Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The power of words: mom, mommy, mama?

Time for a dose of my favorite mixture, those two fine ingredients: literature and murder.

One of my favorite books of all time is Albert Camus's L'Etranger. It's one of the few books I read in French, understood pretty well, and that stuck with me. A very powerful novel with some clever use of language. Maybe clever use of language that I actually managed to understand, I'm no scholar, for sure.

In fact, literary criticism doesn't sit well with me. The classes I took in high school and college irritated the hell out of me, frankly. "The bald guy is Jesus." "The pebble is the sun." "When he says, 'Bucket,' why does that make you want to cry?"

It doesn't, it makes me want to weep. With the pretentiousness of it all.

And yet I've always believed words to be powerful in that they can stimulate emotions and actions and beliefs. Which means that analysis must be valid, right?

Finally I saw some. This morning. An entire article devoted to the analysis of one short sentence, the first sentence of L'Etranger. It's a sentence that tells of a death (not murder, sorry) and I hadn't realized the great importance of how that sentence was/should be translated.

First, the sentence:

Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.”

Second, the analysis: the order and punctuation of the sentence, and its identification of the main character's mother, really matter when it comes to understanding the rest of the book.

And just that strikes me as cool: that the way you read the very first sentence can affect the entire rest of the book, in the way you relate to and view the main character. Very cool indeed.

Seriously, if you have any interest in language and literature (and the book's about murder, so I'm allowed to have it on my blog!) check out this article. It's easy to read, and not even slightly wanky (my technical term for pretentious literary criticism/analysis).


  1. Uh ... you don't find that "wanky"? Good God! You need a friggin' MLA membership, pardner.

    Besides, any southerner (perhaps some denizen of New Orleans) could tell you the correct translation for maman is "mama."

  2. Grits: I'm not even sure what an MLA membership is. :) And don't try that anti-intellectual claptrap with me, I've been here long enough to know there's no real tension between a real Texan and a man who loves language. I read your blog too, remember...

  3. MLA = Modern Language Association - it's like the bar association for English profs, and about as relevant.

    And I wasn't being anti-intellectual (heck, I'm a big fan of The Stranger too; also the Myth of Sisyphus), just correcting the translation. The editors at that Yankee publication you linked to simply didn't have a broad enough vocabulary, apparently, to identify the correct American equivalent for "Maman."

  4. Those damn Yankees. Thanks Grits, I'd never heard of MLA.

  5. The best translation -- and also most literal, based on my admittedly limited French -- would be: "Today, mother is dead." He was reporting not on an event but on a factor that affected his state of being.

  6. Jamison, I agree in a way. But the article makes the great point that how we translate that one word shapes our view of his relationship with his mother. The very use of the word "mother" being slightly cold, formal. I actually prefer it being left in the French with its ambiguity.

  7. Ah, but my point is something else entirely. I'll leave it to others to debate on whether or not it should be tranlated as "Maman" or "mother" or "mama." My issue is whether or not you prefer what I believe is the literal translation -- today, mother is dead" -- to the tradition translation: "Mother died today." I would argue that, from the author's perspective, when the mother died (today versus yesterday versus two months ago) is not nearly as important as the fact that today -- in the present and looking forward -- his mother is dead.

    Can you tell that I have actually been to one of those MLA events? And I can tell you from personal experience that it was dreadfully boring.

  8. Ha! I bet, lots of self-important professorial types. And for a lawyer to call someone else's conference boring, well, you would know, right? But your point is well taken. I'm on board.


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