Tetigisti-ing the Rem Acu

How do we know where a word exists in a language vis-à-vis all the other words of the language? By that I mean, is the word high or low, formal, informal, or somewhere in between, dressed in a suit and tie or T-shirt and grungy tennis shoes? Is it used mostly on formal occasions (belles-lettres and solemn ceremony) or in everyday speech? In other words, how do we know what is often referred to as register (first used in this sense by the linguist Thomas Bertram Reid back in 1956 according to Wikipedia)? Where does the word sit on the spectrum of use?

When dealing with our native tongue, we develop that sense over the years simply by dint of using the language, associating the word, or a certain pronunciation, or even a grammatical usage (For shame, Johnny! Remember, a double negative is a no no! A hoary chestnut that is still probably steering learners of English in the direction of a passing grade on TOEFL tests around the globe) with a certain setting, social situation, age group, reading material, and so on. If you can read this and find it at all interesting, and someone said to you, “He don’t speak English so good,” you would immediately know that either the person is a native speaker of English with probably only a minimum of formal education; or he or she is pulling your language leg. You know that third-person “don’t” and “good” used as an adverb are tokens of “low” or very informal spoken English and not to be employed if you want to pass for educated. On the other hand, advanced education be damned, you wouldn’t get terribly far as a pop lyricist if you scrupled to use third-person “don’t.” It doesn’t mean a thing if it doesn’t have that swing… The structure is now fixed in the English popular song tradition, not the least because “don’t” is a single syllable, a rather full vowel, and can take a strong accent. It fits (“You know it don’t come easy…,” “It don’t matter to me…,” “It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe./It don’t matter anyhow…,” this last song lyric by a winner of the Nobel Prize in literature no less!).

To illustrate the idea of register, I can co-opt a classic example of three major strata that exist in English and cleave nicely along usage lines, i.e., “give up” (bedrock Anglo-Saxon) with respect to “surrender” (borrowed from the French) and vis-a-vis “capitulate” (straight outta Latin). In terms of register, “give up” is everyday English, “surrender” less so, and “capitulate” only gets trotted out on special occasions (or, as I remember reading it, a simple soldier gives up, his brigade surrenders, and the whole bleddy country capitulates – although obviously a soldier could also be realistically heard saying “I surrender, I surrender…”). By the way, “outta” above is of course a spelling convention (merely aping the widespread pronunciation of “out of” and echoing Straight Outta Compton) that situates my parenthetical remark in a low or street register, a common tic of comic writers, pairing low with high, “straight outta” and talk of Latin. Linguistically, this is all premised on register.

On a personal note and a particularly exclusive register, the irretrievably corny and unhip exclamation “pshaw” is one of my earliest memories of reading in, I suppose, the first grade of my American school. I don’t think there is any comparably odd consonant cluster in Dr. Seuss’s books, which is really where I had already learned to read, and it so puzzled me that I have remembered it and the feeling of “this can’t be!” at its discovery to this day. In terms of register for English, it was, already back in 1964, an oddball out-of-place backwards-kin kind of term (N-grams puts its peak presence at 1902, while the online Collins sets its highest recorded use in 1797) and I can now only conclude that either our first-grade readers were exceedingly out-of-date, or, like one of those everyday monsters comically philippicked by the great French stand-up Pierre Desproges, the author was a cruel and sadistic horror who enjoyed laying the occasional linguistic booby trap in children’s books , chuckling to the grave over how he had gummed up neuronal bandwidth in heads throughout the land. He was truly mental. “Pshaw” thus occupies a particularly rare place in my idiolect, a register like those legendary forms in Japanese that solely exist for the unimaginably rare chance that you might have to reply to the emperor’s inquiry about your health over tea. It also evokes an odd formal register in current English generally; anyone, say a learner of English, looking up the word will find it indicated as “rare” (the online Oxford much more accurately prefaces the definition with “humorous, dated”). Finally, the term makes me long to read the adjective pshavian, based on the name of the well-known comic playwright George Bernard Pshaw. In contemporary English terms, “pshaw” just got pwned.

The question of register in terms of translation came up for me recently with the death of Stephen Hawking. A German-speaking friend and colleague wrote to me and a mutual French-speaking friend about how we would translate into French the following quotation, specifically the sentence beginning “It has been a glorious time…”:

At a conference in Cambridge held in celebration of his seventy-fifth birthday in 2017, Professor Hawking said “It has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research into theoretical physics. Our picture of the Universe has changed a great deal in the last fifty years, and I’m happy if I’ve made a small contribution.”

The ensuing discussion among us raised for me the question of how we know, learn, suss out the register of a word, turn of phrase, grammatical construction, etc. in an acquired language. I lived for over seventeen years in French-speaking countries, principally in French-speaking Switzerland, and so quite naturally through reading but also, importantly, by aural osmosis I absorbed what I might call the “brainfeel” for lots of areas of French. It means that when I overheard here in Brooklyn a pleasant woman greet a local merchant she knew and apparently regularly saw with a cheery Bonne journée! I realized straightaway, regardless of the accent, that neither was a native-speaker of French. The locution immediately sounded wrong because, at least where I had used French daily, you would mostly say bonjour on arriving and bonne journée only when departing – not strictly a question of register, of course, but emblematic of how we know where what we say fits into a language as a whole. (How did I know the merchant wasn’t a native speaker, if he knew any French at all? A French merchant probably would have pointed out to her the error by then.)

For the translation of Hawking’s declaration, I suggested something but admitted outright that it was probably no good and that our native speaker would come up with a good solution, and in fact he did, offering three possible translations off the cuff. I then pointed out why I thought one turn of phrase (une époque bénie des dieux – literally a time/period blessed by the gods) might not work because, knowing a little about Hawking, an avowed atheist, I doubted he would have gone for anything having God or gods in it in English at that late date (even though he does mention God at the end of his A Brief History of Time and in a few other famous remarks). Then I posed a question, which brings us to register. Why, I asked our friend, had he avoided “glorious” in French since the adjective glorieux/se exists? It seemed a natural choice.

There are two possibilities that worry, or should, a translator when facing a supposedly natural choice. The first is one that translators and anyone learning a language are warned about or discover early on when the two languages, native and foreign to the learner, have significant overlap, which is very much the case of French and English. These are the faux amis, the false friends, of French and English, the ancien (often translated as “former”), which is not “ancient”; or the déception (disappointment) that is not a deception (even though the latter can certainly provoke the former). Molestar in Spanish could lead to a smile or international incident, depending on the circumstances, were it translated as “to molest”; it is the stuff of a classic joke (and no molestar/please do not molest obviously should have been hanging on all the doors of all those hotel rooms where Harvey W. plied his – in his eyes – formidable powers of seduction).

The second possibility, which springs from the first I think, of a translation seeming like the natural choice is that the damn word in one language has a cognate in the other, e.g., glorious and glorieux/glorieuse, which occupy more or less the same semantic field in their respective languages and, crucially to our discussion, the same register nowadays. And yet the translator avoids what argues to be the natural choice.

As it happens, my French-speaking friend never answered my question, but the German-speaker, who lives not far from Geneva and is surrounded by French, did counter that glorieux was less commonplace in French, and of a higher register, and so it would be a mistranslation to put une époque glorieuse. I now tried to disabuse my friend of what I think are his misconceptions about the English “glorious.” I told him the term is really not something you would use every day, at least not in American English and, I’m pretty sure, in the English used in the UK; I linked him to the N-gram for “glorious” in American and English use, showing its decline from the mid-19th century, and I argued that the decline in written sources probably mirrored a decline in its use in speech. Finally, I reminded him that because of his handicap, Steven Hawking’s “speech” in 2017 was much closer to writing anyway.

The German-speaker then did some research on his own and offered four or five quotations (from 2017-2018) in which “glorious” was indeed used, it seemed to him, in regular speech. And here is where my reasoning shows how one can form some idea of a word’s register in a foreign tongue. I pointed out that all his citations were instances of writing and not an attempt to reflect English as it is spoken today. The first was from a sports article and the author mentions an American football player by name along with his “glorious mustache.” Someone learning English, for example, could ponder the adjective choice here coupled with an apparently conspicuous bit of facial hair; a normally trivial thing, a feature of the athlete’s face, is being singled out, in itself probably a humorous effect. How to point up or emphasize the humor if not by modifying the noun with an adjective normally not associated with trivial things? In other words, try to reverse engineer the joke. “Glorious” is probably reserved for much more important things.

Along these lines, a lot of the priceless 16th-century comic writer François Rabelais’s material is lost on French readers today, but a great deal more was lost on me when I was immersing myself in his works back when I was first really studying French literature at the University of Geneva. Most editions provide extensive notes to help today’s readers, but when Rabelais, for instance, takes Latin nouns and verbs and comically Gallicizes them, hauls them over into French lock, stock and barrel, any educated native speaker of French is probably in on the joke right away. For me, they were just more nouns and verbs I had to look up (in the Huguet, the wonderful seven-volume dictionary of 16th-century French). The equivalent in English might be to coin, say, aleajactaesting and sictransitgloriamundize (a quidnunc already exists). And indeed, in the great comic writer P.G. Wodehouse’s priceless Aunts Aren’t Gentleman, the twit and toff Bertie Wooster, who has managed to retain Jeeves’ Latin tag rem acu tetigisti (“you have touched the thing/the matter with the needle,” in other words, you have hit the nail on the head), declares at one point, “I agreed with him that he had tetigisti-ed the rem acu.” In my case, I was being a good and sedulous student, looking the words up, but also a bit obtuse. Rabelais’s humor was practically giving me a raspberry point blank in the face.

The second citation came from the Smithsonian, more of a suit- and even suit-and-tie-kind of publication than a jeans-and-sneakers one. The third was from Seventeen, not a bastion of formal writing in the high style, yes, but the quotation sprang from a movie review of sorts, which is already pitched at a higher level probably than an interview. Importantly, the turn of phrase was “glorious summer,” while the remaining two quotations had to do with beautiful views of nature and the natural world. I explained to our man that he was probably unaware of an expression that was almost certainly hovering over or behind these three usages, “made glorious summer,” from two very famous verses by Shakespeare. I went on to maintain, without any hard data though, that any English-speaker of a certain age (hinting at “over thirty” – hedging my bets) with some university education, and any writer worth their salt really, would indeed have encountered the two verses

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York.

After my above email exchange, by the way, I tested my theory about “glorious summer,” with a fairly limited test group, i.e., just one, a friend who is also edging toward sixty and who holds a BA from an American university but not in literature – and who is not in the writing dodge. I asked him in an email if he could, off the top of his head, cite the opening verses of Richard III. He admitted he could not and that he did not in fact know the play. Then I asked him if he recognized the two verses quoted above. He knew them straight off and had read and heard them on several occasions. And he concurred that if somebody today said “We had a glorious time,” instead of “We had a great time,” the adjective would definitely stand out. The parallel to draw in this case would be with “awesome,” which was of a very high register once (it implied the kind of terror one would feel before the divine when there was no question the divine existed), but today is part of everyday English and synonymous with “nice,” “great,” “cool,” etc. A nonnative speaker of English would have no end of clues to situate the term properly.

Tom Stoppard’s brilliant play The Invention of Love is about, among other things, the great English poet and classics scholar A.E. Housman and Latin love poetry. Early in the first act, the young Housman, already a keen reader of the Latin poets, analyses a verse from Horace’s Odes (III, 24) and in doing so, gives us a tutorial on how one can sometimes work out, even in a dead language, the possible standing of a word by paying close attention to what the text itself may be telling us:

Housman: The Odes. Sorry. Odes Three, 24, “ludere doctior seu Graeco iubeas trocho” – it’s where he’s saying everything’s gone to the dogs.
Pollard: That’s it! …they’re better at playing with the Greek hoop!
Housman: Actually, “trochosis Greek, it’s the Greek word for hoop, so when Horace uses “Graecus trochus” it’s rather like saying “French chapeau.” I mean he’s laying it on thick, isn’t he?

How do you poke fun at pretentious Latinate vocabulary in Latin? You goes Greek.


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Its Very Own Breath

In the literary or “free” translation (I am more comfortable with calling it adaptation) of poetry, occasionally the Fates or, when one is very lucky, Erato smiles on the whole endeavor and sense and sound magically align in the into-language as they have in the original. The great recently deceased poet Richard Wilbur, for example, seemed to have had ses couverts mis en permanence (always been a welcome guest) chez Ms. Erato, since his ability to consistently preserve meter and even rhyme scheme while remaining true to the original was astounding.

More rarely a poem in one language goes through the wringer of translation and comes out, not a clean, if wet, pair of trousers, but, say, a Hugo Boss suit. The magician’s stage business, however, is absent in the poet-translator since the trick is transparent, entirely in the open, for anyone who reads the two languages. The great song-writer poet Leonard Cohen, for example, was always forthright about his debt to and admiration of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca; indeed, it was Cohen’s stumbling on an English translation of Lorca when this English-speaking native of Montreal was fifteen that convinced him, as he recounted it a number of times, to spend his life chatting up the muse and maybe coaxing from her a few lyrics as well. Years later Cohen repaid Lorca with compound interest by translating his “Pequeño vals Vienés,” turning it into a very beautiful English song and stand-alone poem in the process called “Take This Waltz.” To my ear, Cohen’s adaptation is better than Lorca’s poem for a formal reason, namely he adds rhyme. Since Cohen’s translation was set to music, he had to maintain a certain meter of course (yes, the song is indeed in triple time for the waltz that it is), but it is the recurring rhymes and half-rhymes that ground what could have been surreal (something that is in the Spanish original) and possibly cloying imagery in a kind of aural real world, one of fixed rhymes. Here’s the start of the poem followed by Cohen’s translation/adaptation:

En Viena hay diez muchachas,
un hombro donde solloza la muerte
y un bosque de palomas disecadas.
Hay un fragmento de la mañana
en el museo de la escarcha.
Hay un salón con mil ventanas.
¡Ay, ay, ay, ay!
Toma este vals con la boca cerrada.

Este vals, este vals, este vals,
de sí, de muerte y de coñac
que moja su cola en el mar.

Now in Vienna there are ten pretty women,
There’s a shoulder where Death comes to cry,
There’s a lobby with nine hundred windows,
There’s a tree where the doves go to die,
There’s a piece that was torn from the morning,
And it hangs in the Gallery of Frost,
Aye, aye aye aye,
Take this waltz, take this waltz,
Take this waltz with the clamp on its jaws.

This waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz,
With its very own breath of brandy and death
Dragging its tail in the sea.

Yes, there are echoes at the ends of Lorca’s lines, with muchachas, disecadas, ventanas, or mañana and cerrada, but these are not true rhymes since the accented syllable falls before the “as” or “a” and the consonants terminating the accented syllables aren’t the same. Cohen’s die/cry is a true rhyme and so it goes throughout his adaptation, nearly systematically (here, for example, “frost,” “waltz”—very close, and with the final st of one dancing around to become a ts in the other!—and “jaws” all share the same vowel). He even works in fantastic internal (so-called leonine) rhymes in “torn from the morning” (which likewise brings to mind—brings to ear—mourning, given the talk of death and dying) and “With its very own breath of brandy and death,” which is superior to de sí, de muerte y de coñac thanks to those rhymes as well as the alliterations of “breath of brandy and death”…

When there is padding in Cohen’s adaptation, it is the precious stuff of real inspiration, all goose down and Egyptian cotton. One of my favorite lines of Cohen’s is a nearly literal translation of Lorca:

Hay frescas guirnaldas de llanto
(literally “there are fresh garlands of tears”)

becomes the stunning

with a garland of freshly cut tears.

¡Ay! ¡mi corazón! That’s good. To maintain the triple time here, one could translate the line more closely as “there are freshly cut garlands of tears” but because of the preceding verse in Cohen’s adaptation, he has to drop “there’s” or “there’re.” The padding is in the “freshly cut” where the Spanish has only “fresh.” But while shifting from a plural “garlands” to a singular, which intensifies the image in its simple way (and allows him to add the unaccented indefinite article to piece out the meter: one two three, with a gar…), Cohen makes the tears themselves “freshly cut” (heightening the image even more by introducing an additional note of absurdity), thus achieving the requisite number of syllables and fashioning an unforgettable line of English verse.

I should point out for anyone unfamiliar with the history of translating verse that adding rhyme to the into-language version of non-rhyming poetry isn’t anything new, although nowadays translators either follow suit, rhyming or not rhyming according to the original’s form, or opt for meter without rhyme regardless of the original, or, finally, offer a prose version that is heightened with an array of rhetorical effects. Recurring rhyme at the end of verse lines became the second aural indicator of poetry in the Middle Ages (meter—a regular scheme of stressed and unstressed syllables or a regular number of syllables—is of course the first, and the very definition of verse), and poets, even when translating poems from antiquity (Latin and ancient Greek poetry never impose an end-rhyme scheme), would naturally use meter and rhyme in their versions. Chaucer borrows material from Vergil and his Aeneid for The House of Fame, and when he briefly translates in his own poem just the first hemistich of the Latin epic:

Arma virumque cano

Of arms and the man I sing…

he puts it into a couplet of iambic tetrameter:

I wol now synge, yf I kan
The armes and also the man…

Complete translations of the epic followed, starting in the early sixteenth century, always in heroic couplets (i.e. pentameter), the verse form for noble or epic subjects. In the second half of the seventeenth century, Dryden rendered the opening of the Aeneid thus:

Arms and the man I sing, who, forc’d by fate,
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate,
Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan shore…

Even the classicist and great English poet A.E. Housman, no slouch when it came to understanding and more importantly appreciating Latin poetry, even he, when he chose to English his most beloved lyric, Horace’s ode that begins Diffugere nives (Odes iv 7), put it into a strict abab rhyme scheme:

The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
And altered is the fashion of the earth…

Nowadays, when strict rhyme schemes have fallen out of favor with several generations of poets, the poet-translator wouldn’t dream of adding end rhyme where none exists in the original poem. Cohen wasn’t therefore breaking new ground but he was doing something fairly surprising for the time from the point of view of translating verse. The popular-song tradition led him to denature the original but surpass his Spanish master in this instance.

By way of a coda in the sea, I had all this in mind a few days ago when I came across a quatrain from a fine lyric by the nineteenth-century post-romantic Spanish poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, “Rima XXIV” (“Dos rojas lenguas de fuego…”). The generative principle of the poem is simple enough. In five quatrains the poet evokes a series of two things in nature that represent in the concluding line of the poem “our two souls” (“eso son nuestras dos almas”). My two balls (de mes deux plutôt…), might conclude a Lolita if Humbert had tried to read Spanish poetry to his Carmencita… But Bécquer’s poem does have a certain wistful sensuality wafting throughout. It, too, has its very own breath but of parchment and the fleeting perfume of a lost love.

I was struck by the following quatrain and as I began to render it in English as a challenge, I realized I could work not one but two rhymes (abab) in:

dos olas que vienen juntas
a morir sobre una playa
y que al romper se coronan
con un penacho de plata

Two waves that come together,
Together to die upon the shore
And as they break, they feather,
Crowned by a silver plume before…

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How Absolute a Knave

I stumbled on a poem recently by the Italian poet Sergio Solmi (1899-1981), “Entro la densa lente dell’estate,” whose first line, which also serves as the poem’s title, is a beauty—and a heartbreaker for the English translator, as any wonderful line of verse must be to the translator, aware that beauty and fidelity rarely go hand in hand. Indeed, beauty, being aloof, and fidelity—how absolute a knave—being exact, fastidious, always pursing the lips and pointing out faults, are rarely even on speaking terms. You have to marvel at the varied yet concentrated phonetic play in the above line, the en sound that occurs in three of the first four words, the els that linger in the ear from la to lente to dell’estate (double consonants in Italian should be heard as such and so there is a special drawn-out emphasis on the el sound in dell’estate, as if an English tongue were taking particular care to pronounce “hall light” without running the two words together), the esses, dees and ahs that echo exactly once each, the tees that have the tongue lightly tapping the teeth from beginning to end. Finally, the first three words that repeat the en sound follow this in each instance with a terminal vowel that is slightly higher in pitch than the one before, thus: en-oh… en-ah… en-ey (more or less; a thousand pardons to those who have mastered the International Phonetic Alphabet). And if we were looking to hang some sort of meaning on the phonetic series of those terminal vowels, we could say they suggest the growing light of the early morning, the rising pitch imitating a rising sun. Just a handful of phonemes, nine or ten depending on how you wish to count the values of the ees in lente and estate. It would indeed be nothing short of a miracle if a similarly small number of euphonious sounds lined up in the English words that best reflect the meaning of the Italian ones. O bel compatto mondo (O beautiful compact world) exclaims the poet further on and he might well be praising this dense first verse of his. “Within the thick lens of summer,” a translator might be tempted to get up some internal rhyme by choosing “dense lens” over “thick,” but… we are prevented from doing so. English lenses are thick, not dense. Simple usage trumps any attempt at a phonetic effect.

Like the poem in its entirety, the above verse is written in the classic line of eleven syllables (hendecasyllabic is the technical term), which is the foundation of Italian poetry. In Solmi’s poem, however, there is no end rhyme. Here is the entire poem; my pedestrian translation follows:

Entro la densa lente dell’estate,
nel mattino disteso che già squarciano
lunghi, assonnati e sviscerati i gridi
degli ambulanti, — oh, i bei colori! Giallo
di peperoni, oscure melanzane,
insalate svarianti dal più tenero
verde all’azzurro, rosee carote,
e vesti accese delle donne, e muri
scabri e preziosi, gonfi ippocastani,
acque d’argento e di mercurio, e in alto
il cielo caldo e puro e torreggiante
di tondi cirri, o bel compatto mondo.
Lieto ne testimonia, sul pianeta
erra, nella città Milano, mentre
vaga, di sé dimentico e di tutto,
lungo le calme vie che si ridestano,
— oggi, addì ventisette Luglio mille
novecento cinquanta — un milanese.

Within the thick lens of summer
In the relaxed morning, which the long,
Sleepy and intense cries of the peddlers
Are already rending—oh, the beautiful colors!
Bell pepper yellow, dark eggplants,
Heads of lettuce ranging from softest
Green to sky blue, rosy carrots,
And the women’s bright clothes, and walls
Rough and precious, swollen horse chestnuts,
Water the color of silver and mercury, and on high
The sky, warm and pure and towering
With round cirrus clouds, o beautiful compact world.
Happy, he witnesses the above, wanders the planet,
In the city of Milan, while
Lost to himself, to everything,
A Milanese roams the calm streets that are waking again
—Today, the twenty-seventh of July,
Nineteen hundred and fifty.

One final remark. Of the many effects that the English translation cannot reproduce from the original, there is one at the end of the poem based solely on syntax and word order, on the way the poet can put together a correct utterance in Italian. The last six verses form a syntactic whole, three complete sentences with subjects and verbs (plus a lot of other subordinate stuff, too, but no matter), from “Happy, witnessing the above…” to the end, or in Italian, from “Lieto ne testimonia…” to the end. Because adjectives in Italian agree in number and gender with what they modify, we know from lieto that whatever it is modifying is indeed singular and masculine. However, Italian allows Solmi to place at the very end of the poem after a long build up over four verses the finally specified subject of the main clause, un milanese, “a Milanese” (“…mentre vaga… un milanese”). It forms a kind of humorous anticlimax, a carefully calibrated whimsical touch that is underscored by the echo of mille plus its end vowel and in the next, and last, line milanese and its end vowel. We might call it a key detail deferred, which English word order here just does not comfortably allow.

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