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My favourite book on translation – Hofstadter

It’s time I mentioned my favourite book on translation: Le Ton beau de Marot – In Praise of the Music of Language, by Douglas Hofstadter, whom many will know as the author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.

Le Ton Beau (a play on words on “tombeau”) takes as its starting point a short poem by Clément Marot, written in 1537. Here is that poem, and an English translation by Hofstadter:

A une Damoyselle malade
Clément Marot
My Sweet Dear
Douglas Hofstadter
Ma mignonne,
Je vous donne
Le bon jour ;
Le séjour
C’est prison.
Puis ouvrez
Votre porte
Et qu’on sorte
Car Clément
Le vous mande.
Va, friande
De ta bouche,
Qui se couche
En danger
Pour manger
Confitures ;
Si tu dures
Trop malade,
Couleur fade
Tu prendras,
Et perdras
Dieu te doint
Santé bonne,
Ma mignonne.
My sweet dear,
I send cheer —
All the best!
Your forced rest
Is like jail.
So don’t ail
Very long.
Just get strong —
Go outside,
Take a ride!
Do it quick,
Stay not sick —
Ban your ache,
For my sake!
Buttered bread
While in bed
Makes a mess,
So unless
You would choose
That bad news,
I suggest
That you’d best
Soon arise,
So your eyes
Will not glaze.
Douglas prays
Health be near,
My sweet dear.

Hofstaedter sent the poem to dozens of friends and colleagues and asked them to have a go at translating it, (mostly but not exclusively into English) and their efforts are scattered throughout the book and serve as a pretext for an extensive study of the art and theory of translation.

It’s full of wonderful examples and ideas and insights. And Hofstadter thinks of translators as interpreters, rather like musical performers. How is it, he asks, that a recital by a famous pianist can be advertised without reference to the composers whose music is to be played, and yet an English translation of Pushkin’s Evgenii Onegin can be published without any reference to the translator as “A Russian novel in verse”?

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