Archive for June 2010

Mistranslation 19. Two Unusual Cases of Successful Literal Translators: Pedro Carolino and Basil Thomson

30 June 2010

In those language pairs where literal translation is possible, competent translators learn very early in their studies to discriminate between appropriate literal translation between the two languages (where the result is acceptable in the target language and fully conveys the meaning of the original text) and inappropriate literal translation (where the target language version is linguistically inappropriate or fails to convey the meaning of elements in the original).

Literal translation in this second sense usually leads to serious misunderstandings or gaps in the communication but it also has the potential to make people laugh! Given this potential, it is not surprising that inappropriate literary translation (like malaproprisms and similar genuine language errors) may not all be the result of ignorance but may be deliberately confected to amuse others. The two egregious cases chosen for description represent both types and they have provoked much laughter over a considerable amount of time (140 and 50 years, respectively): they may perhaps be dubbed celebrity literal mistranslations. The first was written by the Portuguese citizen Pedro Carolino, equipped with great initiative, chutzpah and ignorance of English. The second less well known example of published literal translations, on the other hand, was deliberately confected to amuse his fellow Argentine citizens by Basil Thomson.

Pedro Carolino

On the face of it, Pedro Carolino seems to have been an opportunist out to make money in the nineteenth century language tuition field. In 1855, he published (or self-published) O Novo Guia da Conversação, em Português e Inglês. This appears to be his adaptation of José da Fonseca’s 1853 O Novo guia da conversação em francês e português, and, indeed, the latter’s name is also on this first edition, but perhaps more as a courtesy.

The volume became famous in Europe for its constant and colossal language errors, which were based mainly on Carolino’s sheer ignorance of English and his daring literal translations of the Fonseca items into “English” using a French-English dictionary (à coups de dictionnaire!). In 1883, the exotic English part of his original Portuguese-English Conversation manual was published separately in Britain and USA as English as She is Spoke. Well over a century later, it is still in print, in English, as a work of humour.

My 1970 edition (London, St George’s Press), which bears only the name of Pedro Carolino, is subtitled “Extracts from The New Guide of the Conversation in Portuguese and English”. In his Introduction, James Millington comments: “…it has been reserved to our own time for a soi disant instructor to perpetrate – at his own expense – the monstruous joke of publishing a Guide to Conversation in a language of which it is only too evident that every word is utterly strange to him.” It is Middleton who offers the conclusion that, to produce his bizarre language teaching offering, Carolino had used the Portuguese-French phrase-book and a French-English dictionary mentioned above. [The contemporary US edition was published by Dover.]

Interested readers are invited to log on to to see the various editions of English as She is Spoke at present available, including a Kindle one (but “not available” when I looked yesterday).
(Update: A better informed correspondent has kindly sent me the link to a FREE download of English as She is Spoke but note Gutenberg’s Advice: “Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook.”)

Here are a few samples of Carolino’s ignorant genius. (Speakers of French and Portuguese will detect many literal translations from French and a few from Portuguese which underlie, and inspire! – the curious book.)

From the Author’s Preface:
“A choice of familiar dialogues, clean of gallicisms … ”
“We expect then, who the little book (for the care of what we wrote him, and for her typographical correction) that may be worth the acceptation of the studious persons, and especialy of the Youth, at which we dedicate him particularly.”

From “Familiar Phrases”:
“Go to send for.
“Have you say that?”
“At what purpose have say so?”
“Put your confidence at my.”
“At what o’clock dine him?”
“Apply you at the study during that you are young.”

From “Familiar Dialogues”:
“With a gardener”
“It delay me to eat some wal nuts-kernels; take care not leave to pass the season.”
“Be tranquil, I shall throw you any nuts during the shell is green yet.”

From “Anecdotes”
“A man one’s was presented at a magistrate which had a considerable Library.
“What you make?” beg him the magistrate. “I do some books,” he was answered.”

Basil Thomson

The second successful practitioner of inappropriate literal translation was an expatriate Englishman who had settled in Argentina in 1949 and worked as a journalist for the English language Buenos Aires Herald (until1979 when he was expelled by the military junta). In addition to his (serious) news dispatches, Thomson published a number of columns in which he set out to offer his bilingual middle and upper class Argentinean, Anglo-argentine and Celtic-argentine readers the pleasure of laughing at the frequent inappropriate literal translations from Spanish in the English narrative of a character whom he called Ramon (no accent). These columns (“Ramon Writes”) were highly successful from 1949 to 1977 and were finally published in book form by the newspaper in 1979, ostensibly to raise funds for a charity but possibly as a tribute to Ramon, aka Thomson, after his harassment and expulsion by the military régime. (Ramon Writes, Buenos Aires Herald, 1979)

Although aimed at a much smaller audience than that achieved in the lifetime and perhaps a century after the death of Pedro Carolino, Basil Thomson’s deliberate liberties with literal translation may still be enjoyed by speakers of Spanish, in particular Argentinians.

Here are some samples of Basil’s work. It should be noted that the English sounds so peculiar not only because of inappropriate words and phrases (and specially coined English words) but also because of double negatives and Spanish patterns of word order for clauses and sentences. Some readers will also recognise echos of the fabled exotic English of some expatriate Latin Americans.

On page 10, Thomson describes how Ramon was born. After rejecting the idea of writing a dictionary of entertaining “Irish-Argentinianisms”, “I put myself in the place of a fairly advanced and confident but careless student and expressed myself as I imagined he would. This involved thinking in vernacular Spanish and writing in English.”

The compilers chose this extract as their favourite one. I have added a few glosses.
“I supplicate you that you pass of high [ignore] so much discourtesy of my part for not writing these past four months.

What passed was that I had planned to go to that one in person and because of that I desisted. It had of object my visit to see if I could accommodate myself in some ministry or gobernation after they happened the events that are of public dominion.

But in vespers of [on the eve of] absenting myself there writes me a friend of the faculty to tell me that my voyage would be to the divine button because the things have not changed themselves nothing: the milics have copated themselves everything.

As you can await, I felt myself disillusioned, because I give myself count [realise] that this life of camp [country] doesn’t fall me well, and of commerce I do not want to occupy myself. For me, who coursed three years of studies of public traducer there should always exist entry into the official life. With the patience of always, I will wait.” (p. 12)

Just one more:
“At my arrival I went to visit a known one who is familiar of another, who is vinculated with a man who knows all the world. He gave me a letter of presentation and I presented myself and was received very amiably. This man he gave me a card, we took the coffee together and he redacted a letter for me directed to the secretary of redaction of one of the principal pregonators of the country.

“I won’t molest you with the all the letter but it was something formidable. It said that I desire to associate myself with the profession and, it being possible, to incorporate myself to the paper “of your dignified direction”. And a lot more, ending as usual, with “with my motives expressed I make propitious the opportunity to salute you attentively without any other particular.”

(This work is listed as Out of Print by and on there is only one copy available, for $32. First come, first served!)