as I was leafing through W. J. Reed’s textbook. Had I underestimated Sango, as one does so easily when one doesn’t know a language? But it would be even more painful to go backwards and forget the little I’ve learned. This is because one becomes attached to words, like one does to people and things. I was sensitive to the quaint charm of the metaphor ngu ti Nzapa, “the water of God.” In ancient Greek there was an equivalent: Zeus is raining, they said. I imagine that my father, who was very devout, would have appreciated this metaphor, and that he would have been happy to depart on a rainy day. I hadn’t expected to find a term as biting as de, “cold,” in the vocabulary of a tropical country. It renders perfectly the sensation I had when I touched my father’s forehead. He passed away on the seventh of March: browsing through the short chapter that W. J. Reed devotes to numbers, it was fated that I stop on that number. It has a seriousness, a weight in Sango that neither Greek nor French give it: mbasambara, that’s how you say “seven” in Sango. On the other hand, the two high notes that go with kua, “death” (I should really write kúá), make me feel uncomfortable. They ring false in my ears, they mock the word, they lack respect for its meaning. Kekereke delighted me, and so did kutukutu, “automobile.” The noun that I prefer, however, is the one given to fickle women and prostitutes. They are called “butterflies,” which in itself is rather common, but the word for them is delicious: pupulenge. Marcel Alingbindo says it is an insult. I never tire of savoring it.

M-Blog is born

Non-translators, it seems, are forever fascinated by this notion of the untranslatable word. There are web sites dedicated to listing words that just won’t cross linguistic or cultural boundaries. And then, recently, this article in The Guardian came out claiming to debunk the notion entirely. In “12 untranslatable words (and their translations),” David Shariatmadari sets out to show how “silly” and “romantic” a love for the untranslatable is.

While I don’t think he accomplishes his task, I commend the effort. He fails mostly because he tries to attack his enemy head on, when any of us who work with words know translation is much more of a dance than a fight. And so, when Shariatmadari says that he’s found the one-word translation for words such as the Portuguese saudade, the Czech lítost or the German schnapsidee, I’d say he’s reaching. In part because these are words plucked from their context. And that’s not translation.

But when he ends the article claiming that “no word is completely untranslatable, but then no word is precisely translatable either,” I have to agree.

I bring this up here because I have untranslatability on my mind. We’re launching a new blog at M-Dash and we’ll be filling it with several regular features, including one we’ve named—and not without some trepidation—“The (Un)Translatables.” It will feature stories from working translators about a particular word or phrase they’ve struggled to translate and the solution—or compromise—they finally landed on.

M-Blog, as we’ll be calling our blog, will also include occasional excerpts from translations by contributors and readers as well as another regular series called “Origin Stories” in which we ask translators to share their stories of discovering literary translation as a vocation—or as a beloved hobby.

In other words, we’re about to start blogging a lot. And we hope some of you will join in on the conversation. If you have ideas or contributions for any of these new sections, feel free to write us at mdash.ahb@gmail.com. Or if a particular post moves, angers or otherwise engages you, comment away. We welcome your voices.

-Sarah Viren