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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