Ed Erwin's Reviews > Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language

Le Ton beau de Marot by Douglas R. Hofstadter
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Nov 06, 10

bookshelves: linguistics
Read from October 18 to November 01, 2010

Covers many very interesting topics, such as language, translation, and machine learning, yet was really hard to get through because it meanders on too long on each one.

Though I skimmed some chapters, I'm glad I pushed all the way through, because it led me to a realization. He had the same realization, so I'll quote: "It was my own love for elegant structure that attracted me to poetry ... and yet ironically, for decades I considered myself to be ... a non-lover of poetry, someone baffled and mystified by poetry.... I have finally arrived at a different conclusion, however: that I am a lover of poetry, that there is much bad poetry in the world, that much of it is nonetheless highly touted, and that my not being able to relate to highly-touted bad stuff cowed me into thinking I was a philistine."

Since I started this book mainly because I was interested in the topic of translation, I was surprised to come away with such a renewed interest in poetry.

I won't take any shots at anyone who enjoys free verse. But for me, as for Hofstadter, what makes poetry interesting is being able to actually hear the effects of the constraints of rhyme and rhythm and syllable counts while still being able to easily understand the literal meaning of the text. The words shouldn't be too obscure and the syntax can't be twisted and distorted very far just to fit the rhyme. It is hard work to write poetry that works that way. Yet when it succeeds, it looks so easy in comparison to the serious poetry, that the achievement is too often overlooked.

Maybe this is the mathematician/scientist/programmer in me that loves clear structure. But that is who I am and it colors what I like in music and art as well. Our way of looking at things is different from, say, the composers of the romantic era or poets of free verse, but just as valid. Just as minimalism has brought back audible patterns to serious music, I hope for a re-birth of audible patterns in serious poetry.

What was most illuminating were the many side-by-side excerpts from four different translations of Eugene Onegin into English. They were presented first without naming the translators and without saying which were the ones most highly praised. Just like the author, I came to find that only one of them really worked. It had the right rhythm and rhyme and most importantly was clearly understandable. It turns out to be the translation by James Falen, and that is surely the one I will read if I ever decide to tackle Onegin.

A serious bit of editing could have improved this book. The author admits to adding and subtracting text for the sole purpose of making page boundaries line-up the way he wants, and I suspect that is part of what makes this book such a slog; he will insert superfluous text here and there just to push the chapter-break down half a page. I have myself when using LaTeX given-in to the temptation to play such games with the text. But just as following the constraints of sonnet form, for example, can force some to twist their language out of shape, these constraints forced the author to pad sections that would have been better without it.
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