Straight Tip to All Cross Coves

March 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

Suppose you screeve, or go cheap-jack?
  Or fake the broads? or fig a nag?
Or thimble-rig? or knap a yack?
  Or pitch a snide? or smash a rag?
  Suppose you duff? or nose and lag?
Or get the straight, and land your pot?
  How do you melt the multy swag?
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

Fiddle, or fence, or mace, or mack;
  Or moskeneer or flash the drag;
Dead-lurk a crib, or do a crack;
  Pad with a slang, or chuck a fag;
  Bonnet, or tout, or mump and gag;
Rattle the tats, or mark the spot
  You cannot bank a single stag;
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

Suppose you try a different tack,
  And on the square you flash your flag?
At penny-a-lining make your whack,
  Or with the mummers mug and gag?
  For nix, for nix the dibbs you bag
At any graft, no matter what!
  Your merry goblins soon stravag:
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

It’s up-the-spout and Charley-Wag
  With wipes and tickers and what not!
Until the squeezer nips your scrag,
  Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

– François Villon
translated by William Ernest Henley

A translator’s dilemma: Villon writes a boisterous ballade stuffed with 15th century French slang that is now, due to the intervening five centuries, obsolete and esoteric. Does the translator choose to honor the definitions of the dusty jargon, rarely straying from his crib, or does he turn the thing into a playpen and go for the atmosphere and flavor of the original even if it means ignoring word-for-word translations?

There are various linguistic quandaries that arise from this situation. Language is filled with piths and pits and parts of words that only native tongues feel; a crib of De bonne doctrine a ceux de mauvaise vie is possible, but it really isn’t a translation of the poem, since the poem depends upon the tone and attitude of the slang. But stray too far from the original and the poem is more “in the spirit” than it is a true translation.

Smartly, Henley translated Villon a step away from the French. Having worked on the seven-volume Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present, he had the vocabulary to produce something with the original’s spunk, even if purists would question his word choice.

Here’s the first stanza of the same poem but translated more literally by Henry de Vere Stacpoole:

Ye who be smugglers of papal bulls,
  Or cheaters at dice, whatever be ye —
Coiners who risk life and limb like fools,
  Then boil in hot oil for their felony,
  Traitors disloyal — ye know who ye be —
Stealers of jewels, of perfume and pearls:
  So where goes it all, that ye get in fee?
All to the taverns and to the girls.

Not nearly as good, is it, even if it’s technically a more “accurate” translation? Henley’s still sounds modern even if the slang isn’t.

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