January 23, 2008

Oh, his aching skull

Just had the good fortune to have a fairly hilarious short play by David Ives read/performed for me, "Variations on the Death of Trotsky." One joke hinges on a fun linguistic distinction, and would be ineffably untranslatable in many languages, so I thought it might be of interest to you Log linguaphiles. No sooner thought than posted...

Rather than give you an extended background spiel, I'll just reproduce Variation 2 in its entirety, courtesy of GoogleBooks. The main thing you need to know is that Trotsky is sitting at his desk writing the day after he's been attacked by a (mountain-) axe-wielding Spanish communist. The evidence of the attack is visible in the form of an axe-handle protruding from the back of his head. The key, variously translatable joke appears in the last 20 lines. Its intranslatability hinges on the fact that alienable possession and inalienable possession are ambiguous in most English contexts, but indicated with different morphemes in many languages.

There's lots else linguistic going on too, of course, but I was especially tickled by the alienability funny. Geek-o-rama!

Update: Not one but two erudite readers, Jeremy Cherfas and John V. Burke, write in to note an allusion to Waugh's "Scoop". In Burke's words:

In "Scoop," a semi-literate but enormously powerful newspaper publisher, probably based on Lord Beaverbrook, presides at editorial conferences where his preposterous assertions ("Of course, everyone knows Mussolini is in the pay of the Jews") are answered by underlings--who know he's intolerant of contradiction--with the formula "Up to a point, Lord Copper." This seems to be Mrs. Trotsky's tactic as well.

Posted by Heidi Harley at January 23, 2008 01:19 AM