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.
Thomas Urquhart's 1653 version of the book has this: "I but (said he) equivocate upon this: a Beaumont le viconte or to faire mount the priccunts: I cannot, said she: It is, said he, a beau con le vit monte or to faire C. the pr." Urquhart gives away the joke before it is made, first with the portmanteau word "priccunts" then by titillating the reader's curiosity with abreviations for sexual organs. Strikingly, however, he also moves the joke away from the lady and has Panurge make it himself. In Rabelais it is she who is supposed to "equivocate," in order unwittingly to say something untoward that will undercut her air of propriety. Panurge's "seduction" technique involves trying to make the lady drop her courtly airs by misspeaking. In Urquhart's version Panurge does this dirty work for her.
Later translators go at it differently. Here is Burton Raffel in 1989: "'Ah,' he said, 'but think about 'To Beaumont le Vicomte.' 'I don't know it,' she said. 'Here is what it means,' he said, 'A beau con le vit monte, A prick climbs on a beautiful cunt.'" Raffel has Panurge give up on the idea of "equivocation" and just urge the lady to "think about" the phrase. "I don't know it" (instead of "I wouldn't know how," which is what Rabelais says), suggests that we're dealing with a kind of a joke that everyone should know. All you have to do is think hard. As for Raffel's notion that the "prick climbs," well, we'd better not go there.
J. M. Cohen, in his readable mid-twentieth-century Penguin Classics translation, makes no effort to get the filthy joke: "What does A Beaumont le Vicomte remind you of?'" he has Pantagruel say. "'I have no idea,'" replies the lady. And Cohen appends a footnote: "A most indelicate pun, quite untranslatable." However Cohen's successor in the Penguin Classics series, Michael Screech, makes a valiant effort to overgo his predecessor: "'But,' he said, 'can you make an equivocation out of Buckingham Fair?' I've no idea!' she said. 'It's Fucking e'm bare,' he said." Screech carries off a lively pastiche of Rabelais's jokiness, but at the expense of almost everything else going on in the passage. The entire drama of social class implicit in the notion of the Viscount in Beaumont is lost in the communitarian image of a proverb about Buckingham Fair. At the same time, to get at the idea of making a joke out of playing with language Screech takes the literal approach: "can you make an equivocation?" asks Panurge, which is awkward and anachronistic. You can "ecquivoquer" in casual conversation in Renaissance France (or in Urquhart's England) but you'd better not use "make an equivocation" as a pick-up line anytime after, say, 1800. Even more interesting, to try to liven things up, Screech has the lady exclaiming, "I have no idea!" whereas in Rabelais her "je ne sçaurais" suggests a kind of uppity confusion.
Thus all of these accomplished translators wrestle in different ways with Rabelais's complicated linguistic play. What is surprising, however, is that, no less than with the filthy pun, they seem to struggle with how to graft linguistic indelicacy onto mental operations. Rabelais's schoolboy exercise of making an "equivocation" seems as much the problem as the dirty joke itself. How do you tell someone to "équivoquer"in a literary culture where linguistic parlor games are out of fashion? Urquhart places the entire process in the mouth of Panurge. Later translators virtually all approach the problem psychologically. "What does this remind you of?" "What do you think of this?" they all have Panurge ask the lady. That is, they move the energy of the moment from the play of linguistic surfaces to the movements of the mind. In this displacement, from social language game to "self," these translators enact the problem of rendering a pre-modern text like Rabelais's, where "character" and "identity" are malleable, into the idioms of "modern" literature, where sex is all about character and identity. By posing the problem of seduction as a problem of "thinking" rather than playful exchange, they bring "Pantagruel" into the modern world of subjects who think about things deeply and are defined by that thinking. While trying to translate Rabelais's scatology, they modernize his psychology.