Things I learned (military vocab)

Part of what I love about translating is the diverse documents and themes that I get to read and learn about. There are so many things that would probably never have crossed my path were it not for the little bits of research I need to do when translating complex (or not-so-complex) documents.

So here is a selection of interesting military facts I learned while translating this past week:

Uti possidetis (Latin for “as you possess”) is a principle in international law that territory and other property remains with its possessor at the end of a conflict, unless otherwise provided for by treaty. In French, this is often referred to as “le principe de l’intangibilité des frontières“, although in the Helsinki accords, the term used is “inviolability” in English and “inviolabilité” in French. There seems to be a slight difference in these meanings that often goes unnoticed. While a border is always “inviolable” under international law, its “intangibility” is relative, since borders can be modified under a peaceful agreement.

A2/AD (Anti Access/Area Denial) is a device used to prevent an adversary from occupying or traversing an area of land, sea or air. The specific method used does not have to be totally effective in preventing passage (and sometimes is not) as long as it is sufficient to severely restrict, slow down, or endanger the opponent. The French call this “les stratégies de déni d’accès“. This covers everything from stakes being planted in ditches in Medieval warfare to modern anti-ship missiles currently being brandied about in the South China Sea.

A Theatre of Operations (TO – “théâtre d’opérations” in French) is a sub-area within a “theatre of war”, which is itself an area or place in which important military events occur or are progressing. The boundary of a TO is defined by the commander who is orchestrating or providing support for specific combat operations within the TO. But TOs even exist in peace time. In this case, they are divided into “strategic directions” rather than military regions.

Asymmetric warfare (or asymmetric engagement – une guerre asymmétrique”) is war between belligerents whose relative military power differs significantly, or whose strategy or tactics are very different. This is typically a war between a standing, professional army and an insurgency or resistance movement. Such struggles often involve strategies and tactics of unconventional warfare, the weaker combatants attempting to use strategy to offset deficiencies in quantity or quality.

A MOOC for language lovers

Finally there’s a MOOC out there (free, online university course) for language lovers with no previous background in linguistic studies. “Miracles of Human Language: An Introduction to Linguistics” is a Leiden University course, transmitted on Coursera as of March 2015, and presented by my old linguistics teacher’s husband.

It promises to be a solid introduction to the basics of linguistics: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and all that fun stuff, with possibly some celebrity appearances (did someone say Noam Chomsky?). So if all of this rocks your boat, or just ruffles your curiosity, head over to and sign up early for next year.

The Thoughts of Mark Twain

Following on from the last post, it seems that Mark Twain had his own bit to say about English orthography, and notably proposed a reformation plan:

A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling by Mark Twain

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter “c” would be dropped to be replased either by “k”or “s”, and likewise “x” would no longer be part of the alphabet.

The only kase in which “c” would be retained would be the “ch” formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform “w” spelling, so that “which” and “one” would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish “y” replasing it with “i” and Iear 4 might fiks the “g/j” anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 orso modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants.Bai iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez “c”, “y” and “x” — bai now jast a memori in the mainzov ould doderez — tu riplais “ch”, “sh”, and “th” rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

It wasn’t just English though that rubbed Twain up the wrong way. When in France he famously proclaimed: “In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language.” And upon finding a French translation of his own story which he deemed sub-standard, he proceeded to re-translate this French version of  “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” into English, maintaining the French sentence structure and turns of phrase as a less-than-subtle mockery of the language of the frogs.

Here’s what a section looks like:

“It there was one time here an individual known under the name of Jim Smiley; it was in the winter ’49, possibly well at the spring of ’50, I no me recollect not exactly. This which me makes to believe that it was the one or the other, it is that I shall remember that the grand flume is not achieved when he arrives at the camp for the first time, but of all sides he was the man the most fond of to bet which one have seen, betting upon all that which is presented, when he could find an adversary; and when he not of it could not, he passed to the side opposed.”

Finally, perhaps the language which got his goat the most was German. If ever in need of a pick-me-up, find a quiet spot and read Appendix D of A Tramp Abroad, which is simply entitled ‘The Awful German Language‘.  In his witty, at times utterly hilarious style, Twain rants about the innumerable exceptions, the unmemorisable use of appropriate cases, the bizarre and illogical construction of the German sentence, the confusing adjectival declination, the never-ending word constructions and finally, the outright odd gender system whereby ‘turnip’ is feminine but ‘maiden’ is neuter.

To illustrate this latter point, Twain offers us a literal translation of the “Tale of the Fishwife and its sad fate” which starts like this (nouns are capitalised as in the German):

“It is a bleak Day. Hear the Rain, how he pours, and the Hail, how he rattles; and see the Snow, how he drifts along, and of the Mud, how deep he is! Ah the poor Fishwife, it is stuck fast in the Mire; it has dropped its Basket of Fishes; and its Hands have been cut by the Scales as it seized some of the falling Creatures; and one Scale has even got into its Eye, and it cannot get her out. It opens its Mouth to cry for Help; but if any Sound comes out of him, alas he is drowned by the raging of the Storm. And now a Tomcat has got one of the Fishes and she will surely escape with him. No, she bites off a Fin, she holds her in her Mouth — will she swallow her? No, the Fishwife’s brave Mother-dog deserts his Puppies and rescues the Fin — which he eats, himself, as his Reward.”

I leave you to discover the Fishwife’s sad fate on your own as I continue to search out other such little treasures from Mark Twain’s cynical pen.