Mind the Sense, Mine the Sounds

From the single word that stands as a stickler for the translator, we come to a broader category, how words that work brilliantly together can be especially troublesome when you are trying to recreate them in another tongue. This category of difficulty includes word play (a pun could hinge on a single word but of course it is how that word sounds like another or others that counts), the particularly well turned phrase in which the sound plays as important a role as the idea expressed, and generally top-flight poetry—especially poetry. As a translator, you try your best but you know your enterprise is doomed to some degree of failure; in such cases we can speak of something that is indeed impossible to translate, even if some part of the original does carry over into the target language.

The great Lewis Carroll has the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland offer this “moral,” a word she is very fond of, “Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves.” Sound advice indeed. It is precisely what a translator cannot do, for the sounds almost never do take care of themselves. First, a word of explanation in case we overlook how clever Carroll is being here. The author of the Alice books is playing on an English saying, “Take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves,” a bit of folk wisdom that is probably unknown to most Americans. It is of course dollars and cents, not pounds and pence, in the United States, Canada and Australia, to mention several other major countries where English, if not the pound, has currency. The joke might fly right by us.

The original English adage—this is true of so many proverbs—has phonetic qualities that make it quite distinctive in its own right. There is the clear alliteration of pence and pounds, and both words receive a strong stress in the phrase. Moreover, a kind of one-two-three waltz occurs if we listen carefully; aside from the first two syllables, the stress falls on every third one thereafter (anapests, in terms of metrical units). Finally, I’ve mentioned front and back vowels in an earlier posting, and these two nouns offer a play of front and back vowels between them. I am probably not alone in hearing a kind of resolution, as the term is understood in music, when reading pounds just after pence. From pence and pounds to sense and sounds, the same analysis applies to Carroll’s witty variation on the adage. Which makes it hard, though not yet impossible for a translator.

It should be fairly clear then that we translators, when we are doing our job properly, are taking care of the sense, primarily, but also the sounds, which come in at a very close second. In some instances, however, the challenge is too great, the variables legion, and we have to settle for sense alone. The pun, the extremely smart turn of phrase, the beautifully wrought verse is truly impossible to translate. If I turn back into English word for word a translation of Carroll’s punning observation found in one anonymous on-line French version, it would read, “Take care of the sense, and the words will take care of themselves.” The French completely jettisons the alliteration as well as any allusion to a comparable French adage (occupez-vous du sens, et les mots s’occuperont d’eux-mêmes). On the other hand, Henri Bué, in his Aventures d’Alice au pays des merveilles, brought out just four years after the original 1865 publication of the first Alice, opts to play off an extremely well known French proverb that is loosely related to the English one (and introduces two types of animal into his rewritten form of the proverb, a happy addition to a story ostensibly for children). The bit of folk wisdom is un tiens vaut mieux que deux tu l’auras (the English equivalent is “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” although literally the phrase would come out as “A ‘take’ / ‘hold’ is worth two ‘you will have’s”). The translator cleverly reworks it into un chien vaut mieux que deux gros rats (or literally, “One dog is worth two fat rats”). In this case, the sounds achieve some of the same effects and internal coherence of the original, even if we have moved away from the original’s sense. Finally, in his Alice nel Paese delle meraviglie (1913), the Italian translator Silvio Spaventa Filippi, for example, while sticking close to the sense of the original, comes up with a fine series of alliterations at least: Guardate al senso; le sillabe si guarderanno da . Here it is “sense” and “syllables” that approximate Carroll’s sense-sounds link.

One widespread example of a phrase that truly defies translation in most cases is the terse mercantile poetry advertisers sometimes achieve in their slogans. Advertising slogans are all around us of course, and have been for many generations. In this instance, it is the very best that are full of passionate intensity. And a studied interconnectedness between sound and meaning that makes for a simple, yet diamantine utterance, memorable in the best sense of the term.

In French there is the famous slogan Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet, which goes back to the 1930s. It is true that the play on the name of this French apéritif was greatly helped by the visual genius of Cassandre (Adolphe Mouron), who designed the advertising poster. On the other hand, by way of purely verbal proof of the slogan’s staying power, I began studying French at the age of twenty and the slogan seems to have always been part of my acquired French culture. Indeed, since the poster, or rather images (the affect was achieved through a succession of three images) first appeared, the phrase has become part of every French speaker’s common heritage. (By comparison, in the English-speaking world, at least in the United States, the “I want you for the U.S. Army,” dating from 1917, is memorable mostly for the image accompanying it; apart from the striking echo of “you” in “U.S.” and the subtle suggestion of a collective “us”—from I to you to us/U.S.—there is nothing much to recommend the locution aurally.) The French slogan simple repeats twice the first two syllables of the product name (it comes from the family name of the original maker of this fortified wine), but there is both a play on words and a sense of progression, from the open vowel in Dubo to the nasalized vowel in Dubon to a kind of resolution in the three syllables of the complete name, now with an additional vowel that is pronounced higher up in the throat. The play on words is hard to convey. “Dubo” sounds exactly like du beau while “dubon” is both the speech sound and written form (missing one space) of du bon; the former would mean, very awkwardly, (some) beauty, and the latter, (some) good. In other words, “something beautiful, something good, Dubonnet.” As if these suggested qualities were not enough, the last three letters of the name spell out an adjective in French that means clear, sharply defined, distinct, clean (net, pronounced like our English net). The original ad underscores this term by the way, because all the letters of the name are outlined and are gradually colored in to form the appropriate words from one image to the next (Dubo/Dubon/Dubonnet), as the derby-sporting man pictured there drinks up naturally! The second, central image clearly balances “Dubon,” which is darkly colored, against a clear “net.” A mere seven syllables then, but ones that make excellent use of some of the language’s sound and semantic possibilities. Simple and yet simply impossible to translate.

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