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Don't You Understand English?

Writing about Jane Austen in a recent Language Lounge article, Orin Hargraves suggests that a "Whorfian view" of Austen's language may be appropriate. He's referring to an assertion, frequently questioned, by the linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) that some concepts statable in one language simply cannot be expressed in another because the necessary vocabulary or grammatical forms are lacking. Or, more globally, that some languages "see" the world in a particular way, one that has no equivalent in another language or culture.

Because there are so many nuances to both language and culture, arguments on this point frequently founder on the definition of terms, the relevance of examples, and background issues like whether the languages in question are fixed in time or able to assimilate concepts and vocabulary from each other, as English at one time or another imported the terms (and notions) naïve, blasé, nonchalant.

The general point, however, is well taken — that it is a challenge to find contemporary equivalents for the ideas and ways of seeing encapsulated in the novels of Jane Austen, written some two hundred years ago. At least three elements are in play: vocabulary, culture, and the idiom of the time and place in which the fiction is set. Even when we come to a period nearer our own we can see a striking difference, both linguistic and cultural, between the idiomatic speech of Englishmen and that of Americans. The challenge, if we choose to pose and accept it, is to translate one into the other.

Here's a nice example. Elizabeth Taylor — not the American actress but the English author — has a short story called "The Letter-Writers." It concerns a solitary woman, articulate and observant, who has for years carried on a correspondence with a well-known author, whom she has never met. One day he is in town and comes to visit her. As they are talking — it's their first-ever face-to-face conversation — a neighbor drops in. She's an intrusive busybody, and her unwilling hostess can't think how to get rid of her. Finally the visiting author has an idea: he launches into an anecdote sufficiently shocking that the prudish visitor, embarrassed and befuddled, makes her excuses and leaves.

Here is the anecdote:

"Did I tell you that cousin Joseph had a nasty accident? Out bicycling. Both of them, you know. Such a deprivation. No heir, either. But Constance very soon consoled herself. With one of the Army padres out there. They were discovered by Joseph's batman in the most unusual circumstances. The Orient's insidious influence, I suppose. So strangely exotic for Constance, though. . . .

"Cousin Constance's Thousand and One Nights. The padre had courage. Like engaging with a boa constrictor, I'd have thought."

Nothing in this passage is mysterious to American readers (assuming they know that a batman is a personal servant in the British army), but yet the entire passage feels very English. Why? Perhaps we'll understand if we try to turn it into something a contemporary American author might have said. Here's my first cut:

"Did you hear about cousin Joe's accident? Bad one. They were out biking. Both of them, you understand. Big loss for Connie — no kids, no will. But it seems she found some comfort pretty soon. One of the Army padres over there. Apparently Joe's second lieutenant walked in on them. The mysterious East and all that, I guess. Who knew that Connie's tastes ran to the exotic? . . .

"Cousin Connie's Thousand and One Nights — ha! That padre must've had balls. I imagine it was like wrestling with a boa constrictor."

If an American's speaking, he's going to use short forms for names, and he won't say "nasty accident," but he could keep the ambiguous "both of them." He may still talk of an Army padre, but "batman" has to go. And "most unusual circumstances" is arch in a British way, while the same idea is conveyed by "walked in on them." We don't say "the Orient" anymore, but we can still make a nod to the mysteries of the East without being too specific. "Exotic" in both English and American vernacular has connotations not too far from "erotic" but also suggestive of deviance. And "courage" isn't an exclusively English virtue, but an American male would likely pick an earthier word, especially when trying to scare off an unwanted visitor.

Readers of these passages will quickly spot other places where perfectly understandable English locutions were changed to make them comfortable in an American mouth. (For example, "I'd have thought" at the end of a sentence is a telltale Briticism.) English readers, on the other hand, may amuse themselves by trying to turn quintessentially American speech into their native idiom. Here's a passage from Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, in which a fellow named Brown is talking of a hardened soldier named Croft:

"Quite a guy! Listen, he's made of iron. He's the one man I'd never cross. He's probably the best platoon sergeant in the Army and the meanest. He just doesn't have any nerves. . . . Out of all the old guys in recon, there ain't one of us whose nerves ain't shot. I tell ya, I'm scared all the time, and Red is too. And Gallagher, he's only been with us six months but he was in on the rubber boat deal and he counts too I suppose, he's scared, and Martinez is the best little scout you could ever want but he's even more scared than I am, and even Wilson although he don't let on much is none too happy. But Croft — I tell you Croft loves combat, he loves it. There ain't a worse man you could be under or a better one, depending on how you look at it."

Can that passage be translated into English English? Or is tone too intimately wrapped up with idiom? The only way to be sure is to try your hand at it — or as the English say, have a go.


Jan Schreiber is a poet, critic, and translator. Over a varied career as an editor, social scientist, software entrepreneur, and literary scholar he has written frequently on American poets and the problems of understanding and evaluating modern poetry. His latest book, Sparring with the Sun: Poets and the Ways We Think about Poetry in the Late Days of Modernism, is being published this spring.


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Friday July 31st 2015, 8:42 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Jan--this is brilliant. And I hope it turns a few readers on to Elizabeth Taylor, who deserves more renown than she gets.

The origin of the Austen piece I wrote was a question from a student in a writing class: did I think students should still read English literature from earlier centuries when it was often so challenging to understand? The answer I gave him in class was an emphatic "yes!", because of the richness of experience and insight available in return for the effort. I tried to flesh that out a bit in the VT piece.

You pose an interesting question about the Norman Mailer passage. I'm not going to attempt to Briticize it, but my gut is that it would lose nearly everything of value in translation!
Friday July 31st 2015, 9:23 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Brilliant indeed, with perfect examples! Thank you!
Saturday August 1st 2015, 10:26 AM
Comment by: The Dormouse Awakes (Austin, TX)
Insightful and entertaining - thank you!

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