Thoughts Shuffling Round Like Pence

There are perhaps no days of our childhood that we lived so fully as those we believed we left without living them, those that we spent with a favorite book. On Reading, Marcel Proust

For translators and people who dream of acquiring foreign languages the way explorers in another, distant era dreamt of going over terrae that were still incognitae to the mapmakers, there is a kind of reference book that is especially prized: the polyglot book of proverbs, maxims, expressions hallowed by use—in other words, nuggets of wisdom that have come down the ages, displayed in the variegated light of a rainbow of languages. We might more handily dub such locutions index phrases from the way their form and content make you want to raise your index before giving them voice. A stitch in time saves nine. Birds of a feather flock together. Every cloud has a silver lining. Such collections are the exact opposite of those anthologies of exotic terms and phrases that are supposedly untranslatable; I wrote about them a few posts back. In this case, the overarching idea is that human knowledge easily vaults over the towering walls each language threw up with the bricks salvaged from toppled Babel. It is a spirit much more in keeping with the translator’s cast of mind.

Multilingual collections of proverbs and maxims, although a minor genre, have been around for a long time, doubtless based on monolingual collections going back even earlier. I have one I’m very fond of that I picked up in Italy and it lists sources dating back, for example, to 1656 for Italian proverbs; 1559 for Latin (an edition of Erasmus’s Adagiorum Chiliades, the initial version of which dates to 1500); and 1709 for English. The full title of the collection is Dizionario comparato di proverbi e modi proverbiali in sette lingue (Hoepli), and there follows a list of the seven featured languages: Italian, Latin, French, Spanish, German, English and ancient Greek. In fact, that number is greater since the author, Augusto Arthaber, scatters among the entries the odd equivalent discovered in Venetian, Piedmontese, Milanese, Bergamasque, Lombard, Roman, Sicilian, and so on (Italian dialects, it should be pointed out for those unfamiliar with the linguistic reality of the peninsula, have a very long and rich tradition).

Such books naturally contain the megastars of maxims and proverbs, those expressions that have survived generations of use, “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” “pride goes before the fall,” “too many cooks spoil the broth,” “a drowning man will catch at a straw,” and so on. One of the pleasures of thumbing through these kinds of reference works is indeed that of recognition, that feeling of stumbling on an old friend in foreign parts, followed by the excitement of discovery as you piece together on your own how the proverb is constructed in another language you know, know only partly, or don’t really know at all, every page a Rosetta Stone offering a giddy minute of mastery without the years of slogging through grammars and learners’ manuals. Take one of the examples mentioned above. I discover in my Arthaber that the rolling stone business in Italian is pietra mossa, non fa muschio (didn’t know that, and didn’t know that moss is muschio in Italian), but, more amusingly, in Sicilian it is petra smossa nun pigghia lippa. Not that the expression will ever prove very useful, but it makes me wonder if lippa indeed means moss, what its connection with muschio is—a little web research also suggests it might be more accurate to write it lippu—and makes me wonder, too, if pigghia is related to the standard Italian verb pigliare, a more familiar form of the verb to take (prendere). I also learn that Germans say that a Walzender Stein wird nicht moosig and for a few embarrassing moments I am impressed by how much more colorful German is with its “waltzing stone,” until I slap my forehead and twig that walzen meant to roll or revolve long before it was associated with the dance that began to make a name for itself in the mid-eighteenth century. Meanwhile, with the Spanish, piedra movediza, nunca moho la cobija, I find myself, to the consternation or amusement of Spanish speakers, speculating that la cobija is a feminine noun meaning some kind of moss… until I notice that moho can’t be a past participle since la piedra is feminine. Moho must be, well, moss (mousse in French, muschio in Italian, what the devil was I thinking?) and hence cobija is, right, a conjugated verb (cobijar means “to shelter”).

Such are the ways the mind works in these cases. There are lots of little discoveries, some thoroughly misleading, and some moving toward the truth, toward the true meaning of a word, phrase, or grammatical construction. Moho is a noun, not a past participle, dummy (striking my forehead again). In my defense, weak as it is, I had such forms as mojar, mojado and mojó (“to wet” in various forms), as well as mojito, whispering in my too credulous ear. For students, by the way, this is how you go about learning a new tongue. You inevitably make mistakes, but the clever student puts them to good use. They are indeed true portals of discovery, if you know not to lose your way as you venture down the paths leading from them, that is, if you eventually verify your assumptions and commit to memory the correct form or meaning.

Another joy to be had in paging through such polyglot collections is that of coming across the many more expressions that are no longer in use (if they ever were), a sort of pleasant stroll through the language flea market to admire a wealth of tools and gadgets from a very different age, your mental exclamations of “How clever!” and “Look how that fits together nicely!” mingled with “What on earth is this for?” In the middle of my Arthaber, I come across this, Colombo pasciuto, ciliegia amara (literally “feasted pigeon, bitter cherry”). The idea is clear enough, something like the reverse of the fable of the fox and the grapes, whence our expression “sour grapes.” In the case of the pigeon, a full belly leads one to perceive as unappetizing something that is quite edible; in the case of the fox, an empty belly, and the impossibility of filling it, leads one to declare something unappetizing that is in fact appetizing. To round out this portrait of human appetites and psychology, we would have to add, I suppose, the idiom “a dog in the manger,” where someone begrudges others what he himself cannot enjoy (dog in question keeps oxen away from hay, which the dog itself can’t eat).

As for our sated pigeon, Arthaber offers this English equivalent, “Full pigeons find cherries bitter,” along with two variants, one of which, “When the mouse has had enough, the meal is bitter,” is a nearly word-for-word counterpart of the German, Wenn die Maus satt ist, so schmeckt das Mehl bitter. Both of these echo what Arthaber assures us is the Latin equivalent of the expression, Mus satur insipidam dejudicat esse farinam. Meanwhile, Spaniards apparently dispense with animals altogether, Al hombre harto las cerezas le amargan (more or less “to the sated man, cherries are bitter”). Though fleeting, the pleasure is real: turn a page and one is already waxing wise in six different languages (for the French, A pigeon soûl, cerises sont amères)!

Thoughts that shuffle round like pence
Through each reign,
Wear down to their simplest sense,
Yet remain…

as one stanza of Philip Larkin’s “Modesties” puts it.

From the above examples, it’s easy to understand the allure of proverbs and maxims for the multilingual lexicographer or the lover of foreign languages. The concise form of such expressions, coupled with the venerable world they allude to, makes them immediately seem like something that has always been in the language. Which came first, the well-fed German Maus, the English mouse, or the Latin mus? The Maus/Mehl and mouse/meal alliteration could suggest that the Latin was originally a translation of them, but perhaps they in turn were merely an adaptation of the satiated Franco-Italian pigeon and its chary manner before cherries. They are nice dependable solid chunks of language that one can always count on, a rather erudite, content-rich version of stock phrases (interpreters, translators and anyone learning to speak a foreign language adore stock phrases of course), locutions like “so to speak,” “as it were,” “on the one hand,” “in a nutshell,” “truth be told,” “be that as it may.” For the thoughtful translator, by the way, the great temptation—which needs to be carefully weighed and most often cautiously resisted—is to reach for a stock phrase when the original expressions poses a problem of some kind. I recall reading through some lovely liner notes penned by Stravinsky (or at least signed by the composer; it is possible Robert Craft had a hand in their final form) and pulling up short at his striking description of himself as being more of a “topiarist” in his work. I glanced over at the French translation and was dismayed to discover the eloquent image completely lost. The translator had opted for something along the lines of “…j’aime bien couper les cheveux en quatre” (I like to split hairs). Granted, there is some clipping involved in both, but your topiarist would be surprised to find that he also splits hairs. No less surprised than Stravinski would have been to learn that he was a quibbler, one given to making trivial distinctions. Clearly, the translation was a poor one, even if the phrase employed was entirely idiomatic.

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And the Devil Take the Hindmost Meaning

Individual words often have a host of meanings of course, and it is the job of translators to possess as many of those meanings as possible in at least the two languages they are working with. “Table,” for instance, standing alone there could refer to a number of things in English and French, since it is written the same in both, from the flat, usually horizontal surface with at least one leg (a hinged version that attaches to the wall can be said to stand on one leg) or central post, to the food and drink served at meals (to keep an excellent table), to a series of printed characters in a book, a table of contents or a table showing the stagnating wages of translators from 1850 to the present (no “groaning board” that table), and so on. And while in French the form of the word immediately gives away whether we are dealing with the verb in the infinitive as opposed to the noun (tabler is an infinitive form and means to reckon on, count on, bank on), theoretically the above “table” could be a verb in English—and could conceivably have two diametrically opposed meanings. In British English, to table a bill is to submit it to a legislative body for consideration; in America, your tabled bill would now be moldering in legislative limbo (to table something in American English means to suspend discussion of it). In these particular senses then, table joins that lovely group of words in English that can mean one thing and its opposite, X and –X. This category of words has been dubbed an auto-antonym or autantonym (Joseph T. Shipley), or contronym (Jack Herring), and includes such examples as to sanction (to approve; to penalize or condemn) and to cleave (to separate or cut; to stick or hold together, to resist separation).

The context’s the thing—that and real-world knowledge. The detective dusted the room… The presence of “detective” here suggests that the dusting involved adding fine powder to surfaces to find fingerprints, and indeed we readily expect “…for fingerprints” or “…for prints” to follow. If we read something like, The detective dusted the room… while wearing a fetching little French maid outfit that he liked to wear on weekends, it is more likely he was removing dust from the said room. It is interesting to note that “to dust the room” and “to dust the freshly baked cookies” allow us to add a quiet, well-behaved verb like to dust to our list of autantonyms.

In an earlier post, reflecting on the semantic richness (polysemy) that all languages possess, I mentioned how a word can exist, even while surrounded by other words lending it context, in what I called a quantum state. This may be a misuse of the term strictly speaking, but the idea is probably clear. The story is an old one now. Back in the early years of the last century, it became clear to physicists that, for example, light behaved as either a wave or a particle (photons) depending on how you were looking at it. The notion that the observer has an effect on the observed became accepted science. In terms of language, to take our above example, the word table, shorn of all context, points in a number of directions. It is its use with other words normally that nudges it into one “state” or another. Thanks to context and real-world experience most native speakers of English would have no trouble understanding which sense of “table” is intended in “We need to add another table to the book.” Likewise for “The chair [chairperson] wants to table the discussion,” although it is true that the verb to table could mean two very different things here (it would be the translator working out of English who would have to make that call). And by this point, “The chair added a table to the book” is immediately understandable, albeit a slightly amusing turn of phrase. Even the Dodgsonian “The chair keeps a great table—it’s by the book” should pose no problem to the reader now. Interestingly, machine analysis can have the devil of a time with even the first (and probably least difficult) example above. It is one of the reasons I and my fellow translators are still in business by the by, and why machine translations can be so achingly funny when they aren’t attaining a very dubious kind of Dada poetry. Steven Pinker recalls the early computer work in sentence analysis in one of his eminently readable books:

“Computer parsers are too meticulous for their own good… One of the first computer parsers, developed at Harvard in the 1960s, provides a famous example. The sentence Time flies like an arrow is surely unambiguous… But to the surprise of the programmers, the sharp-eyed computer found it to have five different [readings]! …Among computer scientists the discovery has been summed up in the aphorism, ‘Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.’” (The Language Instinct, pp. 207-08)

The translator in such cases is often like the physics experimenter “deciding” the state of the system, although the translator should be consciously opting for one or another meaning. I faced one such example in French recently. Our English words “experience” and “experiment” are, in French, one and the same word, expérience. The text I was translating had to do with a contemporary-art venue in Marseille that had justement invited artists to work alongside and with local scientists. In at least one passage, the following two translations would have been possible, “This joint undertaking was an experience that…” or “This joint undertaking was an experiment that…”

Two different things in the end. In this case, the former meaning was probably the one the author had in mind, but had I put the question to her, she would have also admitted that, well, yes, the latter meaning is also there now that you ask… Pinker follows the passage quoted above with a discussion of two clever experiments (David Swinney, on the one hand, and Mark Seidenberg and Michael Tanenhaus, on the other) that show us that indeed the mind seems to activate both senses of such words if only for a short while. Swinney worked with words having at least two different meanings like bug (insect and listening device), while Seidenberg and Tanenhaus used terms that straddled part-of-speech categories like tires (a noun, the rubber things that go on wheels; and a verb, meaning the opposite of energized). See The Language Instinct, pp. 209-10.

Great literature is filled with examples of writers making words do double or triple duty of course, cases where the writer has so arranged the context, the folds of the fabric of language so to speak, that several senses are present simultaneously, and the devil take the hindmost—the poor translator. Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness. Keats famously introduces two themes with the word “still,” adjective meaning quiet and calm; and adverb modifying “unravish’d” and meaning “even now unravish’d bride.” Beckett pulled off a similarly brilliant coup when he gave to what was to be his final prose work the title “Stirrings Still,” which offers us both an oxymoron and a play once again on the adverbial sense of “still.” And finally this daring move by Gerard Manley Hopkins leaps back and forth across parts-of-speech categories in a single line in his sonnet “Spring”: “The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush/The descending blue…” As we read the line, “leaves and blooms” appear to be nouns, but the comma makes us pull up short: perhaps they are verbs after all, meaning the tree is putting out leaves and blooms, a happy use of the rare verb to leave in this sense. Then the pronoun “they” makes us stop again: no, the two words must be nouns in apposition to “they.” Needless to say, all this mental leaping to and fro reflects the spirit of the poem. Wave or particle? Noun or verb? Hopkins makes the words function simultaneously as both, quite a feat.

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Behold This Palm, That Oak, Those Bays

Verse is one of those things that make translating a truly losing proposition, a cause for premature balding. Translators are tearing out their hair constantly as yet another phonetic or semantic effect proves impossible to render in the into language. With prose, the utilitarian prose that we read most of the time, you have more or less something to say and you come up with words that seem to you to get at your thoughts with, you hope, increasing accuracy. With poetry, you may have something to say but you also have something to sing; and indeed, sometimes the singing bit comes first, the music preceding the meaning. Glance through a poet’s notebook and you will find ample proof of the preceding évidence (obvious fact, even head-slappingly obvious fact): possible rhyme schemes drawn up without any complete verse to show for it, or the lone poetic line or two jotted down because clearly they sound good and the poet may eventually place them somewhere else. I know of at least two beautifully fictionalized accounts of the workings of a poet’s mind, chapter three of Joyce’s Ulysses, when we are treated to Stephen Daedalus’s thoughts for quite some time as the young man wanders over the “seaspawn and seawrack” and “into eternity” on Sandymount strand; and various passages passim in Nabokov’s The Gift, when the young protagonist, the poet Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, reflects on, for example, the very mechanics of versifying (and in the process begins composing a poem—he can’t help himself). Not surprisingly, phonetic effects—rhymes and lines of prose that in fact scan as verse—are as thick as those autumnal leaves strewing the rills and gills and kills of Vallombrosa.

In another clear and elegant example, chapter eleven of his wonderful autobiography Speak, Memory, Nabokov recreates years later in English the genesis of his first poem, no doubt in Russian, in the planished (as he terms it elsewhere) prose of his sterling grand style. There he claims that it is initially an image, a raindrop, a “globule of quicksilver” performing a “sudden glissando down the center vein of a leaf,” that gives rise to his first lyric. (Indeed, he stated in one of his “interviews”—he famously wrote out all of his answers—that he thought in images when writing, rather than in any one of the three languages he mastered.) In the passage, however, Nabokov makes lovingly clear that sounds, the simple rhyme scheme of what is shaping up to be a quatrain, are immensely important, if not primordial: “…having shed its bright load the relieved leaf unbent: Tip, leaf, dip, relief…”

Although he does not say it, we are left to imagine that with those two rhymes in place, ip and ief, all he had left to do then was to string the wire of some plausible meaning between the telephone poles of those four words. For example:

A trickle to the tip
Of a tiny mouse-eared leaf
Precipitates a dip
And brings a green relief.

A translator trying to do this ditty over into, say, French, already faces a number of difficulties—and this quaint quatrain isn’t even very complicated! There are the tee sounds of trickle, to, tip and tiny in the first two verses that make for a kind of tinkling rill-like run down to “mouse-eared.” There is the commanding presence of “precipitates,” whose four syllables make it the longest single word in the ditty. That and the internal rhyme of “precip-” and “dip” lend it a special emphasis. Indeed, it has here, dare I say, a certain gravitas (that’s Latin for you), a notion that goes well with an image in which the laws of gravity play such a central role. And why a green relief? One has to put that question to Andrew Marvell in “The Garden” (“Annihilating all that’s made/To a green thought in a green shade”). It is a possible intertextual echo that the translator has to be mindful of.

Now, while the French translator does have précipiter available to work into the translation, “tip” could be rendered as bout (pronounced a bit like boo), the vowel sound not at all like that of the daintier tip, evoking smaller things, tiny drips and tiny leaves. There is also extémité, but that has four syllables and would prove difficult to place. There is pointe, too, but unless one works a variant of the word pointe (appointe, chasse-pointe, etc.), the rhymes are not legion. This is true of feuille as well, the French for “leaf.” The rhymes are few. And how nice that “leaf” is completely embedded in “relief,” an effect that can only be replicated in French by turning to a variant on feuille, as it were, like the verb effeuiller, to pluck the petals of, to take the leaves from. All of these rhymes, by the way, point us in directions that are quite different from the general movement of sense that tip => dip and leaf => relief establish.

Change the first line of our lyric to “Quicksilver at the tip…” and the translator now has to take care to place two colors in the final translation, at the start and at the end. Go all recherché and make the second verse read “…Of a porraceous leaf” (the clear light green of leek leaves, which is indeed the color of some young leaves) and we also smuggle in an echo of the verb to pour, again a bit of flowing liquid in the background that adds to the overall impression. The French translator here is in a bind. Littré, the great nineteenth-century lexicographer, includes porracé in his dictionary (the term comes from histoire naturelle), but adjectives normally follow the nouns they modify in French (une feuille porracée) and the verse would no longer conclude on the very important “leaf,” with the line end suggesting a pause while the sense runs on into the next verse, mimicking in a way the tension of a drop of water now clinging, now falling from the tip of a leaf. And in any case, “to pour” is verser in French. That’s another tuft or two of hair forever uprooted.

Now add a facile punning title to the piece like “Spring Release” and you are going to draw a sigh of defeat from the French translator. The season of spring is printemps (the best and true “prime time,” the one really worth watching); on the other hand, a spring in the sense of a mechanism is a ressort in French, while the closest I can get to “spring release” is ressort de séparation, under “spring release device” in the on-line Grand dictionnaire terminologique out of Quebec (the field is said to be “astronautics,” moreover). Even a simple title like “Drop” has, given the poem’s contents, two major senses crouching for employment within, the idea of a bead of water, of course, and the idea of a fall, of a bead of water dropping. In French, the former is goutte, the latter chute or such verbs as tomber, chuter, or choir. In English, the two meanings exist in a quantum state, so to speak, both available, both applicable to the poem to come. In this case, it is the translator who is forced to “decide” the state of the title, tipping it over into one or the other sense. This notion that the translator sometimes faces a quantum-state meaning is an important one and deserves a posting of its own.

Finally, if we trick out our poem in lace ruff, doublet, trunk hose, and bombast for good measure,

Lo, the drop-heavy tip
Of motley April’s leaf
Bows slowly down to dip,
Then leaps in quick relief.

we give our translator additional reasons to despair. No, it’s not the musty wording here (“lo,” “motley,” and a compound construction like “drop-heavy”). That is a question of what is called register (recherché, formal, informal; obsolete, old, recent; bloviating, bureaucratic, belle-lettrist) and is usually not too difficult to solve. Good translators know the breadth of their into language; they can come up with an equivalent. It’s a matter of imitating a comparable style in one’s own language appropriate to the time and voice of the out-of text. I still recall with pride managing years ago to place the archaic verb form “shew” in the translation of a French text from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. The translator needn’t overdo it, of course (as I recall I strictly avoided in that text such obvious effects as seemingly whimsical Capitalisation and olde-style Spellings but indulged in a few dated expressions and one archaic verb form).

The new difficulties in the above reworked quatrain spring from the shift in vowels to a lower, and heavier as it were, sound, from the higher-pitched vowels of “trickle,” “tip” and “eared” in the first two verses of the original ditty, which tend to underscore tininess or daintiness; to the now deeper vowels, and in one case interior rhyme, of “lo” and “slowly” in particular, “down,” and “drop,” “motley” and “bows.” (In phonological terms, the general shift is from front vowels to back ones.) It’s as if a bit more weight has been added to the verse, stressing now the slow bending of the leaf before it springs back when the clinging drop finally slips from the tip. In a word, the first poem is more drip, the second more drop. A translator, again, has to be attentive to all that, and, as we have seen, the corresponding vocabulary in the into language may not cooperate at all. Finally, at the very start of the verse the “lo” Shakespearean pun, which is actually quite clever (in sonnet 7, “Lo, in the orient when the gracious light/Lifts up his burning head…”), is impossible to replicate in French, I think, although I would love to be proved wrong (bah, quips the French punster, but, no, that does not count…)

Wer den Dichter will verstehen
Muß in Dichters Lande gehen.

(He who the poet would understand
Must betake him to the poet’s land.)

Lovely place really. No visa required, not even a passport. One’s only papers, the heavily rewritten, slightly crumbled ones spilling from various pockets of the rumpled poet of popular imagination. A land of rills and gills and kills. Though beware: no one patch of that earth is like any other.

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