Monday, 25 November 2013


My theme today is not just a sophomoric joke: an early edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary glossed abbreviator as 'Vatican official who draws up the Pope's briefs'. Oh how we larfed! (The Thought Police at OUP have now fixed this, but my copy preserves it. People decrying the longevity of images posted on Facebook tend to say things like 'Once it's there you can never shake it off.' But that's been true since the days of William Caxton. The Internet is just more trivially searchable, but print media are just as long-lived. In fact, given problems of interoperability, things stored on computers are arguably more ephemeral. (My children's novel is a case in point; the sources are on a floppy disk from an old Amstrad PCW.)

This week's Book of the Week  on Radio 4 is a political biography that deals with Mitterand. In it, I caught' the phrase 'the romanesque side of Mitterand's nature' (his tendency to fantasize); and my translator's ears pricked up. I though it was Sarkozy who had high arches... [Think about it.... Arches....] Mitterand wasn't anything to do with architectural history. I thought the book must have been a translation  whose translator had misunderstood roman-esque – 'like a story (un roman)'. I started to listen more closely, meaning to note who the translator was.

But there was none. It was by Philip Short, former BBC Foreign Correspondent: Mitterrand: A Study in Ambiguity. Surely his mastery of French was unquestionable. I would have to reconsider my 'duff translation' diagnosis. But what I had forgotten was the credit at the end of the programme: '...abridged and produced for Jane Marshall Productions'. So there was a 'translator' of sorts; someone who takes an original text and rejigs it in a different format.

Hidden away about 20 seconds before 'romanesque', there was mention of Mitterand's brother. The first few words that followed that attribution were delivered in a 'Allo 'Allo accent that signalled 'These are the words of a Frenchman'. The cod accent had lapsed several seconds before the word romanesque. I checked in the full text:

So the man who had used the word romanesque had been André Rousslet, and it was a mistranslation (or possibly a pun). My old Larousse Pour Tous, bought from Heffer's secondhand bookshop (which I bet* is no longer there in Trinity Street [on the other side from the main shop, and nearer Caius], glosses romanesque as qui tient du roman. Perhaps the French romanesque has nothing to do with our 'Romanesque' (my dictionary doesn't mention architecture, but it's what used to be called 'a vest-pocket book' –  another source of mistranslation: 'But vests don't have pockets...?', I remember thinking when I first met this reference to an American English 'vest' –  so is far from authoritative). Or maybe Rousselet had met the architectural meaning (maybe in French, maybe in English) and was making a joke about Mitterand's height (only about 3" taller than Sarkozy: that link takes you to a Google table of world leaders' heights).

It's not clear from the full text whether it was Mitterand frère or Short who was quoting Rousselet. But the radio abridgement suppressed the very existence of a third person or of a quote from a Frenchman.

But I must get back in the saddle  – turning #WVGTbook into a hardcopy book. This will reduce its networked features, but makes it more useable in an unwired classroom (as many EFL classrooms are).


Update 2016.01.31.12:00 – Fixed a few typos and deleted footer (as I will do in other posts when I get 'a round tuit'. The latest info.  is on my other blog.)

Update 2016.04.07.14:40 – Added footnote

* It's certainly not there now. And it only  became Heffer's  secondhand bookshop in the mid-'70s. When I bought my dictionary there, it was Bowes & Bowes's  secondhand bookshop; it was subsequently  engulfed by Heffer's.

I once heard this round (sung to the tune of Frère Jacques by undergraduates of a certain vintage [preceding mine]), that referred to past booksellers in Cambridge:

Heffer's Bookshop, Heffer's Bookshop,
Bowes & Bowes, Bowes & Bowes,
Galloway & Porter, Galloway & Porter,
Deighton Bell,  Deighton Bell.

The last two of those had gone before I arrived, though I think one of them had a (slightly) extended life as Heffer's Art Books shop, or something like that. Being acquired by Heffer's seems to be an occupational hazard in Cambridge's world of bookshops.

No comments:

Post a Comment