Reading books is a good way to learn new words. No, I’m not being disingenuous, but one of the wonderful things for those of us who have been brought up with the English language, and encouraged as we have been by international trade and travel, is that we have helped ourselves to words from other languages along the way, even when we have our own. That means we have lots and lots of words in English and they can be used to describe all kinds of things. I have just spent a week in the Cotentin, reading books in my house there. A little background (pour la petite histoire / for the little story, as the French would say) Cotentin and Coutances (where there is a beautiful cathedral), the Roman city of Constantia, were named after Constantine Chlorus, father of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Saint Constantine, who remodelled Byzantium, the New Rome into Constantinople, our present-day Istanbul. Words and names morph across space and time, but their ancestry is still traceable, interesting and often very entertaining to discover.
As a translator and a traveller myself, I was delighted and enchanted by ‘Is that a fish in your ear?’ a fascinating journey through the origins, history and philosophy of translation, a comprehensive story of how human beings move from one language to another. Its author, David Bellos, is an academic and translator, particularly well-known for his rendition of ‘Life, a User’s Manual’ (La Vie, mode d’emploi) by the French writer, George Perec. Of Polish-Jewish origins, Perec’s father died in combat in the Second World War and his mother in Auschwitz. That heritage perhaps informed Perec’s motivation to produce a TV documentary and book about Ellis Island, the American gateway in New York harbour to a new life of liberty and prosperity for tens of millions of desperate 19th century Europeans. One of the ‘lost in translation’ stories from the Ellis Island book I particularly like is about language, names and identity. The immigrants arriving at Ellis Island were subject to admission procedures to determine their suitability as putative American citizens and would give American-sounding names to make it easier for the arrival inspectors to register them. As Perec recounts,
‘One old Russian Jew was advised to pick a truly American name, one that the immigration authorities would have no difficulty in transcribing. He asked the advice of an employee in the baggage room who suggested Rockefeller. The old Jew kept repeating “Rockefeller, Rockefeller” to be sure he’d remember. But several hours later, when the immigration officer asked him his name, he had forgotten it and answered in Yiddish, “Schon vergessen” – “I’ve already forgotten.” And so he was registered with the truly American name of John Ferguson.’
The winding histories of individual etymologies remind me that a friend of a friend of mine in Paris was called Gonzague de Rocquefeuil, scion of a French family whose Huguenot branch morphed into the American Rockefellers…
David Bellos devotes a chapter to the ‘axiom of effability’, an explanation of the theory that ‘what can’t be said, can’t be translated’, in other words, a universalist humanist approach which contends that any society with language can communicate and exchange meaningfully with any other society with another language. What we have in common as humans is more than what sets us apart.
Having scratched Bellos’s fish out of my ear, I picked up another great travel and language book ‘A Time of Gifts’ by Patrick Leigh Fermor, an account of his journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to Hungary on his way to Constantinople; so he didn’t go via the Cotentin or Coutances (see above!). The journey was undertaken from December 1933 to April 1934, but written up from memory and diaries in 1977. The 18-year Paddy old had been expelled from school, his last report describing him as “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness.” By that time, however, he had learned a lot of Latin, French and German, the latter was to improve while he travelled down the Rhine and the Danube and he was well-versed in and inquisitive about literature, art and the relationship of architecture to geography and what we would now call anthropology. How had the different peoples in Europe transposed their dream worlds into language and beautiful buildings? Although the book was written with the hindsight of maturity it nevertheless conveys the enthusiastic curiosity of youth and the innocence that was still possible in the early 1930s before the ravages of war nearly wiped European civilisation off the map.
‘A Time of Gifts’ is the first book I have read in quite a while that required consultation of a dictionary or rather – one of the wonders of the age – the internet on my smart-phone. Fermor’s style is enthusiastically verbose, florid and can be quite technical. He uses many words borrowed from other languages, the rather archaic ‘imberb’ for ‘beardless’ (from French and Latin), ‘gyre of flakes’ (gyre from the Greek, as in gyratory or circular). Among the new words I had never come across were ‘pargeting’, an architectural term to describe decorative, sculpted external plasterwork, particularly in East Anglia, the undisputedly Latinate ‘irrefragable’ and the particularly relevant and topical ‘disembogue’ as it relates to the title of this post and the story I will tell below. Towards the end of Fermor’s journey he describes an encounter with some Magyar horsemen in the marches of Hungary and Slovakia where the Váh river ‘disembogues’ or flows into the Danube. My curiosity awoken, I checked my hard copy Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles and found that it has been in use in English since the end of the 16th century and is derived from the Spanish desembocar, which means ‘to come out of the mouth of’, so for a river to discharge into another river or out to sea: ‘The Danube disembogues into the Euxine (Black Sea) by seven mouths’ Goldsmith and in polluted 18th century London Alexander Pope’s Dunciad has a rather insalubrious diving contest:
…by Bridewell all descend,
(As morning prayer, and flagellation end)
To where Fleet-ditch with disemboguing streams
Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames,
The king of dikes! than whom no sluice of mud
With deeper sable blots the silver flood.
‘Here strip, my children! here at once leap in,
Here prove who best can dash through thick and thin,
And who the most in love of dirt excel,
Or dark dexterity of groping well.
Who flings most filth, and wide pollutes around
The stream, be his the weekly journals bound;
A pig of lead to him who dives the best;
A peck of coals a-piece shall glad the rest.’
But let’s leave the mud-slinging Fleet street hacks of 18th century London and return to to me sitting in my comfy settee in the Cotentin reading about Paddy Fermor walking towards Constantinople encountering many interesting people, towns, rivers, alcoholic beverages and describing them with a rich variety of vocabulary.
A little more background… When I bought my house over ten years ago, a Ukrainian friend of mine in Paris, Lilia, wanted to know straight away if I had water on the land; for Ukrainian peasants, a plot of land with no water to irrigate fruit and vegetables is next to useless. Yes, I assured her, not only did I have several springs on my land, I even had a lavoir, a little stone-lined pond, that old Mother Maria Delacour, the previous owner, had used to wash her clothes. The lavoir is murky and full of frogs, perhaps snakes, too and lots of other fauna and flora. It constantly has water, fed no doubt by an underground spring. A little stream flows out of it and through a ditch across my land, where it gradually dries out, before disemboguing (Yes!!) into the lane which curves round the perimeter of my estate (well, field is a better description really). That is how things have been for the most part. However, as anyone who has spent any time in Northern France or England in the last couple of years knows, it has been raining nearly non-stop and the ground water levels are very high. More background in the village. Some years ago, the local parish council decided to tube the ditch which runs along the road around my land in order to widen the road for my neighbours who live in the Bas du Village (the nether end), whereas I am in the Haut du Village (the upper end of town, far more rarefied, n’est-ce pas?!). When they did this, the stream across my land must have been dry, as no sump was built to connect it to the municipal culvert . Now in these most aqueous times the stream from my lavoir runs across the land and disembogues into the lane and runs across the roadway in a constant drizzle, apparently much to the discontentment of my nether neighbours. Luckily another neighbour from the upper village and a local councillor warned me that the Mayor was on the case. Apparently he was intending to ask me to undertake expensive earthworks to redirect the stream on my land. Forewarned is forearmed, so I successfully engaged in some local diplomacy by inviting the delightful Daniel, Deputy-Mayor, for coffee and to show him around my land and to convince him that it was the municipality’s responsibility to deliver the denizens of the lower village from my disboguement. So I hope that my stream will soon disappear through ‘caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea’ and the waters and spirits of Daumaille will be calmed and the devilish dangers of disemboguement will disappear.
 Ellis Island and the People of America (with Robert Bober), trans. by Harry Mathews (New York: New Press, 1995). (Récits d’Ellis Island. Histoires d’errance et d’espoir (INA/Éditions du Sorbier, 1980, en collaboration avec Robert Bober)