Never mind the quality

Feel the width.

In Perhaps vocabulary is important after all, Matt Schiavenza, who was formerly a teacher with the programme (I think I’ve mentioned this before), talks about an experience he had with one of his students who preferred to try and learn new words instead of paying attention to techniques that would help her in the IELTS exam. Now that Matt’s attempting the HSK exam (the Chinese equivalent of IELTS), he finds himself sympathising with his former student. 

A frequent refrain I’ve heard from kids here about texts they’ve been reading is, “So many new words.” To be honest, although we can suggest ways to try and guess the meaning of unfamiliar words, most of them, except under fortuitous circumstances, aren’t going to help. If you’re lucky, the word is defined in the text or in the context the sense is blindingly obvious (more or less). But for the most part, although you might note the general subject matter of a passage, there may be very little to work with especially if, say, the word is in an idiomatic phrase which, when translated literally, would be meaningless. 

When I did Latin and Greek at university, we would be given unseens now and then. It was hard enough tackling these with a dictionary and grammar at hand; it was even worse in exams. We weren’t trained how to work out the meanings of unfamiliar words. My own technique was to see whether I could identify what the root might’ve been in Indo-European and then convert it to its Germanic form to see whether it resembled something familiar from Old English. I think I had a few successes, but floundered most of the time for want of sufficient vocabulary. 

With Chinese, because I can’t use such etymological approaches and because I don’t have the vocabulary (or grammar or much else), I content myself with trying to identify what words I know to see whether I can work out the general subject matter of the sentence. Never mind the detail. One of the biggest problems that a lot of our IELTS students have had is their obsession with knowing every word and their inability, it seems, to skip past a word. It doesn’t seem to matter if you try and explain that questions demanding specific information as answers don’t require a detailed understanding of the text. 

The risk is that you end up being unable to see the wood for the trees. I remember trying to translate Greek in my first year and being able to do little more than gloss it. By the time I got to the end of a sentence, I had no clear idea what any of it meant. I remember Professor Lee used to tell us to look for the verb, but I preferred to know what the subject was because that’s where everything started in English. The verb, I felt, would merely get me lost as I searched for a subject located in some contrary position elsewhere in the sentence. 

These days, if I even dared to translate any Greek, I’d be more likely to survey the sentence and note the inflectional endings to see what relationships I could observe among the parts. And now that I’m aware that the order of major sentence constituents in a Greek sentence isn’t quite as random as I once believed, I might be less likely to trip over the wood. Let’s have a look at a few lines from the start of Xenophon’s Anabasis.

Xenophon's Anabasis

The first sentence is easy. Over twenty years have passed since I first learnt Greek, and very little of the time between then and now has been spent on the language. The first sentence says (fairly literally) “Of Darius and Parysatis were born two children, the older Artaxerxes and the younger Cyrus.” My first question was what the two nouns in the genitive were doing at the start of the sentence; next, the verb told me that I was looking for a plural subject; and there was the answer to question two. 

The second sentence isn’t as straightforward, but dredging up vocab from the depths of my memory, I believe that ἠσθένει (vb) has something to do with strength or power; that τελευτὴν probably has something to do with the word for “end”; and that ὑπώπτευε (vb) probably means something like “was approaching”. The sentence probably says “When Darius was (still) strong/in power and approaching the end of his life, he wanted both the children to be present.” But I don’t know for certain what the second verb above means. I’m guessing the meaning from context. 

The final sentence in the extract says (roughly) “Now the elder happened to be present”. At least that’s according to what I remember from twenty years ago. From the presence of μὲν, I’d guess that the next sentence will tell me that Cyrus was somewhere else. 

Admittedly, this is a rather and fortuitously gentle return to Greek. If that was a sentence from some work by Thucydides, I’d probably make very little headway. On the other hand, I don’t know how far I’d get with Xenophon before what little Greek I can remember would no longer help and I wouldn’t have enough material to establish a context. I actually know most of the words in the extract, which makes it easier for me to analyse the words I don’t know. 

Let’s try and make things a little more difficult – perhaps – with this tragic story from la Repubblica. (This appears to be an early, in-brief version of the story.)

Madre e due bambine massacrate fermato il padre, ha tentato il suicidio
TARANTO – Una donna e le sue figlie di 12 e 9 anni sono state massacrate in un appartamento a Taranto in via Gobetti, al quartiere Salinella. I carabinieri hanno fermato il marito della donna, un chirurgo, Enrico Brandimarte, che si era reciso l’arteria femorale ed è stato ricoverato in ospedale in condizioni disperate. Secondo una prima ricostruzione, sarebbe stato lui ad uccidere i familiari e tentare poi il suicidio.
La donna è stata trovata legata al letto. Donna e bambine sarebbe invece state uccise sfondando loro la testa con un corpo contudente. Nell’appartamento c’è sangue dovunque. Sul posto si sta recando il pm del tribunale di Taranto Mario Baruffa.
Mother and two children killed; the father, arrested, has attempted suicide.
Taranto – A woman and her daughters of 12 and 9 have been killed in a flat in Taranto in Via Gobetti in the Salinella district. The carabinieri have arrested the woman’s husband, a surgeon, Enrico Brandimarte, who cut open his femoral artery and has been recovering in hospital in critical condition. Following a first reconstruction, it would appear that he killed the family and then attempted suicide.
The woman was found lying in the bed. The woman and children were probably killed together from their heads being beaten in with a blunt implement. In the flat there was blood everywhere. […]

All right, that wasn’t quite as hard as I thought it might be. I thought fermato might mean “confirmed”, but from the article, it’s clear it means “arrested”. I’m not sure what una prima recostruzione is exactly. It may be Italian police procedure. I’m kind of guessing letto is “bed”. Can’t remember what invece means, but I know I’ve seen it. “Together”? I’m not sure exactly what sfondando means (hence “beaten in”) or quite how to deal with the grammar, but corpo contudente would seem to be “blunt instrument” from the context. (The second article says forse con un martello “perhaps with a hammer”.) I don’t think I’ve ever seen dovunque before, but “everywhere” fits the context and morphology. I’m not really certain about that final sentence. It seems to be something about the source of the article. I don’t know what a tribunale is. A police rank? Some sort of public official, it seems. 

I see from the follow-up to the article above (Massacra moglie e due figlie/Muore suicida medico di Taranto) that the doctor died soon after arriving at hospital, and the kids were 11 and 14.

E’ morto in ospedale l’uomo che ha ucciso in casa la moglie e due figlie, di 11 e 14 anni.

Brandimarte suffered from depression, and if I understand the article correctly, the neighbours frequently heard shouting and arguments. 

I think that like the extract from the Anabasis, this article isn’t exactly all that difficult to understand, and I’d no doubt have more difficulty if the level of the writing was comparable with the sort of English you get in the IELTS exam. The first text has words I know; the second is grammatically and lexically straightforward. 

I’ve got a book of texts in Italian. I should really try something similar with those.

4 thoughts on “Never mind the quality”

  1. I got the first paragraph of that Italian text easily enough, but the second paragraph really threw me, especially the last sentence. Of course, with Romance languages I relate everything back to French, which helps with everything but Romanian. I assumed "Tribunale" was roughly equivalent to tribunal, perhaps a part of the judicial system, instead of an official in that system.

  2. John, invece usually means "instead of" and as you guessed, letto is "bed". dovunque does in fact mean "everywhere". Ricostruzione literally means "reconstruction", while secondo means "according to" rather than "following". So it should be: "according to an initial reconstruction (of events), he would have killed his family members and then attempted suicide".Also, the first sentence of the second paragraph is a bit more sordid than you indicate :). The verb legare means "to tie up" so it should be translated as "the woman was found tied to the bed". Sfondando means something like "smashed in" so your translation is correct. Tribunale is a type of police official.Not bad John!

  3. Thanks for the corrections, Matt. I know I’ve seen invece, but had forgotten what it meant. The best sense for it in my dictionary is "on the contrary" since it’s clearly an adverb. I don’t think I knew secondo in the sense "according to". With legare I’m confusing my Old English with my Italian – a kind of weird, temporal false friend. I wasn’t certain whether tribunale meant a police official or some sort of civic official like an investigating magistrate.
    Chris, I think the last sentence is saying that the post came from a report by the tribunale, Mario Baruffa. I think it says (fairly literally) "In this post, one is reporting/recounting/repeating the PM of the tribunale of Taranto, Mario Baruffa." It’s using impersonal si (like French on) and the continuous verb form (stare + gerund). In more natural English, you’d make the verb passive.

  4. Yep- secondo is a very common expression in conversational Italian, and in addition to its meaning as "according to" it also means "in my opinion". For example, secondo me, questa ragazza e’ molto figa would mean "In my opinion, this girl is super hot". Why I chose this example escapes me…probably because I used to hear it spoken constantly in the dorms of Padua.

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