Saturday, January 30, 2010

Mixed Messages

Capitol Hill, January 2010. There are certain magical spaces within the realm of DC where parking is both permitted and forbidden at the same time.

Eastern Market, February 2010. Another case of mixed messages - go pay for your inability to park!

Multilingual Map: Territorial Waters?

One last detail of this multilingual map. Here we see Florida and the Bahamas (with place-names in English, since the US and UK lay claim to these lands respectively) and Cuba's place-names are in Spanish. When it comes to the sea, English is used right up to the north coast of Cuba; everything south of Cuba is in Spanish.

The use of English or Spanish demarcates different parts of the sea, conceptually it dividing this contiguous body of water into distinct cultural/linguistic zones. The tidy distinction does break down, though; for instance, Jamaica's territory bears English place-names yet the water immediately around the island (presumably within Jamaica's jurisdiction) bears Spanish text. As a whole, the map really visualizes (for me) how arbitrary and paradoxical the notion of "territorial waters" is in the first place. In order to define "territorial water," one must first conceive of water as if it were land (Latin etymology: terra = earth, land).

For more on this map, see here and here.

Multilingual Map: Language and Territory

Another detail of an intriguing multilingual map. All the place-names on this map are written in the official language of the nation-state that lays claim to that land. I'm intrigued here by what happens to the sea. Could the Spanish-language "Golfo de México" imply that this entire body of water "belongs" to Mexico? I would assume that the US (or individual coastal states) must lay claim to jurisdiction over some of the part of the sea before it becomes "international waters" but I'm no expert in maritime law...

For more on this map, see here and here.

Multilingual Caribbean Map: Language and Place

This detail of a multilingual map (in the building where I work) shows two locations very much in the news: Cuba and Haiti. On the left, note "Guantánamo" (with diacritical mark over the A, since all of the Cuban place-names are rendered in Spanish). On the right, HAÏTI (with marks over the I, since all the Haitian place-names are in French). Curiously, the water "in between" these lands is marked neither in Spanish nor French. Instead, it gets an English name: "Windward Passage."

Not quite sure how to interpret the use of English for this particular body of water, but the map as a whole has an interesting way of visualizing the relationship between language and place.

For a larger view of the Caribbean Sea and (here designated in Spanish as "Mar Caribe"), click below.

For more on this map, see here and here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Taiwan Consulate Visit

For a variety of complex reasons, Taiwan does not have an official "embassy" in DC; instead, there's something called the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO). Today, I visited the Consulate Division today to do some business. Above, the entrance sign (note the American U. sign reflection in the background) - don't really have much to say other than I think this image looks cool.

A little bit about languages on US and Taiwan passports. It used to be the case that only English and French (for a long time the international language of diplomacy) were used on US passports, but a Bill Clinton-era decision added Spanish to the mix. The Taiwan passport uses Chinese and the the more recent global "lingua franca," English.

Here's a selection of the various US- and Taiwan-based publications in the waiting area (some in English, some bilingual, and Mandarin Chinese only).

One fun thing about Taiwanese visual media (newspapers, TV) is that a reader/viewer may be forced to scan text in many directions simultaneously; here, the text on left was in motion scrolling "up" (i.e., to be read from up to down); at bottom, static yellow test reads left to right, and the white text below was in motion scrolling right to left. Meanwhile, Arabic numerals and Roman letters read left to right.

One last item of interest on the wall: a poster bearing a poem about city life in Taipei (originally written in Chinese) is rendered into German and English translations, each by a local translator. As far as I could tell, the translations were perfectly fine (the poem itself didn't strike me as too complex).

Monday, January 25, 2010

Old Treasury Department Seal

I walked by the Treasury Department building this afternoon and noticed this old Latin seal. It struck my eye because of its heavily abbreviated text: THESAUR. AMER. SEPTENT. SIGIL. = Thesaur[i] Ameri[icae] Septent[rionalis] Sigil[um], or "Seal of the Treasury of North America." The designation of "North America" intrigues me. Did the US originally think it would claim all of North America (including Canada?).

Why is the text so abbreviated? The skeptic in me imagines two possible explanations: 1. It's the treasury department, so they are simply being cheapskates and saving money/space by abbreviating; 2. It cuts down the possibility of linguistic errors - if you just leave off the end of the words you (conveniently) don't have to worry about all the tricky Latin declensions.

For more on this seal (which was apparently replaced in 1968), see this website.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Nellies Sports Bar Men's Room

The men's room in Nellie's Sports Bar contains a lot of humorous Braille signage.

P.S. For another (older) photo of more Braille signage at Nellie's, see here.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Virtual Medieval Media (Interactive Gutenberg Bible)

Library of Congress, November 2009. I must say the interactive display accompanying the LOC's Gutenberg Bible is really cool. The Gutenberg Bible is of course one of the first texts in Western Europe to be produced using movable print technology. This touch-screen display allows you to navigate the text "virtually" (here, "hot spots" on the screen allow you to see chapter headings, rubrics, Latin abbreviations, etc.).

Another image from a different page in this bible. I find it interesting that so many of the terms we use to describe how we navigate digital media are simply imported from previous technologies: e.g., (web)page, scroll, tab, bookmark. There's something uncanny - familiar and yet strange - about navigating the "virtual" text in such a dynamic way while the original physical text remains inert in a stuffy display case just a few feet away.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Extraneoüs üse of ümlaüts

A few days ago, near McPherson Square Metro. Extraneoüs üse of ümlaüts in poster for "Yogen Früz" (frozen yogurt establishment). Here, the umlaut mark (i.e., double-dot above a letter) evokes certain vowels in Germanic languages, perhaps along the lines of "Häagen-Dazs" ice cream?

(Little bit of trivia: "Häagen-Dazs" is an invented name that does not actually exist in any Germanic language).

Friday, January 15, 2010

Collapsing Bank (Sign of the Times)

Today in Chinatown. Looks like there are a few strokes missing in the Chinese characters for "bank" (銀行); two missing on the top left of 銀 and one missing at the top right of 銀行. Perhaps this "bank" inscription is falling apart, or maybe it wasn't written correctly to begin with...

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Peace Pole Project (Multilingual Obelisks)

I've noticed these multilingual obelisks around town for a while but yesterday was the first time I actually stopped to take a close look at a few of them. Each pole bears a different message of peace on each side (typically "May Peace Prevail on Earth" in various languages).

Based on the shape of these objects, I had just assumed the poles were some sort of "DC thing" until I learned (online) that these are actually part of the Peace Pole Project, a larger movement to erect monuments like these worldwide.

From left to right: 1 = Monolingual pole, Foggy Bottom; 2 - 4 = Octolingual pole, William Penn House, Capitol Hill. In alphabetical order, the languages on the William Penn House pole are Arabic, Cherokee, Chinese (simplified), English, French, Hopi, Spanish (I'll leave it up to you to sort out which is which).

It's possible to custom order a peace pole on this website (including hexagonal ones!). See this website for more on the history of the peace pole project.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Chinese Characters, Early Modern Readers

I stopped by the Folger Shakespeare Library's "Imagining China" exhibit today one more time today (wanted to make sure to see it again before it closes). This display case shows how Early Modern readers (mis)understood Chinese writing. You can't make out all the text in this photo but you at least get a sense of how Early Modern printers in the West (attempted to) reproduce(d) the characters.

For more on this particular issue, see this section of the Folger website (not sure how long it will remain active); see also this previous posting.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Asian Spice

Chinatown, December 2009. The translation of "Asian Spice" (亞洲之味) looks correct to me. I overheard a couple deliberating as I took this photo: "Well, this looks OK...but the name of the place sounds too much like an X-rated film." They decided to eat there anyway.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Multilingual Monkeys

Sackler Gallery, National Mall, Fall 2009. This hanging sculpture entitled "Monkeys Grasping for the Moon" (by Chinese artist Xu Bing) is one of my favorites; the word for "monkey" in various languages/scripts form a linked chain  hanging from the ceiling.

Below, another view of the sculpture (lower in the building):

Read more about this sculpture on this page of the Sackler website or read the story that inspired the artwork.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Subtle Terra Cotta Warriors Ad

National Geographic Society, December 2009. Very subtle use of Chinese in this ad for the terra cotta warriors exhibition. You can just make out the Chinese character 兵 ("soldier, warrior") inside the letter "O" in WARRIORS.

I've also seen these related sidewalk ads (this photo taken earlier this week in Dupont Circle):

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Dupont Circle. I think this Hello Kitty lunchbox is supposed to read "I [HEART] NERDS" but instead it reads "I [APPLE] NERDS." Huh?

(For more on the storefront window display in which this appeared, see the following post.)

Japanese Lucky Cats

Dupont Circle, January 2010. The waving (or welcoming) cat, often understood to invite good fortune and prosperity, is a common sight in Japanese (and other Asian) restaurants and shop windows. On the right, a golden maneki neko (招き猫) in gold bears the kanji or Chinese character 福 ("luck, good fortune") on its belly.

The handwritten Japanese text attached to the gold cat reads あけましておめでとう (akemashite omedetou) = "happy new year."

For more on the cultural significance of the "maneki neko," see this online taxonomy of lucky cat styles and colors.

For more on the Hello Kitty lunchbox in this image, see my previous posting.

P.S. I've been told another way to say "happy new year" in Japanese is 新年おめでとうございます (shin-nen omedetou gozaimasu).

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Multilingual Christmas Wishes

Eastern Market, January 2010. It's several days into the new year, but this tree still bears the Christmas wishes of local residents. English: "Peace to Leslie" (top) and "Peace in the world, joy to the EM community" (bottom). Spanish: "Amor, Paz y Amistad" = Peace, Love and Friendship and "seguir igual de bien que en el 2009" = continue to be just as good as 2009 (top and bottom, in orange). Nonverbal: three peace signs (left, in green). The other inscriptions, apparently written by children: "ALESHA HAPPY" and "I Wish for happness [sic]."

P.S. Quite a few of the decorations (not pictured here) were written by people wishing for Senate to pass the Health Care Bill. It looks like those people got their wish!

Michelle Obama Translated (Czech and Chinese)

Prague, Czech Republic, December 2009. I saw this image of First Lady (and cultural icon) Michelle Obama during my holiday travels abroad. Here, her surname is rendered in Czech as Obamová.

This name transformation follows the Czech practice of rendering female surnames as grammatically feminine adjectives (often a modified form of the husband's name). This practice seems to work well with Obama, as her name already ends in a vowel. Other names like, say, Hillary Rodhamová Clintonová seem to me quite awkward.

Above, an example of how the First Lady's name can take different forms even in the US (here, a promotional book cover seen in DC Chinatown, November 2009). The translation of "Obama" as 奥巴馬 (here, 奥巴马  = ào bā mǎ) has become standard in Chinese-language media; "Michelle" is somewhat malleable but is most often rendered as 米歇爾 (here, 米歇尔 = mǐ xiē ěr).

Friday, January 1, 2010

January in Almanac and Book of Hours

January 1, 2010. Happy New Year everyone!

I start the year with images from the Library of Congress copy of "Poor Richard's Almanack" (printed by Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia, 1733). A "best seller" for decades in the American colonies, Franklin's annual "Almanack" included not only a calendar but astronomical and weather forecasts, witty maxims and puzzles, and practical advice.

The page for January (above) shows the astrological sign Aquarius and a domestic scene.

Each month's illustration is preceded by a calendar listing important days (religious festivals) and astronomical events.

Above, a detail of an anatomical man along with Zodiac signs.

Both the structure and layout of the "Almanack" owe much to the medieval book of hours (see this informative website for more). Compare the humble "Almanack" to the exquisite calendar and anatomical man in this 15th-century book, the "Tres Riches Heures" of Jean, Duc de Berry:

While the print "Almanack" is in English and the manuscript "Heures" in French/Latin, these books clearly participate in a shared visual tradition.

For more on the "Almanack" in the context of Franklin's work, see this Library of Congress website.

You can also view high-resolution images of each page of the LOC copy of the "Alamack" as well as a medieval book of hours.

For more information on the "Tres Riches Heures," see here and here.