Dom Tanas de Barbatanas.

Isn’t that a great name? Dom Tanas de Barbatanas: say it loud and there’s music playing; say it soft and it’s almost like praying. It’s the title of a 1962 Portuguese novel that’s little read in Portugal and completely unknown elsewhere; Luís Miguel Rosa has a long and fascinating post on it and its author, Tomaz de Figueiredo, at the excellent blog The Untranslated (see this LH post). It starts with an account of the literary context and the author’s life (a monarchist who despised both the Salazar dictatorship and the left-wing authors who insisted on realist prose left over from the 19th century, he reminds me a bit of Alexei Remizov, who had a similarly florid style); I’ll excerpt the description of the novel itself:

Dom Tanas didn’t find an audience because it’s a novel that requires attention, patience and commitment from the reader. Its sesquipedalian syntax requires one reading just to identify its subject, and a second reading to get the gist of the information. His vocabulary was gigantic, so after looking up the six or seven words that stop the reading in its tracks, a third reading is in order to finally make sense of the sentence. The fourth reading, optional but essential, is to soak up the sheer gorgeousness of the language. José Saramago’s long sentences seem like school compositions compared to them. António Lobo Antunes’ Fado Alexandrino is its rightful successor, but even that one is rather tame and straightforward by comparison. Dom Tanas’ artistry is a baroque brocade of alliteration, rhymes, trains of subordinate clauses, thick paragraphs, Latin expressions, archaic words and spelling, and even regionalisms that no dictionary will explain. Tomaz had no sympathy for the people excepting the loyal servants of his childhood; there is no social concern for the people even though the people lived in abject poverty during the regime; he only loved in them their colorful language, which he recorded in notebooks when he went hunting with his remaining rich friends. Surrounded by peasants, hunters, house maids, woodsmen, shepherds, he listened to them and recorded their words, sometimes updating dictionaries by hand. Hell, he even published a dictionary. With this word-hoard he created a unique language that seems like a pastiche of how people spoke in 18th century Portugal, although it was his own invention. He knew that living people assume that people spoke in the past always with an excess of orotundity, so he made it orotund as hell. Trying to even translate a paragraph is folly; the ideal translator would need to have Paul West’s or Alexander Theroux’s domain of the English language.

The novel is kind of plotless. A nameless panegyrist pens the protracted praise of a dead aristocrat, Dom Tanas de Barbatanas, the world’s most fearless swordsman, the strongest puncher in a brawl, the smartest thinker ever to grace a University, the most gallant seducer and lover, the most lyrical poet, the most skilled counselor in political matters, a strategic genius, the most everything at everything. It’s so ridiculous, so exaggerated, it undermines the veracity of the portrayal, and Dom Tanas disappears submerged by the colossal style employed by the panegyrist, who becomes the real protagonist in an inimitable performance of linguistic virtuosity. […]

Its structure is so unusual that I don’t even know another novel that uses it. The novel is in fact an intersection of three classic genres: it plays up the outdated values of chivalric romances and some tropes like the healing potions (which in Dom Tanas’ seedy world is reduced to a hemorrhoid-healing unguent that he dutifully applies to the ass cheeks of the powerful he wants to ingratiate himself with); it has the down-to-earth comedy and social criticism of the picaro; and it uses the Greek panegyric to mock the language of power. […]

Dom Tanas is an island of extravaganza in Portuguese fiction. In it there’s pleasure in form and structure, in revitalizing old genres, and in questioning the nature of storytelling. Although Tomaz didn’t follow foreign literature, his fiction was always a bit more in synch with it, a bit ahead of what his countrymen were doing. In the 1940s he was one of the first novelists to develop techniques similar to Faulkner’s. Some of his novels from the late 1960s predate what we now call autofiction. Dom Tanas had less to do with the French novels being translated than the English-language novels not being translated, less to do with Tropisms and Jealousy than The Alexandria Quartet, The Public Burning, Ada or Ardor, The Sot-Weed Factor, those big comical, extravagant novels that were of course utterly ignored in Portugal in the 1960s. Perhaps, then, its oblivion was inevitable too.

However, it’s one of the few Portuguese novels I’d single out as worthy of translation. It’s a hilarious verbal tour de force, drawing its strength from the novel’s past but also fresh, unique, unlike anything written in the 20th century, and for those reasons deserving of more attention, of better readers.

Doesn’t that sound interesting? I hope it gets the translation it deserves.

Addendum. It turns out that Rosa has a bilingual blog, Homem-de-Livro, which is well worth your attention. The latest post begins “The insular nature of the British Isles has instilled in their writers a fear of insularity,” which brought to mind a recent Avva post quoting Alexander Genis:

Provincials are often distinguished by their desperate thirst for culture […]. Once when I was in New York I got a letter from a village in the Amur region which I was unable to locate in an atlas; it began: “You won’t believe it, of course, but not everyone here has read Borges yet.”

«Провинциалов часто отличает та отчаянная жадность к культуре […]. Однажды мне в Нью-Йорк пришло письмо из Приамурского посёлка, который я не сумел найти в атласе. Начиналось оно так.

— Вы, конечно, не поверите, — писал автор, — но у нас ещё не все прочли Борхеса».


  1. I also recommend Miguel’s excellent essay on Gongora and the Baroque on his bilngual blog. It’s well-researched and very informative.

    But his best post is, alas, in Portuguese. It is a praise of the long novel!

  2. Thanks, it’s a wonderful blog and I’m glad to know about it!

  3. Barbatana, GT informs me, is fin, flipper, baleen, or whalebone (I will spare you a few keystrokes by acknowledging that I was informed not to use GT as a dictionary, whatever). Barba is obviously a beard. Tana or tanas seems not to be words, which is surprising. The image of baleen as some sort of a beard is pretty funny…

  4. David Marjanović says

    That’s what it is, though. It’s basically fused hair growing between where the teeth used to be.

  5. Hello,

    “Tanas” is actually a very popular word. As a noun it means “liar” or “a worthless person, a nobody”. The expression “és o tanas” is part of everyday conversation:

    – Sou o gajo mais esperto do mundo/I’m the smartest guy in the world
    – És o tanas/Like hell you are

  6. Trond Engen says

    The Continental Scandinavian word for a baleen is bard(e), from the LG form of the “beard” word. Icelandic (I gather from Wikipedia) has skíði =”ski” and skíðishvalir “ski whale”. Disappointingly, I coulddn’t find a comic to link to.

  7. “Tanas” is actually a very popular word. As a noun it means “liar” or “a worthless person, a nobody”. The expression “és o tanas” is part of everyday conversation

    Thanks very much!

  8. I like “optional but essential”

  9. Yes, I pondered that phrase for a bit, trying to decide whether it made sense. I think it does.

  10. Goddammit, the latest capture of Homem-de-Livro by the Wayback Machine is from March 2018 (I substituted it for the first link in the Addendum); it has no record of the “latest post” from April, and the blog apparently disappeared from the internet not long after. Truly, here have we no continuing city.

  11. Stu Clayton says

    the ideal translator would need to have Paul West’s or Alexander Theroux’s domain of the English language.

    Um, maybe “dominion” or, more naturally, “command”.

  12. Quite so.

  13. Unless those gentlemen are so eminent that they have eminent domain.

  14. I too found “optional but essential” funny and wondered about this domain.

    But I also learned “orotund”.
    knew that living people assume that people spoke in the past always with an excess of orotundity,

    I like “rounded” in the sense “labialized”: rounded sounds actually feel so. I like letter O depicting the rounded sound. I like Russian prefix о- “around”. And I guess I must like the form of Russian округлый (lit. around-round) and округлённый “rounded”.

    orotund has a lot of this… Just like its synonyms in wiktionary (pompous, bombastic)

  15. Anout such word that I like is “liquid” (L/R)

  16. Listen to sounds of linguistics:

    lingual, liquid, lateral, labial, laringeal…

    (and fricative is from Russian frr “a bilabial trill”, fyrknut’ “to produce it”)

  17. and I forgot laminal (and alveolar and trill)

  18. Yes, Russian has wonderful onomatopoeic verbs. I like кряхтеть even better than фыркнуть (I кряхчу a lot these days).

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    Initial /d/ and /l/ seem to be commoner than chance for words for “tongue.”

    One of the few Proto-Afroasiatic etyma which is really reconstructable all the way back is *lis- “tongue”, e.g. Coptic las, Arabic lisa:n, Hausa harshe (yes, really: Paul Newman has reconstructed how it got that way); Proto-Bantu has *-lɪ́m, e.g. Swahili ulimi; Proto-Oti-Volta has *lém-, e.g. Moba lanm /lãm/, though the WOV/Yom-Nawdm/Buli-Konni branch has prefixed a mysterious *jɪ- to this, e.g. Kusaal zilim (but lɛm “lick, taste.”)

    There are more phonaesthetic words out there than is sometimes appreciated.

  20. There are more phonaesthetic words out there than is sometimes appreciated.

    I’m sure there are; the problem is that it’s hard (I would say “impossible,” but we all know I’m an incorrigible skeptic about these things) to tell whether it’s simply coincidence, and our innate drive to find meaningful connections everywhere makes it easy to slip from “well, that’s a possibility” to “now that we have demonstrated the phonaesthetic nature of these reconstructed words…” to “the well-known prevalence of phonaesthetic words in early languages…”

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    “Tongue” does strike me as reasonably plausible candidate for sound symbolism on first principles, though (more so than “ear” or “leg”, for example.)

  22. Sure. But so what? I guess the possibility doesn’t excite me. Now, *lis- > harshe, that excites me.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    That Paul Newman, he knows a thing or two …

    The key to it is basically that the ha- began as a body-part prefix (the rest of the word comes in a not too obscure way from *-lsi via well established paths.)

    The body-part prefix was in fact originally a- (i.e. /ʔa/), but there is a rule against successive glottalised consonants in Hausa which dissimilated it to ha- in e.g. haɓa “chin”, haƙori “teeth”, from which the ha- was extracted and generalised.

  24. The list of translations here looks brutal.

    Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu,
    Japanese, Ainu
    Chinese (Mandarin – Old Chinese and Cantonese do have initial L)
    do not have L. the rest is like: laḥasa, laʿiqa, loḳva…

  25. @DE, i was intrigued by the strange distribution of this word for tongue in Chadic…
    …but it seems the reconstruction of *l for proto-Chadic is based on this word (and the correspondence of l to l in this word):/

    If reconstructions are sufficiently affected by small size of known vocabularies for many lnaguages (is it the case?) this all is not terrible, of course…

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    but it seems the reconstruction of *l for proto-Chadic is based on this word

    No, I don’t think that’s the case. Cf (for example) Mubi liisi “tongue.”

    There’s actually quite a lot of high-quality stuff out there on Chadic, both grammar and lexicon. I think the problem is not so much lack of data as the fact that the group is very diverse internally and that there are some as-yet unsolved methodological problems relating to reconstructing the protolanguage, e.g. How many vowels did it have? (if any …)

    If reconstructions are sufficiently affected by small size of known vocabularies

    In Oti-Volta (to retreat to an area I actually know about) it’s not hard to fill up Swadesh lists and so forth; the lexicographic data are often much better than the grammatical descriptions. Cluelessness about the morphology of particular languages can lead to the sort of errors that bedevilled Greenberg’s lists, with wrong segmentations, ghost forms etc, but enough is known about the oti-Volta languages, and their morphological systems are similar enough to one another, that it doesn’t seem a big practical problem.

    The difficulties I experience are more to do with the fact that I don’t know enough about the detailed morphophonemics of many of the languages (hardly surprising, as it’s taken me years to achieve a reasonable understanding of the system of even one language, Kusaal.)

    For example, it’s clear that the three distinctive tone patterns of full words in the Western Oti-Volta languages correspond fairly systematically to the three distinct tones of Gurma and Eastern Oti-Volta (Proto-WOV had only two tones, but has a pattern which alternates in a regular way between H and L tones.) However, there are frequent puzzling exceptions; I’m pretty sure a lot of these would be soluble of I knew more about word-internal tone sandhi in Gurma and EOV, but AFAIK this work has never been done, so I’m having to work it out myself on the basis of fairly superficial accounts of tone in languages which I don’t actually know.

  27. By ‘this word” I mean the whole set of its cognates in Chadic.

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    Ah. I misunderstood. Yes, you could well be right about that; but I think that is actually a consequence, not of lack of vocabulary data as such, but of the great internal diversity of Chadic, which reduces the number of etyma reconstructable to the protolanguage quite a bit. (Compare my fairly pathetic list of candidates for Proto-Volta-Congo that I came up with when Hat recently asked: same problem.)

    Even in Oti-Volta (a vastly more closely related group than Chadic) the reconstruction of some consonants in the protolanguage is dependent on just one or two etyma, and it would sometimes be a lot simpler just to declare that those etyma are exceptions or intra-Oti-Volta borrowings (or something) rather than setting up consonants in the protolanguage specially to account for them. I think the answer is to try to get a coherent and plausible picture of the phonemic system of the protolanguage so you can judge how likely it is that certain consonants would have existed in it, but you can all too easily end up arguing in a circle if you try.

    One puzzling gap is *f: there are a lot of good comparanda for *v, but apart from the usual phonaesthetic suspects like “blow, puff” (of wind), all the clearcut examples for *f seem to be found in affixes and clitic pronouns where *v is not found, so *f was probably just an allophone of *v. Seems very odd, though …

    Reverting to my point that to do the job properly, you need to understand the morphophonemics of the languages being compared: I suspect some of Manessy’s Proto-Gur consonant distinctions are spurious, based on his having missed conditioning factors. In fact, in one case, I know this for a fact: he set up a separate palatal series in Proto-WOV for e.g. the initial of the form underlying e.g. Mampruli kyaŋŋi, Dagbani chaŋ “go”, because he didn’t know that short *e in a closed syllable has become /a/ in those languages (cf Kusaal kɛŋ.) It’s just velars being palatalised before front vowels. Still, it’s easy to fall into similar traps if you don’t understand the systems being compared.

  29. lingual, liquid, lateral,

    In line with this, people calls lateral fricatives hlaterals. (cf.. I do not know why not hlaterahls…)

  30. Stu Clayton says

    I always think of “lateral fricative” as the sound someone makes when she spits tobacco juice out of the corner of her mouth.

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