Imperfect Constancy

A scholar and friend of mine, a native French speaker whose love of English has left him with a sure mastery of the language and a long familiarity with its literature, had a translation problem that had been nagging him for some time. It was in fact not his translation but his doubts about another’s rendering of an English text into French that was the pebble in his mental shoe, and he tapped me recently to sound out his suspicions.

The text in question was by the eighteenth-century essayist Joseph Addison, writing about Milton’s Paradise Lost and specifically, in the passage under study, about the great poet’s language and its shortcomings in this case. The French translation was by Jacques Delille (known as l’abbé Delille), whose translation of Milton’s epic was published in 1804. It is in his introduction to his translation that Delille quotes Addison. Here is the passage, first in the original and then the one sentence in the good abbé’s French that doesn’t quite cut the mustard:

“…Milton’s Sentiments and Ideas were so wonderfully Sublime, that it would have been impossible for him to have represented them in their full Strength and Beauty, without having recourse to these Foreign Assistances [foreign idioms]. Our Language sunk under him, and was unequal to that greatness of Soul, which furnished him with such glorious Conceptions.” (Addison, The Spectator 297)

Notre langue était insuffisante pour lui,” the French cleric translates, which, if I render word for word back into English, yields “Our language was insufficient/inadequate for him.” My friend justifiably wanted to know where the devil “sunk” had got to. Or was he being too exacting, he asked.

Indeed, he was not. What had become of Addison’s rather striking choice of a verb here? This is not a case of a mistranslation but something more interesting, a failure of will it would seem. The French wording, in a sense, does grasp the spirit of Addison’s critique; the essayist indeed affirms that the English tongue proved wanting with respect to what Milton had to say. This is not a problem of misunderstanding the English verb. And because we are dealing with prose here, one cannot argue that the strict confines of a classical French twelve-syllable verse line forced the translator to boggle and then blunder into the weak phrasing of “was inadequate.” Meter here doesn’t overrule matter. Finally, the French language has a number of verbs that cover some of the same linguistic territory that the intransitive sense of to sink occupies in English. My friend suggested ployer, plier or céder sous, and s’affaisser, without breaking a sweat. This is certainly not a case of a peculiarity in one tongue purportedly not carrying over into another. No, there is not even a hint of that most dimwitted of snowclones: such and such a language doesn’t have a word for this or that.

What we have in this case is a translator showing a loss of nerve. Father Delille seems to be lacking in faith either in his grasp of the out-of language or in the expressive power of his own. Or perhaps, given the eighteenth century’s ideas about decorum, our translator convinced himself that he couldn’t possibly maintain this figurative language in French. Nabokov, in his scholarly notes to his English translation of Eugene Onegin, gleefully excoriates eighteenth-century writers, for example, precisely for their annoying tendency to kowtow to convention, to prize the generic over the specific, to aim to please polite society at the expense of originality or interest pure and simple. When a translator labors under that kind of outlook—it can happen in any century of course—there is a leveling of what is colorful or vigorous or evocative in the original. Thus, Addison’s striking image, which summons a number of other ideas and images (gravitas, the weightiness of Milton’s subject, ideas, soul, the supposed weakness of vernacular English with respect to the poet’s “Foreign Assistances,” and so on), is devitalized into “our language was inadequate for him.”

The opposite can occur as well, naturally. The original may have a glaring mistake, a mixed and mangled metaphor, for instance, or an unfortunate repetition. Does the translator look to reproduce the same? Nabokov again: In his English translation of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, he renders the final sentence of the “Princess Mary” chapter in this way, “Will there not appear there, glimpsed on the pale line separating the blue main from the grey cloudlets, the longed-for sail, at first like the wing of a sea gull, but gradually separating itself from the foam of the breakers and, at a smooth clip, nearing the desolate quay?”* In a note Nabokov then points out, “Otdelyayushchei, otdelyayushcheisya. It is just like Lermontov and his casual style to let this long and limp word appear twice in the same, final, sentence.” Nabokov shows courage here by refusing to restyle his author as he fits him out in his new English garb.

In my day-to-day work, however, this is not the usual practice. First I should point out that I make a loose distinction between literary or historical texts, i.e., writing whose age or relative importance to the culture places it off limits, so to speak; and journalism, in which I include the critical essays appearing in art catalogs that are the bulk and bane of my professional existence. With the latter I allow myself some leeway. That is, I will probably devise a workaround solution, tipping off the author or no depending on the deadline and several other factors. A recent project is an apt illustration of the above. A short history, handsomely done, of Les Délices, the manor that had once been Voltaire’s residence in Geneva, included both prose and poetry by the eighteenth-century man of letters as well as the prose of the booklet’s two authors. Thus, had Voltaire or one of his correspondents quoted in the text committed some awkward wording or image to paper, I would have dutifully followed the French as closely as possible. As it turned out, there were no such troublesome passages, only one rather obscure turn of phrase (“nous nous mîmes à jouer Zaïre pour interrompre le cercle”: is “interrompre le cercle” Voltaire’s invention or an idiom from the period? And what exactly does he mean?). The expression cried out for much greater research than the deadline allowed. “We set about performing Zaire to break the circle” had to do—and, well, sort of makes sense. Before the high court of sticklers I would plead in my defense that it certainly places an English reader in the same position as a modern French reader before the odd phrase.

On the other hand, the authors of this short history of Les Délices come up with something of a mixed metaphor in this sentence, “Genève vit au rythme de l’effervescence que suscite la foundation de la Croix-Rouge…” A very close rendering would be, “Geneva was living [the verb in French is in the historical present, but that narrative convention, though used in English too, is less widespread, and certainly wouldn’t seem natural here] in time with the effervescence [ferment, excitement] that the founding of the Red Cross had stirred/aroused.” But can one live in time with (literally it would be “at the rate of”) an effervescence, a vivacity, an enthusiasm? The idea of course is that the city was experiencing daily the enthusiasm generated by a new humanitarian enterprise. My first try had been this, “Geneva pulsed with ferment for the Red Cross…” My scholar friend, who happened to be overseeing the project, called me out on this weak translation with a kind of raised eyebrow in the margins of my text, “Mixed metaphor. Is this correct?” I retorted that the French, too, was also mixing metaphors, to be honest, but… alas, he was right, something better surely could be found. I finally proposed this, “…day to day life in Geneva… was alive with ferment for the newly founded Red Cross…”

…Forgive me! Truth is my real goal.
Who that laid hands on that perfect form
Could do other than stay with that in perfect constancy?

So writes Clive Wilmer in “The Translator’s Apology” (with tip of the hat to the blog Laudator Temporis Acti for bringing the poem to my attention). What struck me in this bit of verse is the amusing ambiguity in the poem’s final line, which may not be intentional by the way (the nine lines leading up to these final three show no such wordplay and argue either way. “In perfect constancy,” indeed, or is it also an “imperfect constancy”? And what of the imperfect form? It, too, at times warrants the courage of perfect constancy.


*By comparison, here is the passage in J.H. Wisdom and Marr Murray’s translation, available at This translation was published shortly before the Great War, in 1912, and despite the presence of the very Nabokovian names of Wisdom and Marr, it appears that the oddity of their version is not an invention, or rather is entirely their invention: “… lo! yonder, upon the pale line dividing the blue deep from the grey clouds, is there not glancing the longed-for sail, at first like the wing of a seagull, but little by little severing itself from the foam of the billows and, with even course, drawing nigh to the desert harbour?” Unlike Nabokov’s translation from his mid-fifties on (around the time of his Eugene Onegin), where the oddities and infelicities spring from a willful, even perverse, adherence to the original, the strangeness here seems more rooted in an unsure grasp of the Russian causing Wisdom and Murray’s command of English to wobble as well (the awkward use of “glancing” and “severing itself,” for instance, or “the desert harbour,” which at the very least reads like a mistake for “the deserted harbour”).

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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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