October 01, 2005

Another overearnest comedy of fact checking

Thursday morning, while waiting in the San Jose airport, I wrote about Jean-Claude Sergeant's unflattering view of the English language:

Dans sa configuration actuelle, l'anglais courant se caractérise d'abord par un extrême souci de cohérence et d'explicitation proche de la redondance.

In its present configuration, current English is characterized first by an extreme concern for coherence and for explicitness approaching redundancy.

I dissected Prof. Sergeant's example of the English obsession with coherence -- the alleged inability of English journalists to match the flexible Gallic deployment of pre-subject "elements de complementation" -- and concluded that the factual content of his claim, at least in the neighborhood of his example, appears to be false. The boarding call for my flight came before I had time to get to his example of the redundancies resulting from the English concern for explicitness. Having just poured this morning's first cup of coffee, back at home in Philadelphia, I've got a few minutes to journey further into this interesting exercise in linguistic stereotyping.

Prof. Sergeant writes:

L'anglais évitera toute ambiguïté quant à l'identité des agents intervenant dans une phrase. Lorsque, par exemple, Flaubert évoque l'attention affectueuse, quoique un peu naïve, de M. Bovary pour Emma – "C'était une surprise qu'il réservait à sa femme : son portrait en habit noir" –, l'anglais ne se contentera pas de : "his portrait in a black dress coat", mais renforcera la relation à l'agent animé : "a portrait of himself in his black dress coat" (traduction G. Hopkins).

English will avoid all ambiguity as to the identity of agents intervening in a phrase. When, for example, Flaubert evokes the affectionate (if a bit naive) attention of M. Bovary for Emma -- "C'était une surprise qu'il réservait à sa femme : son portrait en habit noir" –, English will not be satisfied with "his portrait in a black dress coat", but will reinforce the relationship to the animate agent: "a portrait of himself in his black dress coat" (translation by G. Hopkins).

The choice between "his portrait in <article of clothing>" and "a portrait of himself in his <article of clothing>" was freely made by the translator picked by Sergeant, but the English language would have been well enough satisfied with the other alternative. And as a matter of fact, in the translation by Eleanor Marx-Aveling available from Project Gutenberg, the same sentence from chapter 6 is translated as

It was a sentimental surprise he intended for his wife, a delicate attention—his portrait in a frock-coat.

Now, what does the choice between "his portrait in a black dress coat" and "a portrait of himself in his black dress coat" have to do with "the identity of agents intervening in a phrase"? Neither the identity nor the agency of Charles Bovary is really in question here. Sergeant is apparently alluding to the fact that in general "his portrait" is ambiguous between "a portrait of X" and "a portrait by X", and the black dress coat might have been rented, borrowed or stolen. In this context, it's clear that Charles is the subject, not the painter, and that the coat is his own. However, Sergeant thinks that English, with its "extreme concern for ... explicitness approaching redundancy", will avoid all ambiguity about such things by introducing several superfluous words, which were omitted by the subtler and more rational French.

As Marx-Aveling's alternative translation makes clear, this is not necessarily true. And as we can learn from a few simple web searches, the sort of phrasing that Sergeant claims English "will avoid" is actually an order of magnitude more common.

Looking at web counts for the first part:

  his portrait portrait of himself her portrait portrait of herself my portrait portrait of myself

And the second part:

  in a black coat in his black coat in a black dress in her black dress in a cowboy hat in his|her cowboy hat

So let's sum up.

  • Flaubert wrote "son portrait en habit noir", which word-for-word is "his portrait in tailcoat black";
  • One English translator rendered this as "a portrait of himself in his black dress coat";
  • Sergeant takes this as evidence that English must "reinforce the relationship to the animate agent" so as to "avoid all ambiguity";
  • Another English translator rendered the same phrase as "his portrait in a frock-coat", which reproduces Flaubert's relationships of animate agents exactly (and is also vague as to the coat's color);
  • Web counts of similar phrases suggest that the second translator's choices are about 10 times more common in English than the first one's are.

As long as we're trading in stereotypes, I can't resist quoting Adam Gopnik's explanation of a French intellectual's puzzled response to the concept of a "fact checker":

People don't speak in straight facts; the facts they employ to enforce their truths change, flexibly and with varying emphasis, as the conversation changes, and the notion of limiting conversation to a rigid rule of pure factual consistency is an absurd denial of what conversation ought to be. Not, of course, that the French intellectual doesn't use and respect facts, up to a useful point, any more than even the last remaining American positivist doesn't use and respect theory, up to a point. It's simply the fetishizing of one term in the game of conversation that strikes the French funny. Conversation is an organic, improvised web of fact and theory, and to pick out one bit of it for microscopic overexamination is typically American overearnest comedy.

So perhaps this little exercise in microscopic overexamination will give Prof. Sergeant a chuckle.

Although I enjoy Gopnik's morality play of national sterotypes, in fact I'm reluctant to believe that it's any more true in the end than Sergeant's linguistic stereotypes are. Empirical scrupulousness is as common among my French acquaintances and friends as among the Americans I know. Among intellectuals of all nationalities, there are some who are interested in rational inquiry, and others who prefer to strike poses.

[Update: several people have written to suggest that perhaps Sergeant was not concerned with whether Charles was the subject or the painter of the portrait, but rather with whether the subject was Charles or Emma, since the French "son portrait" is ambiguous in that respect. On the other hand, "his portrait" vs. "her portrait" already makes that distinction; and I was hoping to find some way in which agency entered into the matter, since Sergeant focuses on "the relationship to the animate agent". On the other hand, he may be using "agent" loosely, to mean simply "human referent". In general, this aspect of the article does not give the impression that Sergeant thought about it as carefully as my correspondents are doing. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 1, 2005 07:10 AM