of Collective Truth
by Caitlin Horrocks
From: Professor Erkki Runeberg-Pylkkanen
Department of Theoretical Linguistics
Lappin Yliopisto (University of Lapland)
To: Elvira Herzenboogen
134 Katu Rd.
Duluth, MN 56743
Dear Miss Herzenboogen,
I read with interest the letters you sent me after your great-grandfather's untimely demise. I say untimely because it seems compulsory, although I think we both realize that the death was long awaited and could be considered punctual if not rather tardy. I understand that the late Professor Herzenboogen had reached the age of 106 and was no longer able to converse in any of the languages he had purportedly mastered during his life. I was happy to lend my expertise to the task of deciphering the professor's collected correspondence; when an esteemed linguist drops out of sight of the academic world for the better part of a century, his former colleagues are invariably curious as to what he might have been doing all that time.
In the early letters you sent me Professor Herzenboogen sets out lucidly enough his famed theory of "collective truth value," the idea that in order to describe the true circumstances of an event, to most completely descry every facet of an object's place in the world, one does not need to be a great prose stylist, but merely to use as many words as possible, in as many languages as possible. In a letter dated February 3, 1953, he begins lucidly enough, in French: Une véritable description du monde est entičrement possible; il ne faut que plusieurs mots qu'on utilisait autrefois. Or, "A true description of the world is entirely possible; one only needs more words than have been used in the past." Between 1954 and 1961, Professor Herzenboogen translates and retranslates this phrase twenty-three times into seventeen separate languages, arriving at:
Minusta tuntuu, että minun on pakko kirjoittaa sinulle tämä kirje, koska tunnen kolmannen saukon katoamiseen liittyvät salaperäiset olosuhteet. This is old Samoyed Finno-Ugric, decipherable as the following: "I feel compelled to write you this letter, knowing as I do the mysterious circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the third otter." I am particularly fond of Professor Herzenboogen's further Slavic permutations of the sentence. The 32nd variation, in problematic Slovakian, I find brief but charming: Byl moře savec. Teď ne. Zastavit! Ja ˛ebrat tebe! Zloĉinec! Zloĉinec! Or, "Was sea mammal. Now not. Stop! I beg you! Criminal! Criminal!"
As your great-grandfather continued to translate and re-translate, this sentence grows to a length of several pages in an obscure Papua New Guinea dialect, only to shrink to a single, Italian-like word: Spudo. I say Italian-like because I can find no translation and my colleague in Milan has not gotten back to me. There is at one point a list of aquatic mammals in a language which appears to be American English but is labeled "Canadian." A later sentence in Spanish, "Me gustan los tacos. Me gustan tacos del nutria. Mmmm... nutria," translates as "I like tacos. I like otter tacos. Mmmm… otter." He continues in this vein for some pages, concluding with the Afrikaans, Otters is smaaklik, or "Otters are tasty."
I fear this whirlwind of incoherency does not bode well for the validity of Professor Herzenboogen's "collective truth value" theory, his place in the history books, or even his sanity during the last half-century of his life. Certainly not, as you'd hoped, for the monetary value of the writings you so carefully collected and preserved over the years. However, I'd like to share with you the following, dated July 16, 2002, in clear, modern Finnish: Minulla on sanoja muttei kieltä. Ikävöin saukkoani eikä minulla ole rauhaa. En ole sanonut mitään. Or, "I have words but no language. I miss my otter and I have no peace. I have said nothing." This does not, perhaps, support the theory of collective linguistic truth value, but I hope you will find it, as I did, a poignant reminder of Professor Herzenboogen's better days.
Professor Erkki Runeberg-Pylkkanen
Caitlin Horrocks lives in Tempe, Arizona.
Her stories appear or are forthcoming in The Cincinnati Review,
Passages North, Blackbird and Pindeldyboz. She is the 2005 fiction
winner of the Atlantic Monthly Student Writing Contest and is
co-fiction editor for Hayden's Ferry Review.
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