Sunday, 8 May 2011

Poverty producing richness, and an article of surprising effect

Among his many other appealing qualities, Gilbert and Sullivan’s modern major general apparently displayed a pretty taste for paradox. So here’s one for his collection.

If you want to generate rich layers of meaning, sometimes you need to exploit a poverty of language.

For example, the word ‘speech’ in English has meanings conveyed by two separate words in French: the general capacity or potential for speech (‘parole’) and a formal address to an audience (‘discours’). Clearly in this area at least, English is less precise than French, or indeed other romance languages such as Italian or Spanish.

So the title of the most recent hit from the British film industry, The King’s Speech, evokes both the capacity to speak, impaired for the King in question by his stammering, and the specific address given by that King as his country – his Empire, indeed – entered the Second World War. That address is the key event of the film to which all the preceding action tends.

So how can one convey both meanings in a romance language? The simple answer is that you can’t, short of writing something like La Parole/le Discours du Roi which leaves a little to be desired in the snappiness department. So those poor romance speakers – romantics? – have had to pick one or other meaning and leave the other aside.

Strangely, they went for the address, which rather plays down the film’s central theme, of a man struggling to overcome an affliction. In Italian and Spanish, the title of the film is Il discorso del rè and El discurso del rey.

Their extra precision, and consequent greater richness of expressiveness over English, leads to an impoverishment in the interplay of meanings in this title.

Cleverly, and those Frogs are nothing if not clever, in French the title is Le discours d’un roi. That use of the indefinite article, ‘un’ – a King rather than the King – recovers some of the more general sense lost in Italian and Spanish. We’re not talking only about that particular speech, by that particular King, but about the speech of a King and therefore the speech of Kings in general. So the French get a bit closer to the deliberate ambiguity of the English than their neighbours beyond the Alps or the Pyrenees.

How an article can help make up for
impoverishing richness
Fascinating what the choice of an article can do.

Well, of course you may not feel it's that fascinating. But I enjoy collecting little titbits like that.

And I like to think it would have put a smile of satisfaction on the lips of the very model of a modern major general.

1 comment:

Awoogamuffin said...

I like it when the Spanish feel the need to literally translate titles. For example, because Spanish doesn't have a word for "stare", you'd have to go for "mirar fijamente" meaning "to watch/look at fixedly/continuously". So "the men who stared at goats" become the much clumsier "los hombres que miraban fijamente a las cabras".