As I said here, my wife and I are reading Life: A User’s Manual, and we’re enjoying it a lot even though we have to take on faith that all the seemingly unrelated bits and pieces will add up at the end. The translation reads very well (and is faithful, as far as I can tell by checking occasionally against the French), but occasionally I question the translator’s choice of words. In Chapter 19 (“Altamont, 1″), for example, Perec describes a panorama “showing life in India as it was popularly imagined in the second half of the nineteenth century,” one of whose sections portrays “a clearing beside a marigot in which three elephants disport themselves at spraying each other.” I stumbled to a halt in mid-sentence, not having the faintest idea how to pronounce “marigot,” let alone what it meant. It was not in my trusty Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, so I had to turn to the OED, where it is defined as “In West Africa: a side channel of a river.” The first citation is from 1759 (tr. M. Adanson Voy. Senegal 45 “Before I could get thither, I was obliged to cross two marigots: these are rivulets with which the whole country is intersected”), and the etymology (revised as of June 2008) reads:
[< French marigot watercourse, body of water (in Africa), of unknown origin.
According to Trésor de la Langue Française the French word was first used in the Antilles (1654 in a place name, 1688 as noun). The Inventaire des Particularités Lexicales du Français en Afrique Noire (1983) shows that the word is used in all francophone countries of West Africa, which perhaps suggests origin in an African language.]
And for a pronunciation it offers “Brit. /ˈmarɪgɒt/, /ˈmarɪgəʊ/, U.S. /ˈmɛrəgɑt/, /ˈmɛrəgoʊ/”—basically, the stress is on the first syllable and you can pronounce the final one with the t (anglicized) or without (french-fried).
The problem with that is that I don’t believe them. Who exactly is using this anglicized pronunciation? All their citations treat it as a foreign word, italicizing it or (in one case) putting it between quotes. It’s clearly a French word used only by those who have occasion to talk about waterways in West Africa, and presumably those people pronounce it à la française, at least to the extent of making the final syllable “go” rather than “got.” I’m guessing the OED has a system that automatically provides both forms for all borrowings that haven’t been fully absorbed, and they didn’t check with actual speakers. But then, how could they? If you stop a hundred English-speakers on the street and ask them how they pronounce “marigot,” ninety of them will shrug their shoulders, nine of them will change the subject to politics or hit you up for a loan, and one will turn and run. This is an English word only by courtesy.
Which brings me to the problem with the translation. Yes, the French text has marigot, but in French it’s an actual word, even if an exotic one; in fact, it is in my Collins Robert French Dictionary, defined as “backwater, creek.” And there’s a French Wikipedia article that describes them (and shows a picture of the Marigot du Djoudj, with pelicans), adding “Le terme ‘marigot’ est parfois employé métaphoriquement pour suggérer des activités plus ou moins occultes, en eaux troubles.” In short, however tempting it may have been to keep the French term because it does exist in English, in practice it’s a faux ami, since nobody but West Africa specialists knows of its existence, and it should have been rendered by “creek” or the like (especially since the scene described is not in Africa).
A few pages later, at the start of Chapter 21 (“In the Boiler Room, 1″), there’s a similar problem. A man is described as wearing “a sky-blue tergal shirt,” and once again the word was unknown to me and to Merriam-Webster. The OED capitalizes it and defines it as “A proprietary name for polyester fibre and fabrics,” and apparently it’s known in the U.K., since there are citations like “The airflow is ducted to ten individual neoprene-coated tergal skirts (1968) and “My dark blue Tergal trousers” (1973), so I can’t fault David Bellos for using it, but I wish he’d been more considerate of his transatlantic readers and rendered it “polyester” or “Dacron.” French Wikipedia provides this historical information: “En France, la fibre polyester est apparue en 1954 sous la marque Tergal (équivalent du Dacron de Dupont de Nemours), créée par la firme Rhodiaceta. Pour la petite histoire Tergal est formé de « Ter » (pour polyester) et « gal » (pour gallicus), c’est en somme le polyester gaulois.”
I am, of course, curious as to whether my readers know these words, especially “marigot”—I assume many non-Yanks are familiar with “tergal.”