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Phrasebook: Thinking About Translation in Rabelais

The French writer François Rabelais published his first book in 1532. A "chronicle" about giants and their exorbitant adventures, the "Pantagruel" was an instant success. It made Rabelais famous and got him censored by the University of Paris. The book has continued to exert broad influence and cause general mayhem since then.

One of the episodes that has most annoyed right-minded readers over the past several decades involves the love of Pantagruel's sidekick Panurge for a high-born Parisian lady. It is an episode that is famous for its crudeness and its "misogyny" (if we can call it that)--features that have gotten the book booted from more than a few reading lists in courses on the "Great Books."

Panurge's courtship of the lady consists, not of poetry and patient wooing, but of crude offers to have sex. When she pushes him away ("Do I know you?") he proposes a series of linguistic games. When she is unable to follow his hints and refuses his advances, he takes vicious revenge on her.

Here is the most interesting of Panurge's linguistic tricks, in the original French: "'Mais,' (dist il) 'equivocquez sur A Beaumont le Viconte.' 'Je ne sçaurois,' dist elle. ' C'est' (dist il), 'A beau con le vit monte.'"

Panurge asks the lady to make an "equivocation" on a particular phrase, "A Beaumont le Viconte." To "equivocate" (équivoquer) means to make a play on meaning by turning words around. Literally it means "equal voicing" (aequus+vocare, in Latin). Cotgrave's 1611 French/English dictionary defines it as "speaking doubtfully." It's what we might call a "spoonerism." This kind of thing was part of the culture of the Renaissance schools, of students (mostly male) trained in rhetoric and adept at moving between languages. The phrase he offers her, "A Beaumont le Viconte," means, "The Viscount is in Beaumont." When turned inside out it means, "At a beautiful cunt, the cock rises." The two sentences sound almost the same, aurally, but they mean drastically different things. Indeed, the contrast between the two sentences enacts the entire problem of the courtship, perhaps of all courtly love: is courtship about good manners among aristocrats (the Viscount in Beaumont) or is it simply about the sex act? Rabelais seems to be suggesting that the two spheres of activity coexist, since they are both latent in the same phrase. As Feste says in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," "a sentence is but a cheevril glove to a good wit. How quickly the wrong side may be turned outward!" But the point here seems to be that you can't have both sides of the glove--both sides of courtship--at the same time. We might think here of Holbein's famous painting of "The Ambassadors," which features, at the center of the canvas, an image of a skull that you can only see clearly when you look at the picture obliquely--thereby distorting the main image. Rabelais is doing the same thing in language and in the process is offering an observation about sexual politics.

So the problem is how to translate this untranslatable pun.

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