MY FAVORITE THINGS
I’ve always been fond of linguistic peculiarities, creative mistranslations, and enlightening misspellings. I’ve lost track of how long I’ve saved a fortune-cookie slip promising that “your troubles will vanish like smook”; and for at least 25 years I’ve collected the slightly skewed signs that appear in the shop windows of my midtown Manhattan neighborhood, a last bastion of millinery, ribbons, artificial flowers, buttons, and what are known in the trade is “findings.” A supplier of what appear to be belly dancers’ costumes and over-decorated evening gowns recently offered a special on “sequence tops.” (I had to say it aloud before I got it.) A tailor who provided “Man Woman Alterations” vanished a few years ago, perhaps closed down by the American Medical Association. So did the purveyor of the ambiguous combination “Hot Bagels and Sushi.” The startling association of “H and H Bagels” and “Car Wash” on adjacent signs near the Hudson River waterfront was still there, last time I went by, although the combination never seems quite as improbable as the storefront sign in a small Saskatchewan town advertising “Ed’s Fried Chicken and Income Tax.” (Note to unbelievers: “Chicken Ed,” the owner, not only exists, but I’ve met him—when he catered a lakeside artists’ workshop at which I was a visiting critic. The fried-chicken part of his business was mainly for summer visitors; the rest of the year, he prepared returns.)
Canadians seem to specialize in this sort of thing. Toronto’s Chinese neighborhoods have provided me with a restaurant called The King’s Noodle and the More Nice Hairdressing Salon, not far away. When “Hot Bagels and Sushi” closed, I wondered if it simply left Manhattan to merge with a shop I passed regularly when I taught at the University of Toronto, a large corner establishment featuring “Pet Food, Gospel Music, and Video.” (Last time I was there, “video” had been painted out.) One of my most cherished finds came from even farther away—a Barbados supermarket that urged customers to “visit our bargain basement upstairs.” I traded that one for an ominous street sign found by a similarly obsessed French friend: rue de l’Enfer; voie sans issue—“Hell Street; no way out.”
Excursions into other languages have been a rich source. Years ago, one of my fellow Fulbright scholars in Italy, a brilliant, eccentric Southern belle from Virginia, used to entrance our Italian colleagues by greeting them with a literally translated “Buona sera, voi tutti,” delivered in an accent indistinguishable from her normal silky drawl. Another legacy of the years I lived in Rome came from an ancient, once very celebrated German tenor, who taught a now-celebrated singer friend of mine; proud of his English, the German expat used to end conversations planning future meetings with “I see forward,” a construction that several of the now-celebrated singer’s circle—and I—have used ever since, to the consternation of the uninitiated.
My connection with an international artists’ workshop and residency program has had similar linguistic benefits, quite apart from exposing me to the work of a broad range of painters and sculptors. An outraged Polish artist’s declaration “It was behind belief!” has entered the family shorthand, as has a grateful Hungarian’s assessment of her time at the workshop as “between the nicer moments of my life up to now.” I admit that, given my own total lack of Polish and Hungarian, it’s probably unfair to add these to my hoard, but at least two other specimens in my collection of near-miss translations are so wonderfully logical that they should not only be enshrined but put into active use by all English-speakers. A Portuguese housekeeper who worked for me some years ago insisted that we “call the plunger” when a leak developed under the sink, and told me proudly that her younger daughter sang “in the church quiet.”
Dwarfs piled in the streets
The most spectacular entry in this category also dates back to my Fulbright days. At a large, noisy dinner, an art historian from Chicago was trying to explain Midwestern winters to a Roman counterpart. When his vocabulary failed him, he shouted to another American some distance down the table, “How do you say snow in Italian?” “Neve, as in Bianca Neve ed i sette nani,” his friend shouted back—“as in Snow White and the seven dwarfs.” The art historian heard only nani—and spent the rest of the dinner explaining to his incredulous dinner partner that in his hometown, in winter, dwarfs pile up in the streets in drifts six feet high, burying the cars and blocking the streets so that special trucks have to come take them away. “Nani?” she kept asking, looking increasingly worried. “Alti due metri?” Another Italian jewel came from the menu of an excellent restaurant in the Umbrian hilltown of Spoleto. A perfectly rational Italian text stressed its commitment to local produce and the principles of the Slow Food movement, but the English version claimed that “our vegetables are spontaneous to the earth and so suffer the vicissitudes of the atmosphere.” No one could decide if this was an apology or a boast.
For decades, the richest supply of double-dyed malapropisms in my collection has come from a painter friend, another Southerner, an immensely talented woman with an extraordinary sense of color but, it seems, absolutely no ear. Her paintings are widely admired, while connoisseurs in several countries have also come to savor her verbal manipulations and conflations, some of them in languages that, as a relentless monolinguist, she doesn’t even speak. Her mother-in-law, she told me, had gone on a marvelous trip across Canada on a “Voyeur” bus. (I was disappointed when I learned that the company’s name was the prosaic if historically correct Voyageur.) The best route to a friend’s weekend house in Upstate New York was via the “Teutonic Parkway.” A trip to a flea market yielded some light fixtures for her loft, designed originally, she told me happily, for “Mount Cyanide Hospital.” The origins of these inventions is usually clear, although I admit that it took me a while to dissect her description of a small, occasionally used apartment as a “pad d’état” into a fusion of the ’60s slang for home and coup d’état; could she possibly have meant a refuge for deposed political leaders with pretentions to hipness? At least one of her coinages so far resists interpretation. “I saw a woman wearing the most amazing outfit,” she reported several years ago. “It had these real neat epaulettes around the ankles.” I keep envisioning a military-style bondage suit for contortionists, but that can’t be right. I’ll probably be visiting this paragon’s studio before too long. I know I’ll see some good paintings and I’m hoping to collect at least one new gem.
Slop, here who comes!
I can’t take credit for the most spectacular inclusion in my collection. Recently added, it was a gift, offered by the historian John Julius Norwich to those of us who regularly attend the seminar weekends of the Glimmerglass Opera Festival in Cooperstown, New York. Unable to deliver a scheduled talk on one of last summer’s productions because of illness, he sent a consolation prize. He claims it is, verbatim, the English synopsis of Carmen from a Paris Opera program from the early 1950s. Since Lord Norwich is an honorable man and a scrupulous scholar, I have to believe him. The numbering is as it was sent to me.
Carmen is a cigar-makeress from a Tobago factory who loves with Don Jose of the mounting guard. Carmen takes a flower from her corsets and lances it to Don Jose. (Duet: “Talk me of my mother.”) There is a noise inside the Tobago factory and the revolting cigar-makeresses bursts into the stage. Carmen is arrested and Don Jose is ordered to mounting guard her but Carmen subduces him and he lets her escape.
ACT II. The Tavern. Carmen, Frasquita, Mercedes, Zuniga, Morales.
Carmen’s aria (“The sistrums are tinkling.”) Enter Escamillio, a balls-fighter. Enter two smugglers. (Duet: “We have in mind a business”) But Carmen refuses to penetrate because Don Jose has liberated from prison. He just now arrives (Aria: “Slop, here who comes!”) but hear are the bugles singing his retreat. Don Jose will leave and draws his sword. Called by Carmen shrieks the two smugglers interfere with her but Don Jose is bound to dessert, he will follow into them (final chorus: “Opening sky wandering life”).
AXT 4, a place in Seville. Procession of balls-fighters, the roaring of the balls heard in the arena. Escamillio enters (Aria and chorus: “Toreador, Toreador, all hail the balls of a Toreador!”) Enter Don Jose (Aria: “I do not threatern, I besooch you.”) but Carmen repels him wants to join with Escamillio now chaired by the crowd. Don Jose stabbs her (Aria: “Oh rupture, rupture, you may arrest me, I did kill der”), he sings “Oh my beautiful Carmen, my subductive Carmen.”