Sunday, November 29, 2009

Blind Rothko Viewers?

Today I saw this sign outside the Rothko Room in the Phillips Collection. The sign says PLEASE LIMIT VISITORS TO THE ROTHKO ROOM TO EIGHT, followed by a Braille translation underneath. A few questions arise. How is a blind person even supposed to view these paintings? Is this some type of modernist joke?

Below, a wider view of the sign reveals the (non-informative, entirely color-based) titles of the paintings inside. No Braille translations underneath.

P.S. The "extra" dot before each Braille word indicates capital letters.

Twisty Voice of God

What does the voice of God look like? "The Baptism of Christ" (late 15th century, by the Master of the St. Bartholomew Altar) depicts God's words using a banderole (speech scroll), the medieval equivalent of the comic book "speech balloon."

At this moment in Scripture, the Latin text (Vulgate Bible) describes a mysterious voice from the clouds ("ecce vox de nube, dicens" = lo! a voice out of the clouds, speaking). The painting transcribes the words of this voice on a curvy scroll unfurling from the sky: HIC EST FILIVS MEVS DILECTV[S] IN QUO MIHI BENE COMPLACVI = "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 17:5).

I'm intrigued by the curvy word scroll here; its shape forces you to read the twisting words "out of order." Does the sinuous scroll actually evoke the shape of nimbus clouds? Or do the twists and turns of the scroll evoke the ethereal sound of a cloudy voice from the heavens?

National Gallery of Art, November 2009.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Dégustation de Tripes

More from Julia Child's kitchen at the Smithsonian (NMAH), November 2009. Vintage French restaurant signs like these (exotic and quirky to American audiences at the time) were used as props for Julia Child's TV show. For more on tripe in French cuisine, try searching Larousse Gastronomique online.

Bon Appétit!

Anyone practicing the art of French cooking this Thanksgiving? Here's Julia Child's diploma from Le Cordon Bleu. The French text seems to reflect her status as the only woman in her graduating class: M. (for "Monsieur") is replaced by "Mrs." The reading "M. Mrs." is an unexpected quirk - it seems to me that the calligrapher could have simply added two more letters to make M. (Monsieur) into Mme. (Madame) or Mrs.

For more on Julia Child's kitchen at the Smithsonian, see the National Museum of American History website.

P.S. Mrs. Julia Child was not the first female graduate of Le Cordon Bleu; that honor actually goes to English chef Dione Lucas.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Algonquin Bible

Smithsonian American Art Museum, November 2009. The first bible ever printed in what would become the US was this Algonquin-language bible, printed by John Eliot in the 1660s.

Note: I was originally trying to find a suitably "Thanksgiving related" item for today's posting and the closest I could come up was this Puritan bible printed for Native Americans. Yes, the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony were not the same as the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation, but…close enough.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Parking Commandment

Capitol Hill, October 2007. St. Mark's Episcopal Church. Nice use of Early Modern English (King James Version).

Friday, November 20, 2009

Tibetan Mantra

Eastern Market, October 2009. Buddhist mantra in Tibetan script (ཨོཾ་མ་ཎི་པ་དྨེ་ཧཱུྃ། = om mani padme hum). First syllable, om, "symbolizes the practitioner's impure body, speech and mind" (according to the Dalai Lama). Padme = character from George Lucas film.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

White House Walk: Helen Keller

Near the White House is The Extra Mile "Points of Light" Walkway which commemorates figures who embody the spirit of service and volunteerism. The marker for Helen Keller provides her name in raised letters and (underneath) in Braille.

The use of Braille is unique to this marker. While all the other commemorative markers on this walk make use of raised letters and raised relief bust portraits, the use of those design motifs in this particular marker seem to have additional significance.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Landmark Typo

Eastern Market, this morning. "Capitol Hill" is proudly misspelled as "Capital Hill." Seriously, is it that hard to proofread these things in advance?

For what it's worth, the text accompanying the Eastern Market logo is spelled correctly throughout the building itself (see below).

Arabic Word of the Day

This photo was taken just about two years ago (December 2007), when the language center where I work posted this Arabic word of the day: ثلج (snow). The sign includes the word (in original script), its pronunciation, meaning, and its use in a sentence.

I overheard someone make this comment as I was taking the photo: "There's actually an Arabic word for snow?"

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sign Language Directions

Gallery Place Metro, November 2009. Earlier this week I noticed an unusual ASL (American Sign Language) inscription on the top of this mural: the letters for "U" and "P." The arrows on either side point toward the exits, directing the viewer "up" out of the station. But why use sign language here?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

LOC Printers' Marks, Latin and Greek Mottos

Library of Congress, November 2009. Two early printers' marks painted on the ceiling of the Jefferson Building.

On the left, D. Appleton & Co. (note D A & CO on the shield). The Latin inscription in the ribbon reads INTER FOLIA FRUCTUS (fruit among the leaves) = e.g., the  "leaves" (i.e., pages of book) yield "fruit" (knowledge).

On the right, the De Vinne Press. The Greek inscription is a citation from "Prometheus Bound" (Προμηθεύς δεσμώτης), a tragedy by Aeschylus (Αἰσχύλος):

καὶ μὴν ἀριθμόν, ἔξοχον σοφισμάτων,
ἐξηῦρον αὐτοῖς γραμμάτων τε συνθέσεις,
μνήμην ἁπάντων, μουσομήτορ᾽ ἐργάνην. (Fragment β' lines 459-61)

[Prometheus speaks here: "Yes, and numbers, too, chiefest of sciences, I invented for them (humans), and the combining of letters, creative mother of the Muses' arts, with which to hold all things in memory."]

If you're interested, you can take a look at the original Greek text and an English translation.

LOC Printer's Mark Display

Library of Congress, November 2009. A snazzy interactive computer display allows the visitor to view another early printer's mark. Note the stylized "R" for the name Rosenbach.

For more on this particular mark, see this page on the LOC website.

LOC Printer's Mark, Caxton

Library of Congress, November 2009. A rarely-noticed ceiling motif in the ceiling of the Jefferson Building is its sequence of early printers' marks. These symbols were in some respects precursors to modern corporate trademarks or logos, but they could also evoke heraldic devices. Here's the late 15th-century mark of William Caxton, the first English printer (note the stylized W and C).

For more on the symbolism of printers' marks, see this section of the LOC website or the subsequent posts.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Heraldry Endures

I visited the Folger Shakespeare Library yesterday and noticed this emblem on the security police uniforms. The Library's security forces have has adopted Shakespeare's family arms as its emblem. In the 1590s, the Shakespeare family was granted permission to use these arms; note that the shield bears a spear (alluding to the name "Shakespeare") and the original arms bore a motto as well: "Non Sanz Droict" [French = not without right]. For more on these arms, see this PBS documentary website.

The use of the Bard's arms invites a number of questions: Is the police badge the modern descendant of the knight's shield? Since Shakespeare has no direct living descendants, are the Folger police force among his metaphorical heirs?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Invisible Braille Palimpsest

How do you navigate the Red or Green line if you're (color) blind or visually impaired? One map in the Metro Center station addresses this problem by superimposing Braille inscriptions on top of the "regular" map. Note the raised dots over the names of stations, and patterns of raised shapes to "translate" the color of each line.

Translating Poetry into Stone

"Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated" (Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 3, Scene 1). Folger Shakespeare Library, Capitol Hill.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

E Pluribus Unum, Modern Takes

This modern take on the Latin motto adapts the Seal of the United States by incorporating the design motif of the Obama "O" logo into the eagle's shield. Georgetown, Manifest Hope, January 2009.

Above: A mural bearing the motto "E Pluribus Unum," near Gallery Place Metro, November 2009. This multicultural vision is inspiring, but I wonder if the group of people striking a dramatic posture under a shared banner might evoke (however unintentionally) the visual iconography of a very different time and place.

For a conventional use of this motto, see the previous posting.

E Pluribus Unum, Arlington Memorials

E Pluribus Unum (Latin = "out of many, one"). The people interred at Arlington National Cemetery may come from many different origins, but all occupy a shared place of honor in the collective memory. Here, a rose garden monument bears the motto from the Seal of the United States.

Above, men from different backgrounds take neighboring grave plots: Gallagher is a surname of Irish origin (from Gaelic Ó Gallchóbhair); Cohen (‫כֹּהֵן‬) is a common Jewish surname.

For more Arlington cemetery tombstones, see here and here; see also the following posting.

Arabic Alphabet Animals

This sign advertising Arabic-language lessons has been posted up around my place of work for a few months now.

The alphabet proceeds right-to-left (note the use of red to indicate the first letter of each word) and the list includes a few animals with names relatively similar to their English counterparts: e.g. in the first row جمل (jamal) = camel; in the second row  زرافة (zaraafah) = giraffe; in the third row غزال (ghazaal) = gazelle.

P.S. [Added September 2010] I've noticed that you can find a larger version of this chart (with basic Arabic lessons) at this website.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mysterious Afghanistan Rug

Eastern Market, May 2009. This rug has been on sale for some time - and, as far as I know, it still remains unsold. I'm actually not sure who would want to buy a rug like this; it's made in Afghanistan and apparently depicts the US-led war in that country. Whoever made the rug is evidently not a native speaker of English (e.g., CHNA and MADE IN AFGHANSIAN).

Anyone out there in cyberspace have any insight into the non-English inscriptions (i.e., script, language, meaning, etc.)?

P.S. For more about this item, see this discussion on the Omniglot blog.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Chinatown: Alleged Plot

Chinatown, 604 H Street NW. This plaque was erected by the 美京中美獅子分會 (DC Chinese-American Lions Club). I realize this site has historical value, but it really a good idea for an immigrant group to commemorate a plot against the president?

P.S. This site now houses a Chinese/Japanese fusion restaurant.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Eastern Bloc Posters and Photographs

More images from GW's Global Resources Center. Here, a Romanian poster bears the words "Goodbye Comrade." An informational pamphlet from this exhibit's 1999 manifestation has more on this particular poster.

Above, a German dissident poster, fall 1989. The chant "WIR sind das Volk" (WE are the people) eventually morphed into "Wir sind EIN Volk" (We are ONE people), expressing desire for the reunification of East and West.

Here, a Czech poster celebrates "Velvet Revolution" of November 1989; the subtitle apparently reads "it's already here."

The caption next to this poster in the exhibition reads "no caption necessary." Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

P.S. For related postings, see here and here.

Berlin Wall, Pieces of History

Global Resources Center, Gelman Library, George Washington University. An exit sign for the American sector of Berlin bears an inscription in four languages: English, Russian, French, and (in much smaller sized writing) German. English-language graffiti adds another layer of textual complexity.

P.S. The Global Resources Center at GW has organized a series of events to commemorate the Eastern Bloc revolutions of 1989. Other related DC resources: "Making the History of 1989," a website maintained by George Mason University in conjunction with the NEH, CHNM, and German Historical Institute; see also the German Embassy's "Freedom Without Walls" website and my previous post; see this posting too.

P.P.S. Here's a clean version of the sign above, from the display at the Newseum:

Berlin Wall, 20 Years Later

Pieces of the Berlin Wall, NMAH, November 2009. The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. A few remnants of the wall now are scattered around DC. This NMAH display houses a few original fragments of the Berlin Wall within a concrete "replica" segment that bears the German word "Freiheit" (Freedom) as well as the English words "Torn Apart."

P.S. Large segments of the original Berlin Wall and a guard tower are on permanent display in the Newseum (see this online exhibit for more). DC is commemorating the Eastern Bloc revolutions of 1989 in a variety of ways; see my subsequent posts (here and here).

Friday, November 6, 2009

Chinatown: Vapiano

Say hello to the newest German-based Italian restaurant in Chinatown: Vapiano!

Vapiano's "gimmick" = a pasta bar where your order is cooked on the spot before your eyes. The sign reads 麵食 (noodle, pasta) 披薩 (pī sà = pizza) 酒吧 (bar), i.e. no attempt to render "Vapiano" phonetically.

A few notes: the restaurant chain is based in Germany and its website boosts locations in many countries. It's interesting to see that this establishment has done a better job with its use of Chinese than the banners at the Goethe-Institut a few blocks away.

P.S. The name "Vapiano" is apparently a compression of the two Italian words va + piano ("go slowly, take it slow"). Vapiano's UK website claims the name "Vapiano" comes from the Italian proverb "chi va piano va sano e va lontano," which  "translates as: people with a relaxed attitude live a long and healthy life."

Canadian Fish, Wacky Address

Chinatown, Full Kee Restaurant. A few photos from dinner. Above, a mysterious reference to "Canadian fish" on the menu. The Chinese characters 鱈魚 mean "codfish," so I suppose this is actually Canadian cod? I can't judge the accuracy of the Vietnamese translation below the English, but it's interesting that "Canada" appears in that line as well.

Below, see the computer-generated bilingual receipt. Looks like the Chinese/English translations are accurate, but there are some problems in the address at the top.

Translation issues aside, this is definitely my favorite Chinese restaurant within DC proper.

P.S. If you're interested in what the actual food looked like, here's a photo:

Translingual Name Convergence

Arlington National Cemetery, July 2009. Lt. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault (b. Commerce, TX) led the "Flying Tigers" division against the Japanese in WWII. He later adopted the Chinese name Chen Na-De (陳纳德), a phonetic approximation of "Chennault" which appears on the reverse of his tombstone (right-hand photo, above).

It just so happened Chennault married a Beijing-born woman named 陳香梅 (Chen Xiang-mei), who was later known as Anna Chen Chennault. In this case the wife took her husband's name (Chennault), but one could equally say that the husband took his wife's (陳 = Chen).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Different Languages, Different Audiences

November 2009. Signs in numerous languages (above) are appearing in stations throughout the Metro system; while all of them were produced by the DC Office of Human Rights, the text isn't equivalent in each one.

The French sign (Federal Triangle) addresses its reader in formal diction, employing the polite pronoun vous. "Saviez-vous que les agences gouvernementales du District de Columbia sont tenues de vous fournir leurs services dans votre langue gratuitement?" = Did you know that government agencies in DC are required to provide their services to you in your own language, free of charge?

The Spanish sign (Smithsonian) is much more direct, adopting the position of the person who actually requires certain services: "Es mi idioma; es mi derecho." = It's my language; it's my right.

For more on the French sign, see my very first blog posting.

P.S. For those who are interested, I also include the Spanish and Vietnamese signs (below).

P.S. The Vietnamese sign is in the Foggy Bottom station.

Live Long and Prosper!

Philadelphia's South 7th Street synagogue was full of Trekkies. Torah ark, late 18th-early 19th century. National Museum of American History.

A piece of artwork at the Supreme Court offers another take on the ten commandments.

P.S. I've been informed that the "Vulcan" salute actually has Jewish origins; Leonard Nimoy (who portrayed Captain Spock) adapted the ברכת כהנים (birkat kohanim), a blessing used in certain services.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Arlington Tombstone

Did he support pork-barrel spending? Arlington National Cemetery, July 2009.

P.S. From The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition (1989): bacon, v. 1890 Congress. Rec. Aug. 8887/1 "We consumed or sold our own pork, and we baconed it ourselves." In case you are interested, here's this congressman's official biography.

Shakespeare in Chinese

I highly recommend the current exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library entitled "Imagining China: The View from Europe, 1550-1700" (it explores relationships between Early Modern Europe and China - including a fascinating collection of maps, letters, documents, and other artifacts).

Today I noticed some new "family guides" for the exhibition. The "Learn Chinese!" flyer (left, above) invites readers to pronounce Chinese characters, including the standard phonetic transcription of the name "Shakespeare" (莎士比亞 shā shì bǐ yà).

I'm glad to see the Chinese text has been carefully prepared, but I must admit some indication of the proper tones in the phonetic transcriptions would have been welcome (especially if this flyer is inviting readers to "sound out" the words).

Curiously, the red box with caption "One China, Many Names" (right, above) resonates with contemporary geopolitics. Both mainland China and the Republic of China (aka Taiwan) officially claim that there is only "one China" (中国 Zhōng guó, in Mandarin; 中國 Tiong-kok in Taiwanese) - but arriving at a shared definition of "one China" is a difficult matter.

P.S. It just occurred to me that the final syllable of the transliteration for the name "Shakespeare" (亞 yà) also happens to appear in 亞 洲 yà zhōu ("Asia").

P.P.S. For a related post, see this later entry.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Thrifty Chinese Writing

Chinatown. The characters 租車 do indeed mean rent(al) car. The writing is very poorly executed - thrifty indeed!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Bad Omen?

Last week the Sackler Gallery proudly announced the opening of "Falnama: The Book of Omens," a book of divination widely used in the Islamic world.  Unfortunately, "error message gibberish" has already ruined the display on this electronic information kiosk. Sign of things to come?

A Missing Language

Yesterday I took a trip to the National Gallery of Art. I noticed that the museum provides guide maps in seven languages including English and (L, front to back) French, Spanish, Italian, German, Japanese, and Mandarin Chinese. But the sign (R) only states that guides are available in six languages (i.e., Chinese is missing).

Was this sign produced before Chinese was added to the pantheon of guide map languages? Or is this discrepancy just another bureaucratic error?

Here Lie Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

This plaque in the National Cathedral indicates the spot where Helen Keller and her lifelong companion Anne Sullivan have their final resting place. The Braille inscription beneath the raised letters are well-worn. It's clear that many visitors have run their fingers over these lines. November 2009.