Note: this was previously published elsewhere.
One afternoon I decided to read Groucho Marx in French, because, well, why not? I had temporarily switched Boston for New York on the larkiest of larks, had accidentally been charged $9,000 for a pulled pork sandwich (where my saying “It’s that much because it comes with a little waiter who grows when you pour water on him, right?” fell unbelievably flat), and—with nothing in the immediate particular to do on that May afternoon—felt the moment was right for a book.
Groucho and Me was translated into French in 1981 as Mémoire capitales, and it begins so: “L’ennui avec une autobiographie, c’est que l’on ne peut pas s’ecarter de la verite. Quand on ecrit sur un autre, on peut se permettre des retouches, voire carrement de la broderie anglaise.” (The trouble with an autobiography is that we cannot depart from the truth. When one writes of another, one is permitted alterations, even downright English embroidery.)
Groucho wrote it like this: “The trouble with writing a book about yourself is that you can’t fool around. If you write about someone else, you can stretch the truth from here to Finland.”
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Just as Uriel Weinreich suggested George Barker’s linguistic taxonomy of code-switching between Mexican Americans in Arizona in 1947 was insufficient, so, too, can we say that the taxonomy of code switching in humor seems insufficient here, largely because there are times when code-switching and comedy seem to be one and the same, and that presents a problem: if you explain the context of an act of code-switching, you defeat the purpose of code-switching in the first place. But if “English embroidery” reads like a translator’s retreat—and I think it is (and even though we can imagine the Mighty Boosh and others riffing off of that, let’s stick to the text)—what’s the equivalent of going all in? How do you keep an act of code-switching relatively the same in two languages at once?
Because it’s ultimately rewarding, is the thing. If you watch enough of Al Bernameg, you begin to get a miasmic sense of how tetchy some in the Egyptian media landscape really are—the lightest satirical breeze knocks them over—and it throws the legal threats against Bassem Youssef into sharper relief. (It also makes you say to yourself, Where on earth did the revolution go?)
Eddie Izzard has been remarkable to watch in this regard. Whereas I have a book in which it took two people to render Groucho into French—and there you can read about the grandfather of Julius Henry Marx taking a job to repair umbrellas ( “ …il ne fait aucun doute que cette année-là fut la plus sèche de toute l’histoire des services météo de New York”), how Groucho got the middle name Henry (his mother owed five dollars to an uncle named Henry), or what kind of send-off Groucho got when he left to do shows in Grand Rapids and Denver (“… mais les autres demeurèrent stoïques, apparemment sans trop se forcer. Pour faire bonne mesure, le chien me mordit au moment où je partais”), Izzard actually went out and did his show in French, and it’s fascinating to watch him process both languages in real time, whether in saying “Ta gueule” after an audience member shouted something and—for a moment—you weren’t sure how he’d respond, whether he’d mangle a word or not and whether it would come out sounding like a rabbit that had just escaped the clutches of Joseph Beuys or what, or in watching him crack a joke that hinges on translation, i.e., “Mein Kampf—en français, c’est, Je Veux Tuer Tout Le Monde (Sauf Les Nazis [Et Probablement Les Nazis Aussi]).”
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Tim Parks argued in “The Dull New Global Novel” a few years back that when “an author perceives his ultimate audience as international rather than national, the nature of his writing is bound to change. In particular one notes a tendency to remove obstacles to international comprehension.” And I don’t know if that’s entirely true.
When confronted with lexical gaps and untranslatability, we could look at the act to come—that is, translation—as having two “deep structures” speak to each other (where Chomsky argued that similar sentences come from a single source, meaning that the only “real” issue at hand is a kind of mutantis mutdandis). We could look at it as a matter of simply applying Skopos theory (where the act and delivery of translation is more about targeting a specific audience and not so much about the original text). We could pillage Mikhail Bakhtin saying that “An utterance, from its very inception, is developed according to its possible reaction-response” and suggest that translators having trouble translating a joke should play into the fact that they’re translating a joke (which would’ve come in helpful when Why General Lee Blew the Duke at Gettysburg—a fake book Groucho proposes—ends up being translated as Les Sonneries de Gettysburg, as in, “The Ringing Tones”). Or—if you’d like—we can pursue what Sergio Viaggio pursues in A General Theory of Interlanguage Mediation, which breaks translation down into what was said and the meta-representation of what was said, the latter being the thing that’s continually worked on, clarified, and added to with the benefit of age, wisdom, a loud person shouting in a café, etc., a quasi-Kantian rehashing of the thing that is and the thing that should be, mixed—of course—with a bit of neuroscience: that if someone’s speech can be damaged by aphasia, then there must exist a neurological compulsion to understand speech in the first place.
So—if I’m Groucho—would I be inclined to remove obstacles to international comprehension? Would I understand how to pivot a joke from English to French, or—if I were Bassem—from Egyptian Arabic to English? Would I have to worry about the English equivalent of Emad Eldeen Adeeb instructing me to buy tiger-themed bed sheets, too? (And seriously? Tiger themed?) I know I’d be tempted to take the Bakhtinian route and lean into the fact that an act of translation would be taking place—that someone could achieve English as She Is Spoke by intention rather than by accident (and that’s not the only way to lean into this, but it’s the first example that came to mind)—but I’m not so sure if that’s the best, most fruitful way to do it.
Looking to the book again, I came across this passage—
Il s’appellait Shean, et, avec un partenaire du nom de Gallagher, il chantait une chanson qui fait maintenant partie du patrimonie américain, au même titre que le base-ball ou le chewing-gum. Si vous ne rappelez pas le fameux refrain “Absolutement, Monsieur Gallagher; mais parfaitement, Monsieur Shean,” envoyez-moi dix dollars en timbres. Vous ne recevrez rien en échange. Mais envoyez-moi quand même les timbres. [Hover your mouse here for English translation.]
—and tried to imagine a Frenchman or a Frenchwoman translating it back into English. Où seraient-ils commencer?