You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Le Ton Beau De Marot

Douglas R. Hofstadter's Le Ton Beau De Marot is an exploration of the nature and relationship of different languages and their translation. Hofstadter is a great student of languages, being fluent in French and having studied Italian, German, Polish, and others. In this book he looks at the art of translation from different angles.

The book revolves around different translations of Clément Marot's poem "A une Da-moyselle malade". The author sent out a request for people to translate the poem into English, and he got a lot of varied responses. Some people tried to imitate the tone of the original, but others created translations in different styles. One of the central choices is whether to imitate the original's elements: three syllables per line, twenty-eight lines, rhyming couples, with the semantic lines out of sync with the rhyming. The core question is: how much of a translation can each poem be if it does not include these elements? When does it become a poem "inspired by" the original?

This is tied to Hofstadter's concept of "media". A translation between different languages is considered more complete if it carries the same media as the original--the same style, meter, rhyming scheme. How much of the poem (or novel or story) is in the semantics, and how much is in the form? It's also possible to translate a work into a different media in the same language.

Does the English word "door" mean the same as the French word "porte"? They have the same definition but different connotations. How is it possible to translate Dante's Divine Comedy? The poem has a unique rhyming scheme that is difficult to translate outside of Italian. Different translators have chosen different paths, with various success.

One of the points is how different languages translate things like people's names and place names. The explorer we know as Christopher Columbus is properly known as Cristoforo Colombo. Yet we don't think of Johann Sebastian Bach instead of John Sebastian Bach. When a work is translated, is the culture also translated with it? Hofstadter complains about reading a work translated from Chinese into English with modern English colloquialisms. Usually when we read a work from another language we want to get a feel for the original culture as well as the original language. Hofstadter makes an exception for his own book, Godel, Escher, Bach, since the intention of many of the passages is to illustrate an abstract point, not express a particular scene.

I was fascinated by the different takes on translation he comes up with. He discusses the translation of a work without e's from French into English. He makes a good case that the translation would be imperfect if it did not respect the constraints of the original. What would be the point? Sometimes, semantics is tied to form, especially in specialized forms like poetry. Palindromes are so much a part of their language that they are impossible to translate with the full meaning. Hofstadter comes down squarely on the side of form, and it's hard to disagree with him.

I enjoyed the linguistic wordplay throughout the book. The text is full of examples of works that are difficult or impossible to translate. He also manages to illustrate how a work is tied to its culture, which must be taken into account for any translation. There are many dimensions to language and translations. For me, as a lover of language, it is a great book. Others might find parts of it tedious, but for me it was a lot of fun. A


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