The Art of Mistranslation
Date: Sun, 7 May 95 20:39:02 PDT
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Subject: The Art of Mistranslation
Forwarded-by: bostic@CS.Berkeley.EDU (Keith Bostic)
-- John Leo (Condensed from U.S. News & World Report)
Preoccupied with pressing personal matters, most of us are totally unaware
that the state of Maryland is undergoing a profound motto crisis. The
problem is that the motto on the state seal, "Fatti maschii parole
femine", is sexist. It's an archaic Italian phrase from the crest of the
Calverts, Maryland's founding family, and it translates as "Manly deeds,
Gregory Stiverson, assistant state archivist, said the Calverts were
just making the point that "it's better to do things than to sit there
mouthing off." Maybe so, but the motto says men act, while women sit
around and yammer.
That may have been fine in 1648, but nowadays it's controversial. In
March 1993, the state legislature squirmed and scratched its collective
head. It should have consulted my esteemed brother Peter, the Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette columnist, who recommends a unisex version: "All of us, men
and women alike, do a lot of stuff and then talk about it."
On the other hand, my esteemed spouse, Jacqueline, the hard-charging
executive, says Maryland should keep its motto, but translate it: "Men
take out the garbage; women tell them to do it."
My own version is even more inspiring: "Women and men -- two great
genders! Talk and action -- two great things!" This can be called both
rousing and incisive, though it does leave scant room for unforeseen new
genders doing unforeseen great things. Still, it's better than "Maryland
-- Sexist since 1648; wanna make something of it?"
A while ago the Washington Post had the wit to run a contest for a
new motto. The winner was "Maryland: Wait, We Can Explain ..." Other
entries included "Maryland: Home of Its Residents" and "Maryland: It
Looks Better in the Dark."
That last entry reminds me of an unkind remark made by West Coast
author Josh Greenfeld about New Jersey. Driving up the Jersey Turnpike
at night past all the fiery refineries, he remarked that "New Jersey looks
like the back of an old radio." (Possible state slogan: "Come to Jersey
-- live in an old radio.")
In the late '70s, Jersey came up with a promotional slogan, "New
Jersey's got it!" As a proud native of the Garden State, I naturally felt
that this slogan was about as creative as we Jerseyites can get. But
still I thought it could be improved. How about, "New Jersey's got it!
But relax, it's not communicable." Or perhaps: "New Jersey -- where Jimmy
Hoffa is buried."
In 1993 Philadelphia held a contest for an official slogan. The
winner put everyone to sleep: "Welcome to Philadelphia -- Enjoy Our Past;
Experience Our Future." (And try to ignore our present.) In the
Philadelphia Inquirer, staff writer Dan Meyers suggested a catchier
slogan: "Welcome to Philadelphia -- Hey, That's My Car!"
Actually, some of the real state mottoes are almost as weird.
Connecticut's is: "He who transplanted still sustains." New Mexico's:
"It grows as it goes." And Michigan's: "If you seek a pleasant peninsula,
look about you." (Jersey version: "You want big-time oil-refinery living?
You got it!")
The state of Washington used an Indian term as its motto: Alki ("by
and by"). Apparently the early settlers called Seattle "New York Alki,"
meaning that the tiny community would one day be a great city. Since "by
and by" seems to mean "later," "eventually", or "we'll get around to it,"
this logically should have been the motto of Washington, D.C., not
Washington State. Just imagine thousands of alert capital bureaucrats
doing their level best every day to live up to the motto "by and by."
In Maryland, the Italian consul in Baltimore offered legislators a
way out. If "interpreted logically," he said, and "in the perspective of
20th-century language," the motto could be translated: "Delicate words,
resolute action." In plain English, the wise counsel seemed to be saying,
why don't you solve the problem by mistranslating the text? Good idea.
So it looks as though Maryland might settle for the English version
"Strong deeds, gentle words." Then again, maybe it should be "Strong
words, mild action." Whatever. The moral is, "If you seek a pleasant
mistranslation, look about you. By and by, after 347 years, you'll get
© 1995 Peter Langston