Thursday, January 24, 2008

Journalism in France and America

Today I was reading the news when I came across two articles on the same subject, one from The New York Times and one from Le Monde. After glancing over each one, it occurred to me that the syntax of the French article seemed more complex than the English article’s; although it’s difficult to take into account the difference between the languages when making such a judgment. I decided to compare their first sentences:

PARIS — Société Générale, one of the largest banks in Europe, was thrown into turmoil Thursday after it disclosed that a rogue employee executed a series of “elaborate, fictitious transactions” that cost the bank more than $7 billion, the biggest loss ever recorded by a single trader.

La Société générale, l'un des piliers du système bancaire français, l'une des références mondiales de la finance, a créé la stupeur, jeudi 24 janvier, en annonçant la mise au jour d'une fraude massive portant sur 40 à 50 milliards d'euros de positions accumulées, commise à l'insu de ses dirigeants dans la salle de marchés de l'établissement financier, et qui a coûté à la banque autour de 4,9 milliards d'euros.

First, the French sentence is longer, containing 69 words to the English sentence’s 46. But the English article is longer overall, at 1219 words to the French article’s 799. Second, the English article contains 27.7 words per sentence; the French article contains 21.89. Thus considering statistics only—which is superficial—the English article appears to be more complex, if overall length and words per sentence are the sole criteria.

But of course these are not the sole criteria. Analyzing the syntax of the sentences reveals that the English sentence is less complex than the French. In fact, it contains two phrases and two subordinate clauses; only two of these are separated by commas from the independent clause. The French sentence, on the other hand, contains four phrases and one subordinate clause, all of these being separated by commas. In other words, the French sentence, while not difficult on an absolute scale, is structurally harder relative to the English sentence.

Now, enough with syntactical analysis. Are the ideas in the French sentence any more difficult than those in the English? Perhaps. Note that the English sentence contains no figurative language; the French sentence, on the other hand, contains the phrase “l'un des piliers du système bancaire français”—literally, “one of the pillars of the French banking system.”

Moving on, we find that the English article contains only one paragraph of more than two sentences. Most of its paragraphs contain one sentence. The French article contains four paragraphs of more than two sentences (and the entire article is about four hundred words shorter than the English one). In general, then (insofar as we may judge from these two articles) the French journalists seem to prefer longer paragraphs and more complex imagery than American journalists. I think that may say something about the American educational system; at the least it indicates that average American newspaper readers are less inclined than their French counterparts to put up with sentences that demand much of anything from their intellects. Unfortunately, of course, these observations are on shaky ground, being drawn from only two articles. A better study would track articles on the same subject in various newspapers over a period of several months, calculating things such as their readability statistics, their syntax, and their use of rhetorical devices.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Review of Pevear and Volokhonsky's Translation of War and Peace

Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Knopf, 2007.

There is a mass of conflicting opinion on Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation of War and Peace, which appears to center primarily on two issues: the English style, which is less than eminently literary, and the retention of Tolstoy’s French in the text with footnoted translations. Before dealing with them, however, I’ll briefly describe the edition.

It’s a big book, at xviii + 1273 pp., and tastefully presented. It includes a useful introduction by Pevear (which should be read before criticizing the translation), an appendix containing Tolstoy’s 1868 essay “A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace,” endnotes, an “Historical Index,” and a plot summary. The endnotes are denoted by superscript numerals in the text, the footnotes by the usual sequence of asterisk, dagger, etc. I found the endnotes very useful: they elucidate the obscure details of the period, often mentioned by Tolstoy, which only a specialist would know. Unfortunately, I noticed several typos, probably ten or more; and suprisingly for Knopf, the “and” in “War and Peace” is capitalized in both places on the dust jacket, yet not on the spine. I hope the dust jacket has been corrected in future printings. Although these minor details didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story, they did detract from the pleasure I was expecting in owning a well-produced copy of a great book.

Now for the contentious issues. The first I am not qualified to judge because I know no Russian. I first read War and Peace in the Maudes’ version – I have never read Garnett or Briggs – and fell in love with it. From what I remember, it seemed more literary and I believe it did read more smoothly than P and V, which often breaks the rules of good English style (and pains my ear). But if some reviewers are right that it echoes the Russian, then I’d rather read a sometimes awkward but faithful English version than a polished but misleading one. There is a fine line, however, between faithfulness and bad style – I’m reminded of the old dictum that, when translating from Latin to English, if one language must yield to the other, Latin should yield to English; and when translating from English to Latin, if one language must yield, English should yield to Latin. Of course, unless I learn Russian, I’ll never know whether P and V transgressed this rule.

As for retaining Tolstoy’s French – remember that Tolstoy interspersed Russian with bits of French for a reason, and that P and V are merely following the practice of all the Russian editions by printing the French as Tolstoy wrote it and footnoting translations. It’s interesting that apparently Tolstoy faced the same criticism when the book was published that P and V face today: it’s pedantic, it’s clumsy, it’s a pain to glance back and forth from the text to the footnote, etc.; and in a way it is. (He defends himself on p. 1218 of P and V’s edition in “A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace.”) But to translate all Tolstoy’s French along with the Russian into English, without alerting the reader in any way, is to ruin what Tolstoy was trying to accomplish by showing the Russian nobility’s dependence on a foreign tongue. Princess Marya’s friend Julie, for example, a Russian (but significantly called only by a French name), doesn’t even know how to say “un peu amoureux” in her native language. I think the clumsiness of the footnotes is worth it, because it preserves Tolstoy’s intentions – the English editions which translate War and Peace as if the whole book were in one language lose an essential dimension of the work – but I admit that for those who don’t read French, the footnotes are a pain. Of course, for those who do read French, it’s great fun: I especially enjoyed being exposed to new idiomatic usage.

All in all, I think the prospective reader of War and Peace who doesn’t know French should probably read it first in the Maudes’ version (not Garnett or Briggs), to avoid being excessively frustrated by the footnotes, and only then move on to P and V.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Recent Acquisitions

Here’s a list of books I’ve gotten in the past few weeks, some for Christmas, some just because I wanted them.

Comrie, Bernard, ed. The World’s Major Languages. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991.
One of the best single-volume reference works out there about language families; I’ve wanted it since I first discovered its existence as I was browsing the stacks of Southeastern University’s library back in 2006. I’m looking forward to browsing through the various articles, especially those on the Semitic, Slavic, and Germanic languages – and already I’ve learned about the process by which the Latin habeo became Spanish haber, and the difference between haber and tener, something which I’ve been curious about for a long time. Unfortunately, I can’t get much information from the sections on phonology because I know so little about linguistics. My copy was poorly bound – at least one page has already separated – so it’s going back to Amazon for a replacement.

Gaardner, Jostein. Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy. Trans. Paulette Moller. New York: Farrar, 1994.
Sophie’s World purports to be a children’s story, but so far the story seems merely to be a nail on which to hang what seems to be the author’s main concern: brief descriptions of the systems of various philosophers. The descriptions are clear, certainly (though I fear they oversimplify), but for a book with “Novel” in the subtitle, I would have expected better plot and characterization. Also, Gaardner exhibits what Lewis called “chronological snobbery” in his description of the pre-Socratics, assuming that finding naturalistic explanations of events is superior to mythological explanations. This view is problematic, however, because it fails to distinguish between efficient cause and final cause: we can explain the “how” of natural events (efficient cause), without eliminating the need to explain the “why” (final cause), for which mythological explanations are certainly superior to ignoring it altogether. And his political correctness, exhibited by his constantly asserting the equality and often superiority of women to men, is tiresome. In literary terms, the translation is not a masterpiece (the dialogue especially is unrealistic); I don’t know what it’s like in the original Norwegian. But none of this criticism is final, of course, as I haven’t finished the book.

Rodríguez de Montalvo, Garci. Amadís de Gaula. Ed. Juan Manuel Cacho Blecua. Madrid: Cátedra, 2004. 2 vols.
I’m beginning to think that the Quijote can’t be fully appreciated until one has read something like the Amadís. Take the following passage, for instance: “Y assí acaesció un día por la ribera de la mar, solamente llevando consigo a Gandalín, fuese poner encima de unas peñas por mirar desde allí si vería algunas fustas que de la Gran Bretaña viniessen, por saber nuevas de aquella tierra donde su señora estava. Y en cabo de una pieça que allí estuvo, vio venir d’aquella parte qu’él desseava un a barca; y como al puerto llegó, dixo a Gandalín: ‘Ve a saber nuevas d’aquellos que allí vienen, y apréndelas bien, porque me las sepas contar.’”[1] It contains several elements essential to the chivalric romance: the solitary knight, the squire, the lady, and the mysterious event (in this case, the unknown ship). Compare this from the Quijote: “De allí un poco, descubrió don Quijote un hombre a caballo que traía en la cabeza una cosa que relumbraba como si fuera de oro, y aun él apenas le hubo visto, cuando se volvió a Sancho y le dijo: ‘Paréceme, Sancho, que no hay refrán que no sea verdadero, porque todos son sentencias sacadas de la misma experiencia, madre de las ciencias todas, especialmente aquel que dice: «Donde una puerta se cierra, otra se abre». [. . .] Digo esto porque, si no me engaño, hacia nosotros viene uno que trae en su cabeza puesto el yelmo de Mambrino, sobre que yo hice el juramento que sabes.’[2] Now, aside from the reference to the lady, all the elements present in the quotation from the Amadís are present in that from the Quijote: the knight, the squire, and the mysterious event. But in the former, the author writes in all seriousness; in the latter, the author is not serious at all. To properly appreciate parody or satire, one must experience that which is being parodied or satirized. Now I had read all of Malory (in Shepherd’s edition of the Winchester MS) before finishing the First Part of the Quijote; but it seems to me that only after reading portions of the Amadís am I beginning to properly appreciate Cervantes’ humor. Perhaps it’s wrapped up in the different flavor of Le Morte Darthur and the Amadís; for while ostensibly they belong to the same genre, the languages they’re written in – Middle English and early modern Spanish – are quite different. And Malory and Rodríguez de Montalvo write differently as well.

Schaff, Philip. History of the Creeds of Christendom. 1931. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007. 3 vols.
I don’t have much to say about this one, since I haven’t browsed through it much. The first volume is “A History of Creeds”; the second volume contains texts of patristic creeds in Greek or Latin, most often with English translation; and the third volume contains texts of Reformation creeds and catechisms in Latin, German, French, and English, most often with English translation where applicable. I’ve enjoyed browsing through the second volume, trying to read the Greek of such things as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.

Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Knopf, 2007.
I read this translation in two and a half weeks, and I like it, but not as well as I expected. Of course I don’t know the first word of Russian, so my judgments of the translation are based on my impression of Tolstoy as filtered through the Maudes’ version and now through P and V’s. The great thing about P and V is that they translate only Tolstoy’s Russian into English: his French and German they print untouched, providing translations in footnotes. In this way one gains a much better sense of what Tolstoy was trying to accomplish by exhibiting the Russian nobility’s use of French and Russian. The practice can become tedious, especially when characters freely intersperse French and Russian phrases, making for awkward ellipses in the footnotes, but on the whole I think the tradeoff is worth it. It’s very interesting that many upper-class Russians can’t express some things in their native language: Princess Marya’s friend Julie, for example, is unsure how to translate “un peu amoureux” into Russian.
In terms of purely English style, the translation is not always eminently literary, and occasionally it appears to breach the rule of translation that, when translating from one language to another, the style of the target language must take precedence in case of a conflict; in this respect, I think the Maudes’ version might be superior. (Without knowing Russian, of course, I can’t say for sure.) And I suspect that Knopf might have rushed the publication of this one a bit, to counteract the “original” edition of War and Peace put out by another publisher: I’ve found several misspelled words, and the first letter of the word “and” in the title is incorrectly capitalized on the dust jacket (but not on the spine). I hope future impressions will be corrected. But minor quibbles aside, P and V reads well, and I’ve always been one to prefer a more literal translation to a looser one. For someone thinking about reading War and Peace in English, and who either reads French or doesn’t mind wading through the footnoted translations, P and V is the best choice. Someone who’d rather not wade through the footnotes should get the Maudes’ translation – not Garnett or Briggs.

[1] And so it happened one day by the seashore that, taking with him only Gandalin [his squire], [Amadís] went and sat on top of some rocks to look from there if he could see any ships coming from Great Britain, to learn news from that land where his lady was. And after a short time, he saw a boat coming from that very part he was hoping; and as it came to the port, he said to Gandalin: “Go learn news from those who are coming there, and learn them well, in order to tell me them.”

[2] Then Don Quixote saw a man on horseback who had on his head a thing which shone as if it were made of gold, and no sooner had he seen it than he turned to Sancho and said: ‘It seems to me, Sancho, that there is no proverb which is not true, for all of them are maxims taken from experience itself, mother of all the sciences, especially that which says: “When one door is closed, another is opened.” [ . . .] I say this because, if I do not deceive myself, there is coming toward us one who has on his head Mambrino’s helmet, concerning which I made the oath that you know of.