Book cover: English as she is spokeA pre-Babelfish translation comedy.

A charming reprint of a 19th century instructional, intended to help Portuguese students learn English. Given the Portuguese authors didn’t actually speak English, unintended hilarity.

The English editor (James Millington) presents excerpts from the original phrase book, selected for their comic value. Millington isn’t afraid to make it clear that he finds it all hilarious and slightly hypocritical. The original authors prepared their guide on the basis of their knowledge of French and judicious use of a French/English dictionary, but they make no mention of their methods and claim their book is ‘clean of gallicisms’ (rather than being predominantly French phrases badly translated into English).

The authors also claim ‘scrupulous exactness’ rather than ‘a literal translation; translation what only will be for to accustom the portuguese pupils, or-foreign, to speak very bad any of the mentioned idiotisms’. The stage is set for a good old laugh at how badly we speak each other languages, at early Babelfish levels of fidelity.

Some mistranslation highlights:

  • Kindred: the gossip mistress, the quater-grandmother
  • Woman objects: the paint or disguise
  • Servants: the coochmann (obviously a typo, but I watched Carnivale a while back, with its cooch tent – something very different!)
  • Parties of a Town: the sink, the low eating house, the obelisks (some town!)
  • For the table: some groceries, some crumb (um, yes, well, I guess this is technically accurate)
  • For eatings: some wigs(!), a little mine(?), hog fat (yum)
  • Quadruped’s beasts: a dragon (wow!)
  • Fishes and shell-fishes: a sorte of fish (well, yes), a hedge hog (err, no), a torpedo (wait, what?)
  • Chivalry orders: Black eagle, Elephant, Very-merit (ah yes, the Very-merit Order of the Elephant!)
  • Degrees: a harbinger, a parapet (vs say, a great admiral or an army general – the mind boggles)

Once you get into the phrases, the comedy goes exponential. I grew up abroad, so have spent a lot of time around those who have learnt English as a second language, and have some familiarity with the grammatical contortions that result. I also speak a little French – which vastly helps in making sense of how some of the English translations were arrived at.

  • Clear but curious: This ink is white and Dry this wine (I assume the second is meant as a descriptor not an instruction!) – not to mention Take attention to cut you self (I don’t think you need the ‘not’ in Portuguese or French; missing it in English changes the meaning substantially)
  • Fine in Portuguese: Where are their stockings, their shoes, her shirt and her petlicot? (the author has applied Portuguese rules onto the pronouns – making them match the nouns – and has unintentionally described a torrid disrobing)
  • Garbled but clear: These apricots and these peaches make me and to come water in mouth and He does me some kicks (that would be fine… in French) and the rather unfortunate I have mind to vomit
  • Wait, what? That are the dishes whose you must be and to abstain

…and then you reach the ‘familiar’ dialogues. These are often hilarious to the modern reader because of content as well as Babelfishing: the master complaining to his servant that his shirt is too cold; the diner eating bread as he is unsure if the meat is good; two gents complaining about the quality of servants these days; and – tellingly – the section on whether or not you speak French. Quite a specific target market in terms of social status, then.

The English (mis)translations of familiar letters and anecdotes also betray the French origins as they’re largely between and about French people. These are almost but not quite impenetrable – the meaning you can (easily) divine is often not the one that was originally meant – but left me impressed that there weren’t more European wars on the basis of diplomatic misunderstandings!

All in all, this was a fabulous little birthday present – an oddity and an entertainment. I love the intricacies of language and as a student of several, have at times provided entertainment to native speakers with my stumbling attempts.

So certainly, do not might one’s understand to speak

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