IMPOSSIBLE WORDPLAY.

I’m rereading Lawrence Durrell’s Justine after many years, enjoying the writing as much as ever: “The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind…” But I just hit an example of something that baffles and infuriates me every time I run across it. The narrator is describing a novel written by “a French national, Albanian by descent… a certain Jacob Arnauti” about the very woman he himself is in love with, Justine (who in the novel is called Claudia: “whenever I read the book, and this was often, I was in the habit of restoring her name to the text”). The book is in French (the title is Moeurs) and the characters presumably speak French with each other (“I have told her I am French”), but on pp. 74-75 (of my Dutton paperback edition) occurs the following quote from “Arnauti”:

‘Damn the word’, said Justine once, ‘I would like to spell it backwards as you say the Elizabethans did God. Call it evol and make it a part of “evolution” or “revolt”. Never use the word to me.’

I suppose most people just accept it without thinking about the linguistic situation, but I always get stuck on these things. None of that makes any sense in French. I see this sort of thing in movies a lot, where the characters make jokes or puns in English when they’re supposed to be Germans or Russians, but somehow it seems worse in a book. Couldn’t he have had her say “Damn the word amour, it always makes me think of mort,” or something?

Comments

  1. I read the Quartet in HS several decades ago, and again recently. For whatever reason, Durrell hasn’t seemed to have gotten the credit he deserves. He’s also written a more recent quartet or quintet which is a bit poppy and postmodern but still fun. (Rexroth thought the last volume of the AQ, Clea wasn’t as good as the rest, and I agree.)
    The first time around I thought we were supposed to take the Moeurs overseriousness at face value, and since I also didn’t understand that kind of stuff at any level, I missed a lot. But I loved the middle books. There are dozens of touches I still remember, especially the trip to Coptic countryside.
    As for the specific problem, I’d just assume that they were all tri-lingual plus, and for whatever reason they happened to be in English at the time. (At least he didn’t have them speaking ze Anglais wiz ze Fransh accent).
    Durrell was really a man without a country. He grew up in British India, but his ancestry was pre-independence Irish and apparently he absolutely hated everything about England when he was sent there at age 11. (Apparently he never even was a British citizen). Hating your own nation is usually a sign of some sort of ideological dissidence or dissatisfaction, but in his case it’s reasonable to say that he just wasn’t really British.

  2. I translated into Italian your beautiful post about the use of ain’t..
    http://www.languagehat.com/archives/001061.php
    And here it is the translation:
    http://etienne.splinder.com/tag/aint
    Thanks a lot for your work!
    etienne

  3. Yes. But it is covered under the Poetic License.

  4. John: I understand that in Russia Lawrence is known exclusively as the brother of Gerald Durrell, whose My Family and Other Animals is very popular (Larry, of course, being a character in that memoir). Justine was only recently translated into Russian; I wonder if it will make a difference?
    etienne: Thanks!
    zhoen: Damn, I sent off for mine years ago and it still hasn’t arrived.

  5. Durrell!
    I only just realised on the second reading that I know (of) him.
    Shamefacedly I must admit to not being so avid a reader as everyone else here, but I did happen to pick up “Tunc” a coupla years ago. Took me a while to get into but I rather enjoyed it in the end.
    Enough to be annoyed that I haven’t come across the second part since then (comes from buying all my books irregularly from thrift shops). “Numquam” was it?

  6. Hamilton Lovecraft says:

    Hofstadter’s book Le Ton Beau de Marot is all about this kind of thing. My immediate thought was “what is the French translator of Justine going to do with this line?”

  7. marie-lucie says:

    In this particular instance, what makes the love – evol doubly exasperating is that the “inner” book (Moeurs) is supposed to be in French, but if the “outer” book (Justine) is itself translated into French, along with the “inner” book of course, there is no way to translate the pun of the inner book, except in a way that reinvents the sentence containing the pun (thus adding something not intended by the author) or in adding an indication that the characters – only one of whom is French – are speaking English (or adding a “translator’s footnote” which does not really solve the problem). The pun is also unlikely to occur just in conversation – finding evol in revolt and evolution supposes looking at the written forms – perhaps Justine has been doodling and finding letter patterns. Altogether a “conceit” that seems much too contrived.
    I read the AQ (in English) many years ago and found it very uneven – many brilliant descriptive passages but also what I thought were bizarrely contrived characters and situations, as well as many humdrum pages (I don’t remember Arnauti or the episode quoted above). As for Clea, after the others I found it a breath of fresh air – perhaps that is why it is not considered as good as the others? In any case the Quartet is not something I feel an urge to reread.
    More generally, I think that authors who are trying to evoke a bilingual situation but are not themselves bilingual (know something of another language but are not really at ease in it) are prone to overgeneralizations. For instance, while I was younger I was very fond of the detective novels by Nicholas Freeling, a British author then living in the Netherlands. At one point his detective, Inspector Van der Valk, is sent for a few days to England. While there, he reacts to some aspects of the culture, and also to the English language, about which he thinks: “What a language! enormously rich and flexible”. I found this reaction totally implausible. It is obvious that Van der Valk can already speak English, since he communicates easily with his British colleagues, and he might be learning a few new words and expressions in England but not enough to lead him to make such a sweeping generalization on the basis of a short stay. This opinion is obviously that of an English-speaking writer who is living abroad and who is of course much more comfortable with his own language than with the one that currently surrounds him.

  8. “Bizarrely contrived characters and situations.”
    Yes, but I liked them.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    I am not trying to impose my personal tastes on anyone!
    Re the different impact of such howlers in movies and books: in a movie, things go fast and bits of dialogue are soon forgotten – if there is a bad pun, the viewer does not have time to reflect on it and gets caught up in the rest of the action, but in a book (especially when reread) this sort of thing stares you in the face and you stop and reflect on why it makes you uncomfortable. The same thing happens with music: if you listen to live music and the performer makes a mistake (or if you yourself are the performer), unless this happens at a crucial moment the audience hardly notices it, but if a recording has been made, the mistake is there forever and becomes more and more exasperating every time one listens to it (of course this is rare in commercial recordings, but not so rare in homemade ones). This would also happen with a play or a live reading, and also, I might add, with mistakes in another language: grammatical mistakes made in speaking tend to be overlooked if the person is fairly fluent, but if made in writing they are glaringly obvious, as any language teacher can tell you.

  10. If I were reading a book translated from French, I would typically expect to see any French puns translated to analogous English puns (or at least an attempt made); so when I read a book that’s actually in English, but where the dialog is apparently intended as a translation of implied French dialog, I generally treat such puns as translations of implied analogous French puns. (I wouldn’t expect the author to have put in the thought to have come up with an actual French pun, so wouldn’t waste the effort in trying to figure out what the actual French pun would have been; I take it as a theoretical thing.)
    I do see what could be annoying about it, though.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    The point is that puns in one language are rarely “analogous” to those in another language. For instance, LH’s example where “l’amour” might be linked to “la mort” (a pun based on the resemblance in sound) would imply in the character Justine a very different psychological attitude from the one linking “love” to the sequence -evol- in “evolution” and “revolt”, which is based on a reversal of the written letters and a recognition of the resulting sequence in words that have nothing to do with the original word, either in sound or in meaning – that is what I find contrived, implying a sterile intellectual exercise on the part of the character. Substituting a pun based on sound resemblance (an immediate perception) would give a psychologically more realistic result, in general, but also a different impression of the character (as well as necessitate some rewriting by the translator). (If someone has a French translation of the book, it would be interesting to see how the translator solved the problem).

  12. Cross-linguistic wordplay is always problematic, but it can sometimes be less of an ordeal than single-language wordplay. For example, because few people make bilingual palindromes, it is easier to ensure originality with them than with single-language ones. Some years ago I independently made the tiny palindrome “So many dynamos!”; then with a web search I found one early-20C occurrence of it. Damn! (Now Google finds 92,200 hits, I see.) Ah, but not with bilingual palindromes…

  13. fyi for Noetica: so many dynamos is actually a band name (iTunes says it was founded in 2002), which would explain the explosion of hits recently.

  14. Thanks nessa. Yes, I had worked out that there was now a commercial involvement. I am now waiting for someone to use the name Kramer’s remark commercially.

  15. I don’t have a French translation, but here’s how a Spanish translation (by Aurora Bernárdez, Editorial Sudamericana, 1980) dealt with the issue:

    “Maldita palabra”, dijo una vez Justine. “Me gustaria decirla al revés, como tú me contaste que los isabelinos pronunciaban el nombre de Dios[8]. Llámale evol[9] y conviértelo en una parte de ‘evolucion’ o de ‘revolver’. Nunca uses esa palabra conmigo”).
    [8]Dog, pero, en vez de God, Dios. (N. del T.)
    [9]Love, amor.

  16. J’ai trois fenêtres à ma chambre :
    L’amour, la mer, la mort…

    Charles Cros, Hiéroglyphe
    Just reminded me…

  17. Durrell has a very distinctive prose style; more so in Tunc/Nunquam than the AQ, but still… I can’t help thinking Durrell put that ‘evol’ doozy in there intentionally, to jolt readerly complacency.

  18. My two cents:

    \An*ach"ro*nize\, v. t. [Gr. ?.] To refer to, or put into, a wrong time. [R.] --Lowell.
    Anadialectize, v. t. To refer to, or put into, a wrong language. See also: anadialectism.
    

    Puns are fun.

  19. Ginger Yellow says:

    Eco talks a lot about this sort of thing in “Mouse or Rat”, although mostly at one further degree of separation – translations of puns or wordplay in a foreign language. He argues that there’s no one way to approach problems like this. Sometimes there will be an easy parallel in the target language, in which case the process is fairly simple. Sometimes there will be no parallel at all, and you’ll have to leave it in the original language. Most often, however, there will be a process of “negotiation” in which the wordplay is transformed into something which aims to achieve a similar effect in the reader, even if the content is completely different.

  20. They handled this nicely in the movie “Roxanne” with Steve Martin. There’s a scene under Roxanne’s window where Charlie is hiding and trying to feed Chris lines:
    Charlie, stage-whispering to Chris: Tell her you’re afraid.
    Chris, shouting to Roxanne: I was afraid, Roxanne!
    Roxanne, calling down to Chris: Afraid of what?
    Charlie: Tell her you were afraid of words.
    Chris, to Charlie: What-what?
    Charlie: Words!
    Chris, shouting to Roxanne: I was afraid of WORMS, Roxanne, WORMS!
    Curious to see how they would handle that in other languages, I had it show me the captions in French.
    “Words” became ‘mots’ in French, as it should, but instead of “worms,” they kept the “misunderstanding” intact by having him say “I’m afraid of DEATH, Roxanne, DEATH!” (morte)
    I can’t remember if I ever watched the Spanish version or not. But I was impressed that they took the time to maintain the meaning of the scene without a word-for-word translation.

  21. Yes. I suppose you could do something with French ver as well. It, and its plural vers, are homonyms of vers meaning “verse”. Also of verre, vert, and vair. By the way, isn’t confusion of vair and verre supposed to account for the occurrence of a glass slipper (as opposed to a fur slipper) in English-language versions of Cinderella?

  22. Ah, but apparently not. See here:
    http://www.snopes.com/language/misxlate/slippers.htm

  23. marie-lucie says:

    la pantoufle de verre, ou la pantoufle de vair?
    It is not only English versions of Cinderella but French versions as well – I have only seen vair mentioned as an explanation, not without comment as verre often is. I don’t know how old the story is but all these words, now pronounced alike (unless you are from Southern France and pronounce verre in two syllables), were once distinct to the ear, so the verre interpretation has to be relatively recent, dating from a time when glass had become much more common than Russian squirrel fur.
    Re ver(s) and vers, I would be very surprised if the pun had not ben used many times.
    Another instance is this one, a kind of nursery rhyme:
    Il était une fois
    Une marchande de foie
    Qui vendait du foie
    Dans la ville de Foix.
    Elle se dit: Ma foi,
    C’est la première fois
    Que je vends du foie
    Dans la ville de Foix.
    (This should be said in a conversational manner, not as in reciting classical poetry which would pronounce all the final e’s – if recited correctly each line has exactly 5 syllables).

  24. Certainly ver puns have been around forever, Marie-Lucie (even in Vergil?); but verily, that opens a whole new cans of worms.

  25. I meant:
    Certainly ver puns have been around forever, Marie-Lucie (even in Vergil?); but verily, that opens a whole new can of worms.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    It’s a glass shoe in the German version(Aschenputtel/Aschenbrödel; Grimms Märchen).
    But I wouldn’t have thought the story is attested from China in the 9th century… whew… wow.

  27. marie-lucie says:

    What is this with China in the 9th century? did some words get accidentally deleted from the sentence? I for one would be very interested to learn about a Chinese connection.

  28. Justine was only recently translated into Russian…”
    Quartet was translated to Russian about 5 years ago, Tunc/Nunquam and The Avignon Quintet following it (Quinx hot off the press just a couple of weeks ago)
    and while the translation of the Quartet isn’t bad (and heavily commented by the translator as to the Tarot / alchemical / magical correspondences), this particular phrase was “translated” literally – with Elizabethans doing the backwards business with “Бог”, and “любовь” reversed being part of “эволюция” and “бунт”
    no footnote either

  29. Oh dear.

  30. marie-lucie says:

    Rereading this thread, and remembering the AQ: I read the four novels in their order of publication (I think), and although I found them uneven I remember thinking that three of them needed to be read together (since the same characters recur, but with a different emphasis) but that Mountolive felt like a more standard novel able to stand on its own. In spite of this (or perhaps because of it), I liked it less than the others.

  31. If you listen to live music and the performer makes a mistake (or if you yourself are the performer), unless this happens at a crucial moment the audience hardly notices it, but if a recording has been made, the mistake is there forever and becomes more and more exasperating every time one listens to it (of course this is rare in commercial recordings, but not so rare in homemade ones).

    It depends, I think; if it is a wrong note or other howler, then yes. But if it is a more subtle error such as a hesitation or other slight rhythmical fault, then it serves to remind us that the performance is live, real, and not a Glenn-Gould-style studio recording from which every possible fault has been removed. Gould was striving to present Bach directly, and he did so — at the expense of presenting himself at all. Nowadays a computer could do the same thing even better. See wabi-sabi.

    There is an electronic instrument called the sequential drum, in which you hit the drum face with a drumstick in order to play the next note. The instrument is pre-programmed with the notes, so wrong notes are impossible. What remains under the performer’s control is the rhythm (based on when you hit), the dynamics (based on how hard you hit), and the timbre of the note (based on exactly where on the drum face you hit). I never saw or heard one, but always wanted to try it. The inventor, Max Mathews of Bell Labs, also devised a violin whose timbre could be controlled by a foot pedal or similar device, in the manner of an electric guitar, but in a more sophisticated way: it could sound like a brass instrument, or (when played pizzicato) like a piano.

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