Friday, January 9, 2015

No Esperanto Peasant Talk

"Is this what Esperanto looks like?"
"Not really."
Translators sometimes face the problem of what do you do when faced with an original that represents substandard speech: things that are ungrammatical or mispronounced or use slang. This is going to be a particular problem in a planned language; you don’t have a population speaking a lower-class dialect.[1] A clever translator could get around this, but the lack of lower-class dialect isn’t really much of a criticism of a language.

It was a pretty slender thread from which John Hearn’s criticism of Esperanto hung in the January 9, 1909 New York Times. Mr. Hearn had an obvious ulterior motive in criticizing Esperanto: he was an proponent of Ido.[2] Except in January 1909, the language was still being called “Ilo.”[3] Hearn had written the New York Times before, but in 1908, he was still supportive of Esperanto, but he was part of the group in the New York Esperanto Society that had gone over to Ido. That group included Dr. Max Talmey, who became the treasurer on his return to the organization.[4]

In defense of the Idists (an unusual position for me) they saw themselves as the next step in Esperanto. Each side saw the other as the doom of the Esperanto movement, with the Idists concluding that certain words and those damned accents were a guarantee that Esperanto would never succeed. A good idea, but not good enough, leading their calling Zamenhof’s language “primitive Esperanto” and De Beaufront’s modification “reformed Esperanto.”

John Edmond Hearn had been in active in Esperanto as least as early as the creation of the Esperanto Society by the North American Review in 1907. Here’s what he wrote to the New York Times Saturday Review of Books,[5] published in the January 9, 1909 issue:

Esperanto and Ilo.
New York Times Saturday Review of Books:
There recently appeared in this Review an admirable account, by Mr. Edward Cary, of Prof. Curtis H. Page’s[6] transition of Molière’s plays. Having just read Prof. Emile Boirac’s Esperanto version of “Don Juan,” this passage in Mr. Cary’s article caught my attention: “One of the most successful pieces of work in translation is the rendering of the peasant[7] dialect in the second act of ‘Don Juan,’ in which Prof. Page says he has ‘followed closely’ the translation of 1732 and 1748, where the peasant dialect of England is boldly used.”

Is there a peasant dialect in the Esperanto version? I had not noted any. So I compared the renderings of the charming paragraph in which Pierrot describes the discovery of Don Juan and is valet in the water. The result seems to show that Esperanto is out of its sphere in attempting to reproduce homely dialect.

The first sentence of Pierrot’s speech in the original is “Aga, quien Charlotte, je m’en vas te conter tout fin drait comme cela est venu; car comme dit l’autre, je les ai les premier avisés, avisés le premier je les ai.”[8]

Prof. Page’s version is “Aye, marry, Charlotte, I’se tell this autright haw it fell out; for, as the saying is, I spy’d ’um aut first, first I spy’d ’um aut.’”[9]

“Pechys”[10] (Pierrot) says in primitive Esperanto:[11] “Nu do, Charlino, mi tuj rakontos al ci tute rekte, kiamaniere tio okazis; char, kial diris la alia, mi ilin ekvidis unua, unua mi exvidis ilin.”[12]
This is a literal translation of the Esperanto text: “Well, then, Charlotte, I at once shall relate to thee quite straightforwardly in which manner that occurred; for as said the other, I them perceived first, first I perceived them.”[13]

Can one wonder that authors are incredulous toward the claims of Esperanto as a language for all purposes? Is it not surprising that they are being to look with more favor on the modest programme of Ilo as a purely auxiliary language; for is is certainly not within the scope of an international medium of communication to make itself ridiculous by trying to rival the barbarous but fascinating homeliness of the various regional tongues.

“Don Juan” in Ilo, however, would be more pleasant reading than the Esperanto “Shtona Festeno,”[14] because Ilo avoids the cacophony of the earlier effort.
New York, Jan 4, 1909

I have not been able to pull up any biographical data on Hearn beyond his involvement in the Ilo movement. There are several possible (young) men named John Hearn in Manhattan at about the time, including one who is a proofreader at a newspaper (a likely suspect). If Hearn worked at the Times, I hope he wasn’t responsible for proofreading his own letter. Ido materials seem to be less well preserved than Esperanto materials; while I can find many old Esperanto magazines, Ido sources just don’t seem to be out there. However, it is clear that many who were enthusiastically promoting Ido had dropped the language before too many had gone by.[15]

It’s not clear why The New York Times published this letter. It’s not really about Molière’s play or the Curtis Page translation of it. It’s about Boirac’s Esperanto translation, which the Times didn’t actually review. Moreover, it’s really about using Boirac’s translation as a cudgel to hit Esperanto. After all, if someone did a lame translation of Molière into English, it would not enable one to dismiss Molière or English.[16]

Also, Ido doesn’t have a way to represent a substandard dialect (I suppose an Idist of sharp intent could have the uneducated characters speak Esperanto), so Mr. Hearn’s hypothetical Ido translation of Don Juan would have the problem as the Esperanto. We can file this as another report from the New York front of the Esperanto/Ido war.

  1. Not that there aren’t jokes made about people who have a strong national inflection to their Esperanto. For that matter, there are people whose Esperanto betrays their national origin.  ↩
  2. Esperanto for “descendent.”  ↩
  3. Esperanto for “tool.”  ↩
  4. He had left the group after transferring his support to Ido, returning when the Idists had driven the Esperantists out.  ↩
  5. Now the New York Times Book Review, and it’s part of the Sunday edition.  ↩
  6. His middle name was “Hidden.” Not making it up.  ↩
  7. The New York Times wrote “present.”  ↩
  8. This included a couple words that not only do I not know, I couldn’t find. I hope I got it right.  ↩
  9. An editor today would be counseling the translator not to write in dialect, especially as there isn’t a sound difference between aut and out.  ↩
  10. This should read Peĉjo, or without the circumflex Pechjo, but that’s not what the Times printed.  ↩
  11. That is, Esperanto, and not Ido.  ↩
  12. Or in better typesetting, without unintentional errors: “Nu do, Ĉarlino, mi tuj rakontos al ci tute rekte, kiamaniere tio okazis; ĉar, kiel diris la alia, mi ilin ekvidis unua, unua mi ekvidis ilin.”  ↩
  13. Mr. Hearn isn’t being the slightest bit fair here. I would never translate ekvidi as “perceive.” Wells gives percepti for “perceive.” “Straightforwardly” for rekte (directly) is also puffing things up that are quite simple in Esperanto.  ↩
  14. That’s Ŝtona Festeno, the Stone Guest, which is the subtitle of the play.  ↩
  15. Esperanto also has periods of attrition, but it seems that the shrinking of the Ido movement was more rapid.  ↩
  16. Personally, I find that Richard Wilbur’s translation of Tartuffe puts my teeth on edge. Ironically, I like the play in the original French. I’m sure there’s some translation that I’d actually enjoy. Unfortunately, whenever someone mounts a production of Tartuffe in English, they use the Wilbur translation. Grrr.  ↩

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