A Policy.

It is rare to see a sequence of letters to the editor used by a journal to such good effect as here in the LRB (10 May 2018); the final note from The Editors made me laugh out loud:

Do we have a policy?

Quite often the London Review publishes articles containing quotations in foreign languages with no translation, as for example in T.J. Clark’s piece on Cézanne’s portraits (LRB, 25 January). My last year at comprehensive school was 2010 and, like more than 90 per cent of my classmates, I do not speak any foreign language fluently. I doubt that the majority of your readers are fluent in French. What’s more, I would be surprised if, in an article about a Vietnamese artist, you would publish an untranslated quotation in Vietnamese. Or in Polish or Arabic (which must be more commonly spoken in London than French).

Does the LRB have a well-defined policy on this? In the 8 March issue Marina Warner’s article appears with French quotations usefully translated, and there is a poem by Galen Strawson entirely in French, which I found evocative in the same way I find, say, Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange to be evocative, though one of the feelings evoked is alienation since none of these languages is intelligible to me.

I concede that there is something alluring about the old attitude of expecting everyone to know French, and I do wish it was still reasonable. When I first started to read the LRB, the occasional untranslated quotation contributed to the impression of intellectualism (along with the austere layout, which should last for ever). It is part of the tradition of literariness in Britain. But it seems more and more to me a pointless tradition. The LRB should be progressive and inclusive, not disdainful of its readers. It should be challenging because it deals with complex concepts and is written to the limits of the language. In Amia Srinivasan’s piece on the ‘right to sex’, the word ‘unfuckability’ is used without scare quotes (LRB, 22 March). It is ‘unfuckability’ that is dangerous, highbrow and literary; untranslated French is just atavism.

                    Conrad Teixeira
                    Manchester

A number of people have expressed puzzlement about the title of my poem ‘After Flaubert’ (LRB, 8 March). I shouldn’t have omitted the epigraph, a deeply characteristic comment from Flaubert’s letters (which are, arguably, his greatest achievement): ‘De quelque côté qu’on pose les pieds on marche sur la merde’ (to Louise Colet, Saturday, midnight, Croisset, 29-30 January 1853).

                    Galen Strawson
                    University of Texas at Austin

Which, translated, means: ‘However carefully you tread, you end up with shit on your shoes.’

                    The Editors

While I have no problem reading French, I agree with Teixeira that it should be translated for the Frenchless reader. (Also, if you follow my first link to the letters section, the initial exchange between an indignant Emily Wilson complaining about the review of her Odyssey translation [see this LH post] and her imperturbable reviewer Colin Burrow is both entertaining and thought-provoking.)

Comments

  1. It’s a good letter, but Google translate. Otherwise, the best place for a translation is in a footnote. I quite like the LRB’s assumption that its readers will understand French or 5th Century Greek or whatever (sometimes Arabic? Not cyrillic, I think they transcribe). I’ve been skipping various foreign quotations for years because of this, I even find some French ones difficult. The implication, that the LRB should be accessible, is for the editors to decide. It’s not automatic. Try reading car magazines*, they’re full of obscure allusions to gearing, tyres and carburettors.

    Anyway, French & Latin have already lost their cachet, or timbre, for all but the stuffiest young English speakers (Greek went out a generation ago). Smart and otherwise well-educated kids won’t accept a shibboleth just because their parents tell them to. That’s part of the point.

    p.s. Colin Burrow is God.

    *in the dentist’s waiting room, obv.

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    What’s wrong with atavism, anyways?
    This Teixeira cove is nothing but an atavisticist.

    Proud to be an atavist!

  3. I don’t mind untranslated French, as long as I can understand it. It really annoys me when they use French I don’t understand, and fail to add a translation.

  4. One of the best teachers I ever had was my professor of tax in law school – clear, interesting, learned, and concerned for his students. One day he was teaching a case about the capital gains treatment of the sale of a certain asset, which happened to be a play about Toulouse-Lautrec called “Monsieur Toulouse.”

    For 50 minutes he discoursed lucidly about the sale of rights in what he called “Mon-syoor Toolooz.”

    Without ever thinking about it, I’d always snobbishly assumed that being educated meant knowing enough French to read a menu. Not so.

  5. J.W. Brewer says:

    I am puzzled by Mr. Teixeira’s assertion re the allegedly “highbrow and literary” word “unfuckability.” My own prediction (which could be false – it’s an empirical question, so someone should write up a grant proposal and go get some real data …) is that, productive morphological processes in English being what they are, a quite high proportion of native English speakers who by virtue of social class and level of formal education are unlikely to be LRB readers would have no trouble at all parsing/grokking the word even if they might not have previously encountered it. You don’t need any familiarity with the highbrow or literary registers of the language to figure it out. I imagine one could certainly come up with (coining it if necessary) a word with a traditionally-vulgar monosyllable as one of its component morphemes that would fall into the highbrow/literary registers, but this ain’t it.

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    When D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson wrote his monumental On Growth and Form he assumed that his readers would be as erudite as he was (not only a great biologist, but also a mathematician and scholar of Greek and Latin) and would have no trouble understanding his many quotations (mostly left untranslated) from Latin, Greek, French, German and Italian (even Provençal at one point). He devoted an entire page about the hexagonal cells made by honeybees to a long quotation from Buffon, which he left untranslated. Readers who couldn’t cope with the French would miss an important part of his argument. I doubt whether anyone would get away with that today, even with French, and certainly not with the others.

  7. I am puzzled by Mr. Teixeira’s assertion re the allegedly “highbrow and literary” word “unfuckability.”

    Yes, he got carried away with his own rhetoric there. It happens, even to me.

    When D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson wrote his monumental On Growth and Form he assumed that his readers would be as erudite as he was (not only a great biologist, but also a mathematician and scholar of Greek and Latin) and would have no trouble understanding his many quotations (mostly left untranslated) from Latin, Greek, French, German and Italian (even Provençal at one point).

    Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner: “Our quotations are set in a vast number of tongues; this is done for the reason that very few foreign nations among whom the book will circulate can read in any language but their own; whereas we do not write for a particular class or sect or nation, but to take in the whole world.”

  8. Stu Clayton says:

    I’m part of the whole world, but am not taken in by that excuse. French readers with poor English will not rush to read an English book merely because it contains a few quotes in French.

    Anything that can be said at all, can be said clearly. Not everyone has the ability, of course. But it’s a good attitude to have.

  9. David Eddyshaw says:

    Infututibility. Characteristic of abinoumena. (I transliterate the Greek to show that I am not atavistic.)

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    Much of the enjoyment of Gibbon lies in the untranslated Latin and (especially) Greek footnotes. The one about the former (harrumph) acting career of the Empress Theodora is particularly memorable.

  11. Stu Clayton says:

    No fouture.

  12. Stu Clayton says:

    the former (harrumph) acting career of the Empress Theodora

    Like Reagan or Lola Montez ? Or even more unspeakable and therefore anecdotogenic ?

  13. I have often wondered to what extent it really was commonplace for actresses on various times and places to double as prostitutes. Certainly it happened, but there are also clear instances when “legitimate” actresses were sneered at as if they were no more that harlots. Obviously, this is going to be tied to the question of whether women’s “acting,” in a particular setting, typically involved striptease work.

  14. David Eddyshaw says:

    even more unspeakable

    Utterly unspeakable. It must be left in the decent obscurity of a learned language.

    The senate had to pass a special law to make it possible for Justinian to marry her at all.

  15. I assumed that the comment on unfuckabilty was making an unspoken allusion to this Amy Schumer video:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPpsI8mWKmg&list=PL1gI2eKjrAW–IJe7gFmk5dt75EGVLzJd&index=2&t=0s

    But, maybe not…

  16. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    I think the point about unfuckability is not that in order to be literary you must be incomprehensible, but that if you are Literary you are willing to discuss and therefore to print anything, without getting coy with euphemisms and asterisks.

  17. Well put.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    “Mon-syoor Toolooz.”

    Jean-Louc Picâde.

  19. I have often wondered to what extent it really was commonplace for actresses on various times and places to double as prostitutes. And not just women. From Wikipedia:

    The history of kabuki began in 1603 when Izumo no Okuni, possibly a miko of Izumo-taisha, began performing with a troupe of female dancers a new style of dance drama, on a makeshift stage in the dry bed of the Kamo River in Kyoto. … Female performers played both men and women in comic playlets about ordinary life. The style was immediately popular, and Okuni was asked to perform before the Imperial Court. In the wake of such success, rival troupes quickly formed, and kabuki was born as ensemble dance and drama performed by women… Much of its appeal in this era was due to the ribald, suggestive themes featured by many troupes; this appeal was further augmented by the fact that the performers were often also available for prostitution. For this reason, kabuki was also called “遊女歌舞妓” [yūjo kabuki] (prostitute-singing and dancing performer) during this period.

    The shogunate was never partial to kabuki and all the mischief it brought, particularly the variety of the social classes which mixed at kabuki performances. Women’s kabuki, called onna-kabuki, was banned in 1629 for being too erotic. Following onna-kabuki, young boys performed in wakashū-kabuki, but since they too were eligible for prostitution, the shōgun government soon banned wakashū-kabuki as well. Kabuki switched to adult male actors, called yarō-kabuki, in the mid-1600s.

  20. The closeness of the theater to prostitution was an important plot element in Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The Golovlyov Family.

  21. J.W. Brewer says:

    The self-congratulatory notion that the literary intelligentsia are unusually willing to speak frankly about sex as compared to the uptight masses has been empirically unfounded in Western societies for, what, at least 50 years by now? What was once thought (again, in a rather self-congratulatory fashion) avant-garde and transgressive has been democratized and commodified until banal.

  22. David Eddyshaw says:

    In the Olden Days it was true:

    To the man-in-the-street who, I’m sorry to say,
    Is a keen observer of life,
    The word intellectual suggests right away
    A man who’s untrue to his wife.

  23. Stu Clayton says:

    @JWB: I agree. However, the literary intelligentsia have found a new way to be avant-garde and transgressive – by jumping on the transgender bandwagon, small as it is.

    It’s no longer frankness about sex that sells books, but high-flown advocacy of what the frankly fornicating masses are now supposedly uptight about – the transgendering business.This has unfortunately reinvigorated “queer theory” just as it was about to die of banality.

    À propos, at 71 I have discovered the secret of eternal happiness – complete lack of interest in sex, both theoretical and practical. I know how a born-again Christian must feel. It’s very like having had a really good dump. There’s nothing left, not even a willingness to offer advice.

  24. I have a strong feeling that the lower classes of London in, say, 1850 were apt to speak frankly about sex and probably shit too, if you spent any time drinking with them. But no one wrote down what they were saying.

    When Strawson suggests parenthetically that Flaubert’s letters were arguably, his greatest achievement he is indulging in the kind of smirking oneupmanship that put me off the academic world many years ago. Alan Bennett had a funny bit somewhere where he said that if you found yourself among people whose smart conversation daunted you, you should lean forward in your chair, knit your brows knowingly, and say, “you know, I’ve always thought Lord Aberdeen was greatly underrated as a prime minister.”

  25. Stu Clayton says:

    Bennett is a nice guy and a National Treasure, so that gentle wheeze will certainly work for him. My technique is to sidle up in a friendly way, like the cop trying to stop someone from jumping off a window ledge – and then I push.

    Play along until you’re close to the heart of the matter, then insert stiletto between ribs.

  26. at 71 I have discovered the secret of eternal happiness – complete lack of interest in sex, both theoretical and practical.

    I daresay the younger Stu would not have agreed with this.

  27. The self-congratulatory notion that the literary intelligentsia are unusually willing to speak frankly about sex as compared to the uptight masses

    It was always nonsense anyway: consider the penultimate and the last chapters of Ulysses. Bloom may be coarser than Molly, but not franker, and this reflects the habits and tastes of Cousin James and Cousin Nora.

  28. Stu Clayton says:

    The younger Stu was not old enough. You can’t hurry these things. He whom the gods love survives youth.

  29. You are a happy man, Mr Clayton. I have found that as you get older (to purloin a phrase), “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”.

  30. David Eddyshaw says:

    I must say that I rather like the tendency on LH for commenters (and even Hat himself, on occasion) to break into long passages of untranslated Russian. I don’t understand any of it, but it makes me feel agreeably cosmopolitan.

  31. John Cowan says:

    “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”

    The latter can be fixed. ~~smirk~~

  32. @David Eddyshaw: I have occasionally dropped untranslated passages in German (the only other language I know) into my comments. It makes me feel a bit like a character from Le Grande Illusion,* switching languages effortlessly, with no need to worry about being understood. (To understand the plot of the original release at all, one would need to know both French and German. There is additional important content in English, and to get absolutely everything, one would need to understand some Russian as well.) However, I also feel a bit guilty about leaving some readers out in the dark.

    * I received a VHS copy of Le Grande Illusion (subtitled, of course) as a present from my parents when I was a teenager. My mother insisted I had asked for it, but I was mystified, since I had never even heard of the film before that.

  33. Bathrobe says:

    Russian is tolerated. One time when I dropped untransliterated Chinese / Japanese into a post, I was (rightfully) criticised. I would feel the same about Arabic, Sanskrit, or Hebrew. (Needless to say, traditional Mongolian is totally beyond the pale.)

  34. David Marjanović says:

    Are you sure it’s not La grande illusion? Because that’s not only grammatical in French, it’s also what you’d expect based on German and Russian.

  35. It is La grande illusion; Brett just misremembered/mistyped. And it’s a great movie, second only to La Règle du Jeu in my opinion.

  36. January First-of-May says:

    Utterly unspeakable. It must be left in the decent obscurity of a learned language.

    I’ve read somewhere that some early translators of Sumerian epics put the sex scenes into Latin, presumably to make them obscure for the casual reader.

    [EDIT: this turned out to be Alexander Heidel’s 1946 translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh.]

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