Books: Hergé, Son of Tintin

April 15, 2012

I came across this book in the library’s electronic catalog while looking for Tintin books for my son to read. I have never cared much for reading biographies (and I was more than a little dismayed when my high school guidance counselor suggested biographer as a good career choice for me), but the title intrigued me. In what sense was Hergé, who created the character, Tintin’s son?

I also wondered what made the Tintin books so popular in the Europe but much less so here in the U.S. Where they part of a larger cultural difference? There are plenty of popular comic books in the U.S., but they are actually periodicals, not books. The Adventures of Tintin, and other popular series such as Asterix, are published as books. I also saw the periodical-type comic book when I was in Europe, but I have trouble thinking of examples of U.S. equivalents of Tintin or Asterix.

There were other questions I wondered about as well. Where did Hergé get some of the names of his characters? I read recently that the name Tintin refers to the character’s prominent tuft of hair. But what about Professor Calculus? Why in the world is he named Tournesol, which means sunflower, in French? And where did Hergé dream up some of the outlandish adventures in which Tintin finds himself?

Hergé, Son of Tintin didn’t give me any answers regarding the differences between comics in Europe and the U.S., or much about the characters’ names, but I did learn a lot about where the ideas for the adventures came from. What had struck me as extraordinarily imaginative and highly unlikely adventures were in fact generally based on current events at the time they were written. As most of them were written before I was born, naturally I had no reason to connect them to real-world events. But for Hergé, basing comics on current news was a way to get children interested in what was going on in the world.

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Movies: The Adventures of Tintin

January 22, 2012

I don’t know when I first saw a Tintin cartoon or read a Tintin book, but when I first saw a Tintin book in Europe when I was a college student, I was sure that I had a previous acquaintance with the stories. I could almost – but not quite – hear Captain Haddock’s alliterative rantings in my mind.

I have since read all the Tintin books I could find, between those I purchased in Europe (in French), and those in the local library here (most in English, but also some in French). I don’t know how much it is for the pleasure of the books themselves, and how much some sense of nostalgia for an element of my childhood. But I do enjoy them.

When I first learned that a Tintin movie was being made, I was pleased. Then I read that it would use motion capture, and initial samples that had been released did not seem overly promising. I wasn’t planning to go see it in the theater.

Then I read a very positive review of the movie by Frederica Mathewes-Green. (I am on the emailing list for her newsletters.) Plus we still had money left on the movie theater gift card that Al had won for his Ent costume at Halloween (even after going to another movie – going to matinees saves a lot of money).

On the whole, I would say that I am “underwhelmed.” It certainly wasn’t a bad movie – on the whole it was reasonably entertaining. But I didn’t leave the theater with any particular eagerness to see a sequel (which is strongly hinted at in the ending), or any sense of wonder over what a remarkable movie I had seen. I certainly didn’t replay scenes in my mind as I do after movies that really impress me.

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Computer as translator

October 29, 2011

As a lover of language and languages, I was intrigued but bothered by the opening lines of an article I read this week at The Hot Word (’s blog). “Back in the 1940s, mathematician Warren Weaver made an audacious suggestion: what if translation was not a feat of literary theory and linguistics, but one of cryptography?” The rest of the article indicates that Weaver was on the right track, as evidenced by both Google Translate, and the recent success of some cryptographers in decoding the Copiale Cipher.

I think computers are great tools, and it wouldn’t surprise me if eventually they could be programmed to understand and use human languages fairly well. But to do it by the tools of mathematics rather than linguistics? Besides, even humans often do a poor job of translation (Charles Berlitz gives some very amusing examples in his book Native Tongues) – how could a computer possibly do better?

I decided to check out Google Translate. I took a sentence from the article I had just been reading, and pasted it into Google Translate. It didn’t matter much which language I translated it into, since my aim was to re-translate it to English and see how this compared with the original. I chose Russian. The result was not perfect, but better than I expected.

Original sentence: By making a machine-readable version of the text, a team of computational linguistics were able to run the characters through a software program that found patterns in the text, which were otherwise inscrutable.

Russian translation: Делая машиночитаемой версии текста, команда компьютерной лингвистики смогли запустить персонажей через программное обеспечение, которое обнаружили закономерности в тексте, которые в противном случае неисповедимы.

Back to English: Making the machine-readable version of the text, Computational Linguistics team were able to run characters through software, which found a pattern in the text, which otherwise inscrutable.

By way of comparison, Babel Fish produced this when translating the same sentence to Russian and then back to English: “With way to make machine-readable the version from the text, the command of computational linguistics could break into a run natures to the program of software which it found the pictures in the text, which were otherwise inscrutable.” Yes, definitely inscrutable.

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Uncanny unhumans

July 14, 2011

I never heard of the “uncanny valley” until I read about it this evening in an article in the Wall Street Journal. I had forgotten about the preview I had seen, some time back, for the Tintin movie coming out in December – though at the time I was very excited at the prospect.

I don’t know when I first became acquainted with the Tintin stories. When I was a student in Spain, I saw Tintin books (translated to Spanish, of course – I waited until I was traveling in France to buy some in the original French). Tintin and Captain Haddock seemed somehow very familiar to me - especially Haddock’s temper and swearing – and I was sure I must have seen a cartoon adaptation (translated to English) as a child.

I haven’t encountered anyone else who remembers it, but I must at some point have seen Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin, which was apparently aired in the U.S. during my childhood. Perhaps it was nostalgia for those early not-quite-remembered shows, or maybe it’s just that Hergé’s Tintin books are just so good, but I quickly became a fan of the books. When we moved to Muscatine, I was thrilled to discover that the local library has a large number of them in their children’s section (including at least one in French!).

The WSJ article, however, made me realize that I might not end up enjoying Spielberg’s movie as well as I had hoped. The movie uses a process called motion capture, “a process in which filmmakers map the body and facial movements of real actors to make animated characters appear more lifelike on screen.” It works very well for non-human characters, such as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. But it doesn’t work so well for humans.

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