Monday, March 1, 2010

Late Night Multilinguisitics

The Good Doctor

Reading: Usages et Rites Alimentaires des Tunisiens (Food Uses and Rites of Tunisiens) by Erneste-Gustave Gobert.

Words that I understand perfectly well in the reading are elusive in translation. Words like palais are slippery when I try to pinch them between linguistic fingers.

When translating I am, in a sense, talking out of Gobert's lips (if I am doing it right, and I hope I can do it right). I hope I do not delete any of his crustiness. I hope that I do not censor any of the institutional cultural chauvinism that was rampant in 1930s colonies. In translating a wonderful passage (read: rant) on the lack of food writing in existing ethnographies, I had the joy of translating these sentences:

"In Bertholon and Chantre (Anthropological Research in the Oriental Berbery, Lyon, 1913) out of 267 pages consecrated to Berber ethnography only 6 pages are reserved for food, of which 2 are on the eating of dogs and 2 are on the eating of earth! Nothing on perfumes."

What a marvelous crispness. What a sparkling outrage.

The only words that are concrete, the only words that pass like stones from one language to the other, are the foods themselves. Most of these I get in three languages.

A'icha is bouillie, is porridge. A stone for a stone for a stone. Farine, sucre, poivrons, tomates, thon, are flour, sugar, peppers, tomatoes, tuna. Prunes are plums, raisins are grapes. Bricks, these words. Reliable.

But then there is poetry, despite my occasional frustration, in the the sly prismatic meaning in most words.

Palais, n. palace, court of justice.

Palais, n. a discerning taste, palate.

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