Monday, September 03, 2018

V is for ...

A case of a ghastly linguistic muddle involving, in one sentence, no fewer than five languages:
Euclides da Cunha, who was a fanatical republican, a man totally convinced of the necessity of the republic in order to modernize Brazil and create social justice in the country ... was working at that time as a journalist in São Paulo and wrote vehement articles against the rebels in the northeast, calling this rebellion "our vendetta" because of the French reactionary movement in Britain against the French Revolution.
The passage above is from Mario Vargas Llosa's A Writer's Reality, based on a series of lectures he delivered (in English) at Syracuse University in 1988. The context is a discussion of the Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha, whose non-fiction work Os Sertões, regarded as one of the foundation stones of his country's literature, describes a millenarian (and, at least in part, monarchist) uprising in Northeast Brazil towards the end of the 19th century. (Vargas Llosa used the same revolt as the basis for his own novel, La guerra del fin del mundo.) But Euclides da Cunha, who wrote in Portuguese, never called the events in Canudos (where the revolt was centered), "our vendetta"; he called them nossa Vendée, that is, "our Vendée," in allusion to the French counterrevolutionary uprising of 1793. Not writing in his native Spanish, Vargas Llosa has mistakenly employed a false English cognate of Italian origin that in fact has no relation to the French word used in the Portuguese text; moreover, he has apparently confused Britain with Brittany, which is at least vaguely in the same part of France as the department of the Vendée.

The moral of the story, perhaps: never be your own translator.

NB: Os Sertões has been translated into English at least twice, once by Samuel Putnam as Rebellion in the Backlands, and in a recent Penguin Classics translation as Backlands: The Canudos Campaign. Vargas Llosa's novel, which has considerable merit of its own, has been translated as The War of the End of the World.

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