The irreplaceable AJP sent me a link to Joanna Biggs’s LRB blog post about the live translation event coming up in a couple of weeks at the British Museum. I’m sorry I won’t be able to attend; it sounds like a lot of fun:

The translation, of a short story in French, is done in advance by two translators: the ‘live’ bit comes into play when each of them reveals their version sentence by sentence to the audience, the other translator and the novelist, for discussion and disagreement. The idea is that the sort of close reading you need to do to translate well will bring out aspects of the text that are rarely paid attention to.
The challenge has been set by Alain Mabanckou – born in the Republic of Congo, educated in Paris, now based in LA – who has offered up a very short story about someone getting conned into buying an ill-fitting suit. He’s not much known here, but in France Mabanckou’s style, which loosens corseted French sentences with jokes, puns, slang and references to Albert Cohen’s Belle du Seigneur as well as Tati, the thrift shop in Barbès (‘les plus bas prix!’), has made him one of the most interesting, unpredictable and prize-laden contemporary French novelists. Sarah Ardizzone and Frank Wynne will be the ones perched on the sofa on 19 June, offering sentences that will be new to everyone apart from the chair, Daniel Hahn. The audience will have hand-outs of the French version and the two English versions as well as the panel to talk about ways of getting ‘Walaïïï, camarade!’ or the slightly baffling idiom ‘se mettre sur son trente-et-un’ into English. And there won’t be an exam at the end of it.

I don’t suppose anyone has any context for “Walaïïï”?


  1. marie-lucie says

    Sounds like great fun!
    Tati is not a “thrift shop” like those run by the Salvation Army or other charities, but a very cheap clothing chain. Se mettre sur son trente-et-un means “to put on one’s Sunday best” or just “to get dressed up”.

  2. Ha ! That’s one I knew. And 32 is a comparative form of 31, and 36 also has a special sense. (OK, OK, I only just now found them in the Petit Robert …)

  3. And 4 is the accusative case of 86, and when we add a causative suffix to 112, we get 1122.

  4. 32 is a comparative form of 31
    The joke becomes evident upon consultation of the source I cited, Le Petit Robert:

    Loc. (1867) Être (ou se mettre) sur son trente(-)et(-)un (ou vx sur son trente-deux, trente-six) : avoir, mettre ses plus beaux habits. « Des soldats sur leur trente et un » (Dorgelès). « vous mettrez des bottines vernies !… mais vous aurez l’air d’un étudiant sur son trente-deux ! » (Edmond) Goncourt

  5. michael farris says

    “bring useful information to share knowledge lovely thank you very kind to it”
    Now how would this be translated into French?

  6. “Dressed to the nines” is one equivalent. I can’t find a convincing explanation of that one, unlike trente-et-un, though m-l might be interested that some people think it’s related to “the whole nine yards” (not very likely, I’d say).

  7. All you will see is a girl you once knew
    Although she’s dressed up to the nines
    At sixes and sevens with you

  8. I’m more familiar with it spelled walaHi – which these days, I suppose, translates as “Yes!”.

  9. The Tresor de la Langue Francaise Informatisee speculates on the origin of the phrase. A nice one refers to months of 31 days and a saying “trente et un, jour sans pain, misere en Prussie” – “thirty-one, breadless day, misery in Prussia” – alluding to the fact that the [French] troops stationed there only exceptionally got rations for the 31st day of the month. The expression “trente-et-un” was thus as allusion to exceptional festivies linked to that day, it suggests.
    Another idea, it says, is that trente-et-un is the alternative to “trentain”, which described as sort of finely woven sheet [it actually says “dont la chaine etait composee de trente centaines de fils”, technical weaving terms apparently which I don’t quite understand].
    It says this hypothesis is supported by – [come in, Marie-Lucie!] – the Quebecois expression “se mettre sur son tente six” which Cl. Duneton in La Puce a l’Oreille interprets as “endosser un habit neud” (putting on a new outfit) because trente six pouces (36 inches) corresponds at the French expression “en quatre-vingt dix de large” (90 wide) in the metric system.
    So the Tresor doesn’t really know, either ….

  10. The French Wiktionaire says
    Attention : l’expression n’a rien à voir avec la Saint-Sylvestre ou le 31 du mois, supposé jour de paie.
    but they don’t say why they’re so sure about it.

  11. Ah-jee-pay: I think the answer is nobody knows. But it agrees with the Tresor’s “trentain” theory, (and the wording is identical to that of the Tresor, presumably picked up from that.)

  12. The irreplaceable AJP
    I only just saw that. Crown, you know it’s not good business practice to make yourself irreplaceable. Look at the anxiety and chaos that always threaten when old age leads to questions such as: “Who will succeed Stalin” ?
    Me, I’m going for “irrepressible”. Hope springs eternal in the human jest.

  13. I’m more familiar with it spelled walaHi
    *slaps self*
    I guess I’m more spelling-focused than I would have thought; that really should have occurred to me. Thanks, MMcM and Paul!

  14. Yeah, if AJP’s irreplacable the just makes him the target of malign forces. The poor bastard.

  15. No one mistakes me for Stalin. I’m more of a Talleyrand. I am the target of malign forces. They hide the dog’s lead, usually in the bathroom, but sometimes not.

  16. I’ve been mistaken for Lenin, but that was in a New York City subway station, where one expects such things.

  17. I’ve been mistaken for Trotsky, though not since I got new glasses.

  18. Bathrobe says

    This event is rather mind-boggling. I don’t know why I didn’t think of the idea myself.
    With its focus on literature, it will attract all kinds of people with an intellectual, arty, or creative bent who are fascinated by the art or craft of good writing and storytelling.
    With its competitive setting, it will provide a great spectacle for people who love the thrill of seeing great masters pitted against each other (a bit like gladiators or fighting cocks).
    And with its focus on the nuts and bolts of translation, it will make people to take a close look at the mineface of interlinguistic communication, an are that most people (outside of Languagehat) would normally turn away from as difficult or boring.
    This live event could only have been thought up by a genius!

  19. Now I realise who that top lemur you had up the other day reminds me of, John. It’s Stalin. (The one on the right is Groucho Marx and the one on the left is Proust.)

  20. marie-lucie says

    Paul: Another idea, it says, is that trente-et-un is the alternative to “trentain”, which described as sort of finely woven sheet
    This is what I have always heard. “Sheet” here is misleading – it was not a cloth for bedsheets but probably for men’s suits.
    [it actually says “dont la chaine était composée de trente centaines de fils”, technical weaving terms apparently which I don’t quite understand].
    “… the warp [= lengthwise threads] was composed of thirty hundreds of threads”.
    It does not say what width this cloth was, but probably wider than the 36 inches which may be behind the Québécois “trente-six”. (Nowadays, only cheap cottons are woven in 36-inch widths). The weft (= crosswise threads) was probably invisible under the very closely placed warp threads, resulting in a very smooth, shiny appearance of the “trentain”.
    From French Wikipedia about trente-et-un
    Un élément de l’expression “se mettre sur son trente-et-un”, qui signifie “s’habiller très élégamment” et vient sans doute du mot “trentain” qui désignait un tissu de grand luxe.
    The expression does not refer to dressing elegantly as a rule but to wearing one’s best clothes for a special occasion.

  21. The expression does not refer to dressing elegantly as a rule but to wearing one’s best clothes for a special occasion.
    Like “dressed to the nines”.
    To illustrate my point, I’ve put John’s lemurs up at my blog.

  22. (My other point, about the lemurs).

  23. marie-lucie says

    Back to “trentain”, which described as sort of finely woven sheet ,,,
    I see where the problem is, with “sheet”. In French le drap (pronounced “dra”) meant originally a type of woollen cloth (a meaning is still has), then a large piece of cloth such as a blanket or (in the most common modern meaning) a bed sheet (drap de lit, but there is also drap de bain ‘bath sheet’, ie a large towel, or drap de plage ‘large beach towel’). Le drapeau ‘flag’ is a smaller piece of cloth. The “trentain” was a type of drap with the first meaning.

  24. Trond Engen says

    There’s no point that wouldn’t profit from being illustrated with lemurs.

  25. Bathrobe says

    The sounds that lemurs make. And someone’s video of the lemur mating call.

  26. Bathrobe says
  27. والله
    Yes, I thought of that immediately. The bedouins use it as a standalone word to mean “really?”, but I was told that this was not a good thing to say in public as some pious individuals–and there were some about with explosives at that time–might interpret it as taking the name of the Lord in vain. We have something in English we pronounce “vua LAH” that sounds almost like this, and it was a big joke in our Arabic class. Maybe it’s meant to be French voila. It’s what the magician says when pulling the rabbit out of the hat.
    “Wallahee”, is used more to punctuate conversation, meaning something like “I swear” or “it’s true”–a Christian friend of mine used to say it all the time.

  28. Very interesting idea indeed.
    There are two great points that are likely to emerge in such an event.
    Firstly, in a situation like that, there will surely be an emphasis on the “close reading you need to do to translate well” and how it “will bring out aspects of the text that are rarely paid attention to”. In my experience, authors have been often taken by surprise by questions that I asked as a concerned translator, exactly because, after going over the text six or seven times, I was very deeply involved in it.
    Secondly, that despite what most people think, there is rarely right or wrong in translation, and as long as solutions are “correct”, different translators will have different solutions and very valid arguments to justify both.
    Hopefully this might be a new trend. Wouldn’t it be great?

  29. Walaïïï, camarade
    This is certainly a far-fetched wild guess, but – what about “валяй, товарищ!” = “go for it, comrade”? It has only occurred to me because “camarade” in French, coupled with a non-French word, could suggest a political context that makes some reference to Russian fairly likely…

  30. marie-lucie says

    In French, camarade can be both masculine and feminine, and usually refers to classmates in school (camarades de classe) or fellow military draftees (), or it can suggest a political context. Children or conscripts would never address each other as camarade!, so as maxim says, the use of the word as a term of address suggests a cetain kind of political context (factory workers, miners, trade unionists, etc). But that does not mean it suggests Russia or Russians, unless the context of the quote makes that clear.

  31. marie-lucie says

    Sorry about “{}”, which should read:camarades de régiment.

  32. But that does not mean it suggests Russia or Russians, unless the context of the quote makes that clear.
    I only thought Russian to be a little more likely when “camarade” is used as an address (political context) and, at that, used together with a foreign word, suggesting a non-French context (so it was likely not about camaraderie); this was my justification for even thinking it might have been Russian “валяй”; then again, why would one even need a justification for a wild guess? 🙂

  33. Has “товарищ” disappeared as a term of address in Russia? What has replaced it?

  34. marie-lucie says

    maxim, I have my share of wild guesses too.
    What does “валяй” mean?

  35. Literally ‘drag, roll,’ but colloquially, in the imperative, ‘Go ahead! Go on!’ There is no chance that it is the original of “Walaïïï,” but speculation is always fun.

  36. Has “товарищ” disappeared as a term of address in Russia?
    To my (very imperfect) knowledge, it is now confined to the circles of communist die-hards; it was also still in use in the Army last time I have heard.
    As for the replacement, the need for one is surprisingly limited, because, even in the Soviet era, most people tried to avoid formal addresses in all but the most official conversations; e.g. students would often call a teacher, or the employees would call their superiors, by the superior’s full name (first name plus patronymic, considered more respectful) as means of avoiding the official forms of address. When something else is used, it is most often the old “господин” (roughly – mister/master); the other old forms – e.g. “сударь” – are only used in jest to my knowledge.

  37. Maxim, thanks. There’s no way of knowing that from the Wiktionary entry.

  38. David Eddyshaw says

    The archetypal Spanish interjection “Olé” is also from this, according to Chambers Dictionary.

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