Humor and Translation

Paris and a Polymath
By Mark Herman

Some things never change.

Eating dinner recently at a restaurant in Paris, we were intrigued by these menu items and their English “translations”:

  • Côte de boeuf aligot, sauce poivre, 1 pers, 450 gr (Coast of beef for 1 people sauce pepper)
  • Mousse chocolat maison (Chocolate mousse house)
  • Glace vanilla (Freeze vanilla)

There was a notice on the menu regarding the provenance of the restaurant’s meat:

Notre viande arrive en direct des plateaux de l’Aubrac production Française. Notre premier fournisseur exploité par Mr Jérôme Roux. Le centre des abbatoirs se situe à Marvejols en Lozère.

Our meat comes live at the plates of Aubrac French production. Our first supplier is the farm of Londe exploited by Mr Jerome Roux, the center of the slaughterhouses is located at Marvejols in Lozere.

And another regarding the restaurant’s policy regarding checks:

La maison n’accepte plus les cartes chèques, à la suite de chèques impayés.

The house does not accept any more the accounts—checks, following accounts—unpaid checks.

Turning from the result of severely limited linguistic ability to someone with an overwhelming amount, consider Benedict Anderson, a Cornell University professor who died in Batu, Indonesia, in December 2015 at the age of 79. He knew, in alphabetical order: English, French, German, Greek, Indonesian, Javanese, Latin, Tagalog, and Thai. His memoir, aptly titled A Life Beyond Boundaries, was first published in Japanese translation in 2009, and in English posthumously in 2016.1 This book, others by Anderson, and Anderson’s interesting life were reviewed by Scott Sherman in a recent issue of The Nation.2 The page numbers in the citations below are those of the article in The Nation.

Anderson was not a disinterested scholar. He was one of only two foreigners who attended the trial in Jakarta in 1967 of the general secretary of the Indonesian Communist Party, many of whose members had been massacred. In 1975, Anderson translated the man’s “speech into English from a smuggled copy of the court transcript.”

A radical printing collective in Australia published it as an orange-colored, 28-page pamphlet titled Analysis of Responsibility, with an admiring introduction by the translator. (39)

The young scholar, entirely fluent in Indonesian, was being watched: A U.S. embassy document from 1967 stated that Anderson was “regarded … as an outright Communist or at least a fellow traveler.” (39)

Anderson seems to have had a knack for being in a place at the right (wrong?) time:

Anderson journeyed to Bangkok in 1974. “It was a wonderful time to be there,” he later said. … The good times ended in 1976, when the military overthrew the civilian regime and publicly shot and hanged student radicals in downtown Bangkok. (39)

After a heart attack in 1996 and retirement from Cornell in 2001, Anderson wrote a Life Beyond Boundaries, among other works. One of the book’s principal themes is:

… the importance of translation for individuals and societies. … He was heartened by the fact that, in area studies, many young Japanese are now learning Burmese; young Thais, Vietnamese; and Filipinos, Korean. (44)

Here is Anderson’s view of translation, stating what might very well be a motto of the ATA:

… to learn a language is not simply to learn a linguistic means of communication. It is also to learn the way of thinking and feeling of a people who speak and write a language which is different from ours. It is to learn the history and culture underlying their thoughts and emotions and so to learn to empathize with them. (44)


1. Anderson, Benedict. A Life Beyond Boundaries (Verso, 2016).

2. Sherman, Scott. “Shine Always,” The Nation, 302.23/24 (June 6/13, 2016), 38-44.


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