Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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The latest installment of our column about New Yorker fiction, past and present, by writer and editor Benjamin Chambers.

In her review of Ha Jin’s story “The House Behind a Weeping Cherry,” which appeared in the April 7 issue of The New Yorker (TNY), Sarah of the blog Sarah Writes says that the story, although written in English, “successfully captures the inflections of translation, and replicates translators’ reliance on stock expressions to replace untranslatable idioms.”

She finds this aspect of the story “distracting,” but that’s neither here nor there, as her comments immediately brought to mind a different language problem that’s been on mind lately as I read each week’s story in TNY: translations from the British.

Anyone who grew up on a hefty diet of P.G. Wodehouse and English detective fiction would have no trouble with Tessa Hadley’s “Friendly Fire,” for example, which appeared in the February 4 issue of TNY. When Hadley’s characters take “a fag break” while talking on their “mobiles,” put their “kit in the boot” of their cars, run around like “mad things,” or own homes on what used to be a “council estate,” you know what’s meant.

Less often, however, does one happen by the old family hearth in a story to find characters sitting by “the Aga,” or stove, as in John Burnside’s “The Bell Ringer,” which appeared in the March 17 issue, or discover a woman contemplating—along with flower arranging and foreign language classes—joining The Women’s Institute (a voluntary organization that helps educate and mobilize women on political issues) or Toc H. (Even Burnside’s protagonist wasn’t sure what Toc H was. Turns out it’s a Christian service club “committed to building a fairer society.” No mention of whether it approves of clootie dumpling.)

If you’re unhip, as I am, phrases in Hari Kunzru’s “Raj, Bohemian,” from the March 10 issue of TNY, might throw you completely. Kunzru’s narrator sneers at the “trendies—fashion kids who tried too hard, perennially hoping to get hosed down by the paps or interviewed about their hair.”

Hosed down by the—eh? Come again? I finally figured out this was just a cute way of saying they wanted their picture taken by paparazzi. That usage may not be peculiarly British, but no matter: half a page later, I found the genuine article. When the narrator is asked to an exclusive party, his friends and acquaintances want him to get them in the door, but he turns them down. Why? “It was a rule, an unofficial rule: no liggers and no hangers-on.”

”Liggers”? Huh? It took a little bit of digging, but I finally discovered that in Brit usage, a “ligger” is someone who crashes a party. Who knew?

And if you were wondering about those “two Traveller kids” racing buggies out near the airport in Roddy Doyle’s “The Dog,” in the November 5, 2007, issue, your curiosity might be somewhat allayed when you learn that the Travellers are a roving people, known in the vernacular as Gypsies.

All this British vocabulary might make some American readers feel a bit like outsiders. Not to worry—apparently, that feeling is a national characteristic. Check out this gem from Burnside’s “The Bell-Ringer,” so perfectly keyed to skewer American readers of TNY that I half-wondered if he inserted it after his story was accepted: “Harley was always polite with her, in the way that Americans are: doggedly courteous and, at the same time, utterly remote, like the landing party in an old episode of ‘Star Trek,’ curious and well-meaning and occasionally bewildered, but sworn not to interfere in the everyday life of their hosts.”

No need for a translation there, I shouldn’t think, wot?


The error of youth is to believe that intelligence is a substitute for
experience, while the error of age is to believe experience is a substitute
for intelligence.
— Lyman Bryson

pseuspitogispMay 13, 2008

The main mistake of a good translator is a belief in his own experience. An experienced translator rarely hesitates and thinks. He functions as a machine…

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