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Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Lost in Translation

Fifty years ago, my school history textbook for the French Revolution described a king called "Lewis XIV". Even then, I thought this strange. Why translate "Louis XIV" into "Lewis XIV"? You lost information ( you didn't know what the French called their king) and it wasn't necessary to do so: "Louis" is a perfectly good name in English. Fifty years on, I can only think that the author of this old textbook was a Scotsman - in Scotland, "Lewis" is almost certainly more common than "Louis".

But the author was only doing something we do all the time. In English, the Maid of Orleans is always called "Joan of Arc" and never "Jean d'Arc" or "Jean of Arc". In inconsistent contrast, 'l'Arc de Triomphe is never called " the Triumph Arch"  or "the Triumphal Arch" but usually "the Arc de Triomphe". And the Champs-Élysées is never - but never - "the Elysian Fields".

If I was writing a style book (as I am now), I would start with one rule: Avoid translations which lose information unnecessarily. Many English versions of capital city names fail to meet this simple requirement. Consider three examples:

"Roma" is rendered "Rome" in English, so we lose a bit of information about what the Romans do in Rome, namely, how they pronounce the name of their capital. There appears to be no reason why "Roma" should not be rendered "Roma" in English.

"Wien" becomes "Vienna", a nicer name it's true but partly misleading. It's maybe helpful that the "W" becomes "V" to reflect differences in how these letters are pronounced in German and English, though it's very rarely done - "Weimar Republik" is never rendered as "Veimar Republic" . In fact, German place names are usually left unaltered: think Wiesbaden, Wuppertal, Worms ...

Back to Vienna. Why isn't "Wien" either retained or rendered as "Vien"? What is the " - na" doing on the end?

"København" becomes wonderful, wonderful "Copenhagen" This is massively defective. First, there is no need to change the "K" to a "C" to indicate the pronunciaton - "K" works in English. Second, it's true that when accents (diacritical marks) are missing from our keyboards  we need a substitution rule, but in this case the correct substitution for "ø" [ for which I have to type Alt + 0248) is "oe" which gets closer to the Danish pronunciation than the completely incorrect "o" which in English leads to the pronunciation "Cohpenhagen". Third, when "havn" becomes "hagen" we lose the information that this city is a port, a harbour, a haven. But there are many English harbour names which include the ending "-haven" (Peacehaven, Newhaven, Whitehaven ...) and only the very dim-witted would fail to pick up the link between "havn" and "haven". In addition (and fourth), "-hagen" removes information which might help us to the correct pronunciation: it takes a way a soft "a" and gives us a hard "a". Fifth, we have this slippage from "b" to "p" which is unnecesary even though there is a complicated issue about "b" and "p" pronunciation (just as there is for "r" and "l" in Chinese).

Result? In English, and in the absence of Alt + 0248, the Danish capital should be referred to as "Koebenhavn"

I could go on at great length. Even more fun can be had when you get into transliteration. The Cyrillic of the Russian capital transliterates as MOSKVA and if you pronounce that in English you get close to the way Muscovites talk about their city. But "Moscow"? Forget it.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The State versus Free Riders, Hold - Outs, Short Termists

All good states are Nanny states; they protect us from ourselves. Left to our own devices, we would not even protect ourselves adequately against invaders and marauders.

Free Riders are part of the problem. There will always be some people who want the Benefit without contributing to the Cost and there are many goods (what economists call Public Goods) where it is impossible to exclude the non-payers from the Benefits. Enforcing Clean Air legislation costs money, but there is no way to stop someone breathing the cleaner air when they avoid paying their share of the cost. Instead, they have to be tracked down and coerced into payment. And that also costs money. Free Riders are a pain.

Unchecked, would-be Free Riders can be sufficient in number to raise the cost of building roads, paving sidewalks, safely disposing of human sewage,  controlling infectious diseases, providing public green spaces, and so on, to levels at which no one would want to contribute.

Hold-Outs are Free Riders on Speed. They are people who would rather no one received a Benefit if they are to receive less than the Full Benefit to which they feel entitled. This is the case where so-called Vulture Funds buy up public debt which is going cheap because of likely default. When the default happens, they decline to take part in any re-structuring which would give bond holders something rather than nothing. Instead, they hold out for full payment even if it means nobody (themselves included) gets anything. Hold-Outs are the kind of people who favour children's playgrounds only if their own children can monopolise the swings.

Hold-outs need a cuff round the ear from the Nanny state: You will accept what the other 95% have agreed to accept or you will get nothing.

But the big problem for the modern democratic state is short-termism. The job of the state is to protect us from our own short-termism which always leads us to prefer jam today to bread and jam tomorrow. Left to our own devices, we simply won't insure adequately against ill health or old age just as we don't spend enough maintaining our homes, keeping them insulated and dry.

Unfortunately, the short-termists are also the voting population. It is a Sysyphean task to persuade voters to think of the morrow and it is a vote-winner to tell them that, No, they don't have to suffer - they can have tax cuts today. And no public services tomorrow.

This is what we will see being played out in England over the next few months, as the voters are treated and bribed. The future is a lost cause. The stupid party will win again.