Friday, 5 July 2013

Ici en Angleterre nous avons un 'spot' de trouble

While I was working in a bookshop (as mentioned here), I took advantage of the staff discount to buy a leather-bound Aguilar edition of El Ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha . This would be my Desert Island Discs book; I know I'm unlikely to make the time to read it before then.

I thought of this when I read a piece on the impossibility of translation, Don Quixote against the Windmills:

Why is it that from one original language text, nine individual translators come up with nine different translations? Can they be trusted? Are they presenting true versions of the one-and-only, genuine original?

Read more:
Fox News archives have lost track of this article. Perhaps their Year Zero is 2016. But it existed once. I'm leaving the link in case of a possible Second Coming.

The piece was generally on the money, though it made a mistake common to academics of a certain provenance (see here for my less measured response to another example): he assumes that everything shares his culture (and is therefore contemporary). He inveighs against arcane words – 'obscure words, convoluted syntax [and] complex phraseology' – and one of those words that attract his ire is 'whereof'. One translator, the seventeenth century Englishman Thomas Shelton, translated Cervantes' de cuyo nombre as 'the name whereof'. In seventeenth-century England I  imagine this was an obvious, uncomplicated, and faithful translation. Even today, I am happy to use 'whereof', though I grant that I am not an exemplar of the commonest users. The British National Corpus, in its 100 million word corpus, records 'whereof' only 41 times; the Corpus of Contemporary American English,  four and a half times the size, has a bit over twice as many hits (98). This suggests that the word is a good deal rarer in American English than it is in British English. But I don't see how anyone could object to its use before the USA was even formed.

Be that as it may, the translations examined don't (can't – being translations) do justice to the original; which is why if I ever read about El ingenioso hidalgo... – if I ever get marooned on that fabulous island [and with scary inconsequentiality, the cover of my book is – dun-dun-dah – MAROON] I'll be reading it in Spanish. That article ends:

Alas, we are all at the mercy of translators and must approach great works of literature in second-hand versions. There is no other way. Or is there?

Read more: [PS: Or not]
Well, yes: learn the other language. And on the subject of learning languages, the #eltchat on 26 June 2013 took as its starting point a thought-provoking  article in Science Now, on prerequisites (and, particularly, obstacles) to learning language. During the chat one contributor recommended reading the comments following the article. One of them asked:
Does this [the need to avoid culturally familiar objects] go any way to explaining why native English speakers reportedly find it harder to learn foreign languages – because there's so much English around these days that they are constantly getting thrown back to their mother tongue?
 Well  I thought the article was thought-provoking. Another reader commented:

"If one wants to acculturate rapidly, don't move to an ethnic enclave neighborhood where you'll be surrounded by people like yourself" – so, what else is new? How much did they spend on the study? They could have asked me and saved a bunch.
(In fairness I should add that the writer did go on to make a serious point.)

But, returning to the question about the English, and the issue of 'constantly getting thrown back to their mother tongue', my thoughts turn to another translation, enjoying a mere one available version: the Astérix books. I first met the little Gaul when a sibling (not sure which – we all visited [and received members of] the same family) brought a French version home. I didn't get many of the jokes at the time (with the names Idéfix and Assurancetourix the penny didn't drop until years later, and it didn't occur to me to wonder whether Obélix was so called because of his relationship with obelisks – it didn't help that they were called menhirs).

So when the translations came out I turned my nose up at them. The humour seemed to me crude. Abraracourcix, the chieftain, was called 'Zebigbos' [geddit? – the Big Boss, what a caution!], and Panoramix, the druid, was called 'Getafix' [Laugh, my socks are still on the radiator!]. And gone were the jokes about language the English characters in Astérix chez les Bretons all peppering their speech with 'bonté gracieuse' and 'je dis', the newspaper called 'Le Temps', Britons speaking schoolboy French with the adjectives coming before the noun (magique potion).... Gone too were the jokes about culture, with everyone stopping at 4.00pm for tea avec un  nuage de lait....

But a tweet I saw yesterday alerted me to 'an exegesis of the Latin jokes in the English versions of Asterix', which makes me think I may have been missing something. (But people who read only the translations are missing something too.)

Report from the word-face

I now have a nearly-working version of V3, which takes the book up to the end of the Is. (In fact, in an attempt to accelerate progress, I have started gathering the raw data for V4.)

And here's the latest themed crossword clue. Well, not themed exactly, but influenced by the fact that I've been working on words that incorporate the digraph *IO*:

 Paean to the huntress? One way only in this. (5)
 And while you're thinking about that, I'll be getting on.


PS Oh, and I should explain today's title.  It's a quote from one of the satirical shows of the late-'60s/early-'70s, which portrayed Ted Heath speaking in French – which he did on at least one occasion, his complexion justifying the term for Englishmen in France (les rozbifs). Je dis!

Update 2013.07.25.17:10 Added PPS

PPS All right, put down your pens; time's up. It's DIODE. 

Update: 2018.12.14.15:30 Deleted obsolete footer

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