Sometimes, a translator’s inner pedant escapes and just has to rear its little homunculean head. I found the tracks of such a creature in last night’s reading of The Banner of the Upright Seven (by Gottfried Keller, translated in 1964 by one Bayard Quincy Morgan, apparently known in sporting fashion as “B.Q,” and, I would assume, entirely comfortable with utterances such as “old chap”).
Behold, at the bottom of page 41, the description of a dinner party receives the following note:
“Feminine readers may be interested in the cakes which Keller specifies, and which are as follows: Hüpli and Offleten, crisp brown cookies of flour, cream and sugar; both are very thin, but the former are rolled into small tubes, while the latter are flat and frequently stamped with a decorative pattern, or with the coat of arms of the family… [etc., etc.] TRANSLATOR.”
Before examining the amazed guffaw that issued from yours truly, I first have to state that I love the biblical-style, all-caps-smaller-font signature B.Q. was granted here, much like THE LORD gets any time HE makes an appearance in Old Testament get-togethers.
But seriously, folks, “feminine readers”?
|Source: Motif Magazine|
Yep, this was 1964, before the longhairs were running roughshod over innocent America and the women’s libbers were trying to bring civilization to its unstockinged knees. But just a year earlier, Betty Friedan had published The Feminine Mystique. And here begins the wild speculation that was going through my head just a few hours ago: it’s hard to believe something that made the splash Friedan’s book did wouldn’t have crossed the path of a well-informed Stanford Emeritus Professor such as our intrepid translator.
Maybe he and the publisher thought this little uproar was just a phase. (It’s more likely they didn’t think about it at all, in relation to the dumb footnote, but let’s keep going, just for fun.) Morgan was in his eighties when Upright Seven came out; he was born in 1883, and I’m sure he’d seen enough to know that the world usually doesn’t change drastically overnight, especially as the result of a book. But the way in which B.Q. assumed what sort of audience would (and would not) be interested in his footnote (especially when footnotes had thankfully been almost non-existent up to this point), and the way in which he addressed that audience, places him solidly in line with pre-Friedan attitudes.
Would there be something wrong with a man interested in knowing just what all these pastries were? If interested, would he be counted as “feminine”? Was Morgan using the adjective, not as an indicator of gender, but as a one-word label of bundled assumptions involved in a standard view of a particular gender? Did he use “feminine readers” in place of “ladies,” for example, because he was aware that these days, only certain types of women– those paragons of their “sex” still committed to the home and to “femininity”– were remotely concerned with impressing the guests at their next dinner party?
I realize I’ve gone off on a zany tangent here that many will find ridiculous. But– time for a little self-disclosure– since I am a translator, I know 1) word choices loom incredibly large, whether bringing a text into another language or selecting the right phrasing for a margin note or clarification, and 2) my colleagues and I, at least, tend to make sparing use of footnotes. B.Q. had, so far, stayed true to point #2, and so I find it especially curious that he took the time here to seek out his lady friends, who, had they really been that interested in what was on Herr Frymann’s table, probably would have done their own research.
And then: the text itself will bear with it its own date-stamp; how much do you, as a translator, want to 1) insert yourself into the text and/or 2) mark your own interventions with an additional era-indicator, thus (probably) leaving that much more excuse for someone else to come along and improve upon your own dated production?
I feel I’ve been a bit hard on ol’ B.Q., who really was a mover and shaker in the world of translation, a world to which he was deeply committed. And I can at least recognize that his little comment was more apropos in the mid-’60s than it would be today– and be thankful that, even though hearty strains of sexism still assume I’d rather be shopping and taking advice from The Millionaire Matchmaker, most people I know would laugh just as nuttily as I did upon reading that little gem at the bottom of page 41.