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Archive for the ‘Translations’ Category

Short Stories, Guy de Maupassant, translated by Marjorie Laurie (Everyman’s Library 1934)

Sympathy is an interesting word. It literally means “with-feeling”, that is, sharing someone else’s feelings, while the Latin compassio means “with-suffering”. But both of these words have weaker and wetter meanings in modern English. When I say that Maupassant was a compassionate writer who had sympathy for his characters, you need to read it in the older, stronger senses. He could feel with other human beings, victims and villains, the ordinary and the eccentric, and bring them to life on paper.

But he could do more than that: he had sympathy for, sympathy with, animals too and some of his most moving stories are about dogs, horses and donkeys. One, “Love”, is about a pair of wild birds and the hunters who shoot them. It’s included in this collection, which begins with “Boule de Suif” and ends with “The Horla”. “Boule de Suif”, or “Ball of Lard”, was Maupassant’s early great success. It combines three of his obsessions: prostitution, cruelty, and the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1. The title is actually the nickname of a plump, amiable prostitute who befriends but is then betrayed by the respectable folk who share a coach with her on a journey through occupied France. A Prussian officer wants to sleep with her, but she refuses. He won’t let the coach go on until she gives in. Her fellow travellers force her to do so, then salve their own consciences by treating her like “a thing useless and unclean” when their journey resumes.

It’s one of the longest stories here and also one of the most powerful, finely observed, closely and compassionately written. And it’s echoed by another story, “Mademoiselle Fifi”, which is also about prostitutes and the German occupation. But this time the title is the nickname of a Prussian officer, a sadistic dandy who treats the French with contempt but gets more than he bargains for when he mistreats a young prostitute called Rachel. That name is Hebrew for “Ewe” and Rachel is in fact Jewish, so the revenge in the story has even more resonance now. She stabs Mademoiselle Fifi to death and then successfully escapes. But the story is less successful than “Boule de Suif”. It’s too obviously a wish-fulfilment fantasy and the victim turns the table too neatly on the villain. And if Rachel’s name is intended to be ironic, it’s a literary touch that undermines Maupassant’s realism.

I think I’d read the story before in French, but it didn’t stay with me strongly. Other stories I’d read in French did stay with me strongly, like “Miss Harriet”, about a repressed English virgin who commits suicide far from home, and “The Devil”, about a peasant woman who’s given a fixed price to oversee the final hours of a dying woman. “Miss Harriet” is tragic, “The Devil” tragi-comic, and both are good examples of Maupassant’s sympathy for women and his ability to write about them convincingly. But “The Devil” is also a good example of his sympathy for peasants. As the Roman writer Terence said: Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto. – “I am human and I regard nothing human as alien to me.”

But many people can say that: Maupassant was one of the rare few who could translate his sympathy into powerful art, whether he was writing about an Italian widow avenging her only son in “Vendetta” or a French diplomat learning about the cruel fate of “the only woman I ever loved” in “Shali”. That story is actually expurgated: the French original, in 1884, went further than the English translation did in 1934. And Maupassant should be read in the original. As Gerald Gould says in the introduction: “It has been said by one rather acid French critic that one reason English people think so highly of Maupassant as a writer is because his French is so easy.”

That’s right: he writes with the utmost clarity and simplicity, but when I read him in French I have to concentrate, so the meaning blossoms more slowly and powerfully in my mind. That’s why I find myself unable to re-read some of his stories. They’re not extravagantly violent or cruel, but I find them too powerful and too unpleasant. “The Horla” isn’t one of those stories and although it is one of Maupassant’s best, some of its power comes from what you know about its background. Maupassant was beginning to go mad from syphilis when he wrote it. In “The Horla”, the human being he’s sympathizing with is himself. Not long afterwards, he was confined to an asylum. Then he was dead at the age of forty-two. No other writer has written so much so well in such a short life. Some of his best stories are here, but anyone who can should read him in French. He was a genius who combined simplicity with sympathy in a way that no other writer I’ve ever read has matched.

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Death in Venice and Other Stories, Thomas Mann, translated by David Luke (1988)

The first time I tried this collection, I read the first story, “Little Herr Friedemann”, and the last, “Death in Venice”. I thought they were both very good: powerful, moving, and mysterious. But I didn’t try any of the other stories, except for a little of “Gladius Dei”. I felt somehow that they wouldn’t be worth it.

Now I’ve come back to the book and tried to read it from beginning to end. I’ve failed and my reluctance to try the other stories seems to have been justified. “Little Herr Friedemann” was still good and so was “Death in Venice”. The others I found variously trite or impossible to finish. “The Road to the Churchyard”, about an unhealthy drunk on foot encountering a healthy youth on a bicycle, reminded me of Maupassant. But Maupassant would have done it much better.

At least, I’ve found Maupassant very good in French. But the same stories have been less good when I’ve tried them in English. Maybe that was part of the problem here. I can’t read Mann’s stories in German and if I could I still wouldn’t be sure of judging them right. But I assume it’s easier for a good story in the original to become a bad story in translation than for the reverse. And “Death in Venice” is a very good story in this translation. After you’ve read it, David Luke’s clever and insightful introduction to the collection will make it even better.

As he points out, “Death in Venice” is in part an updating and expansion of “Little Herr Friedemann”, which is also about thwarted passion and the eruption of Dionysiac energies in an Apollonian life. But the earlier story is tragic and realistic, the later tragicomic and dream-like:

Aschenbach bedeckte seine Stirn mit der Hand und schloß die Augen, die heiß waren, da er zu wenig geschlafen hatte. Ihm war, als lasse nicht alles sich ganz gewöhnlich an, als beginne eine träumerische Entfremdung, eine Entstellung der Welt ins Sonderbare um sich zu greifen, der vielleicht Einhalt zu tun wäre, wenn er sein Gesicht ein wenig verdunkelte und aufs neue um sich schaute. – Der Tod in Venedig (1912), Drittes Kapitel.

Aschenbach put his hands over his forehead and closed his eyes, which were hot from too little sleep. He had a feeling that something not quite usual was about to happen, that the world was undergoing a dreamlike alteration, becoming increasingly deranged and bizarre, and perhaps this process might be arrested if he were to cover his face for a little and take a fresh look at things. (section 3)

The world will indeed become increasingly deranged and bizarre, as the distinguished novelist Gustav Aschenbach allows his infatuation with a young Polish boy to strip him of his reason, his dignity and, finally, his life. The title tells the reader that his doom is inevitable, so Mann has to make the journey there interesting. And it is: psychologically, symbolically, allegorically, and literally too. Aschenbach couldn’t have stayed in Munich: he needed a rich, fantastic, southern and sea-washed setting for his doomed romance.

The boy, Tadzio, is delicately and skilfully depicted – “presented,” as David Luke says in the introduction, “with extraordinary subtlety, mysteriously yet very realistically paused between innocence and a certain half-conscious coquetry”. I was reminded of Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited (1945), who also visits Venice with the protagonist. But that’s a novel and the protagonist will see Sebastian grow old and lose his beauty. Aschenbach will never see that happen to his object of desire: Tadzio’s beauty enthrals and destroys him, successfully tempting him to stay on in Venice as cholera rages and tourists flee.

“Death in Venice” is also reminiscent of Lolita (1955) and you could call it the homosexual variant on the same paedophilic theme. But I found Lolita too repulsive to finish the last time I tried it. “Death in Venice” is more ironic, more comic and more moral. Its unnatural love-affair is never consummated and it will be news of Aschenbach’s death that shocks the world, not news of his arrest. Where Lolita has undoubtedly encouraged crime, “Death in Venice” may occasionally have admonished those contemplating it.

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Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott (1843)

Here’s something I learned only recently: the Liddell of the Lexicon was the father of the Alice of Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass fame. I knew her surname was Liddell and that she lived in Oxford, but the possible connection never occurred to me. Partly it must have been that the Lexicon is so soberly academic and Alice in Wonderland so surreally imaginative. But the connection is appropriate, because classical Greek would be the perfect language to translate Alice in Wonderland into. It has all the necessary richness and subtlety:

Sample from the Lexicon #1 (click for larger)

And the Greek script in its fully developed form, with minuscule letters and diacritics, is much more beautiful than the Roman alphabet. This lexicon is a bibliophile’s delight and it’s easy to download PDFs of the full edition. But I also own a physical copy of an abridgment of it. A real book has advantages over an electronic text. You don’t make happy discoveries by accident as easily with an e-text and you’re cut off from history when you’re reading from a screen. Liddell and Scott worked with paper:

Sample from the Lexicon #2 (click for larger)


Paper was also the medium for most of the poets, historians, philosophers and novelists whose words they define. But not for the most famous of all: Homer’s two great epics were originally composed and transmitted without pen or paper. They were products of the pre-literate Bronze Age, when poets and storytellers relied on memory, not manuscripts. A lot was lost with literacy, but civilization depends on it and this lexicon is one of the great monuments to the influence that Greek civilization still has on the world.

But rich and interesting as this book is, it has one big disadvantage: it’s bilingual (or trilingual if you count the Latin). As I pointed out in my review of a Larousse de Poche, monolingual dictionaries are best for learning a foreign language. If a word in Greek is defined in Greek, then “no officious English word intrud[es]”, as C.S. Lewis put it in Surprised by Joy (1955). Liddell and Scott were good enough scholars to have written entirely in Greek and I wish they had done so. There could have been two Lexicons, one translating Greek into English and one defining Greek in Greek.

No Latin dictionary is so famous as Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, which probably and partly reflects the earthier and more utilitarian nature of Latin. But a Latin lexicon defining Latin in Latin would have been good too and something that Victorian scholars could easily have created.

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The Voynich Manuscript: the unsolved riddle of an extraordinary book which has defied interpretation for centuries, Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill (Orion paperback 2005)

Many things that fall under the Fortean label – they’re supposedly strange, anomalous, mysterious – dwindle under further investigation. There’s less to them than meets the eye. The Voynich Manuscript isn’t like that. It’s a hand-written book, heavily illustrated and annotated, that is genuinely mysterious and interesting. What is it about? Who wrote it? Why? After decades of analysis, we’re no nearer answering those questions.

Even if there’s no real language behind the script it uses, as statistical patterns seem to indicate, it’s still a fascinating object. Someone went to a lot of trouble to create it, whether it or not it’s full of gibberish, and a completely mad creator might be even more interesting than a rational one. Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill, the authors of this detailed study, look at all the main candidates for authorship, from the friar Roger Bacon to the occultist John Dee and the bookseller Wilfred Voynich.

Voynich gave his name to the manuscript because he discovered it. Or so he said. Some have claimed that he created it instead, but they’re certainly wrong. It really is centuries old, as proved by both carbon-dating and provenance, and it’s been defeating the best efforts of cryptologists for centuries too. The Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher seems to have been baffled by it in the mid-seventeenth-century. In the early twenty-first century, cryptologists are still baffled. Is there a real language there, artificial or otherwise? Probably not:

[S]ome very unusual patterns of words … can be found in the manuscript. On most pages of the manuscript strings of the same words are repeated up to five times, or on other occasions, even longer strings of words with only the odd change to individual letters. This would be like writing the word that five times in succession in a phrase in modern English, or producing a sentence along the lines of Brought bought bough, though tough, through trough. It is almost impossible to conceive of a language where this would happen regularly, if at all. As Mary D’Imperio says, reporting the words of several Voynich researchers, “the text just doesn’t act like natural language.” (ch. 5, “The Cryptological Maze – Part II”, pg. 155)

But why would anyone write gibberish for so many pages and accompany that gibberish with so many strange drawings? There are plants, charts and naked women in baths. Is it a botanical text or an alchemical treatise? Or did a hoaxer want people to think that it was? Most researchers think that it was created with a serious purpose. I agree, but in one important way that doesn’t matter. The Voynich Manuscript may never be deciphered, but it’s already given us some valuable lessons in wishful thinking. As with Egyptian hieroglyphs, which Kennedy and Churchill also discuss, researchers have claimed successful decipherments of the Voynich Manuscript that turned out to be nothing of the kind. William Newbold saw microscopic variations in the symbols that weren’t really there; James Feeley thought they were Latin shorthand.

Both of them announced their decipherments with great confidence; both of them were completely wrong. No-one else has been any more successful and the Voynich Manuscript has defeated researchers with much more expertise and much more powerful analytical tools. This book is an excellent introduction to a genuinely mysterious object. Theories about it will continue to multiply, but it may never reveal its secrets. Perhaps that would be for the best.

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Le Tour de Gaule d’Asterix, René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (Hachette 1967)

When I picked up my second Asterix book as a child, I opened it and then put it down again. I thought I had read it before, because it had the same first page: a map of Gaul, transfixed by a Roman eagle but with a magnifying glass on one small unconquered corner in the north-west, the Gaulish village where the pint-sized warrior Asterix lives with his giant friend Obelix.

After I picked up another book in the series, I realized my mistake. The Asterix books all had that first page. Now I realize something more: that the map is important not just to set the scene but also to assuage the humiliation. The Asterix books are ostensibly about clever Gauls getting the better of clumsy Romans, with the Gauls standing in for children and the Romans for adults. But they’re also about the French and the Germans during the Second World War. In fantasy, the Gauls managed to keep one corner of their homeland their own, fighting off and humiliating the Romans every time they tried to conquer it. In reality, France was entirely conquered and the French were the humiliated ones.

The German occupation was no joke. The Roman occupation could be, though. After all, it took place many centuries before Le Tour de Gaule d’Asterix was first published in 1967, when the German occupation was still a vivid memory for millions of French. Asterix was a salve for the psychic wounds of a nation, but its pharmacological recipe works outside l’Hexagone.* The bright colours, constant action, chaotic plots, and visual and linguistic puns of Asterix will make you feel cheerful whether or not you’re French. And whether or not you read them in French. But reading in French is best, of course. As I’ve said before, if you’re learning a language you should do two things: use a monolingual dictionary and read comics.

With comics, you see language illustrated by action and objects, so you absorb meaning without your mother-tongue getting in the way. That happens all through Le Tour de Gaule, which is about a bet Asterix has with a Roman prefect called Lucius Fleurdelotus, who has been sent by Jules César to stop Asterix and the other villagers disturbing the “paix Romaine” of Gaul. Lucius has had the village surrounded by a palisade of stout wood and tells Asterix from a watch-tower that he and the other villagers will have to stay on their own small piece of land and be forgotten. Asterix defiantly disagrees: “ROMAIN! NOUS SOMMES CHEZ NOUS EN GAULE ET NOUS IRONS OÙ BON NOUS SEMBLERA…” – “Roman! Gaul is our home and we’ll go wherever we please…” He bets Lucius that the palisade will prove useless and that he, Asterix, can go on a tour of Gaul, gathering the culinary specialities of every region for a banquet to which Lucius is formally invited.

Lucius accepts the bet, promising to lift the blockade if he loses it. So Asterix and his best friend Obelix set off on their Tour de Gaule. First of all, Asterix needs a new flask of magic strength-potion from “le druide vénérable du village”, Panoramix. Obelix doesn’t need potion, because he fell in the druid’s cauldron when he was a baby. Unlike Asterix, he can knock Romans down like nine-pins without a draught from the flask. There’s always a lot of Roman-bashing in the Asterix books, but there are always good new jokes too. One of the best here is the visit made by Asterix and Obelix to a “Chars d’Occasion”, or “Second-Hand Chariot” dealership, where the beaming owner, dressed in a camel-hair coat, sells them a gleaming chariot and glossy black horse. “VOUS NE LE REGRETTEREZ PAS,” he assures them: “You won’t regret it.”

They set off, but the horse begins to tire very quickly. Then it begins raining. “NOTRE CHEVAL A DÉTEINT!” gasps Asterix: “Our horse has changed colour!” And one of the chariot’s wheels falls off. They’ve been sold a ringer: the horse was painted black and the chariot unfit for the road. But it doesn’t stop the Tour. They simply commandeer the Roman char de dépannage, or “pick-up chariot”, that arrives to tow away their wreck. There are lots more new jokes before the end of the book, plus the running gag that sees them meet a long-suffering pirate ship in the Mediterranean. And Obelix, as usual, reacts badly to the suggestion that he’s fat.

Because images accompany the action, I understood most of the French easily, but there were puns and regional jokes that went over my head. I didn’t understand the end of the book either, when Asterix gives Lucius the village’s own speciality: “LA CHÂTAIGNE!” – “The chestnut!” As he says it, he knocks Lucius – TCHAC! – right out of his sandals and high into the air. That couldn’t be translated literally into English and a lot must be lost when you read Asterix in another language. But the images remain and sometimes the translation works better than the original. The village druid Panoramix is called Getafix in English, the rotund village chief Abraracourcix is Vitalstatistix, and the caterwauling village bard Assurancetourix is Cacophonix.

Cacophonix would work in French too, but those names are a rare example of an outsider improving on the original. In their way, the Asterix books are one of the great products of French civilization, full of charm, cleverness and joie de vivre. I don’t think anything could make them more enjoyable, but that subtext about the German occupation makes them more interesting.


*“The Hexagon”, as France is known because of its roughly six-sided shape on the map.

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ბიბლია / Biblia (Georgian Bible) (2013)

Georgian is the most difficult language I’ve ever seriously studied. Phonetically it’s probably the most difficult full stop. But I continue to plod away at it and bought this Bible to help me. I wanted to encounter Georgian in the wild, as it were. Not that this is truly wild Georgian: it’s a translation, not something composed by a native speaker from scratch. But Bibles are usually strong influences on the language of a Christian nation and the Georgian Bible, like Georgian Christianity, is among the oldest in the world.

This is modern Georgian, though. Or fairly modern: I can notice some archaic plurals and I’ve been told that there are old-fashioned verbs. If my Georgian were better, I would notice more of what’s archaic, but I don’t think it’s as far from modern Georgian as the King James Version is from modern English. I’d been having even more difficulty with it if that were the case, I suspect. I would have preferred just a New Testament, because it would have been smaller and less intimidating, but perhaps one day I’ll be able to dip anywhere into this full Bible and understand what I’m reading.

At the moment, I can’t do that. I still find Georgian verbs very difficult, but that’s one of the good things about the Gospels. They’re repetitive and use a limited vocabulary. And I’m already familiar with the stories. Even so, I have to prime myself by reading each section in another language before I try the Georgian. Not English: that would be too simple and no good as linguistic exercise. Instead, I use the Latin of a Novum Testamentum Graece et Latine, with occasional glances at the Greek that flanks it.

Latin is easy next to Georgian and although I can’t read Tacitus or Cicero in the original, the Latin of the Gospels is very straightforward. But I still need to think harder than in English, which makes the meaning grow more slowly and powerfully in my brain. I didn’t appreciate the Gospels properly until I read them in Latin and Greek. There are some strange things going on and the Last Supper and Crucifixion are moving stories.

But I’m not moved or awed in Georgian: I’m still reading too slowly and understanding too weakly. The stepping-stones in Latin are close together and dry underfoot. I can walk across quickly and confidently, enjoying the sound and sight of the river:

Et recordatus est Petrus verbi Iesu, quod dixerat: Priusquam gallus cantet, ter me negabis. Et egressus foras ploravit amare. (Matthaeus 26:75)

In Georgian, the stepping-stones are far apart and slippery. I’m too busy trying not to fall off to appreciate the river:

და გაახსენდა პეტრეს იესოს ნათქვანი სიტყვა: სანამ მამალი იყივლებდეს, სამჯერ უარმყოფ მე. გამოვიდა გარეთ და მწარედ ატირდა. (მათეს სახარება 26:75)

Da gaakhsenda P’et’res Iesos natkvani sit’qva: Sanam mamali iqivlebdes, samjer uarmqop me. Gamovida garet da mts’ared at’irda.

In English, that verse is:

And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly. (Matthew 26:75)

One word is almost identical in all three languages: “me”. And the Georgian genitive of Iesos uses a suffix much like the one in English. The suffix Georgian uses on nouns in the past tense – ეს თორმეტი იესომ დაარიგა, Es tormet’i Iesom daarigi, “These twelve Jesus sent forth” (Mth 10:5) – is strange to speakers of English, French or German, but it’s like the -ne used not so far off in Hindi. Georgian isn’t an Indo-European language and has resisted the influence of its giant neighbour Russian with surprising success, but it’s not as alien as Chinese or Arabic.

Except in its phonology and phonetics. That’s part of what attracts me to it: as I said in an earlier review, Georgian torments the tongue even as it pleases the eye. The alphabet is one of the most beautiful ever created. I was disappointed at first by the font used in this book, but I’ve got used to it now. It’s minimal, distinguishing ხ and ძ, შ and წ only by orientation, and perhaps that suits the simplicity of the Gospels better.

But I would prefer a more decorative font for იოანე ღმერთისმეტყველის გამოცხადება, Ioane Ghmertismet’qvelis Gamotskhadeba, or the John Prophet’s Revelation. I’m not ready for that final book of the New Testament yet, because I’ve not even reached the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the first book of the New Testament. But I hope to be ready one day. I might even be able to read parts of it without a Latin crib. That’s where the მეძავთა და დედამიწის სიბილწეთა დედა is waiting: the medzavta da dedamits’is sibilts’eta deda, the “whores’ and earth’s abominations’ mother”, is waiting. Revelation in Georgian will be even stranger than it is in Greek, Latin and English.

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Larousse de PocheLarousse de Poche (Librarie Larousse 1954)

Here are two good tips for anyone learning a foreign language. First, read comics. Second, get a monolingual dictionary. Both are methods of getting your mother-tongue out of the way. If you read comics, you’ll see words illustrated by actions. If you get a monolingual dictionary, you see words illustrated by words. In both cases, you’ll stay inside the world of the language you’re learning, rather than stepping backwards and forwards across a linguistic frontier.

For example, here are some definitions from this Larousse de Poche, or Pocket Larousse:

albâtre n. m. Marbre transparent et tendre. Fig. Blancheur extrême.
béchamel adj et n. f. Sauce blanche faite avec de la crème.
colibri n. m. Oiseau exotique de très petite taille; oiseau-mouche.
fou ou fol, folle n. et adj. Qui a perdu la raison : Charles VI mourut fou.
foudre n. f. Décharge électrique aérienne, accompagnée de tonnerre et d’éclairs. Fig. Coup soudain, rigoureux, irrésistible. Coup de foudre, événement soudain. Amour subit et violent.
glouton, onne adj. et n. Qui mange avec avidité. N. m. Mammifère carnivore des pays froids.
métallurgie n. f. Art d’extraire, de purifier et de traivailler les métaux.
ramoner v. tr. Nettoyer l’intérieur d’une cheminée.
vinagrier n. m. Qui fait et vend du vinaigre. Burette à vinaigre.

If the definitions work right, you’ll understand without an English word intruding. That’s the ideal when you’re learning another language. C.S. Lewis explained it well in his autobiography Surprised by Joy (1955):

The great gain was that I very soon became able to understand a great deal without (even mentally) translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language. Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle. The very formula, “Naus means a ship,” is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind Naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding. (ch. ix, “The Great Knock”)

If the English word intrudes, you don’t build up your mental muscles in the second language. Or you see the second language in a distorting mirror, rather than looking at it directly. That’s why comics and monolingual dictionaries are good for muscles and eyes.

Even a small dictionary is good. The French lexicon isn’t very big, so this Larousse de Poche usually helps even with the exotic vocabulary of a novel like À Rebours, let alone a straightforward text like Les Hommes Volants. And dictionaries have a literary appeal of their own. A good definition is like a good stroke in cricket, making minimum effort for maximum effect. This definition flies off the bat and skims away for four:

crâne n. m. Boîte osseuse contenant le cerveau.

And if understanding a language is like using a knife to cut into the world, then a bilingual dictionary is like using two knives at once. They get in each other’s way. It’s bad for the weaker knife: it gets blunt and chipped. Using a monolingual dictionary, by contrast, sharpens and shines the weaker knife. My French has never been very good, but I think it’s improved since I’ve started using this dictionary. The Ramones sang about a “Rocket to Russia”, so you could say that this book is a “Pocket to Laroussia” – the world of French in which that famous publisher has worked for so long.

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Les Hommes Volants, Valerie Moolman, trans. Madeleine Astorkia (Time-Life Books 1981)

This is one of the best books I’ve ever owned. And also one of the most enjoyable to read. But if it had been the original edition in English, I’m not sure I would have bothered reading it. It might not have seemed worth the effort, because the effort would have been so slight.

It would have been like walking downhill. Reading French, on the other hand, is like walking uphill on difficult ground. It’s much better mental exercise and much more interesting. The scenery is stranger, the flora and fauna more exotic. And the appeal of reading in a foreign language is summed up in this book:

« Toutes furent unanimes, écrivit Chanute, « à affirmer que voler dans les airs procurait un monde de sensations extraordinaires. » (« L’apprentissage du vol », p. 92)

“Everyone was united,” Chanute wrote, “in agreeing that flying through the air produced a world of extraordinary sensations.”

The extraordinary nature of language isn’t apparent when you’re in your mother-tongue. You have to enter another language, because each language is a world of its own. That quote is by Octave Chanute (1932-1910), one of the pioneers of aviation, but he didn’t make it in French or in France. Although he was born in Paris, he emigrated with his parents to America and grew up to become a civil engineer.

He then got interested in aviation and was one of the inspirations for the Wright Brothers. But this book goes back well before Chanute and the Wrights. Men have been dreaming of flight, and dying in the attempt, for millennia. It looks so easy for birds, but it took a long time to master. Like mountaineering, it was a Faustian quest and white European men proved to have the necessary combination of intelligence and daring. Those who challenged the air, like the German Otto Lilienthal (1848-96), often paid with their lives.

Lilienthal was another inspiration for the Wrights, but they had to correct some of his aerodynamic findings before they could finally achieve powered flight. Their success ends the book, which begins with the experiments of Persian kings and medieval monks, and the story of aviation presumably continues in La Conquête du Ciel, or Conquest of the Sky, which is listed with other Time-Life editions at the beginning.

The Time-Life books are well-designed and full of interesting pictures and photographs. Seeing is good for saying: as I point out in my review of a monolingual French dictionary, if you’re learning another language, it’s good to see words and images combined, because each reinforces the other. And translations into the second language are a good place to start too, because you’re often already familiar with the story and translations are usually simpler than texts composed directly in the second language.

The flood of the original has to be channelled and controlled to irrigate the minds of new readers, because French can’t do everything that English can, and vice versa. But Les Hommes Volants seems to be a good, idiomatic translation: it’s rarely obvious what the original English would have been, though I think the book must have been well-written and interesting in English too. And the font goes perfectly with French: it’s an elegant yet precise serif.

The intricacy and complexity of French also go well with the intricacy and complexity of the mechanical task that the pioneers of aviation were confronted with. English is intricate and complex too, of course, but I wouldn’t have noticed if I’d read this book in English. The translation into German would have been too difficult: French is in a kind of linguistic sweet spot for me. Difficult enough to be challenging, not so difficult as to be exhausting or frustrating. I glide effortlessly in English; I have to flap my wings hard to stay up in French; I can barely get off the ground in German or Georgian. The second kind of flight is often the most satisfying.

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Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges

If you want a good reason to learn Spanish, here’s one: you’ll be able to read Borges in the original. Learning won’t be very difficult, but it would be worth it even if it were. Spanish is a clear and elegant language and Borges is a clear and elegant writer. He puts his stories together like mosaics, using words as chips of coloured stone to create the strangest of worlds and situations.

This collection, which combines El Jardín de Senderos que se Bifurcan (1941) (The Garden of Forking Paths) and Artificios (1944) (Artifices), has the very strange world known as “La Biblioteca de Babel” or “The Library of Babel”, an infinite library of hexagonal rooms whose books are a kind of drunkard’s walk through alphabetic possibility:

Uno, que mi padre vio en un hexágono del circuito quince noventa y cuatro, constaba de las letras MCV perversamente repetidas desde el renglón primero hasta el último.

One book, which my father once saw in a hexagon in circuit 15-94,consisted of the letters M C V perversely repeated from the first line to the last.

Borges was fascinated by concepts like randomness and infinity, which is why he drew on mathematics so often in his stories. “The Library of Babel” is an exploration of those ideas, but amid the abstraction and universality of mathematics there are haunting images like this:

Muerto, no faltarán manos piadosas que me tiren por la baranda; mi sepultura será el aire insondable; mi cuerpo se hundirá largamente y se corromperá y disolverá en el viento engenerado por la caída, que es infinita.

When I am dead, compassionate hands will throw me over the railing; my tomb will be the unfathomable air, my body will sink for ages, and will decay and dissolve in the wind engendered by my fall, which shall be infinite.

That’s both horrible and beautiful. The first words of the quote – “Muerto, no faltarán…” – are an example of how Spanish can be more precise than English. A literal translation would be: “Dead, there shall not lack caring hands to cast me over the railing…” But in English the referent of “dead” hangs in the air and doesn’t settle very readily on “me”. In Spanish, muerto is masculine singular and clearly refers to the speaker.

English has to paraphrase, just as it does with the title of Gautier’s «La Morte Amoureuse» (1836). One of the strange titles in the Library of Babel, Trueno peinado, translates well into English: Combed Thunder. Another title doesn’t: Calambre de Yeso, or Plaster Cramp. I think Sandstone Cramp or Onyx Cramp would work better in English: the translation fails by being too faithful.

But Borges survives translation better than most writers, because his prose is precise and his themes are universal. Or perhaps you could say fundamental. He’s playing with words and ideas, exploring the relationship between language and reality, between reality and imagination, between imagination and mathematics. “The Library of Babel” is an excellent example, which is why it’s perhaps his most famous story.

But there’s a melancholy and even a terror in the story too, which come across more clearly when you’re reading more slowly and with closer attention. That’s one reason it’s good to read in other languages: people whose mother tongue isn’t Spanish can find things in Borges that native speakers can’t.

But that applies to every language: in some ways the natives are trapped by their own familiarity and fluency. Borges was aware of questions like that and in “The Library of Babel” he suddenly throws a door open to an infinity of mirrors. If the relation between symbol and sense is arbitrary, then any combination of letters can have any meaning. That’s why the narrator of the story suddenly asks:

Tú, que me lees, ¿estás seguro de entender mi lenguaje?

You who read me — are you certain you understand my language?

In other stories, like “La Muerte y la Brújula”, or “Death and the Compass”, Borges’ games with symbols and coincidence can begin to seem like self-parody. This is the story of a series of murders committed to form the letters of the Tetragrammaton, or great and unspeakable name of God in Hebrew. I think the title in Spanish is better than the story, because brújula has an enticing echo of brujo, “wizard”, or bruja, “witch”. Borges was a profound writer, not a broad one, and he repeated himself, like a garden of forking paths or an echoing labyrinth. But my Spanish isn’t good enough to appreciate him fully or get the most out of his humour.

Whatever language you read him in, you’ll probably agree that he is among the greatest writers of the twentieth century. But one of his biggest services to literature may have been to encourage more people to try G.K. Chesterton, one of his own heroes and inspirations. He would certainly have been pleased to do so, because you don’t get ego with Borges. Instead, you get ideas, some of the strangest and most haunting ever set to cellulose. As I said in one of my own attempts at Borgesian weirdness:

Black Aikkos the God is eternally blind,
But he sees with the eyes of the infinite mind… (“The Dice of Aikkos”)

Homer, at the beginning of European literature, is said to have been blind. Borges certainly was, and if he proves to have been at the end of European literature, he is great enough to bear the comparison.

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Excuse My French by Rachel Best and Jean-Christophe Van WaesExcuse my French! Fluent Français without the Faux Pas, Rachel Best and Jean-Christophe Van Waes (Kyle Books 2013)

If you know only one language, you don’t really know it. Learning a second is like travelling abroad: you’ll see home with new eyes when you get back. But the title of this book is misleading: it’s not an introduction to French and it won’t teach you about grammar or morphology. Instead, it compares French and English idioms, from weather to the workplace, from food to sex. It’s a kind of linguistic daytrip, taking you a little way from English and helping you to see it afresh. As I said in “Rosetta Rok”, understanding your mother tongue is like eating a ripe apple. You can do it without apparent effort or thought.

So when you read “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, you understand it almost too easily if you’re a native speaker of English. Now try a similar thought in French: l’habit ne fait pas le moine – “the habit doesn’t make the monk” (pg. 79). You have to think again. It’s like seeing a familiar sculpture from an unusual angle. And, of course, you gain an insight into French culture and history. France is a Catholic country and religion has always meant more there. So has blasphemy. In English we have “hide the sausage”; in French, they have mettre le petit Jésus dans la crèche, “put little Jesus in the cradle” (pg. 62).

Food is more important in France too. For example, I didn’t know how important pears were there. In English, we discuss things “over coffee”; in French, they do it entre le poire et le fromage, “between the pear and the cheese” (pp. 146-7). Rachel Best, a native speaker of English, and Jean-Christophe Van Waes, her French husband, explain the precise meaning of this phrase, saying that it dates back to medieval times. Idioms can be like linguistic fossils. Sometimes they’re misinterpreted or misunderstood in the contemporary language.

But books and covers, like monks and habits, are easy to understand and the section devoted to those sayings also mentions two Latin equivalents: cucullus non facit monachum, “the hood doesn’t make the monk”, and barba non facit philosophum, “the beard doesn’t make the philosopher”.

The Latin is easy to understand too, but there are always traps in other languages. Best and Van Waes say that the French equivalent of “to be cross-eyed” is avoir un œil qui dit merde à l’autre, which literally means “to have one eye that says shit to the other”. That doesn’t sound good as a literal translation. But they note that dire merde à quelqu’un, “say shit to someone”, means “to wish someone luck, as in the English theatre salutation ‘break a leg’” (pg. 72). So being cross-eyed in French may not be so bad after all.

Either way, standard French is often cruder than standard English. We say: “Don’t run before you can walk.” They say: Ne pète pas plus haut que ton cul – “don’t fart higher than your arse” (pp. 134-5). We say: “Don’t split hairs” and although French has an equivalent expression, they can also say: N’enculons pas des mouches – “Let’s not bugger flies” (pg. 140). And where English has a “couch-potato”, French has a cul-de-plombe, an “arse-of-lead”. But sometimes English is cruder: we have “colder than a witch’s tit”, they have un froid de canard, “a duck-cold” (from duck-hunting in winter). We have “built like a brick shithouse” and they have une armoire à glace, “a wardrobe with mirror”.

Elsewhere the sayings are more or less the same. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” and à cheval donné on ne regard pas les dents are pretty much identical (pg. 115). “One swallow does not a summer make” and une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps differ only in season (printemps is “spring”) (pg. 101). When sayings are similar in wording, it’s usually because English has borrowed from French. When they’re different, sometimes French seems more vivid or funnier and sometimes English does. See above. And “cool as a cucumber” is better than d’une calme olympien, I think (pg. 28). “Rug muncher” is better than colleuse de timbres, “stamp-licker” (pg. 57). But “twilight” isn’t as good as entre chien et loup, “between dog and wolf” (pg. 100). Nor is “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” as good as il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué, “you shouldn’t sell the bear-skin before killing the bear” (pg. 133).

I wish we had those two and others in English. But if we did, I would probably take them for granted. This book helps you stop doing that to your mother-tongue. My French is too weak for me to know how good the translations, explanations and etymologies in this book are, but they seem fine and in a way it doesn’t matter. Language is an imperfect medium and meaning shifts like smoke. That’s one of the important lessons you can take from Excuse My French. I like the fast and funny drawings by Alyana Cazalet too.

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