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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An Invitation, but to What Exactly, Monsieur Baudelaire?

I was with a few non-French-speaking friends recently when the following tagline (apparently signature in French, a nice repurposing of the term) for a French specialty cheese drew our attention: Invitation à un voyage sensoriel.

First came an explanation of the allusion hovering behind the phrase, a reference to the French poet Charles Baudelaire’s rightly famous poem “Invitation au voyage,” the title usually being translated as… “Invitation to the Voyage” (I have my doubts about that rendering and return to it below). “Invitation au voyage,” the title at any rate, is immediately recognized by most French-speakers and hence is not unheard-of in advertising copy. Hunting around for English equivalents, I can think of Keats’ “On Chapman’s Homer” (true title: “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”), or Frost’s “Stopping by Woods” (again the complete title is “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”), which are generally familiar to people in the United States, although I suspect that English-language advertisers haven’t been falling over themselves in their rush to capitalize on poem titles.

The more enlightening discussion, however, had to do with sensoriel, which you could English as “sensory.” To take an example close to our cheese noodling here, the concept of sensory marketing is called le marketing sensoriel in French; it could well be that the French marketing or advertising team had that very usage in mind, consciously or unconsciously, when someone came up with the tagline. In any case, a rough mental first-draft translation might be “Invitation to a sensory voyage.” Why not “sensuous voyage” or “sensual voyage,” my non-Francophone friends wanted to know. Ah, there’s the rub. Sensuous or sensual voyage in French would be voyage sensuel, and that, good members of the reading public, is not what the author or authors wrote. Translator’s gotta translate what’s on the computer screen. That suggestion, however, leads to two observations.

First a bad translator, someone with only a cursory grasp, if that, of the out-of language, might well leap to the conclusion that sensoriel is surely the Frenchman’s way of saying “sensuous” or “sensual”—why the French are always slipping the pleasures of the flesh into most absurd of places, the thinking goes. Not so here, or at least not in the way a bad translator might understand it.

Secondly, and more importantly, an experienced translator normally cannot get away with a turn of phrase like “sensory voyage,” even though it would in fact be an accurate translation. The general reader, encountering something like “Invitation to a Sensory Voyage” on the wrapping of a specialty French cheese, would conclude that the phrase was a bad translation, an utterance that no native speaker or writer would ever make under normal speech conditions.

In the end I would settle for “invitation to a voyage of the senses,” which is strictly in French, invitation à un voyage des sens, but never mind, there is no end to compromise in the translation dodge. Translators are constantly weighing just how far they can go in their target language, looking for what they can reasonably get away with.

One final word about that usual English translation of the title of Baudelaire’s well-loved poem. The great American poet and translator Richard Wilbur, for instance, prudently avoids the problem altogether by leaving the French title at the top of his English translation. The difficulty lies in the use of the definite article. Le voyage could be, for example, “the voyage/journey/trip (that I took over the summer—that is, with any dependent clause that justifies the definite article here). But one could also conceivably render le voyage as “travel,” the general concept of moving over a significant distance for business or pleasure, which we express with the articleless noun (what specialists call anarthrous nouns or substantives). This presents a poser.

The content of Baudelaire’s poem doesn’t in fact describe a particular voyage, journey or trip, or the act of traveling, all of which could justify the use of the definite article: Invitation to the journey (we shall make together to this or that place…) “Invitation au voyage” describes an exquisite, ideal place (Amsterdam was the inspiration here) that the poet would like to reach and inhabit with his beloved. Perhaps a more accurate rendering would be “Invitation to Travel” (and notice how we have dropped the articleless noun for a verb, with the preposition “to” of “invitation” and the “to” of the to-infinitive neatly fusing into one word). Whereas “Invitation to a Journey” doubtless sounds better, and “Invitation Far Away” or “Invitation to a Distant Shore” are immediately—and all too slickly—perceived as “poetic” (a temptation the translator must constantly resist), the most accurate translation in the circumstances, the one that most closely approaches the original sense of the French, would probably be “Invitation to Travel.” After you, Monsieur Baudelaire.

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