Monday, December 28, 2015

How's That Again?

If you ever wonder why foreign relations are fraught with misunderstandings of the other guy’s meanings and motives, you need look no further than an online translation site. These sites, devised by experienced linguists, interpreters, and computer experts (one supposes), offer what people probably believe are accurate translations from one language to another.

While one hopes that the world’s diplomats do not rely upon these online services, such as Google Translate, Babelfish, and Worldlingo, many of them are hearing their fellow diplomats’ ideas filtered through the perhaps even less reliable interpreters who bring their own inadequacies and prejudices to on-the-spot instantaneous translation of complex world issues.  It’s no wonder that a few nuances may be lost in translation.
To test the efficacy of the online translators, I tried a little experiment with a couple of simple English children’s verses. To reflect the major languages spoken in the world, I translated each of them successively from English into Russian, Hindi, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Italian, Spanish, French, and then back into English. Here are the results. I started one experiment with:

          Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
          How I wonder what you are,
          Up above the world so high,
          Like a diamond in the sky.

And ended up with:

        I turned,
            And I do not know how to do some of the stars,
            And a flash from the top of the world,
            Like diamonds.

For a second attempt, I started with: 
        Mary had a little lamb, 
        Its fleece was white as snow,
        And everywhere that Mary 
        The lamb was sure to go.
The resulting translation, after going through eight other languages and then back into English was:

            Mary, Mary, was wherever he may be,
            Please go ahead,
            Lamb and wool in the snow,
            And pregnancy.

To test how the online translator would do with an actual current political statement, I chose one that has made the news rather recently, by one of the more bellicose presidential candidates, who said of ISIS: “I would carpet-bomb them into oblivion.”  That statement went through the translation process and emerged simply as:

“I had forgotten the bombing.”

Some other examples of translation fiascos can be found in my book, Puns, Puzzles and Word Play, including a surreal rendition of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

 Maybe the best diplomacy is just to keep your mouth shut.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has never learned to keep his mouth shut and is resigned to the fact that he will never be Secretary of State.
             Mary had a little lamb,
            Potatoes, and mint jelly,
            Pickles, slaw, and deviled ham
            She brought home from the deli.
            A tummy-ache made Mary weep.
            She cried, “How sick I am!”
            Then, like Bo-Peep, who lost her sheep,
            Mary lost her lamb.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Merry Little Christmas, Revisited

In this week before Christmas, here is a reposting of a blog that most recently ran three years ago, but I was asked about it the other day, so I think it’s worth recycling once more.  You may have missed it when it appeared before, and even if you read it, you have problably forgotten it. (Yes, you have.)

A favorite song this time of year is Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” with its heart-warming lyrics that cheered up adorable little Margaret O’Brien when Judy Garland sang them in 1944 in Meet Me in St. Louis

The original lyrics, however, were not at all heart-warming. In fact, Garland found them downright depressing. “If I sing that lyric to little Margaret O’Brien,” she said, “the audience will think I’m a monster.” See for yourself:
               Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
             It may be your last,
             Next year we may all be living in the past.
            Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
            Pop that champagne cork,
            Next year we will all be living in New York.

            No good times like the olden days,
            Happy golden days of yore,
            Faithful friends who were dear to us
            Will be near to us no more.

            But at least we all will be together,
            If the Lord allows,
            From now on we'll have to muddle through somehow,
            So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Though credited to Blane and Martin, the song was completely written by Martin, and he resisted changing anything. Tom Drake, the actor who played Judy’s romantic interest in the movie and a friend of Martin’s, told him: “You stupid son of a bitch! You’re gonna foul up your life if you don’t write a new verse!” So Martin finally agreed to make the song more upbeat. His new lyric was:

            Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
            Let your heart be light,
            From now on, our troubles will be out of sight.

            Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
            Make the Yuletide gay,
            From now on, our troubles will be miles away.

            Here we are as in olden days,
            Happy golden days of yore.
            Faithful friends who are dear to us           
            Gather near to us once more.

            Through the years we all will be together,
            If the Fates allow,
            Until then we’ll have to muddle through   
            So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.  

You’ll note that the “Lord” is changed to the “fates.” Apparently, Hollywood felt you shouldn't be too religious about Christmas!

In 1957, Frank Sinatra asked Martin to “jolly up” the line "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow" for his album "A Jolly Christmas." Martin's new line—"Hang a shining star upon the highest bough"—is now more widely known than the original.

Yet another lyrical change was in store.  In 2001, Martin, a devout Seventh Day Adventist, wrote a religious version of the song:

            Have yourself a blessed little Christmas,
            Christ the King is born,
            Let your voices ring upon this happy morn.  
            Have yourself a blessed little Christmas,
            Serenade the Earth,
            Tell the world we celebrate the Savior's birth. 

            Let us gather to sing to Him
            And to bring to Him our praise, 
            Son of God and a Friend of all, 
            To the end of all our days. 

            Sing hosannas, hymns, and hallelujahs, 
            As to Him we bow, 
            Make the music mighty as the heav'ns allow, 
           And have yourself a blessed little Christmas now.
So take your choice—depressing, uplifting, or religious—but since Martin died a few years ago, at the age of 96, there probably won’t be any more versions.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who is not yet 96 but after years of dissipation looks about 105, is now specializing in non-sequitur verses, which have nothing to do with the blog to which they are appended. He says it’s a new art form:

       In a fierce game of bridge, I try to play smart,
       And I slam down my tricks with a thump.
       With a club or a diamond, a spade or a heart,
       But the tricks that are best are no-Trump.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Conversion Table

This conversion table was recently passed on to me by a scientific friend. Some of the equivalencies may be worth noting for future needs:

Ratio of an igloo's circumference to its diameter = Eskimo pi

2,000 pounds of Chinese soup = won ton

Time between slipping on a peel and hitting the pavement = 1     bananosecond

Weight of an evangelist = 1 billigram

Half a large intestine = 1 semicolon

Shortest distance between two jokes = a straight line

2,000 mockingbirds = two kilomockingbirds

1,000 ccs of wet socks = 1 literhosen

2 physicians = 1 paradox
2.4 statute miles of surgical tubing at Harvard Medical School = 1 IV league
1 millionth of a truite meunière in a bistro = 1 microfiche
6 witches’ spells removed = 1 hexagon

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou knows about spells: when he saw a Mickey Mouse cartoon, he had a Disney spell.

            There were three witches in Macbeth,
            Their cauldron filled with doom and death,
                 The first said “Bubble, bubble,”
                 The second, “Toil and trouble,”
            The third said, ”Whew! I’m out of breath.”

Tuesday, December 8, 2015


On a recent journey to that City of Bright Lights and Shattered Dreams (I mean, of course, New York), I noted that Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport offers free Wi-Fi, as did the hotel at which I stayed. This is a great service to travelers who wish to connect their laptops, smartphones, tablets, digital audio players, and the like to the Internet.

I know that the “Wi” of “Wi-Fi” is a shortened form of “Wireless,” but I wondered about the “Fi.”  Let’s see now, “Hi-Fi” means “High Fidelity,” “Sci-Fi” means “Science Fiction,” and the U. S. Marine motto sometimes shortened to “Semper Fi” is “Semper Fidelis.” So “Wi-Fi” obviously means “Wireless….uh….Wireless….what?”

It turns out the “Fi” doesn’t really mean anything.  It’s just a catchy term, analogous to “Hi-Fi,” coined in 1999 by the Interbrand Corporation and trademarked by The Wi-Fi Alliance. It is a little easier to remember than Wi-Fi’s official name: “The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 802.11 Direct Sequence Standards.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is a devotee of Whi-Fi—which in his case stands for Whisky Fifths.

            A very shy fly endeavored to try
            To fly as high as the pie in the sky.
            But close to the sun, he began to fry.                       
            He’s buzzing now in the sweet by-and-by.