s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: Books: Le Ton Beau de Marot

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Books: Le Ton Beau de Marot

Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, by Douglas Hofstadter, is one of my favorite books of all time. Like many of my favorite books, it's hard to pin down exactly what it's about.

Its Library of Congress Subject Heading is "Translating and interpreting" which seems like a reasonable place to start. More generally, it's about why and how translators — especially poetry translators — make the choices they do.

Robert Frost once said "Poetry is what gets lost in translation." Hofstadter's book might well be considered a tome-length refutation of that statement. Of course you can't convey the exact same sentiments in the exact same way, but isn't making an attempt better than leaving us ignorant of the world's poetry because we lack a native comprehension of all languages? And given the three main aspects of poetry — literal meaning, figurative connotation, and poetic meter — how best to balance them to convey as much of the original as possible?

As a sample text, Hofstadter takes the poem "A une damoyselle malade," by Clément Marot and challenges various people to translate it into English. (This is the same Marot who's mentioned in the title which means, roughly, "The beautiful tone of Marot.") It's a very simple poem, written to a friend's sick daughter to say he hopes she feels better soon. However, it has a very tight rhyming structure and each line is only three syllables long, so it's a challenge to produce any poem under those constraints, let alone one which is a good translation of Marot's original.

The translations that Hofstadter presents play with aspects of this poem in different ways. Some preserve the form perfectly, while changing the meaning quite a bit. Some preserve the meaning of the poem, while loosening up the structure quite a bit. One poet even changes the structure and genre entirely, keeping nothing but the general intent.

Hofstadter also examines other highly structured literary classics, such as Dante's Divine Comedy, and Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (a novel composed entirely in sonnets). There are also some lighthearted moments where Hofstadter wonders why it is that the Germans in American WWII movies speak to each other in English with a German accent. Wouldn't they speak to each other in (accentless) German? So why not have them speak in perfect English? Or in German, with subtitles? He also has some funny stories to tell about arguing with the translators of an earlier book of his, the Pullizer-prize winning Gödel, Escher, Bach. (He's always encouraging the translators to use local, natural-sounding phrases, while they insist on preserving the American English idioms of the original.)

In addition to the linguistic juggling, both serious and lighthearted, there is an undercurrent of profound grief which runs through this book. Hofstadter's wife, Carol, died suddenly of a brain tumor between the first and final drafts. As one reads the book, she flits back and forth between life and death, alive on one page as she contributes her own translation of "A une damoyselle malade," then dead on the next one as Hofstadter muses on their shared life and love of language at her funeral. It's no exaggeration to say that this book made me cry.


At October 15, 2008 9:10 PM, Blogger Logan said...

I'm currently in the middle of Gödel, Escher, Bach, and I don't immediately recall any other book that challenges my mind as it does, without being simply beyond my educational level.

At October 16, 2008 12:13 PM, Blogger Th. said...


In a similar vein (and apropos of your last post), Hitchcock hated subtitling. He insisted that his films be dubebd.

At October 17, 2008 12:00 AM, Blogger Ginsberg said...

I must say that reading translations of my favorite Spanish-language poets (Lorca, Neruda, Gustavo Adolfo Becquer)is pretty disappointing sometimes. It just isn't as good. That being said, I'm grateful for and enjoy translations of Dante, Homer and Beowulf but I don't think epic depends quite as heavily on meter, rhythm and rhyme. I also like English translations of Japanese Haiku and Chinese poems (see Ezra Pound's translation "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter"), which probably are much more dependant on those things. Also, on the prose side of things, I'm extremely grateful Constance Garnett's translation of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamozov, even if it doesn't capture the original Russian and even if it is inferior to the new Volokhonsky translation as Petra claims. Magic and genius through an imperfect lens are still magic and genius.

At October 17, 2008 1:25 PM, Blogger Katya said...

logan - Agreed. Of all the books I've read by choice and actually finished, GEB is still the hardest, although Women, Fire and Dangerous Things is in the same league. Le Ton Beau de Marot isn't nearly as challenging, but it's still a fun and interesting read.

th. - Interesting. I'm usually a big fan of subtitles over dubbing, but I often watch foreign movies where I can understand the original language, at least a bit, so I wouldn't want to miss out on that.

ginsberg - Heh. Well, you should hear Melyngoch roundly critique Beowulf in translation, some time.

At October 17, 2008 9:02 PM, Blogger ambrosia ananas said...

This is sitting on my shelf waiting to be read. I confess, I'm dreading it. I'm glad to a positive review.

At October 18, 2008 12:12 PM, Blogger Katya said...

brozy - See, this is why I don't buy unread books that often. If I check them out from the library and don't finish them, they just go back when they're due, and they don't stick around and taunt me with their unread-ness. ;) (Of course, my checkout privileges are sort of amazing — I've had one unread book checked out for 16 months, now — so it can sort of defeat that advantage.)

At October 22, 2008 2:02 AM, Blogger Th. said...


I prefer subtitles in live action, but not in animation. I'm not sure why, though I can theorize.

At October 22, 2008 10:04 AM, Blogger Katya said...

Well, I figure that animation has already been dubbed once in production, so I don't mind if it's dubbed twice. ;)

At October 28, 2008 12:51 AM, Blogger Lady Steed said...


But really, that's happened with live stuff too---most dialogue is redubbed.

Maybe it's because most foreign animation I watch is Japanese and the American translations worry more about matching mouth movements than the originals did?


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