I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Authors' Mistakes #21 - Sidney Sheldon

It is very annoying how even the most famous authors who write in English think they can get away with wrong sentences in other languages. Italian, my native language, is almost always abused. Perhaps the authors arrogantly think that they write in any language. Or perhaps they only care about English readers. It is as if many English authors, whether they are from the US, the UK, or Australia, thought that English is the only language worth knowing (and respecting).

I just finished reading Tell Me Your Dreams, by Sydney Sheldon and, once more, I discovered that Italian was butchered (and, actually, German as well).

It’s a pity, because Tell Me Your Dreams is an interesting story and, in general, well written. OK. Let’s go through this Calvary...

On Page 26, “Fra Bartolomeo” is misspelled “Fra Bartolommeo”. It’s a typo, like the one on page 337, where “doz-” appears at the end of a line but “en” is missing from the beginning of the next one. And yet, it is probably not a chance that the incorrect spelling appears in an Italian name.

On page 27/28, Sheldon writes: “And then she thought, Non faccia, lo stupido. Maybe in another lifetime, creep” [Italics in the original]. Sheldon managed to make two mistakes in four words. The first mistake is that there shouldn’t be a comma between “faccia” and “stupido” and the second one is that “faccia” should really be “fare”. The sentence means “don’t be stupid”, although the literal, word-by-word translation from the Italian would be “don’t do the stupid” (which proves that literal translations don’t work!). In English, you wouldn’t dream of placing a comma between “don’t be” and “stupid”, and the same applies to Italian. The second mistake has to do with formal vs. informal addressing: the present subjunctive (“faccia”) would be correct when addressing a person formally, but you wouldn’t do that when addressing a “creep”. For addressing somebody informally in a negative sentence, the infinitive (“fare”) is the correct form.

On page 47, Sheldon writes “I feel dispiace – sorry for her” [his Italics]. The Italian translation of “sorry” is “dispiaciuta”, which is the past participle (feminine) of the verb “dispiacere”, while “dispiace” is a form of the present tense. That said, no Italian would say “mi sento dispiaciuta per lei”, which is the correct literal translation of “I feel sorry for her” (a better expression would be “mi dispiace per lei”), but the mixed expression “I feel dispiaciuta – sorry for her” would have been OK.

On page 87, to the question “How was Quebec?”, Alette replies “va bene” [Italics in the original]. In Italian, “va bene” could have been an answer to the question “come va?” (the Italian equivalent of the Australian “How are you going?” and the American “How are you doing?”). But as an answer to “How was Quebec?”, “va bene” is nonsensical. Perhaps Sheldon wanted to translate “it’s OK”. Then, he should have written “non male” (“not bad”) or “bella” (“beautiful”).

On page 91, in all capitals, Sheldon writes the following sentences with an orgy of mistakes:
Serial killer loose...
Quatres hommes brutalement tués et castrés...
Wir suchen für ein Mann der castriert seine Hopfer...
Maniac di homicidal sullo spree crespo di uccisióne.

The French line is the translation of “Four men brutally killed and castrated”, but “Quatres” should have been “Quatre”.

The German line is the translation of “We are looking for a man who castrates his victims”, but the correct German would have been “Wir suchen einen Mann, der seine Opfer kastriert”. If I have counted them correctly, the sentence as written by Sheldon contains six mistakes. Let’s see:
  1. The verb “suchen” requires a direct object, not an indirect object with the preposition “für”;
  2. “ein” should have been “einen” because “ein” is used with a subject, not with a direct masculine object like in the sentence (i.e., “ein” is the Nominative form while “einen” is the Accusative);
  3. there should be a comma between the principal and the dependent clauses;
  4. in a dependent clause, the verb goes at the end;
  5. the German word for “victims” is “Opfer”, not “Hopfer”;
  6. the verb “kastrieren” is spelled with a “k”, not with a “c”.
Note that German nouns should be written with a capital first letter, but Sheldom (prudently!) wrote in all caps. Otherwise, I’m confident that he would have managed to cram into the sentence one or two additional mistakes.

I’m not sure about the language of the last sentence, but I fear that it was meant to be Italian, because I recognise the three words “sullo” (“on the”), “di” (“of”), and “uccisione” (“killing”, although it should be written without any accent). Perhaps “Maniac di homicidal” was meant to be “Maniaco omicida”. The word “spree” seems to be taken directly from English (like in “shopping spree”). The adjective “crespo” means “frizz”, and I cannot really imagine what Sheldon meant with it.


On page 276, the word “trovo” is spelled “travo”, and the word “pazzo” should have been plural (“i.e., “pazzi”).

Finally, on page 328, the “sweetest” mistake of all: Ashley replies to “My pleasure, luv” with “Minièra anche” [author’s Italics]. This is a real pearl, worthy of Google Translate at its worst. It baffled me for a second, until I imagined that in English the appropriate reply would have been “Mine too”. As it happens, if you forget that “mine” is in this case is a pronoun and translate it into Italian as a noun (i.e., the place where minerals are extracted), you get... “miniera”! The correct literal translations would have been “Anche il mio” (masculine, because “pleasure” translates to “piacere”, which is masculine).

This is gross!

Just for fun, I typed “mine too” into Google Translate and got “anche la mia”, which is the feminine form of “anche il mio”. One could only speculate on why Google assumed that the object referred to by the pronoun “mine” was feminine, but this “gender stuff” is difficult for English speakers... :-)

For your reference, here are the links to all past “Authors’ Mistakes” articles:

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Authors' Mistakes #20 - Donna Leon

I just finished reading yet another Brunetti novel by Donna Leon: Fatal Remedies.

This is the 8th Story with Commissario Brunetti and it was, as usual, entertaining. But, you guessed it, I detected in it some mistakes that could have been easily avoided.

The first mistake is on page 45, where Leon states that the 1st November is in Italy the “day of the dead”, while the day of the dead is in fact the second day of November. This mistake is surprising for several reasons. First of all, Donna Leon has lived in Italy for many years. Secondly, “All Saints’ Day” is well known in the English world, where it precedes “All Souls’ day”.

On page 133, Leon mentions “Ponte dei Greci” (Bridge of the Greeks), but spells it “Ponte dei Grechi”, which is wrong. This is a funny mistake, because the word “grechi” exists in Italian, but is used as an adjective. For example, “gli antichi greci” (the ancient Greeks) but “i vasi grechi” (the Greek vases). In fact, many (most) Italians erroneously use the noun when they should use the adjective, and even think that you are an ignorant if you use the adjective correctly. It is therefore common to hear and read expressions like “attori greci” (Greek actors) and “ruderi greci” (Greek ruins), which are incorrect. Donna Leon is the only one who swap noun and adjective the other way around!
On page 144 and some additional times on later pages, Leon uses the word “embarcadero” and italicises it to indicate that it is Italian. But the problem is that the word is Spanish. To indicate a pier, she should have used the word “molo”.

Finally, on page 235, Leon refers to the wife of a murder victim as “Signorina”. This is clearly wrong, as in Italian a married woman is a “signora”, not a “signorina”. In fact, the term “signorina” is nowadays used very seldom because the term, like “Fräulein” in German, “Miss” in English, and, I believe, “mademoiselle” in French, is considered to be less respectful.

As it often happens, these are not mistakes that detract from the readability of the story. Nevertheless, I’m always surprised that so many well-known authors (and their editors and copy editors) very often make easily avoidable mistakes.

For your reference, here are the links to all past “Authors’ Mistakes” articles:

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Authors' Mistakes #19 - Brian Christian

I just finished reading The Most Human Human, by Brian Christian, one of those books that are at the same time thought-provoking and entertaining.

It is about Christian’s preparation for and winning participation to the 2009 Loebner Prize.

At its core, the purpose of the Loebner Prize is to check whether and to what extent computer programs are able to fool a panel of judges into thinking that they are communicating with human beings. It is inspired by the well know Turing Test.

But Hugh Loebner also finances a simultaneous competition, in which AI programs are replaced by human beings. It is not uncommon for judges to think that one or more human contestants are computers. Christian’s book is interesting because, to prepare himself for the prize, he examines in depth what it means to be human.

I strongly recommend the book. It is therefore with sadness that I have to report a couple mistakes. They don’t compromise the validity of the book in any way, and one can only wonder why they were made. But they are definitely there.

Towards the bottom of page 209 (in the hardcover version), Christian writes: Latin speakers needed a term to describe the relationship they had with their dining partners, the folks they broke bread with: the custom of simply calling such people one’s “with-breads,” or (in Latin) “com panis,” caught on, a phrasing that eventually became our word “companion.” First of all, the Latin equivalent to the preposition “with” is “cum”, not “com”. Secondly, “cum” requires the noun that follows to be placed in the Ablative case. Now, “panis” is indeed the Latin word for “bread”, but in the Nominative and Genitive cases, not in Ablative. The correct Latin expression is “cum pane” (“with bread”) or “cum panibus” (“with breads”).

Still on page 209, there is another mistake. Christian states: as misfortunate events were believed in the sixteenth century to have astrological roots, speakers of Old Italian took to calling such an event a “bad-star,” or “dis-astro”: hence “disaster.” What Christian says is correct in content. Indeed, when somebody systematically appears to be lucky/unlucky, he/she is said in Italian to be “born under a good/bad star” (“nato/nata sotto una buona/cattiva stella”). But Christian refers to Old Italian, while the term “disastrum” already existed in Latin. OK. I agree: not a big deal. But why should one say something when it is not correct?

For your reference, here are the links to all past “Authors’ Mistakes” articles:

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Frequency of family names

In five previous articles I talked about power-law distributions. I don’t know why I am so fond of them, but I do. Perhaps because I find them intriguing.

But while in all previous occasions I used power-laws to fit distributions related to networks, in this case I use them in connection with the frequency of family names. I looked up the frequencies of the most common family names in Italy, USA, Germany, and France (I also wanted to find Australia, but I didn’t find anything suitable). Then, I binned the frequency in doubling intervals, so that they would appear uniform in a logarithmic scale, and plotted them with Excel. Here is what I got:

As you can see, France, with an index of 1.8383, shows the steepest slope, followed by Italy with 1.7241, USA with 1.3593, and Germany with 1.3166.

What does it mean? I don’t know. The slopes are quite close to each other, but those of countries with Latin-derived languages (France and Italy, 1.8 and 1.7) are steeper than those where Anglo-Saxon languages are spoken (USA and Germany, 1.4 and 1.3). Is this significant or is it only a coincidence?

I should do the same for Spanish, Portuguese, Rumanian (all Latin languages), and Dutch, Danish, and Swedish (all Anglo-Saxon).

And what about Slavonian languages like Russian, etc.?

Also, I had 4991 names for Italy, 2128 for Germany, 1818 for France, and 961 for USA. It would be interesting to see how sensitive the slopes are to the size of the samples.

These lists of names are probably derived from census data. It is inevitable that they will include foreign names in addition to the domestic ones. Has that a significant effect? In any case, America is a melting pot of immigrants from all over the world. How many American family names are actually of Anglo-Saxon origin?

In case you are curious, in my previous examples, the indices were 1.526 (Network of Feedbacks on eBay), 0.7262 (The small world of this blog), 1.1685 (More on visitors to this blog), and 1.2507 (A real small-world network #2).
I also had a further article on small-world networks but without power-law distributions (Small-world networks (or not?)).

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Authors' Mistakes #18 - Douglas Preston

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have written together more than a dozen very good thrillers. But they have also authored books on their own. I just finished reading Impact, by Douglas Preston, a gripping Science Fiction story.

I found the story very good and free from all small typos and mistakes that so often mar paperbacks.

But, unfortunately, Preston made a huge mistake that actually invalidated the whole story. I know, “suspension of disbelief” and all that, but this mistake also causes a completely unacceptable inconsistency within the story.

WARNING: Spoiler. In the rest of this article, I’m going to reveal some key elements of the plot and hit at how it ends.

The premise of the whole story is that an alien race, around 100 million years ago, placed an intelligent machine inside the Voltaire crater on Deimos, the smaller of the two moons orbiting Mars. Awakened by an exploration probe, the alien AI sends to Earth a sort-of asteroid entirely made of strange matter. It then sends another, bigger, asteroid, also entirely made of strange matter, to the Moon, almost destroying it.

The first asteroid reaches Earth on April 14. Its speeds is measured to be 48 km/s (page 10). When, days later, the second asteroid hits the Moon with devastating results, the US top military brass wants to nuke the machine and be done with it. But they are told that it would take at best nine months for a space mission to reach Mars, and, in any case, the next window of opportunity for a Mars launch would be almost two years off (page 442).

On page 439, the US president is told that “the Deimos Machine can’t fire unless Voltaire crater is oriented toward the Earth. And since it’s a deep crater, the orientation has to be fairly close. [...] It was aligned in April [...]. The next alignment was tonight. You saw what happened to the Moon”. When the president asks “When’s the next alignment?”, the reply is “Three days from now”.

Do you see the mistake?


Think about it: Earth and the Moon were struck on the same nights when the crater was aligned, first in April and then less than a day before the meeting described on page 439. But how could that be? Strange matter or not, an asteroid travelling at 48 km/s takes at least three months to travel from Mars to Earth. Actually longer, when considering that the asteroid’s speed must have been highest when it was measured on Earth, because it was moving toward its perihelion.

How could an asteroid possibly reach Earth shortly after leaving Mars? Preston could have had the president ask that question. Then, a scientist could have said something like “The Deimos Machine must be able to operate some sort of teleportation mechanism. Perhaps it can open a wormhole and send the asteroids through it. After all, these aliens can travel between the stars. That’s probably why we didn’t detect the large asteroid that hit the Moon”.

But that would have not worked either, because on page 463 (the second last of the novel) one of the main characters says “Last week, one of the satellites in place around Deimos by chance intercepted a powerful burst of radio noise from the artifact. Evidently a communication of sort”. In other words, the machine didn’t use wormholes or other fancy stuff to send a message to its constructors. It only used a burst of radio waves. And if the machine doesn’t have any “subspace-like” capability of sending information, it doesn’t make sense to hypothesise that it has it for an asteroid.

Then, we can only conclude that Preston just screwed up.

And obviously, without a “magic” quasi-instantaneous travel from Mars to Earth, the story becomes impossible. By the time the first asteroid hit Earth, there might have been dozens of them on their way. It would have been too late for one of the protagonists to stop the machine and save the planet.

For your reference, here are the links to all past “Authors’ Mistakes” articles: