greg'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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Douglas Hofstadter wrote a full length (and then some!) book related to the topic of poetry translation: Le Ton Beau De Marot: In praise of the music of Language. I am only about half way through this long volume, but over and over run across observations or declarations that I find fascinating. This is a volume that is nearly as massive in its conception as Goedel, Escher Bach, written much later in his life, incorporating more mature and collectively honed ideas about language, formal media, translation, the hopelessness of machine translation, and grief, all built around a 500 year-old piece of short French verse and dozens of diverse translations. Knowing French better than I would be a bonus. He quotes and comments on verse written in a language distinguished from English by completely avoiding the vowel "e" (which he calls Anglo-Saxon), or a language differing from Italian by excluding all the words that contain consonants other than L and
T. (in which a short version of "Lolita" has been written in verse). Can you translate such a poem into or out of such a language? Is the "meaning" dependent on the form? How lame would a Google translation be, oblivious to the formal elements of the original language? Some people will find it tedious, but I think you will find delightful passages often enough to carry you through the slow bits. I am finding it so.


Have you ever come across this odd poem?
Read it and see if you can figure out what makes it
seem a bit awkward, besides its irregular meter:

Washington Crossing the Delaware

A hard, howling, tossing water scene.
Strong tide was washing hero clean.
"How cold!" Weather stings as in anger.
O Silent night shows war ace danger!

The cold waters swashing on in rage.
Redcoats warn slow his hint engage.
When star general's action wish'd "Go!"
He saw his ragged continentals row.

Ah, he stands - sailor crew went going.
And so this general watches rowing.
He hastens - winter again grows cold.
A wet crew gain Hessian stronghold.

George can't lose war with's hands in;
He's astern - so go alight, crew, and win!

David Shulman, 1936

This poem was is one of the ones quoted in this Hofstadter book, and it's one that would be hard to imagine translating faithfully into another language, since in addition to whatever the content is or appears to be, and the standard sonnet rhyme scheme, you might have noticed that each line is an anagram of the poem's title. Remarkable.

Proceeding slowly through the book, I've read through an annoying patch with a particularly hearty and personal attack on Nabokov, in part accusing him of hearty and personal attacks on his critics regarding poetry translation. And a boring chapter or two of repetitive and less than inspired digressions, but then I find some treasures later on. Ah, well. The work of a brilliant and successful academic, proud and accomplished enough to rebuff the stern editor this book so badly needed. He even remarks that once one has established a reputation as a fine writer, one can often get away with publishing drivel later, although I'm not sure he intended that to be self-
referential.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
June 1, 2011 – Finished Reading
July 26, 2012 – Shelved

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