The Influence of Translators.

Sam Leith interviews the publisher Christopher MacLehose, and has some good bits:

In some cases an author acquires a translator-symbiote, so that it becomes near-impossible to read – or, to translate – Proust except through CK Scott-Moncrieff-shaped spectacles. Thanks to Scott-Moncrieff, for instance, Du côté de chez Swann is, pretty much indelibly, Swann’s Way in English (he nicked the usage from Beowulf) and Sodome et Gomorrhe is Cities of the Plain. […]

I asked Boyd Tonkin, who chaired the last Man Booker International Prize, about this subject and he offered a wry and cheering example of how a translator could be hugely influential but also not very good. Thomas Mann’s first translator, HT Lowe-Porter, got a whole lot wrong – and, Tonkin says, Mann himself knew she wasn’t the whole nine yards: but “she was doing them very fast so they would appear in English soon after being published in German: he wanted them out there”.

I can’t argue with his conclusion: “As the – justly peevish – hashtag has it: #namethetranslator!” Anybody know what the Beowulf reference is about? (Thanks, Trevor!)


  1. 199 …. hē gūðcyning
    200 ofer swanrāde sēċean wolde

    ‘Swan-road’ is one of the many Beowulfian kennings for ‘the sea’.

  2. Huh. I knew Swann’s Way and I knew the kenning, but I never thought to associate them before.

  3. While there’s both hronrade and hwælweg, I believe the only swanweg is swān, so an actual path for swineherds.

  4. ‘Swan-riding’ rather than ‘swan-road’, actually: rād is an abstract noun, not yet a concrete one. In the North it became a different concrete noun, raid, borrowed into Standard English in the 19C.

  5. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Many years ago I was at school with Christopher MacLehose, a few years older than me. He was OK, but a bit pretentious even then. His older brother Andy spelled the name Maclehose, and I think Christopher also did when I first knew him. However, they were very different: Christopher was clearly destined for a literary career; Andy lived for sport.

  6. John,

    OE rād (as well as ME rǭde) is an action noun (‘riding, a ride, journey, raid’) when it occurs as a free-standing word, but it often acquires a concrete meaning in compounds, e.g. hwēol-rād ‘rut made by a wheel’ → ‘track, course, cartroad, orbit’; strēam-rād ‘riverbed’; wīġ-rād ‘military route’. Hence its use in kennings like swanrād, hranrād, seġlrād. The “etymological” gloss ‘swan-road’, anachronistic as it is, conveys the OE meaning quite accurately.

  7. Any pretty dears are to be caught inside but it is a bad pities of the plain.

  8. It seems that Sydney Schiff, who would eventually complete Scott-Moncrieff’s translation, but who initially wanted it all for himself, misled Proust about it, as “souvenir de choses passées” without sonnet 30 and “à la manière de Swann” without the other possibility.

    Sydney and Violet hosted what should have been the greatest party of Modernism Year One* for Proust, Joyce, Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Picasso. But evidently the guests didn’t really hit it off.

    * 1922: Recherche, Ulysses, Waste Land, Mrs Peabody, Little Red Riding Hood and other Laugh-o-grams, Klee and Kandinsky join Bauhaus, Louis Armstrong moves to Chicago.

  9. Jacob’s Room, Man Ray photographs Stein and Toklas at home, Peggy Guggenheim moves to Paris.

  10. marie-lucie says

    MMcM: “à la manière de Swann”

    This is indeed what Swann’s Way seems to mean. But Du côté de chez Swann is closer to Swann’s Neighbourhood. You could use this phrase to suggest Allons nous promener du côté de chez Swann! ‘Let’s go for a walk around Swann’s neighbourhood’! whether or not you would like to run into Swann, or even go right by his house.

    The phrase du côté de does not have to make any reference to a person, only to an approximate location. If someone wants to know where the biggest department stores in Paris are, you can tell them Du côté de la gare Saint-Lazare ‘Somewhere near St-Lazare station’.

    Make sure that the person making the request does not confuse du côté de with à côté de ‘next door to’.

  11. One can object that Scott-Moncrieff’s translation no longer accords with best practices for modern language translation. But there is really no claiming that he did not know and intend what he was doing.

    The allusion to Shakespeare who there rhymes past and waste is a substitute for finding an English word that captures both possibilities of lost and wasted time.

    And for

    Car il y avait autour de Combray deux « côtés » pour les promenades, et si opposés qu’on ne sortait pas en effet de chez nous par la même porte, quand on voulait aller d’un côté ou de l’autre : le côté de Méséglise-la-Vineuse, qu’on appelait aussi le côté de chez Swann parce qu’on passait devant la propriété de M. Swann pour aller par là, et le côté de Guermantes.

    which needs a single English word and which then leads to two of the translation’s volume titles, I believe it was Victor Llona who assured Gallimard that Swann’s Way was, “quite good.”

    The other possible contrast between Swann’s Way and The Guermantes Way is, I imagine, an intentional bonus.

  12. MMcM: “à la manière de Swann”

    This is indeed what Swann’s Way seems to mean.

    It has a double meaning in English, though: it could also be literally ‘Swann’s route, Swann’s habitual walking-path.’ I feel fairly sure that Scott-Moncrieff intended this. [Update: I wrote this before seeing MMcM’s quotation above.] Like the man said, “The way you go isn’t the real way; the names you give it aren’t its real name.”

    Wiktionary says that in Louisiana French manière additionally means ‘sort of, kind of, a little bit’, as in Alle est manière tchaque drette asteur ‘She’s a little drunk right now.’

    And a good (secular) yontif to all!

  13. marie-lucie says

    JC: it could also be literally ‘Swann’s route, Swann’s habitual walking-path.’

    It could be, but it isn’t.

    The paragraph shows that du côté de is not about Swann’s own habits, which are not mentioned at all, but about those of the other inhabitants who choose to go for walks either near his property or away from it, and select their own paths according to those mutually incompatible goals.

  14. Matthew Roth says

    The translation of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter provides a contrasting example. An older translation, which by all accounts is bad, not only in conveying the meaning in good, clear English but conveying the whole text, was replaced by an award-winning translation which reads like English but has the feel of a Nordic language. I do question a few choices about Undset’s religious vocabulary, but sometimes I am not sure who made the mistake. Undset hadn’t yet become Catholic, though she lived in a time where religious practice of Catholics was much closer to that of the Middle Ages. That is to say, one could easily attend services such as are described, and knowledge of Christianity among educated people was still expected. I’m certainly one of the relatively few who have the specialized knowledge to wonder, but it does make one scene in the cathedral of Nidaros more difficult to understand.

  15. ‘Swan-road’ is one of the many Beowulfian kennings for ‘the sea’.

    Unlikely, because you won’t see swans on the sea. Ducks, yes. But your swan is a freshwater bird.

    This is indeed what Swann’s Way seems to mean. But Du côté de chez Swann is closer to Swann’s Neighbourhood.

    “Swann’s Way” could also mean “Swann’s neighbourhood”. It’s common in BrE to say things like “Where does he live?” “I don’t know exactly, but it’s over Fulham way”. As in “somewhere around Fulham”. Or if it’s a person, “yes, there’s a nice park over Alice’s way”. i.e “in the area where Alice lives”.

  16. Unlikely, because you won’t see swans on the sea. Ducks, yes. But your swan is a freshwater bird.

    This may be true of the mute swan, but the wintering sites of the whooper swan are located mostly along sea coasts. The ones that breed in Iceland, for example, spend the winter in the British Isles, so they regularly migrate over more than 1000 km of the open North Atlantic.

  17. marie-lucie says

    Swann’s Way = Swann’s Neighbourhood

    Thanks ajay! So the translator must have been British?

  18. This may be true of the mute swan, but the wintering sites of the whooper swan are located mostly along sea coasts.

    By the sea, and flying over it, yes; but you won’t often see swans _on_ the sea, as in floating on it. I certainly never have.

    marie-lucie: he certainly was.

  19. The kenning swanrād occurs no fewer than four times in the OE corpus (Beowulf, Elene, Andreas, Juliana), every time unambiguously referring to the sea. There are two possibilities:

    First, swanrād may be the poetic recollection of a place where swans are often seen flocking and feeding in a marine habitat (the Kattegat is definitely one of them). This would work nicely for Beowulf‘s geographical setting, but less so for the other poems.

    Secondly, swanrād may be a double (two-level) kenning, as ingeniously proposed by Robert H. Woodward (1954). Woodward notes that just 18 lines later in Beowulf we find the following description:

    flota fāmīheals fugle ġelīcost

    (the foamy-necked floater most like a bird).

    The raised S-shaped prow of a large Germanic seaboat (not necessarily a Viking ship) could certainly suggest a swan’s neck, so the floating, long-necked fugol to which the ship was compared may well have been a swan. Therefore, we have (1) ship = swan, (2) sea = the riding-place of ships = swan-rād.

  20. The second one makes sense – certainly more than the first. As I say, swans (mute and whooper) are fresh-water birds by preference. They’ll rest on seawater if they have to, but only on sheltered water (harbours, estuaries), and they much prefer to feed on land or in shallow fresh water. “Gull-road” or “eider-road” would make sense as kennings for “sea”; “swan-road” not really.
    I suppose the next question is: is “swan” often used as a kenning for “ship”?

  21. On the other hand, a similar metaphor exists elsewhere: the cliche halcyon days refers to summer conditions so calm that kingfishers will settle on the surface of the Mediterranean. In ancient times they were thought to lay their eggs on a floating nest.

  22. Here are some of the things that ships could be called in skaldic poetry:

    (1) skíðum … svanavangs ‘(on) the skis … of the swan-plain’;
    (2) Gautreks svana ‘(of) Gautrek’s swans’ (Gautrekr was a legendary Gautish ruler);
    (3) svana strindar blakkr ‘the steed of the land of swans’;
    (4) hestar svanfjalla ‘horses of swan-mountains’.

    Example (2) shows SHIP = swan.
    Examples (1) and (3) show SEA = the land/plain of swans (= SHIPS).
    Example (4) shows WAVE = swan-mountain.

    Make of it what you will.

    Complex kennings have fractal structure. A ship can be represented figuratively as a swan; then waves are compared to mountains populated by swans (that is, ships); then a ship can be represented again as a horse ridden across such mountains. The skalds loved multi-level metaphors. The more mixed, the lovelier.

  23. Trond Engen says

    Gautrekr was a legendary Gautish ruler

    Or the name may itself have been a kenning.

  24. Well, it means ‘Gaut-ruler’, so there’s nothing figurative about it. It’s a kind of anti-kenning.

  25. January First-of-May says

    A bit off-topic, but I really wanted to ask, and couldn’t quickly find a better place for it: a few days ago, a story was going all over the Russian parts of the internet (and apparently in a few more languages too) about how an Icelandic tourist named Gundermurd Sigurdflordbradsen, who wanted to visit Russia for the 2018 World Cup, was worried about “unpronounceable” Russian names that don’t have enough consonants (such as Moscow, Kazan and Sochi).

    Now, I don’t speak any Icelandic, but “Gundermurd Sigurdflordbradsen” doesn’t sound very Icelandic to me. In fact, I highly suspect that the name was (badly) made up for the joke.

    Any linguistic comments – either on the name or on the story (or both)?
    (Sorry for disturbing the thread…)

  26. It’s a joke, of course. The first name seems inspired by Guðmundur, the patronymic perhaps by Sigurbrandsson (possibly hybridised with anything similar: there’s no shortage of authentic names like Sigurðsson, Sighvatsson, Sigbjörnsson, etc.).

  27. Trond Engen says

    It’s a kind of anti-kenning.

    True. Or at least a very obvious one, a title of sorts.

  28. marie-lucie says

    Gautrekr was a legendary Gautish ruler

    Is Gaut a version of Goth ?

  29. A root-cognate at best (*ɣaut-a- vs. *ɣut-an-). ON Gautar = OE Ġēatas ‘Geats’, the OE name of Beowulf’s North Germanic compatriots. Their home area was southern Sweden (Götaland).

  30. Probably a lineal descendant of Arne Saknussemm.

  31. marie-lucie says

    Piotr: ON Gautar = OE Ġēatas ‘Geats’, the OE name of Beowulf’s North Germanic compatriots

    Thank you! I remember the Geats from Beowulf.

    Would the English names Yeats and Yeatman be from their name?

  32. Probably not. The PGmc *gatan means ‘gate’ (English) or ‘hole, opening’ (Norse) or ‘street’ (German). The Modern English form should have been yeat, except that it mixes Norse phonology with English semantics, like dream which is OE dréam ‘joy’ mixed with draumr ‘dream’. Alternatively Yeats may be a locational surname: ‘someone from a town named Yate/Yeat’.

  33. Bill Gates and William Yeats are cognates.

  34. David Marjanović says

    ‘hole, opening’ (Norse)

    So, do all the street names in -gaden (Danish), -gatan (Swedish) and -katu (Finnish) get their meaning from the Low German influence of the late Middle Ages?

  35. Yes, almost certainly.

  36. According to Kroonen, they are two different derivatives of *ɣet-a-/*ɣit-i- ‘find, get’ < PIE *gʰed- ‘grasp’. The strong neuter *ɣata- yields ON gat, OE ġeat (with a short vowel, ≠ Ġēat), OFri. jet, OS, Du. gat ‘hole’ (OE possibly retains the older meaning of ‘passage, gate’). The weak feminine *ɣat(w)ōn- is reflected in Goth. gatwo ‘street’, ON gata ‘path, way’, MLG gate, OHG gazza ‘lane, alley’.

  37. marie-lucie says

    In England and Normandy many old hedges around fields or meadows are made of living trees and bushes trained to intertwine their branches so as to produce impassable walls. In order to enter the field, there has to be at least one opening, with a moveable barrier or gate. So the same word could be used for ‘hole, opening’ and ‘path, gate’.

  38. The Starchild by Pohl and Williamson is a modern work that uses the swan’s neck as a symbol of transportation. Specifically, certain characters make a swan neck gesture with their hand before teleporting.

  39. Not to mention the “swan ships” in the Song of Ice and Fire universe, and in The Silmarillion:

    And many pearls they won for themselves from the sea, and their halls were of pearl, and of pearl were the mansions of Olwë at Alqualondë, the Haven of the Swans, lit with many lamps. For that was their city, and the haven of their ships; and those were made in the likeness of swans, with beaks of gold and eyes of gold and jet.

    People are somehow more impressed by swans gliding majestically across the water than by whatever ducks, marine or otherwise, do. Wikipedia lists 20 ships of the Royal Navy (since the 15th century) called the Swan and not a single *HMS Duck. There have been 19 Royal Navy ships called the Drake, but the name either commemorates Sir Francis (especially in modern times) or, in a few early cases, may refer to a dragon (rather than a male duck).

  40. Just watch out for Malicious Advice Mallard.

  41. True! — not many of them, but still. It reminds me that OE has another recurring avian kenning for ‘sea’: ganotes bæþ ‘the gannet’s bath (diving-place)’, with the proviso that ganot could probably refer to several different bird species, not exclusively those we call gannets today.

  42. Then there’s Donald H. Mallard, also known as Ducky.

    “What did Ducky look like when he was younger?”

    “Ilya Kuryakin.”

  43. Trond Engen says

    Matthew Roth: The translation of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter

    Sorry, little time so I almost forgot. I know exactly the person who could answer your question, probably better than anyone else. If you would elaborate, either here or in an e-mail, I’ll pass it on.

  44. The PGmc *gatan means ‘gate’ (English) or ‘hole, opening’ (Norse) or ‘street’ (German).

    “Gate” meaning “street” is common in Scots; the Cowgate and Canongate in Edinburgh, the Gallowgate in Glasgow.
    The actual city gates were referred to as “ports”; the West Port, etc.

  45. marie-lucie says

    ajay: All those words have in common the meaning “passage”.

  46. Trond Engen says

    ajay: The actual city gates were referred to as “ports”; the West Port, etc.

    Also shared with Scandinavian, of course. stadsport/byport “city gate”.

    Gate isn’t the only word for street in Scandinavian. In Medieval times strete ~ stræde < Lat. strata vel.sim. used to denote the more important streets, like Bergen’s Øvregaten, which was known as Stretet or more officially as Øvre Langstretet (in the City Law (Bylov) of 1276). The oldest street in my town, Skien, is called Skistredet, although it was reduced from main street to secondary with the new city plan after the fire of 1886.

    marie-lucie: ajay: All those words have in common the meaning “passage”.

    While we think of gate as quintessencially urban, the word is also used in rural Norwegian, in the meaning “driveway or passageway between fences”. While the urban form is invariably gate, the rural forms vary with dialect, e.g. the jamvekt (vowel balance) form gutu f. in much of Eastern Norway, Bjorvand & Lindeman say the relation to gatt “hole” is probable, in which case the nom. gata (instead of gotva) is analogical from gen. götu. But I like the connection to getan- “get, gather”. The verb forms a doublet in the modern language, gjete “herd” and gjette “guess”. A gate could be the fenced way for leading animals into (or out of) an enclosure, easily specialized as either “road between fences” or “gate in fence”.

  47. Trond Engen says


    I meant to add that there are a few streets in Norwegian towns unofficially named Kugata. One of them, not far from my house, cuts obliquely through a rectangular block, a sure sign that it’s a remnant of an older countryside road. Old maps tell me that it was a small road that didn’t really lead anywhere, so my guess is that town cows were led to pasture up here.

  48. gate = street extends to the whole Danelaw not just Scotland.
    York – Micklegate
    Doncaster – Hallgate
    Peterborough – Priestgate

    amongst may others.

  49. town cows were led to pasture up here

    Le nom Suur-Karja tänav signifie rue du grand troupeau, c’est une des plus anciennes rues de Tallinn. Elle servait aux habitants de la ville basse et de Tompeea à conduire le bétail au pâturage par un passage dans les remparts de Tallinn nommé porte du bétail (et) jusqu’à la source du bétail (et). En 1768, le conseil municipal de Tallinn a ordonné aux habitants de conduire leurs animaux par un autre chemin. En 1849, la porte du bétail est démolie.

    Suur Karja

    There’s also Väike-Karja tänav, “small herd street,” in Tallinn

  50. marie-lucie says

    juha: Suur-Karja ‘grand troupeau’, Väike-Karja ‘small herd’.

    Some years ago I worked with a girl whose last name was Karjala. She explained to me that it was a Finnish name, shortened from Karjalainen. I don’t know Finnish but I have seen other names ending in -inen, so I suppose that karjalainen must mean something like ‘herder’. Am I right?

  51. marie-lucie says

    I see that I was so interested in Karja/Karjala/Karjalainen that I failed to pay much attention to the fact that the paragraph was in French, like the Wikipedia notice it came from. And also that Tallinn is in Estonia not Finland. Here is what it says:

    The name Suur-Karja tänav means ‘Large herd street’, it is one of the oldest streets in Tallinn. It was used by the inhabitants of the lower city and of Tompeea to lead the cattle to pasture through a passage within the Tallinn ramparts named ‘cattle gate’ until the cattle well ((I think)). In 1768 the Tallinn city council ordered the inhabitants to lead their animals through another path. In 1849 the cattle gate was torn down.

  52. Not exactly. Karjalainen means “Carelian,” and Karjala, “Carelia.” karja is believed to be a Germanic loan: *χarja-z kari3, meaning “army, host.” “Herder” will be (karja)paimen, or karjane in Estonian.

  53. Tompeea should be Toompea.

  54. Karjaallikas, or Karja-allikas
    “Cattle spring”

  55. “Herder” will be (karja)paimen…

    So half Germanic, half Baltic.

  56. David Marjanović says

    I fixed Toompea and the two missing ß.

  57. Make sure that the person making the request does not confuse du côté de with à côté de ‘next door to’.

    Speaking of which, here’s a somewhat irrelevant but fun clip.

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