Nobody Said That Then!

That’s the title of a New Yorker blog post by Hendrik Hertzberg, a senior editor and staff writer, who is upset that “the makers of movies and television shows set in the historical past” take pains with everything except the language, listing examples from the show Masters of Sex, set in St. Louis in the early nineteen-fifties, e.g. “I’m going to pass on the bacon”: “People played a lot of bridge back then, but ‘pass on,’ as a metaphor for skipping or refusing something, was not yet in use.” This of course warms my heart, but I was also surprised and irritated that he didn’t mention Benjamin Schmidt’s Prochronisms site (see this LH post from last year), which has been working that territory for some time now and deserved a shout-out. Schmidt responds with this post, in which he quotes Hertzberg’s “Are there no production designers for language? There ought to be” and responds “Be reassured, Hendrik: we exist!” (I was impressed by his limiting himself to such a mild complaint at being ignored); he goes on to point out that “Hertzberg’s not right about all of his claims” and provide some nifty graphs. Anyway, if you like this sort of thing, read both posts, which are short and meaty.

Addendum. A good response to Hertzberg by Ammon Shea, pointing out that “words have a nasty habit of first appearing much earlier or later than memory or intuition would attest” (though also stipulating that “he is largely correct: some of the words he calls into question were not actually used at that time, and some of the others were not in widespread use”).


  1. John Cowan says:

    English novels set in Russia don’t have the dialogue in Russian, blah, blah, blah, been there, said that.

  2. My ex sometimes said I ought to try getting Hollywood to hire me as an expert on coats of arms.

  3. des von bladet says:

    Following John Cowan’s suggestion, They should go the Full Shakespeare and have settings of Jane Austen’s Frockwatch in expressionist decor and bathing costumes, or whatever.

  4. English novels set in Russia don’t have the dialogue in Russian, blah, blah, blah, been there, said that.

    If it doesn’t bother you, it doesn’t bother you, and nobody’s forcing you to be bothered. Some people aren’t bothered by blatantly wrong clothing or decor, either. People are different, everyone’s entitled to their own etc., blah, blah, blah, been there, said that.

  5. “English novels set in Russia don’t have the dialogue in Russian” – yes they do, it’s just the author has translated it into English.

  6. They should go the Full Shakespeare

    Been there, done that.

    Robert Graves took it one step further and complained about entire mindsets. Did the Romans have the concept of a “sense of humor”? He thought not. (Of course, he had plenty of quirks of his own….)

  7. Jeffry House says:

    He mentions Deadwood as a transgressors.
    I recall reading somewhere that before deciding on a full panoply of f’ing modern curses, they did one script with period cuss words. They gave up on that because “everyone sounded like Yosemite Sam.”

  8. J.W. Brewer says:

    If for some reason Hertzberg himself were a character in some historical tv drama, it might I think be a serious mistake to have another character call him “Hendrik” (rather than “Rick”) in direct address — unless the point was to show that this other character didn’t really know him well enough to be on first-name terms with him even in an informal age. And wasn’t the Bonnie & Clyde movie ’67 rather than ’57? Is the prochonisms fellow running afoul of Muphry’s Law?

  9. @John Cowan: I think a distinction should be drawn between a work which uses “dramatic translation” – conveying to the audience, either implicitly or explicitly, that the characters are canonically speaking a different language, but that it’s being converted into contemporary English for the benefit of the audience -, and one with no translation convention, in which there’s a presumption that what we’re hearing is the canonical speech of the characters. In these latter cases, I think it’s valid to seek historical accuracy in dialogue. There seems to be a consensus that this category should include works set (in an English-language environment) since 1950 or so, and probably a widespread feeling that it should apply at least as far back as 1900 – and you could even make a case for its applying as far back as the beginning of Late Modern English. Of course the distinction between the two categories will be blurry in practice, and it’s very hard for most scriptwriters to craft historically accurate dialogue even for the recent past – but I think there’s a concrete reason why it’s more jarring to hear a 2010ism in a work set in 1980 than to hear a 1980ism in a work set in 1400.

    Of course, even works with a translation convention can still have anachronistic dialogue, if the characters refer to anachronistic concepts – Julius Caesar’s clocks being a famous example. I just recently saw an ad for the new movie Pompeii, in which a character says something like, “Every second takes her farther away from you.” But the Romans didn’t have seconds. You could say without too much difficulty that the character is canonically using some Latin word that means “moment” or “instant”, but I still find it jarring.

  10. Personally I wouldn’t mind “Every second takes her farther away from you” in a literary translation of something written 2000 years ago.

  11. I think a distinction should be drawn between a work which uses “dramatic translation” – conveying to the audience, either implicitly or explicitly, that the characters are canonically speaking a different language, but that it’s being converted into contemporary English for the benefit of the audience -, and one with no translation convention, in which there’s a presumption that what we’re hearing is the canonical speech of the characters. In these latter cases, I think it’s valid to seek historical accuracy in dialogue

    And, indeed, “Deadwood” is an example of the former; the writers were quite open about the fact that they were trying to capture the flavour of the exuberant swearing of the period, rather than reproducing it exactly.

    For “dramatic translation”, though, it isn’t really into modern English; it’s more like “timeless modern English”. It’s more formal than real modern English. If it’s a show about ancient Rome, someone can say “Cicero, be careful. Catiline has powerful friends in the Senate and they may move against you” and it’s OK for Cicero to reply “Catiline’s friends do not worry me”, but it’s not OK for him to reply “Yeah, whatever”.

  12. If it’s a show about ancient Rome, someone can say “Cicero, be careful. Catiline has powerful friends in the Senate and they may move against you” and it’s OK for Cicero to reply “Catiline’s friends do not worry me”, but it’s not OK for him to reply “Yeah, whatever”.

    Exactly! John C., how do you feel about this?

  13. I know this is ‘Languagehat’ rather than ‘Earlymusichat’, but the situation for musical authenticity (especially for earlier period things) is much worse.

    But to be a bit more OnT: I’ve noticed in several films recently (and maybe not noticed it in the past) that while the dialog isn’t in Russian or French or whatever, things we see rather than hear, like signs and books, are.

  14. Please feel free to expound on musical authenticity — this is Liberty Hall, we don’t worry about such trivialities as staying on topic, and besides, it is on topic.

  15. J. W. Brewer says:

    I’m not sure what R H-B means by much worse – sometimes modern performances don’t pretend to bother with trying to recreate “authentic” period style; sometimes they try to do so with alleged obsessive-compulsive attention to detail but may well be getting it wrong because the historical record is perhaps too vague to be confident in the accuracy of modern conjectural reconstructions. Somewhere or other I have a copy of this CD, whose liner notes proudly claim that the singing (of Latin texts) is done in precisely the regional accent that was used for singing Latin-texted church music in 16th-century Scotland (as opposed to that used in 16th-century England, or anywhere else). Well, maybe . . .

  16. At the moment, Yeah, whatever is youth-speak, so inappropriate for a man of 43. In a generation it may be universal, and then it would probably be fine.

    But I do recognize the distinctions between archaic, contemporary, and timeless style, and to prove it I will drop a huge wodge of Le Guin’s essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” here. She’s been reading a then-new fantasy novel (she doesn’t name it, but it is the 1970 edition of Deryni Rising, by Katherine Kurtz):

    The persons talking are a duke of the blood royal of a mythical Keltic kingdom, and a warrior-magician — great Lords of Elfland, both of them.

    “Whether or not they succeed in the end will depend largely on Kelson’s personal ability to manipulate the voting.”

    “Can he?” Morgan asked, as the two clattered down a half-flight of stairs and into the garden.

    “I don’t know, Alaric,” Nigel replied. “He’s good — damned good — but I just don’t know. Besides, you saw the key council lords. With Ralson dead and Bran Coris practically making open accusations — well, it doesn’t look good.”

    “I could have told you that at Cardosa.”

    At this point I was interrupted (perhaps by a person from Porlock, I don’t remember) and the next time I sat down I happened to pick up a different kind of novel, a real Now novel, naturalistic, politically conscious, relevant, set in Washington, D.C. Here is a sample of a conversation from it, between a senator and a lobbyist for pollution control.

    “Whether or not they succeed in the end will depend largely on Kelson’s personal ability to manipulate the voting.”

    “Can he?” Morgan asked, as the two clattered down a half-flight of stairs and into the White House garden.

    “I don’t know, Alaric,” Nigel replied. “He’s good — damned good — but I just don’t know. Besides, you saw the key committee chairmen. With Ralson dead and Brian Corliss practically making open accusations — well, it doesn’t look good.”

    “I could have told you that at Poughkeepsie.”

    Now, I submit that something has gone wrong. The book from which I first quoted is not fantasy, for all its equipment of heroes and wizards. If it was fantasy, I couldn’t have pulled that dirty trick on it by changing four words. You can’t clip Pegasus’ wings that easily — not if he has wings.

    Before I go further I want to apologize to the author of the passage for making a horrible example of her. There are infinitely worse examples I could have used; I chose this one because in this book something good has gone wrong — something real has been falsified. There would be no use at all in talking about what is generally passed off as “heroic fantasy”, all the endless
    Barbarians with names like Barp and Klod, and the Tarnsmen and the Klansmen and all the rest of them — there would be nothing whatever to say. (Not in terms of art, that is; in terms of ethics, racism, sexism, and politics there would be a great deal to say, but fortunately it has all been said, indirectly and therefore with greater power, by Norman Spinrad in his tremendous satire
    The Iron Dream.)

    What is it, then, that I believe has gone wrong in the book and the passage quoted from it? I think it is the style. Presently I’ll try to explain why I think so. It will be convenient, however, to have other examples at hand. The first passage was dialogue, and style in a novel is often particularly visible in dialogue; so here are some bits of conversation from other parts of Elfland. The books from which they were taken were all written in this century, and all the speakers are wizards, warriors, or Lords of Elfland, as in the first selection. The books were chosen carefully, of course, but the passages were picked at random; I just looked for a page where two or three suitably noble types were chatting.

    Now spake Spitfire saying, “Read forth to us, I pray thee, the book of Gro; for my soul is afire to set forth on this faring.”

    ” ‘Tis writ somewhat crabbedly,” said Brandoch Daha, “and most damnably long. I spent half last night a-searching on’t, and ’tis most apparent no other way lieth to these mountains, save by the Moruna, and across the Moruna is (if Gro say true) but one way…”

    “If he say true?” said Spitfire. “He is a turncoat and a renegado. Wherefore not therefore a liar?”

    [second passage]

    “Detestable to me, truly, is loathsome hunger; abominable is an insufficiency of food upon a journey. Mournful, I declare to you, is such a fate as this, to one of my lineage and nurture!”

    “Well, well,” said Dienw’r Anffodion, with the bitter hunger awakening in him again, “common with me is knowledge of famine. Take you the whole of the food, if you will.”

    “Yes,” said Goreu. “That will be better.”

    [third passage]

    “Who can tell?” said Aragorn. “But we will put it to the test one day.”

    “May the day not be too long delayed,” said Boromir. “For though I do not ask for aid, we need it. It would comfort us to know that others fought also with all the means that they have.”

    “Then be comforted,” said Elrond.

    Now all those speakers speak English differently; but they all have the genuine Elfland accent. You could not pull the trick on them that I pulled on Morgan and Nigel — not unless you changed half the words in every sentence. You could not possibly mistake them for anyone on Capitol Hill.

    In the first selection they are a little crazy, and in the second one they are not only crazy but Welsh — and yet they speak with power, with a wild dignity. All of them are heroic, eloquent, passionate. It may be the passion that is most important. Nothing is really going on, in those first two passages: in one case they’re reading a book, in the other they’re dividing a cold leg of rabbit. But with what importance they invest these trivial acts, what emotion, what vitality!

    In the third passage, the speakers are quieter, and use a less extraordinary English; or rather an English extraordinary for its simple timelessness. Such language is rare on Capitol Hill, but it has occurred there. It has sobriety, wit, and force. It is the language of men of character.

    Speech expresses character. It does so whether the speaker or the author knows it or not. (Presidential speech writers know it very well.) When I hear a man say, “I could have told you that at Cardosa,” or at Poughkeepsie, or wherever, I think I know something about that man. He is the kind who says, “I told you

    Nobody who says “I told you so” has ever been, or will ever be, a hero.

    The Lords of Elfland are true lords, the only true lords, the kind that do not exist on this earth: their lordship is the outward sign of symbol of real inward greatness. And greatness of soul shows when a man speaks. At least, it does in books. In life we expect lapses, and laugh at an “over-heroic” hero. But in fantasy, which instead of imitating the perceived confusion and complexity of existence, tries to hint at an order and clarity underlying existence — in fantasy, we need not compromise. Every word spoken is meaningful, though the meaning may be subtle.

    For example, in the second passage, the fellow called Goreu is moaning and complaining and shamelessly conning poor Dienw’r out of the only thing he has to eat. And yet you feel that anyone who can talk like that isn’t a mean-spirited man. He would never say “I told you so.” In fact, he’s not a man at all, he’s Gwydion son of Don in disguise, and he has a good reason for his tricks, a magnanimous reason. On the other hand, in the third quotation, the very slight whine in Boromir’s tone is significant also. Boromir is a noble-hearted person, but there is a tragic flaw in his character and the flaw is envy.

    Well, I happen to like the Deryni books very much, despite their firmly contemporary style. They are not, after all, set in Elfland, or even Middle-earth, just the Middle Ages. There’s magic, yes, and the map is hard to recognize: go over the mountains on the eastern border of Wales, and find yourself in Hungary? But fundamentally the place is another world, not the Otherworld. What’s more, I suspect Le Guin is a little more forgiving forty years onward.

  17. It would be silly for Martin Cruz Smith to have published Gorky Park only in Russian, because then no one would understand it. How is that similar to anachronistic speech in Downton Abbey? (And apparently that’s only done to tease the pedants and distract the bored).

    Jane Austen with expressionist decor = Percy Wyndham Lewis.

    You know who’s good at old-fashioned-sounding speech without descending into cliché is Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies.

  18. I just like the way Le Guin throws Tarl Cabot in with the Ku Klux Klan.

  19. John Cowan says:

    Well, they do have much the same view of women. I don’t know that the KKK were actually pro-slavery, though.

  20. John Cowan says:

    AJP, it’s just an extreme case. The authenticity that demands a character in 1950 talk always and only like 1950 is different only in degree from the (obviously absurd) authenticity that demands Russians in Russia should be represented as speaking Russian. It’s true that Russian is wholly unintelligible to the 2010 anglophone, whereas 1950-speak is only a little difficult to understand. We don’t get upset when a novel written in 1920 but set in 1880 is full of 1920isms, after all.

    I think this is fundamentally different in kind from the anachronism of a novel in 1950 referring to Elvis, or clocks in Caesar’s day, or (in a movie) signs in English when the movie is set in France. There is an author who never lets her characters use a word in dialogue that wasn’t already part of English in their day, but her syntax is Modern not Middle English. What’s the point of all that? Yeah, when someone on Downton Abbey says “bored of”, I get upset (on the other hand, it passes Gale by; apparently she’s never noticed anyone saying “bored of” in real life either). But I recognize that it’s a completely futile upset; if Downton Abbey is re-aired twenty years hence, no one will pay the slightest attention.

  21. J. W. Brewer says:

    The first two passages Le Guin quotes are embarrassing and overwrought hackwork, almost certainly no better than the Gor-etc. books she disdains. (Whether they are better or worse than Le Guin’s own style I couldn’t say, since I haven’t read her since I was maybe 13 or 14 and had not yet developed much aesthetic judgment in matters of style; I see no reason to revisit her now any more than I would revisit her Gor-etc. competitors.) That that third guy she quotes could come up with something archaic and/or timeless feeling while avoiding that trap and making it seem effortless rather than affected is actually somewhat impressive, because the amount of embarrassing/overwrought hackwork on the market suggests that that achieving that result must be harder than it looks.

  22. Yeah, I’m afraid I have to agree with JWB: where LeGuin sees (or saw) power, dignity, and passion, I see bargain-basement High Fantastickal Speeche, Ye Olde Craparoonie. If I had to read an entire book full of it, I wolde runne madde.

  23. des von bladet says:

    I read Gorky Park in the original Dutch, of course, and I will not make another attempt at Tolkien until I master hobbitsh. Meanwhile I was once jolted out of a fine translation of Baudelaire by the word ‘diaper’.

    (I don’t have a point – I mostly just come here to piss on the cat and call the rug a bastard. And complain about ‘early music’ performance conventions, of course. )

  24. des von bladet says:

    (Also: they really talk like that in Elfland. All the time. And if you bring it up, they just call you racist.)

  25. A while back, I was attending some sort of student conference at George Washington University and reading a fantasy novel set in the quaint little backwater of Foggy Bottom. I suppose there could be other Foggy Bottoms out there besides the one in DC, but at the moment it was hard not to (read: really fun to) conflate the two.

  26. There could be no anachronism in the purely made-up epoch. And when wants to convey a different epoch AND a foreign land AND the ability to identify with the characters and their circumstances, then sometimes anachronisms might help. Because a more familiar culture might have had similar circumstances in a different historic period. Actually I consistently use slang and imagery from Russia’s NEP era underworld romance (some genuinely from the 1920s and some made up later) to convey the aura of 1900’s underworld lyrics of Argentine tango – IMVHO the mismatches of time and space almost cancel each other.

  27. I mean that, in say an Elizabethan setting, there will be loads of effort put into clothing and scenery and then the music played within the narrative (as distinct from background music) will be totally inappropriate and anachronistic (and often just lousy).

    I even attended, upon a time, something at the (rather self-consciously-named?) Shakespeare’s Globe where they played mediæval music, in a pretty authentic style but totally anachronisticly: didn’t fit with Shakespeare’s time or the internal time of the play (which, come to think of it, might also have been Shakespeare’s). Maybe they were indulging in hyper-correction, because usually things go wildly the other way.

    There also seems to be a horribly strong tendency to mistake ‘Celtic’ music for mediæval. (I’ve come out of a cinema, more than once, with an inexplicable desire to have a shower with a bar of ‘Oirish Spring’ (Begorrah!)

    Music (especially background music) doesn’t have to be academically HIP, but some sensitivity would be nice. A great example of modern but sensitive is Walton’s score for Henry V, where at the climax, at Agincourt, (while the visual aspect of the movie has been changing from a straight(ish)-forward record of a theatrical performance to a realistic, outdoor depiction of the battle) Walton brings in a modern setting of the Agincourt Carol. Not HIP, but very satisfying.

    Down here in DFW Shakespeare Dallas is doing all the plays and poems, about one performance a month (it’s taking them five years) in staged readings. From the start any music they performed was always vaguely new-agey-celticy, and after one of the earliest performances, I asked them why they didn’t try to use more authentic stuff, and they were nonplussed: never even thought about it, didn’t even know there was any! I told them about the wealth of music that has survived from the period, even pointed them at a book that has pretty much all the music from the time that can be associated with the plays (however tenuously).
    And would you believe that at the very next play they went on exactly as before.

  28. One of my favorite quotations is from Robert Graves, Antigua Penny Puce (1936), chapter 10. It’s the only bit we ever hear from a very unattractive character’s historical novel about the Diet of Worms:

    “‘Nay,’ cried the good bailiff of Hochschloss, ‘all folk who journey through this bailiwick must first drink the health of my Lord the Duke: in mead, be they poor; in good Rhine wine, be they of the better sort.’”

    We learn in chapter 17 that the author “had to pay to get it published and was grossly over-charged and, in spite of a large additional sum that the publishers demanded for advertising, only sold forty-five copies in England and seven in Canada”.

    That really ought to be as famous as Waugh’s parody of a certain style of nature writing in Scoop (1938), which is in the Oxford Book of Quotations:

    “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.”

  29. Sorry: forgot to connect my last comment to the topic at hand. I have very low tolerance for stuff like “Detestable to me, truly, is loathsome hunger”, etc., which sounds way too much like Graves’ parody.

  30. JC, I’d love reading 1950 speech in a novel, and I’d despise any author who screwed it up. Here (50s onwards) nostalgia, or something related to it, sets in: I’m sure I loved Ian MacEwen’s Sweet Tooth a little bit because it was set in the early 1970s, a period I remember well, and of course MacEwan gave it special attention because he too remembers it. In that case, attention to the speech & other details added to the pleasure of reading the book (at least for me). I’d have got nothing out of authentic 1530s English if it had been used in Wolf Hall. In that case Hilary Mantel has to use analogous speech: how a poor young boy or old rich man might talk today (but nothing too stylised).

  31. Yes, I complained about it here and here.

  32. Er, that was in response to Michael, not “Teddy” Heath.

  33. And I am planning to read Wolf Hall soon, I swear.

  34. marie-lucie says:

    des: I was once jolted out of a fine translation of Baudelaire by the word ‘diaper’.

    Can you find the original? English “diaper” translates as French une couche, but this word is one of two homophones: besides ‘he word meaning ‘diaper’ there is another one, used mostly in classical poetry, meaning ‘bed, sofa, anything you can lie on and sleep’. I can’t think of a context in Baudelaire’s work where he might have wanted to refer to diapers rather than beds.

    There is also the plural form les couches, an obsolete word referring to a woman’s labor and act of giving birth.

  35. John Cowan says:

    embarrassing and overwrought hackwork

    E.R. Eddison is certainly not to everyone’s taste, and even those who like him for one book or aspect often dislike others. But he was certainly no hack, either in the sense of someone who writes inferior work for money, or in the sense of someone who uses styles or tropes about which he knew nothing. His style is entirely artificial, but it is impeccable Early Modern English written in the 1920s, and the attitudes of his characters are equally Elizabethan or perhaps rather Jacobean.

    I’ve never read Kenneth Morris and can’t speak to the quality of his work, but I don’t think he was in it for the money either, not back in 1930.

    I see no reason to revisit her now

    As Hat is fond of saying to me anent His Poundness, your loss. It’s hard to easily remedy, though: Le Guin doesn’t write novels for the sake of the sentences in them, but sentences for the sake of the novels they are in. I mean, I love sentences like “He knew now, and the knowledge was hard, that his task had never been to undo what he had done, but to finish what he had begun”, but I grant that they probably don’t do much for you, who don’t know who “he” is, or what’s being talked about, or why it matters.

    [T]hat that third guy she quotes could come up with something archaic and/or timeless feeling while avoiding that trap and making it seem effortless rather than affected is actually somewhat impressive

    150+ million book-buyers have certainly thought so; far more than any other author except Dickens, despite what the critical establishment has thought of him. (He’s not a school author, which most of his competitors in that league are, artificially inflating their sales.) The charge of hackwork may be firmly repulsed here as well: he made a lot of money, but neither he nor his publishers had any reason to expect that.

    in the original Dutch

    “A decade or so after graduation one may still have cultivated tastes, but as a rule one can no longer read the Arabian Nights so fluently in the original Arabic, or social science textbooks in the original double Dutch.” —Northrop Frye

    Foggy Bottom

    The first ghit is a Foggy Bottom Farm in Geneseo, NY. I’ve always thought it was somewhat ironic that the U.S. Naval Observatory is in Foggy Bottom.

    in mead, be they poor

    I see nothing inherently risible in this paragraph: embedded in a well-crafted and well-written historical novel, it wouldn’t bother me in the least.

  36. Kenneth Morris’s Book of the Three Dragons, from which Le Guin’s quotation is taken, though it can’t be recommended to those who are allergic to thee’s and thou’s, is a lovely book. It wears its archaism lightly and humorously, which can’t be said for Eddison (who nevertheless was a serious and sensitive artist, working in an unpopular medium). Here is part of a contest between professional satirists:

    Then the third satirist spoke: he was a plump, well-fed man in flashing green, with well-oiled black hair and a smiling look. “To every man his price, good souls; I would not hold my power so cheap. You, my friend,” said he to the red-eyelashed man, “will no doubt be an apprentice at satire?”
    Then said he with the red eyelashes: “If I knew thy name I would satirize thee, and thou shouldst be as that water.”
    “Though I know not thy name I will satirize thee, and the men of Caer Odornant shall see,” said the well-fed one. So he began, smiling kindly as he sang; and they all turned red and then white-cheeked to hear him; but the red-eyelashed could make no answer, knowing not his name.
    “Thou shalt be a rat,” said the well-fed; and went forward with three lines of his satire.
    “Enough! enough!” squeaked the red-eyelashed; “or I will jump and bite thy throat!”
    “What! thou art content with as little rathood as that?” said the well-fed. So he stopped his chanting; but the red-eyelashed had still a good look of rattishness about him, even to the twitching of his whiskers.

    If there were bargain-basement fantasy writers today who could write like Morris or Eddison or Dunsany or Peake, contemporary fantasy might be worth reading. Unfortunately those authors are hardly to be found even in basements nowadays.

  37. (Either Morris, come to think of it: Kenneth or William, the arch-archaizing grandaddy of modern fantasy, whom even I can’t read with much pleasure, and who would doubtless give Hat or JWB an aneurysm within one fie-and-gadzooks-studded paragraph. Lots of Lewis and Tolkien comes out of William Morris; in The Well at the World’s End there is a Stone Table, a character named Gandalf, etc.)

  38. John Cowan says:

    Gromfa gromfa glamfa glamfa aerfa aerfa!

    (the opening line of an Old Irish satire, meaning “I will satirize” using the three different verbs allocated in Old Irish to that function; the third is the normal one)

  39. John Cowan says:

    Oops, I forgot the Old Irish satire link (to my blog).

  40. Can you find the original?

    I’d guess “Enfants, emmaillota dans ses langes d’airain!” in “J’aime le souvenir de ces époques nues.”

  41. John Cowan, the US Naval Observatory is not in Foggy Bottom. It’s more like Glover Park, quite a bit further north, with Georgetown between it and Foggy Bottom. But Wikipedia tells me that it was in Foggy Bottom until 1893, when it moved.

  42. John Cowan says:

    Thanks. I wrote “was in Foggy Bottom”, and then changed it to “is” without checking. My bad. Light pollution was far less in 1844-93, though no doubt the fog was much the same.

  43. richard howland-bolton: That was something that bothered me and my friends about the Lord of the Rings films. Tolkien created an entire world, complete with its own music. That world was created out of raw material from British, Norse and Germanic mythology for the most part, so logically its music would relate to those traditions also. Yet the music in the films was just stock movie music. It could just as easily have been used in a film about cowboys or WWII.

    The song in the first episode of The Hobbit isn’t too bad, but they didn’t really follow up on it. There are plenty of places in the book where various characters are singing, but they haven’t put it into the film so far.

    Re-enactors are usually terrible about music also, Ren-Faire or Civil War or whatever. They go to great lengths to have the right buttons, but the music and the instruments will be gross anachronisms. People in Civil War uniforms playing dreadnought-size guitars and five-string banjos really set my teeth on edge.

    As usual, xkcd puts it best:

  44. Trond Engen says:

    The power of satire or public scolding was appreciated also in Germanic societies. Wikipedia has a remarkably thorough explanation of the concept of níð.

  45. des von bladet says:

    MIcK has guessed correctly!

  46. des von bladet says:

    Fracking android spellthing!

  47. Trond Engen says:

    But where is the diaper?

  48. marie-lucie says:

    MMcM: thank you!

    The context is a contrast between the beautiful, strong bodies and mines of the mythical Golden Age and the misshapen, degenerate bodies and minds of the present (ie 19C) period. This sentence is part of the second description:

    Ô pauvres corps tordus, maigres, ventrus ou flasques,
    Que le dieu de l’Utile, implacable et serein,
    Enfants, emmaillota dans ses langes d’airain!

    The English translation is pretty good:

    Poor bodies, twisted, thin, bulging or flabby,
    That the god Usefulness, implacable and calm,
    Wrapped up at tender age in swaddling clothes of brass!

    The word langes is correctly translated as swaddling clothes, which do not mean ‘diapers’. Un lange is a piece of heavy cloth large enough to wrap a baby in it from the chest down with a fair amount of overlap, and long enough to be folded back upwards over the baby’s legs. It is not a diaper, but is worn over a diaper (or whatever was used instead in ancient times). My family has baby pictures of me or my sisters wearing those. In ancient times the baby was wrapped from head to toe, only the face showing, as can be seen in many medieval pictures of babies. Cords or bands were used then to hold the cloths together, but in my time the lange was held with large safety pins. It held the legs but not the arms.

    The verb emmailloter means ‘to wrap up (a baby) in swaddling clothes or something similar’. It is from le maillot, a garment which fits the body very closely, as in maillot de bain ‘bathing suit’, maillot de corps ‘sleeveless undershirt’, le maillot jaune ‘the yellow T shirt worn by the winner of the preceding leg of the Tour de France’.

  49. French lange is a substantivized form of the medieval (13th c.) adjective lange ‘woolen,’ from Latin laneus, lanea; it’s thus a close relative of laine ‘wool,’ from Latin lana.

  50. marie-lucie says:

    Merci, LH. Indeed the lange is a kind of small blanket, so it could have started as a woolen cloth to keep the baby warm.

  51. @Richard Howland-Bolton on Shakespeare producers not knowing that real old music exists: David Schrader, the now illustrious organist, told me an exactly similar story in grad school in the 70s.

  52. John Cowan says:

    complete with its own music

    Well, hypothetically. Tolkien actually doesn’t have much to say about specific music, though the Music of the Ainur is how the universe is conceptualized before it’s actually created. The Ainur, which correspond to angels, designed the universe in choral performance, God made it so with a word; he also added some things, like Elves and Men, as the Ainur are not capable of creating beings with independent wills.

    Tolkien collaborated with Donald Swann (of Flanders & Swann), who wrote settings with piano accompaniment for seven pieces from The Lord of the Rings, but (a) some of the works he set are poems in their original context, not songs; (b) the results are definitely Lieder, not folk songs, except for the Gregorian-chant-like setting of “Namárië”, which is Tolkien’s own. (I love them and sing them anyway; Gale has asked me to sing one at her memorial service.)

    People often speak of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as “containing poetry”, but they don’t, not in the sense that (say) La Vita Nuova or The Silmarillion do. Rather, the poems and songs are diegetic: the narrative always says something equivalent to “And then he/she/they sang/recited the following”. A fully satisfactory translation into any language (which does not exist as far as I know, for many reasons) would involve not only translating the sense of the poems, but casting them into the native folk-poetry/lyric style of the target language. (I note that a fair number of the translations have the verse translated by a different translator, which is perhaps encouraging.)

  53. John Cowan says:
  54. Really!??!!?! Where does one find the Tolkein-Swann collaborations?

  55. The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle. I practically memorized it when I was a teenager.

  56. Trond Engen says:

    In his foreword to Ringdrotten Eilev Groven Myhren says that the translations of the poems follow the original rhythm, but counting heavy syllables only, as in traditional Norwegian meters. Also the rhyme schemes are traditional Norwegian, occasionally allowing assonance instead of full rhymes, especially in the folk song-like poems. Only in the Song of Nimrodel did he consciously choose a different meter, the gamlestev of Norwegian medieval ballads. But it’s really not that different:

    Det var ei alvemøy så prud,
    som soli bjart ho var.
    Ei kåpe kvit med sauma gull
    og sylverskor ho bar.

    Ei stjerne var på bruni bunden,
    eit ljos var yvi hår
    lik sol som skein på gylte greinir
    ein fager lórienvår.

    Og håret hekk til jordi ned,
    og lett ho fór i vind,
    ei kvitkledd møy i dansen gjekk
    som lauv or grøne lind.

  57. John Cowan says:

    There are now two more pieces in The Road Goes Ever On that weren’t in the first edition, it seems. I’ll have to get a new copy and learn them if I can. One is “Bilbo’s Last Song”, which was sung at Tolkien’s funeral; the other is from The Silmarillion.

  58. des von bladet says:

    Right, now that I’ve got my keyboard out of the cupboard, it is #6 of the Fleurs de Mal “I prize the memory”, as traduced by Richard Howard.

    How these deformities crie out for clothese!
    – wretched bodies, regular grotesques,
    runty, paunchy, flabby, scrawny, lame,
    brats whom Uility, a pitiless god,
    has swaddled in his brazen diapers!

    Brazen, or swaddling, diapers were widely used in the late 19th century*, of course, so this seems an entirely apt translation.

    * This may not be entirely true.

  59. @ Roger C
    And there was possibly less of an excuse back then when the Early Music Movement was in its prime!

  60. marie-lucie says:

    des: This translation is striking and powerful but not very literal.

    Brazen, or swaddling, diapers were widely used in the late 19th century

    Do you have any references for this? I wonder what actual (not figurative) object could possibly be referred to as a “brazen diaper”. As for “swaddling diaper”, it seems to be a contradiction. Swaddling refers to wrapping most of a baby’s body (over other cloths or garments the baby might wear, including an early equivalent of a diaper)), while a diaper is a type of undergarment for the lower part only. I wonder if the translator was aware of the difference between les langes ‘swaddling clothes’ and les couches ‘diapers’. You could not emmailloter ‘swaddle’ anybody with a couche ‘diaper’.

    The poem has the word airain, meaning a type of bronze used in antiquity, especially for weapons. This classical reference goes together with the notion of a “god of usefulness’. Neither airain nor bronze is used in the figurative meaning of “brazen” in English (as in brazen lie, etc). Instead the poet’s meaning is that modern people’s misshapen bodies seem to have been “swaddled in hard metal” which interfered with their development. The reference to this hard metal also recalls the iron machinery used in 19th century factories.

  61. m-l: Note des’s footnote “* This may not be entirely true.” I’m not sure whether that means he’s not sure of his memory or whether he just made it up out of whole cloth, but either way I wouldn’t take the factoid too seriously.

  62. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks LH. I did notice the footnote. Perhaps des’s whole comment (not the translation) is a joke then. You know that I am sometimes slow to detect joking.

  63. Trond Engen says:

    As I read it, Des’ footnote refers to “Brazen, or swaddling, diapers were widely used in the late 19th century”. The translation itself is not tongue in cheek. Richard Howard is a solid name.

  64. des von bladet says:

    The translation is completely real; my gloss is completely false. Sincere apologies to marie-lucie – I honestly thought that when I thought better of not signposting my unreliability that it would be unlikely to mislead anyone.

  65. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you both! I thought that “brazen” might have had a different meaning in some context.

    I did not doubt that the translation was legit, but I am still convinced that the translator misinterpreted the meaning of langes and also of swaddling. Perhaps he was never a father.

  66. The subtitles in the most recent Hobbit movie mistranslate the Sindarin spoken. Which has got to be a subtle joke on somebody’s part, since Sindarin is a made-up language.

  67. @Richard Howland-Bolton: Exactly. I was like, “Haven’t these fellows ever heard of Nonesuch?”

  68. “For the movie to be made, the book must be killed.” —Tony Hillerman

  69. January First-of-May says:

    Un lange is a piece of heavy cloth large enough to wrap a baby in it from the chest down with a fair amount of overlap, and long enough to be folded back upwards over the baby’s legs.

    Oh, so Russian пелёнки, as opposed to подгузники “diapers”.

    (In modern Russian, the word for “diapers” is памперсы, but I could hardly imagine anyone putting that word in anything not set in the modern day.)

    As for the whole Elfland thing – I’m reminded of Varga’s dialogue in the Russian translation of Taylor Varga, a crossover fanfic between an obscure web serial (…well, pretty famous for a web serial, I suppose) set in Poughkeepsie Brockton Bay, and an even more obscure anime (of which Varga is one of the protagonists) set in Elfland Rimsbell.

    Specifically, in the original English version of the fanfic, it is repeatedly mentioned in-story that Varga’s manner of speech is very recognizable (as should be expected, since he’s an Elfland refugee); but in his actual dialogue lines, he talks pretty much just like everyone else in the story.
    As such, for the first twenty-odd chapters (out of 123 so far), the Russian translation had Varga talk just like everyone else (complete with modern slang); but then, at some point, the translator decided that this wouldn’t do, and if Varga is described to have a completely different manner of speech, then he should darn well have one.
    So, starting from chapter 28 of the Russian translation, Varga talks like the Elfland refugee he is – which is to say, in a ludicrously archaic style reminiscent of the first two fragments of Le Guin’s second selection. It is especially jarring compared to the modern slang he drops in, say, chapter 23.

    (IIRC, it had since gone less obtrusively archaic, though not quite down to the level of the Tolkien fragment; the translator claimed that at some point he would go down the early chapters and revise them, but, at least in the version I’m following, so far this hasn’t happened, and the current version of chapter 23 still has Varga using modern slang.)

    …For what it worth, the actual ridiculously anachronistic(-sounding) word that surprised me the most recently is the emendation of sdra[ste] in the Russian text of the (supposedly) 12th century Tzetzes multilingual. (The manuscripts have sdra, with a syllable apparently missing in the meter.)
    Surely any variety of Slavic archaic enough to still have the final vowels in dobra deni wouldn’t have contracted its cognate of zdravstvuite all that much?
    I don’t know which century Russian здрасте dates to (19th? 18th? it seems to be older than late 20th, at least), but I’ve never heard of it being anywhere near as old as 12th century.

    Realistically, I would expect *sdra[vi] or *sdra[vo] or something along those lines; the late Zaliznyak could probably have came up with the perfect emendation, but if he ever did I’m not aware of it.
    In any case, sdra anything, whatever the continuation, would presumably fix the form as South Slavic, not East Slavic, which should have *sdoro (though perhaps the Old Church Slavonic loans had already started by then).

    […Sorry for such a ludicrously long and rambling comment, by the way.]

  70. No, no, it gives me pleasure to have this old thread revived, especially with such an interesting comment!

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