9.10.2013

Lost in Translation

Because I find it to be baldly hilarious (it's celebration of monolingual totalitarianism/utopianism notwithstanding), here's a scene from L. Frank Baum's The Marvelous Land of Oz:

Neill

    "I beg your Majesty's pardon," returned the Pumpkinhead; "but I do not understand you."
"What don't you understand?" asked the Scarecrow.
"Why, I don't understand your language. You see, I came from the Country of the Gillikins, so that I am a foreigner."
"Ah, to be sure!" exclaimed the Scarecrow. "I myself speak the language of the Munchkins, which is also the language of the Emerald City. But you, I suppose, speak the language of the Pumpkinheads?"
"Exactly so, your Majesty" replied the other, bowing; "so it will be impossible for us to understand one another."
"That is unfortunate, certainly," said the Scarecrow, thoughtfully. "We must have an interpreter."
"What is an interpreter?" asked Jack.
"A person who understands both my language and your own. When I say anything, the interpreter can tell you what I mean; and when you say anything the interpreter can tell me what you mean. For the interpreter can speak both languages as well as understand them."
"That is certainly clever," said Jack, greatly pleased at finding so simple a way out of the difficulty.
So the Scarecrow commanded the Soldier with the Green Whiskers to search among his people until he found one who understood the language of the Gillikins as well as the language of the Emerald City, and to bring that person to him at once.
When the Soldier had departed the Scarecrow said:
"Won't you take a chair while we are waiting?"
"Your Majesty forgets that I cannot understand you," replied the Pumpkinhead. "If you wish me to sit down you must make a sign for me to do so." The Scarecrow came down from his throne and rolled an armchair to a position behind the Pumpkinhead. Then he gave Jack a sudden push that sent him sprawling upon the cushions in so awkward a fashion that he doubled up like a jackknife, and had hard work to untangle himself.
"Did you understand that sign?" asked His Majesty, politely.
"Perfectly," declared Jack, reaching up his arms to turn his head to the front, the pumpkin having twisted around upon the stick that supported it.
...
At this moment the soldier returned leading a young girl by the hand.
...
"Why, it's little Jellia Jamb!" exclaimed the Scarecrow, as the green maiden bowed her pretty head before him. "Do you understand the language of the Gillikins, my dear?"
"Yes, your Majesty," she answered, "for I was born in the North Country."
"Then you shall be our interpreter," said the Scarecrow, "and explain to this Pumpkinhead all that I say, and also explain to me all that he says. Is this arrangement satisfactory?" he asked, turning toward his guest.
"Very satisfactory indeed," was the reply.
"Then ask him, to begin with," resumed the Scarecrow, turning to Jellia, "what brought him to the Emerald City"
But instead of this the girl, who had been staring at Jack, said to him:
"You are certainly a wonderful creature. Who made you?"
"A boy named Tip," answered Jack.
"What does he say?" inquired the Scarecrow. "My ears must have deceived me. What did he say?"
"He says that your Majesty's brains seem to have come loose," replied the girl, demurely.
The Scarecrow moved uneasily upon his throne, and felt of his head with his left hand.
"What a fine thing it is to understand two different languages," he said, with a perplexed sigh. "Ask him, my dear, if he has any objection to being put in jail for insulting the ruler of the Emerald City."
"I didn't insult you!" protested Jack, indignantly.
"Tut—tut!" cautioned the Scarecrow "wait, until Jellia translates my speech. What have we got an interpreter for, if you break out in this rash way?"
"All right, I'll wait," replied the Pumpkinhead, in a surly tone—although his face smiled as genially as ever. "Translate the speech, young woman."
"His Majesty inquires if you are hungry," said Jellia.
"Oh, not at all!" answered Jack, more pleasantly, "for it is impossible for me to eat."
"It's the same way with me," remarked the Scarecrow. "What did he say, Jellia, my dear?"
"He asked if you were aware that one of your eyes is painted larger than the other," said the girl, mischievously.
"Don't you believe her, your Majesty," cried Jack.
"Oh, I don't," answered the Scarecrow, calmly. Then, casting a sharp look at the girl, he asked:
"Are you quite certain you understand the languages of both the Gillikins and the Munchkins?"
"Quite certain, your Majesty," said Jellia Jamb, trying hard not to laugh in the face of royalty.
"Then how is it that I seem to understand them myself?" inquired the Scarecrow.
"Because they are one and the same!" declared the girl, now laughing merrily. "Does not your Majesty know that in all the land of Oz but one language is spoken?"
"Is it indeed so?" cried the Scarecrow, much relieved to hear this; "then I might easily have been my own interpreter!"
Rackham

Jessica points out the high level of Alice in Wonderland nonsense in this dialogue. I am reminded of the classic fairytale meeting between the main protagonist and the "helper", the latter typically speaking mysteriously or in riddles. In this meeting scene the assumption of linguistic difference and the proper, diplomatic way in which it is dealt with plays hide-and-seek with adult absurdity. 

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