un point, c’est tout

September 26, 2006

Just finished translating a book on entomology from the French at the same time as I was doing another from Thai. The Thai was a doddle, stuff like ‘This butterfly is found in the north-east of Thailand between December and March; the wings are brown on top and red underneath.” The French was a nightmare, a typical sentence reading, in a literal translation, something like:
“To finish this subjective enumeration (and which could be even longer: diversity in this exercise having only specific limits unless one also consider the ethnocicity of differently related subspecies, a particularity in itself as remarkable as it is important ) the last mentioned species, when it approaches, moving relatively slowly with nonchalant steps at first then gradually increasing in tempo to reach a sort of crescendo of motion reminescent of one of Stendhal’s finest climactic episodes, then retracing its steps, enters into an acoustic competition, both brazen and belligerent by necessity, the battle being to see who will first occupy acoustically the immediately surrounding space, the conquest of which is both a function of and interdependent on the relationship between congeners and which, above all, though not, it seems to all commentators, some of whom have had the temerity to dismiss such encounters as ‘of little significance’ demonstrates that in the critical encounter of the sexes, males repond only to an abstract representational image or imaged abstractional representation, not having the sensory apparatus capable of giving them reliable information on the quality of the object of their pursuit., the acoustic disparity within the taxonomic units appearing to fall outside the classic proportions.”

Why do Frenchmen try and emulate Proust every time they pick up a pen? Why do their brains refuse to acknolwledge straight lines and operate like a drunken spider trying to fix a web? I’m longing for the linguistic equivalent of the Autoroute du sud and what I get is la Grande Corniche with a pause at every bistro along the way.Is it something to do with Cartesian logic, the baccalaureat, the Code Napoleon or the garlic in the ratatouille? Frenchmen cannot bear a simple sentence where subject, verb and object live happily together. In French they’re not on speaking terms, each one has to be separated by protective fences of verbiage.Here’s an actual example quoted by a Canadian blogger: “La vielle fille, aux baisers légers et aux genous serrés, qui n’avait jamais quitté sa galerie de Quina alors que descendait chaque soir, dans le noir, le vent coquin de Maracoif sous le frondaisons accueillantes des laurier de la Place et sur le sable chaud invitant des bords de mer, avait fait graver sept mots.”

I hesitate to think what a French telephone directory is like. I imagine it has entries modelled on:
“M. Jean Connard , there’s a name to conjure with as Stendhal would have said, though even Stendhal might have pointed to the strangely poignant suggestion in the very word; living, alone no doubt, temporarily at least, though as Seneca reminds us with with a rough voice, tempus fugit, at 12 rue des Petits-Pains (oh the warm smell of baking dough that issues from that ochreous yet somehow paradoxically named avenue lined with stately trees, that vigorous and pacific tribe which without stint produces strengthening essences for us, soothing balms, and in whose gracious company we spend so many cool, silent and intimate hours, the same unfortunately-named indiviual with telephone (woeful soulless instrument whose chattering subsitutes the illusion of words for the bitter sweet lemons of real life) bearing the elegantly symmetrical number of 0246420.”
Surprisingly, French does not hold the world record for the longest sentence. Many people attribute the longest sentence in literature to Victor Hugo. The claim is that a sentence in Les Miserables, 823 words long, earns that title. This, however, was eclipsed by Proust in Sodom et Gomorrhe, Volume 4 of À la Recherche du temps perdu which contained a sentence that’s 847 words long. Traditionally, the longest sentence in English Literature has been said to be a sentence in Ullyses by James Joyce, which clocks in at 4,391 words.
However, Joyce’s record has recently been surpassed. Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters Club, published in 2001, contains a sentence with 13,955 words. However there is also, apparently, a Polish novel, Gates of Paradise, with a 40,000 word sentence written by Jerzy Andrzejewski. Finally, there is a Czech novel that consists of one long sentence — Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal with a sentence 128 pages long, almost certainly a world record. See John Newmark’s entry on Victor Hugo Central

3 Responses to “un point, c’est tout”


  1. I’d be pleased if I could translate a short sentence in French, let alone one 823 words long. I managed to struggle through some Latin and Spanish, but when I tried French, I was a lost ball in very high weeds. Unfortunately, languages don’t come naturally to me at all — it’s a struggle all the way. Perhaps if the American schools started us out learning when we were young and our brains were malleable, as they do in most other countries…

    How many languages do you speak / write / translate?

  2. tomeemayeepa Says:

    “a lost ball in very high weeds”- I like that! I am one of the world’s worst language learners- that’s why I spend so much time working out ways of getting strange sounds and letters into my head. I can translate from French and Thai, but not professionally, I just do it for friends who are unwilling or unable to pay for a proper translation. My Malay and Spanish are rusty, I can get by in Lisu and my Lahu is coming along slowly. There’s only one more language I really want to learn- the one I need to communicate with my cats.
    Re malleable brains, yes, kids can learn languages quickly, but also forget them quickly. You have to get the language to a pretty high level before it really sticks.

  3. Robert Matthews Says:

    Minor correction:

    “as remarkable as it is important”
    In this context, important should be rendered as “significant” (I am a native speaker of French born in Paris).

    I appreciate your comment on French longwindedness, a trait which I do not share or appreciate.


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