Nov 2007 Journal

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Put it in writing

What with emails and texting, there will soon no longer be a call for writing a proper English letter or indeed proper English. The correct way of complying with a request for RSVP - sending bread-and-butter letters, the conventions of condolence, of congratulation and correct forms of address (e.g. how to invite a gay bishop and his partner to open a boys’ club) - will be ignored or satisfied with a simple electronic burp.

A pity, because good English is not just a joy to read but to write. There are few rules and lots of conventions, but one rule brooks no exception: less is more. Hemingway called it ‘cutting out the junk’; Harold Ross, fabled editor of The New Yorker, advised his authors to ‘kill your darlings’, urging them to cut the colourful phrases they liked best. DeWitt Wallace, founder of the Reader’s Digest and the man who taught me my trade, invented a technique of editing he called ‘condensation’, which could reduce an article by a third in length without the writer being able to spot what had gone unless he had his original manuscript in front of him.

Foreigners who acquire a decent vocabulary in their new language understandably take pride in displaying it. Don't overdo it. Go easy on adjectives, abjure adverbs, revel in your freedom from the iron clamp of German syntax or the booby traps of Czech seven-way declension. It’s your choice of words that counts, not the garlands with which they are hung. Did you know that English had more words than any other language - some 80,000 I believe? And on top of that, many words have more than one meaning to help you ginger up your prose: for instance ‘ginger’, which is a verb, a root, a colour, a nickname. Such riches are an open invitation to use every trick from deliberate ambiguity to punning. Punning can be a subtle game or a tedious nuisance, nowhere more prevalent than in newspaper headlines. The financial pages and advertising slogans are especially infested: ‘Diamond shares lose sparkle’, ‘Go to work on an egg’ - that sort of thing.

Play on words is a high-class English entertainment. Shakespeare didn't start it, but doesn’t he provide a feast? And so do clerihews, spoonerisms, limericks, rhyming slang, the cornucopia of collective nouns, and the cryptic crossword which has no equivalent in any other language. Just as the Schüttelreim has no equivalent in English - although you can force it, if you strain, e.g. ‘I saw a butterfly flutter by.’ In German, entire poems have been written in this form, ingenious and tedious in equal measure.

Some of the best fun comes with translating idiom into idiom. To find the equivalent of ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ in ‘mitgefangen, mitgehangen’ is a tiny triumph. Or what about rendering ‘zart besaited’ as ‘shrinking violet’?

They say that poetry is what gets lost in translation, but it need not be so. Some of Michael Hamburger’s translations of Rilke into English strike me as every bit as good as the originals. But translating is an art, and you learn strange lessons on the way, one of them being that when you do French into English, you end up with far fewer words. It’s like pricking a balloon.

The English are not great translators. Enjoying such riches in their own tongue, they have little feeling for others. When the War Office discovered that I spoke ‘foreign’, they posted me to India - Hebrew, Urdu, what's the difference! I quite enjoyed the experience, but then I am a firm believer in the idea that we are hard-wired for learning languages. How else do children form grammatically correct sentences they have never heard before?

It isn’t poetry that gets lost in translation, but impact. I’d rather write English than German any day, but for me the words ‘ich liebe Dich’ carry a punch that ‘I love you’ never will. In my dream world, I write in English, speak French, read German and listen to Italian. Anyone for Yiddish?


Victor Ross

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