Otto Jespersen on Language Teaching

I’ve recently finished Otto Jespersen’s How to Teach a Foreign Language, which I found both informative and entertaining. I was going to post only the parts of the book that I found quotable, but that turned out to be difficult, as I found most of the book to be very quotable. I heartily recommend reading the book itself, but I’ll give just a few quotes related to some of the main points Jespersen makes in his book.

In Chapter I, Jespersen touches on the importance of motivation for language learners and dismisses the idea of forcing students to learn languages that are unrelated to their interests:

If all that we desire or all that we can ever hope to attain in any one language is to receive thoughts, to acquaint ourselves with the works of foreign authors, while we ourselves neither expect nor wish to be able to impart our own thoughts in it, it is always a question if it is not better to use translations than to learn the language itself, especially in the case of the dead languages. A translation is, to be sure, no perfect substitute for the original, but on the other hand one has to know the foreign language pretty well in order to get more out of the original than out of the translation. Then how does the balance stand between the debit-side—the work of learning the language—and the credit-side—the extra profit thus to be got from the authors’ works? It is of course a question which must be decided separately for every individual case, and there are many circumstances which may have to be considered; but most people will not lose anything if they read Tolstoi or Omar Khayyám in English.

The objection may be raised that there are also other reasons for learning foreign languages. A student of comparative philology, for instance, studies languages for their own sake, without caring if they can serve him as a means of learning anything that he did not know before, or that he could learn much more conveniently in some other way; he may often be very much interested in languages which have no literature at all, or which are spoken by peoples with whom he never comes into contact. But this study, which may be compared to the study of other means of communication for their own sake, locomotive-construction, railway signal-service, etc.—only that it is probably much more interesting—is clearly a special study, which has nothing to do with the reasons why people generally learn languages. Although it undoubtedly is an advantage for every educated person to know something about the life of language, yet I think it will suffice for me merely to touch upon the theoretical study of languages here and there in the following pages, so much the more as it is never with this end in view that any language is placed on the school programme.

Neither were Latin and Greek introduced into our schools for the sake of training the pupils in logic, no matter how much it may occasionally be insisted upon that exactly this is their real value. But it is not necessary to waste many words on this matter, especially since all competent classical scholars—also those who insist upon a privileged position for the classical languages in our schools—have long ago given up as unscholarly the idea that the Latin (or Greek) language should be more logical in construction than, for instance, French or English. And there is no doubt much truth in what Robert Browning says: “Learning Greek teaches Greek, and nothing else; certainly not common sense, if that have failed to precede the teaching!” But on the other hand it must not be overlooked that everything which is learned with a sensible end in view, and according to a sensible method, tends in itself more or less directly to develop valuable faculties, and that especially the teaching of languages, in addition to the actual results which it gives through the contents of what one reads in foreign languages, is an excellent means of training such important faculties as—

the faculty of observing (of observing correctly, of observing independently),

the faculty of classifying under different points of view that which has been observed,

the faculty of deducing general laws from the material collected by observation,

the faculty of drawing conclusions and applying them to other cases than the ones hitherto met with,

—all, of course, faculties that are nearly related—also

the ability to read in general, to read intelligently, and with reflection.

In the construction of our method of teaching, especially if it is to be used in schools, we must also take these things into consideration. Any instruction in languages which merely consisted in a parrot-like repetition of the words of the teacher or the book, if indeed such a method is conceivable, would not be in place in our schools, and besides, no one, so far as I know, has ever tried to introduce such a pure parrot-method there. The teacher must make the pupils feel interested in the subject; they must have a vivid conception of the reward that their work will bring them, so that it will seem worth while for them to exert themselves. They must feel that their instruction in languages gives them a key, and that there are plenty of treasures that it will open for them; they must see that the literature to which they have gained access contains numerous works which also have messages for them; and they must, to so great an extent as possible in the course of the instruction in a certain language, also have got an interest in the land and people concerned, so that they themselves will make an effort to extend their knowledge about these things.


The pupils really learn most when they continually have a feeling that it is all something useful and valuable, and that it is not too far elevated above that actual life which they either know or are beginning to get some notion of.
We learn languages, then (our native tongue as well as others), so as to be enabled to get sensible first-hand communications about the thoughts of others, and so as to have for ourselves too (if possible) a means of making others partakers of our own thoughts; and if we consider what kind of communications we may be more likely to get through a foreign language than through our own, the highest purpose in the teaching of languages may perhaps be said to be the access to the best thoughts and institutions of a foreign nation, its literature, culture—in short, the spirit of the nation in the widest sense of the word. But at the same time we must remember that we cannot reach the goal with one bound, and that there are many other things on the way which are also worth taking in. We do not learn our native tongue merely so as to be able to read Shakespeare and Browning, and neither do we learn it for the sake of giving orders to the shoemaker or making out the washerwoman’s bill. So likewise in the case of foreign languages, we ought not exclusively to soar above the earth, nor on the other hand exclusively to grovel on the ground; between those two spheres there are large fields in manifold shades where it might be of great value for us to stand in direct communication with other nations.

(Incidentally, I find the passage about “student[s] of comparative philology” very relatable, as I myself am interested in comparative linguistics and learn languages “for their own sake”.)

In chapter II, Jespersen criticizes the artificial and isolated sentences used in many language textbooks:

We may already from what has been said draw some conclusions as to the method which we ought to use. We ought to learn a language through sensible communications; there must be (and this as far as possible from the very first day) a certain connection in the thoughts communicated in the new language. Disconnected words are but stones for bread; one cannot say anything sensible with mere lists of words. Indeed not even disconnected sentences ought to be used, at all events, not in such a manner and to such an extent as in most books according to the old method. For there is generally just as little connexion between them as there would be in a newspaper if the same line were read all the way across from column to column. I shall take a few specimens at random from a French reader that is much used: “My aunt is my mother’s friend. My dear friend, you are speaking too rapidly. That is a good book. We are too old. This gentleman is quite sad. The boy has drowned many dogs.” When people say that instruction in languages ought to be a kind of mental gymnastics, I do not know if one of the things they have in mind is such sudden and violent leaps from one range of ideas to another.

In another French schoolbook we find: “Nous sommes à Paris, vous êtes à Londres. Louise et Amélie, où êtes-vous? Nous avons trouvé la lettre sur la table. Avez-vous pris le livre? Avons-nous été à Berlin? Amélie, vous êtes triste. Louis, avez-vous vu Philippe? Sommes-nous à Londres?”1

The speakers seem to have a strange sense of locality. First, they say that they themselves are in Paris, but the one (the ones?) that they are speaking with are in London (conversation by telephone?); then they cannot remember if they themselves have been in Berlin; and at last they ask if they themselves are in London. Unfortunately, they get no answer, for the next sentence is, “Pierre, vous avez pris la canne.”2

Or take some of the books which are supposed to help Danes learn English. They are no better. In one (which appeared in 1889) we find: “The joiner has made this chair. What a fine sunshine! For whom do you make this bed? Which of you will have this box? I should like to have it. Of whom have you got this cake? I am very fond of cakes. I have borrowed a great deal of books from a public library.”


I could give you almost any number of that kind of specimens. The ones I have chosen are not even of the very worst type, since there is (some sort of) meaning in each sentence by itself. But what shall we say when, in a German reader, to the question Wo seid ihr?3 we find the answer, Wir sind nicht hier!4 The author of that book also seems to have had a very vivid imagination when it came to the use of pluperfects. “Your book had not been large. Had you been sensible? Your horse had been old.” We ask ourselves in surprise, when did this wonderful horse then cease to be old? But that kind of material information is not given in the book; it stops at the sphinx-like remark: Dein Pferd war alt gewesen.5 Could it really have been that kind of schoolbooks that the Danish writer, Sören Kierkegaard, alluded to when he wrote that language had been given to man, not in order to conceal his thoughts, as Talleyrand asserted, but in order to conceal the fact that he had no thoughts?

Now it must immediately be admitted that there may be a big difference in the schoolbooks made, even according to this single-sentence system. It never seems to have occurred to the authors of some of them that there might be a limit to the amount of rubbish that can be offered children under the pretext of teaching them grammar. Others again try to give sentences which are both sensible and in accordance with a child’s natural range of ideas. With respect to the latter principle, there has been steady progress from the times when the sentences either were moral rules of conduct and philosophical profundities, or selections about Greek heroes, etc. But even in the best modern books the exercises are often strangely disjointed (cf., for instance, this exercise from one of the better books: “My brother had not many lessons yesterday. Where had you been? The weather had been fine for a long time. This boy had only been in our house three or four weeks. Has your uncle had many tulips this year? How long had you had this frock?”), and even if they are not so glaringly nonsensical as some others, yet their very disconnectedness makes them bad enough.

It is really easier to write a long connected piece in a foreign language about something that one is interested in than to construct merely eight disconnected sentences for the illustration of a couple of grammatical rules, and without using other words than those the pupils already have had. As impossible, even if not positively incorrect, I consider such sentences as the following, to which any one can find many parallels:—“Tie. Do not tie. Fetch. Do not fetch…. Give. Do not give.”… Judged as thoughts they are unfinished or half-finished ideas. Judged as language, they are also very problematical. Such questions, as “Do I take?” require the necessary information as to what and when. Such fragments of sentences are never heard in real life.

Jespersen also notes the tendency of language textbooks to teach rare and archaic forms:

Grammatical irregularities, viewed from a pedagogical point of view, fall into two entirely different classes, which are too apt to be treated as if they were co-ordinate. In the first place, all languages contain a number of irregularities which play a most insignificant part both in life and in literature, because they occur so seldom. When the users of the language produce them at long intervals, it is generally with the utmost caution, because they merely have a hazy conception of what the proper form of the expressions ought to be. But they are taken up in the grammars, and as soon as one grammarian has caught sight of one of them, it is carefully copied in all succeeding grammars for the sake of completeness. Foreign grammarians are even more inclined than the natives to pay attention to everything of that kind because they have no instinctive feeling of what is rare and what is common. In some English grammars which are used on the Continent, there may still be found I catched, I digged, I shined, I writ, as the preterite forms of I catch, I dig, I shine, I write; in one, I find given as two different verbs I weet, wit or wot, past tense wot, and I wis, past tense I wist. What a big mistake it is to include such musty and impracticable forms, we can best judge from our own language—but in those French and German grammars which we ourselves write there are things which are just as bad as the above offences in English. When I went to school, I learned the following rule about the plural of travail, “Travail has travails in the plural when it means a report from a minister to the king or from a subordinate official to the minister; likewise when it means a machine to hold unruly horses, while they are being shoed.” This rule is thus criticized by Storm: “Now I must say I have read many hundreds of French books in my day, but so far as I remember, I have never come across travails in modern literature! In the sense of report, it occurs in Mme. de Sévigné. An educated Frenchman, when asked if the word was used with that meaning, answered me that he thought it was no longer used. So one would expect that the word had long ago ceased to have any show in modern grammars, but it seems to be continually creeping in again.”

Jespersen also discusses the importance of having students think directly in the target language rather than merely translating from the mother tongue:

I mean that it is rather the exception than the rule for people who read foreign books to any extent at all to have to translate to themselves in order to understand what they are reading, with the exception, perhaps, of some difficult lines here and there. And even in the difficult places, where they have to resort to their mother-tongue in order to understand the meaning, it is generally only one or two words which have to be looked up, so they generally do not even pause to translate the whole clause in which those words have occurred; still less frequently do they stop merely to untangle some involved sentence construction. When a whole population has to make constant use of two languages, the circumstances are no doubt always the same as among the Wends in Lusatia: “They speak both Wendish and German with equal fluency; yet the common people generally refuse when they are asked to translate something from one language to another: ‘he cannot do it,’ or, as one of my informants expressed himself, ‘he is afraid to.’ He can, however, without difficulty repeat in German a tale which he has heard in Wendish, and vice versâ, and likewise he can give the exact translation of single words.”

In Chapter IX, Jespersen talks about the importance of teaching language in context rather than as a series of isolated grammatical phenomena:

A language only lives, and can only live, in a person’s mind, and that it lives there means that its component parts are for him associated with certain ideas, which are recalled when he hears the words, and which in turn summon up the corresponding words when he wants to express them, or when he simply wants to make them clear for himself. But ideas do not and cannot exist except in combinations; an absolutely isolated thought is the same as nothing. It is the same with words; if they are taken out of their natural surroundings, they suffer atrophy and at last cease to perform the usual function of words, namely to produce ideas. So isolated words, such as are given in rigmaroles and paradigms, are only ghosts or corpses of words. Try to run through the words “jewel, stone, cabbage, knee, owl, toys, louse,” and see if a single complete picture has been produced in your mind—but you are no better off when you say the French rigmarole bijou, caillou, chou, genou, hibou, joujou, pou. That, as well as amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant and all the others, must by virtue of the fundamental psychical law of the life of language become merely empty jingle and nothing else. Now we see the psychological reason why sensible persons can write such sentences in their books as je mourus6 or the entirely parallel “Wir sind nicht hier.” When the mind is occupied with a word as a grammatical phenomenon, the word’s normal power of calling forth ideas is of course lessened in a considerable degree.

In a school in Copenhagen, the story goes that a certain teacher after having asked about the gender of the French substantive mort and then “Why?” got the answer, “Because it comes from Latin mors, which is feminine”; he was not satisfied with that, however, but made the correction: “No, it is because it is an exception.” When we feel scandalized at this teacher’s stupidity, we ought conscientiously to ask ourselves if many of the answers given to the question “Why?” in grammar teaching are in reality much more valuable than this one; the object in most cases is merely to classify the sentences or words under certain given rubrics and to give their names and the respective rules which have been committed to memory, something which can in large part be done with very little real grammatical understanding of the language in question.

In the same chapter, Jespersen cites a useful exercise in which students try to express the same idea in grammatically different ways:

Dr. Walter, in Frankfurt, has still another way of furthering his pupils’ familiarity with the resources of the foreign language; he dictates some of the sentences from what has been read, and lets the pupils themselves find as many different ways as possible of expressing the same thought. I shall reprint one of the sentences from his book, together with the pupils’ variants (marked with letters); they were written down in the course of 25 minutes: “ohne vorausgegangene besprechung” (in the second year of instruction, with, so far as I know, six hours a week); as will be seen, the variations are rather considerable.

The advantage of the English ships lay not in bulk, but in construction.

a. The English were overwhelming, not by the size of the ships, but their power lay in the construction of the ships.

b. In construction, not in bulk, lay the advantage of the English ships.

c. The English ships were superior to the Spanish not in bulk, but in construction.

d. The advantage of the English fleet (squadron) consisted not in bulk, but in construction.

e. The advantage of the English was the light construction of their ships.

f. The English had not large ships, but they were better constructed.

g. The power of the vessels of the English was not caused by the extent, but by the construction of the ships.

h. The English men-of-war could do very much against the enemy, because they were well constructed, and not too large.

i. The English vessels were not large, but well constructed.

k. The advantage of the English men-of-war did not consist in size, but in construction.

l. The advantage of the English men-of-war was to be found in their construction.

I have myself, in teaching advanced pupils, in a similar way, let them re-write a half a page or so of a historical work. It has always interested them, and the comparison of the results, which often presented the most varied expressions for the same thought, was always very instructive.

In Chapter X, Jespersen discusses phonetics and gives an example of how one might teach some basics of phonetics to a classroom of children, as well as how to correct certain mistakes made by second-language learners:

Look at my nose; do I move it when I speak?—No.—But is it not possible to use it without moving it? Now, see if I use my nose when I say a···· [very long drawn out]. Now, I suddenly hold my nose with two fingers, and press the nostrils together. Does that make the sound different?—No.—But now I say m in the same way m···· and pinch the nostrils together in the same way. Did anything happen?—Yes, there was no sound.—Now you can try it yourselves. First you, George; say a···, and then the boy next to you can suddenly pinch your nose together with two fingers. And then say m···, and let Fred pinch your nose again. Can you say m while your nostrils are closed?—No, at any rate the sound soon disappears. All of you try it; say a· just as long as I do, and pinch the nose together several times with your fingers whenever you see me do it; and now likewise with m. That is because the air has to escape through the nose in order that the sound m may be made. It is the soft palate that you use in order to open the inner entrance to the nose, so that the air can escape through the nostrils. You can feel the palate behind the teeth, there it is hard; but if you pass your fingers farther back, you will soon feel that it becomes soft and flexible. See how it can go up and down in my mouth. Look in the mirror, and see how your own palate is. First try breathing in and out silently, and then say a; then you will see how your soft palate suddenly jumps up; that is because it has to close the entrance to the nose, so that no air can get out that way. But when you say m it remains hanging down, so that the air can come out through the nose, the passage through the mouth being closed by the lips. [At this point, you might make a rough sketch on the blackboard, showing a cross-section through the mouth, with the soft palate in the two positions.] In producing n and ŋ, you have the same position of the soft palate as in the case of m. [Try to pinch the nose together.]

Now we have seen how we use the nose and the mouth when we speak, but are they the only things that are necessary in speaking? [If the pupils cannot think of “voice” of their own accord, the teacher may put them on the track by saying: when someone speaks (or sings) very well, we say that he has a good…]—Voice.—Where is the voice?—In the vocal chords.—And where are they?—In Adam’s apple.—[Here it might be a good thing not to despise the anecdote about the apple which stuck in Adam’s throat.] Now we also call that the larynx. In there, there are two vocal chords stretched parallel to each other, and when they vibrate a tone is produced, and that is what we call voice. It is just as when a string of a violin is brought into vibration and gives forth a tone; or a bell or a wine-glass, which is made to quiver violently. Now do we always use the voice when we speak? You do not know; well, then we can experiment. [Whisper a sentence.] Did I use my voice then?—No.—Now try first to say an a··· quite loudly and forcibly (or sing it), and take firm hold of Adam’s apple with your thumb and forefinger; then you will feel it quiver. Have you never tried to touch a piano with your finger tips while someone was playing on it? Then you will have felt the same kind of delicate, rapid, quivering movements as you feel on touching the larynx while the voice is in activity. In both cases you can feel those movements with your fingers which you hear with your ear as a tone. But now whisper an a··· and feel your larynx; do you feel anything?—No, there are no vibrations.—And try to say s··· [by no means the name of the letter, es, but the hissing sound itself.] Is there voice in that? Do you feel any vibration?—No.—Then s is a voiceless sound, but a is a voiced sound. Now, try m··· [not em!] Is it voiced? and n···? Notice that you can sing the voiced sounds [test several of them], but not the voiceless sounds. That f··· is voiceless, and that v··· (with strong buzzing!) is voiced, is easily discovered. In the same way, we have for every voiceless sound a corresponding voiced sound. Say s···, and now produce the corresponding voiced sound with the buzzing element. They are the sounds we have in so and zoo, seal and zebra. We have also a third corresponding pair ʃ and ʒ; ʃ is the sound in shilling, shall, etc.; ʒ is the sound in measure, pleasure, etc. Then we may write down:

f s ʃ voiceless
v z ʒ voiced.

Now pronounce each sound in chorus as I point to the letter, and continue drawing it out until I take the chalk away from the letter. Thereupon the pupils may be tested singly, the teacher skipping from one sound to the other. Exercises may also be given with the consonants between two vowels: afffa, avvva, asssa, azzza; afa, ava, asa, aza.
Now the pupils have already had a little course in elementary phonetics; it interests them and contains nothing that they cannot understand, and nothing that is not useful for them. Nor does it ever really frighten the children; but the very thought of it has actually frightened a number of older teachers, who apparently live in holy terror of trespassing beyond the lines laid out for them in their childhood, and who unfailingly think that everything new must be just as useless, dry and pedantical as most of what they learned in their own schooldays, so they are not inclined to have the bother of making themselves familiar with anything new. In the Danish original of this book, I reprinted as a curiosity a description of the activity of the organs of speech in the production of speech-sounds, which a boy 14 years old, who had never been told anything about the formation of sounds, had written all by himself, without the least instruction or help of any kind (which can easily be seen, among other things, from the fact that he sticks to and analyzes the names of the letters); it shows that this dreaded phonetical science is not so terribly far beyond the horizon of ordinary children after all.

The children always “follow” the teacher so well in these phonetical exercises that it is rather necessary to put a damper on their eagerness to try to produce the sounds than to spur them on. Or, in other words, the teacher has but to organize their natural impulse to imitate the sounds by saying to them, when they begin to whistle and hum: “You may say the sounds yourselves directly, just wait a moment,” and thereupon, after the explanation has been given, by allowing them ample opportunity to pronounce the sounds, both in chorus and singly. Then, both during recess and at home, they will revel to their hearts’ content in the new sounds, and the whole new and amusing world that has been opened to them.

One of the most unbecoming mistakes which Englishmen make in their pronunciation of foreign languages is their diphthongizing of long vowels, since long vowels, in ordinary English, are pronounced with an upward glide, so that the jaw and the tongue are raised higher in the last part of the vowels in see, two, hay, know, for instance, than in the first part. In vulgar London pronunciation, this English peculiarity is carried further, the beginning of the sound being lowered, at all events in the last two sounds mentioned, so that lace sounds like lice, and pay like pie. But even if the best pronunciation does not go to this extreme, yet the glide is there, and this glide is for the native Frenchman or German one of the most striking faults in the Englishman’s pronunciation of the respective languages, so the Englishman had best be on his guard in this particular. If the teacher, after a little theoretical explanation, says the English [ei] and the German [e] alternately a number of times, even the dullest pupils cannot help but get their ears trained to detect this difference, but long and patient training is certainly necessary, both with the class in chorus and with the pupils singly, before this deeply rooted tendency to diphthongize can be checked.

Max Müller once said that the English orthography is a national misfortune, and Viëtor has improved upon this observation by declaring that it is an international misfortune, since it is not only Englishmen but also all educated persons in other lands who have to be bothered with it.

Finally, Jespersen ends by criticizing the way in which examinations encourage short-term memorization rather than true learning, and by summarizing his view of what language instruction should entail:

The worst canker in our school-system is the examinations. Everything is arranged with a view to examinations; the parents, the children, and unfortunately also a number of the teachers care for nothing but the results attained in the examinations; the daily instruction is left to shift for itself, but the authorities will take ample care to guard against the least bit of negligence which might be shown by the examiners.

Examinations compel the teachers to lay undue stress on cramming. “Cram may be defined as the accumulation of undigested facts and second-hand theories to be reproduced on paper, handed in to the examiner, and then forgotten for ever. A crammed examinee differs from a crammed Strasburg goose in not assimilating his nutriment, and this would be a real advantage were it not that the process leaves him with a nauseated appetite, enfeebled reasoning powers, though abnormally enlarged memory, and a general distaste for disinterested study.”
Examinations cause the mental and physical ruin of many more young men than we can afford. As a test of what a young man is worth in life, an examination is without any value whatever; as a test of how much really valuable knowledge he has, it is not worth much; and even as a test of how much he knows of what happens to be asked him on such an occasion, an examination is not nearly as reliable as people like to imagine. And then examinations tend in so many ways to impede instruction which would otherwise be really profitable. The question “will that be required for the examination?” is always, either consciously or unconsciously, present in the schoolroom; it smothers the teacher’s enthusiasm for communicating to his pupils what interests himself most; and it discourages the pupils’ natural thirst for knowledge for its own sake. Just before the examinations, the whole school is seized with its yearly attack of its chronic examination-catarrh. In all departments, it is considered necessary to recapitulate for examinations; for a couple of months, the pupils are transformed into mental ruminants; they receive no new mental sustenance whatever, but have to be satisfied with going through the whole year’s work once or twice more at as rapid a pace as possible. The matter which they have been given does not become more savoury on being served again; all the juice and strength, all that makes it tempting is lost, and nothing remains but what is toughest and dryest.

Where the pupils formerly had to commit to memory paradigms, rigmaroles and rules, which all had to be taken on faith, we let them investigate for themselves and thus get an insight into the construction of the language. And whereas formerly the only exercises were translation from the mother tongue into the foreign language, we now have a whole scale of varying exercises, namely: direct reproduction (repetition of the teacher’s words; answers to questions which are based directly upon the words of the book)—modified reproduction (repetition of sentences with changes of tense, person, etc.; answers to freer questions; asking of questions)—free reproduction (renarration) and finally—free production (letters, etc.). And since there is a sensible meaning in all that is read or said or done, the interest is awakened and held, and the instruction becomes not only varied, but what especially beseems living languages, it becomes in the deepest and best sense of the word really living.

The following footnotes are my own.

1. We are in Paris. You are in London. Louise and Amélie, where are you? We found the letter on the table. Did you take the book? Have we been to Berlin? Amélie, you’re sad. Louis, have you seen Phillip? Are we in London?

2. Pierre, you have taken the cane.

3. Where are you?

4. We are not here!

5. Your horse had become old.

6. I died. [Interestingly, this sentence is now very frequently used in modern-day colloquial English to mean roughly “I died of laughing.”]

On Mosquitoes: Accounts by 19th-Century Travelers in Canada and Colombia (excerpts)

In Chapter IX of his 1897 travelogue Labrador et Anticosti, Victor-Alphonse Huard describes what he calls the “mosquito war” (La guerre avec les moustiques) he and his companions faced when traveling on Anticosti Island in Quebec:

But just as we got the canoe back on board, we heard the crew on the shore desperately hailing us, and we had to go get our fisherman, who told us about his adventures during his brief excursion. First, there were no fish in the stream where he cast his line because it flowed over a rocky slope rather than a normal riverbed. But more importantly, he was attacked by countless battalions of ferocious mosquitoes and had to retreat. The glorious wounds on his body eloquently attested to the veracity of this part of his story.
The evening came, and this, combined with the calm weather, meant that so did legions of horseflies (cavalry!) and flies with rich, greenish, golden eyes. There were also mosquitoes like those Mr. Lagueux had faced off against a few hours earlier. After everything we went through, now this! The flies and horseflies, like the well-raised insects they were, were content to fly gracefully around us, but the mosquitoes! The mosquitoes of Anticosti Island were positively barbaric, with no concept of laws, respect for others, or any sense of reserve. We all know how bad even civilized mosquitoes are, so imagine the savage ferocity of their Anticosti relatives unleashed on three poor Canadians in distress on this desolate shoreline! The situation was so bad that we had to resort to using the arms in our possession. Father Lagueux and I both had anti-mosquito drugs prepared in Paris and Quebec, but we found that they were not very effective. We even went so far as to cover ourselves in both drugs simultaneously. This gave us some relief, and most of the enemy retreated on approaching this oily and pungent layer dripping from our bodies and hands; but there were still some mosquitoes (elite warriors, evidently) brave enough to attack us and pierce us with their venomous sting. In such dire circumstances, I decided to resort to drastic measures. Anticipating such a situation, I had brought a large muslin veil. I covered myself in it (combined with the lack of a cigar in my mouth, this made me look like a first communicant), thus achieving a state of satisfactory tranquility, only occasionally troubled by some fierce enemy who somehow found a way to pierce my armor.

Mais le canot était à peine revenu à bord que l’équipage s’entendit désespérément héler du rivage, et il fallut aussitôt aller chercher notre pêcheur, qui nous raconta les aventures dont sa brève excursion n’avait pas manqué. D’abord, il n’y avait pas de poisson dans le ruisseau où il avait jeté la ligne et qui coule plutôt sur un escalier de pierre que sur un lit ordinaire de rivière ; mais, surtout, le sportsman s’était vu attaqué par de si innombrables bataillons de féroces moustiques qu’il avait dû céder au nombre et battre en retraite. De glorieuses blessures confirmaient éloquemment cette dernière partie du récit.
Le soir finit par arriver, et avec lui, grâce à la placidité de l’atmosphère, nous vinrent des légions de taons à cheval (de la cavalerie !) et de jolies mouches dont les yeux d’or aux reflets verdâtres étaient d’une grande richesse ; il vint aussi de ces moustiques avec qui M. Lagueux avait eu maille à partir quelques heures auparavant. Il manquait vraiment ce comble à notre infortune ! Les taons et les mouches, en insectes bien élevés, se contentaient de nous envelopper des méandres gracieux de leur vol ; mais les moustiques ! les moustiques de l’Anticosti ! c’est-à-dire des moustiques encore barbares, qui n’ont aucune idée de loi, ni d’égards, ni de réserve quelconque. On connaît assez combien les moustiques civilisés sont encore sujets à caution. Que l’on imagine donc, si on le peut, la sauvage férocité de leurs congénères de l’Anticosti s’acharnant contre trois pauvres Canadiens en détresse sur ce rivage désolé ! La situation fut jugée assez sérieuse, pour que nous recourussions aux armes que nous possédions. M. l’abbé Lagueux et moi étions munis chacun de drogues (antimoustiquaires), préparées l’une à Paris, l’autre à Québec, et nous éprouvâmes leur efficacité, qui était minime ; nous allâmes jusqu’à nous oindre successivement de l’une et de l’autre à la fois. Cela nous procura bien quelque soulagement, et le gros des ennemis reculaient en approchant de cette couche huileuse et fortement aromatisée, dont ruisselaient notre figure et nos mains ; mais il y avait toujours des insectes plus hardis, des foudres de guerre évidemment, qui méprisaient ces obstacles et nous perçaient à l’envi de leurs dards empoisonnés. Dans cette extrémité, je me résolus d’employer les grands moyens. En prévision de circonstances aussi fâcheuses, j’avais apporté un immense voile de mousseline. Je m’enveloppai là-dedans (il paraît que, sans le cigare que j’avais aux lèvres, on m’aurait pris volontiers, affublé de la sorte, pour une première communiante) et j’obtins de cette manière une tranquillité satisfaisante, troublée seulement, de loin en loin, par quelque féroce ennemi qui trouvait encore moyen de m’atteindre à travers les mailles de ma cotte d’armes.

In a footnote to this paragraph, Huard describes unpleasant encounters other had had with mosquitoes half a world away:

The following story might give readers who have not had the awful experience of being assaulted by swarms of mosquitoes some idea of what it is like.
I once read somewhere (and this is apparently not just a tall tale) that in a certain part of South America, there is a rather small river descending from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta that is full of gold. This river is called the Volador river, discovered by Élisée Reclus. Many people have tried to extract the enormous quantities of gold dust in the river, but every attempt has failed because of all the mosquitoes! I do not think this story is as implausible as it might seem to some.

S’il y a des lecteurs qui n’ont pas encore eu l’occasion d’expérimenter à quel point le fléau des moustiques est terrible, le fait suivant leur en donnera un peu l’idée.

J’ai lu quelque part, et ce n’est pas là, affirme-t-on, simple conte de voyageur, qu’il y a en certain endroit de l’Amérique du Sud, une rivière peu considérable, qui descend de la Sierra de St-Martha, et qui coule littéralement dans un lit d’or : c’est la rivière Volador, découverte par Élisée Reclus. Eh bien, toutes les tentatives que l’on a faites pour exploiter cette mine de sable d’or, qui s’y trouve en quantité fabuleuse, ont échoué à cause des moustiques qu’il y a là ! Tous les travailleurs que l’on y a envoyés ont dû battre en retraite. — Si l’on trouve que cela est raide…

While researching this story, I found that Élisée Reclus himself wrote about his experience with mosquitoes in his book, Voyage à la Sierra-Nevada de Sainte-Marthe (the second edition of which was published in 1881), in which he describes his journey to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in what is now Colombia:

After climbing the first few hills, we arrived at the Volador house, named after a tree (Gyrocarpus americanus) whose large branches are spread out over the roof. This house was built by Arawaks to shelter the unfortunate travelers who find it necessary to stop in the area to rest because of fatigue, storms, or floods. I say “unfortunate” because it is almost impossible to stay at the Volador because of the countless insects and other animals that the New Grenadians refer to by the general name of “plague” (plaga).
Among these are all sorts of mosquitoes flying merrily and incessantly in the shade; they swarm by the hundreds on the least patch of exposed skin, and one has to run and flail around like a madman to get rid of them. When these thousands of mosquitoes have gorged themselves on human blood, they gradually disappear, but they are soon replaced by clouds of zancudos, a kind of large mosquito with a proboscis almost a centimeter long, who come to take their turn at the feast. Their stingers pierce clothing, and neither wildly moving about nor trying to rest does anything against these thirsty blood-suckers. In the morning, the zancudos disappear, but another legion of mosquitoes is ready to take their place, and in the blink of an eye one is surrounded by a new swarm of enemies. There are also mosquitoes that never rest, such as the jejen, an insect so small it can be barely felt when one swats it, and another species of mosquito with a sucker-like stinger that leaves a small patch of coagulated blood that gradually peels off over the course of a few weeks. After one spends some time being stung by these insects, one’s face becomes swollen and unsightly.

Après avoir gravi les premières pentes, on arrive au rancho du Volador ainsi nommé d’un arbre1 qui étale ses vastes branches au-dessus du toit. Ce rancho a été bâti par des Indiens Aruaques pour abriter les malheureux voyageurs que la fatigue, l’orage ou la crue des rivières empêchent de continuer leur route ; malheureux, ai-je dit, car il est à peine possible d’exister au Volador, exposé, comme on l’est, aux innombrables insectes et autres animaux que les Néo-Grenadins désignent sous le nom général de fléau (plaga).
Ce sont d’abord les moustiques de toute espèce, dont les tourbillons joyeux dansent incessamment sous l’ombrage ; ils s’abattent par centaines sur la moindre surface de la peau laissée à découvert, et, pour s’en débarrasser, il faut se livrer sans relâche à une gymnastique désespérée et courir çà et là comme un forcené. Vers le soir, quand ces millier [sic] de mosquitos se sont repus de sang humain, leurs essaims disparaissent par degrés, mais ils sont bientôt remplacés par des nuages de zancudos, énormes maringouins au dard long de près d’un centimètre, qui viennent à leur tour prendre part à la curée. Comment leur échapper pendant la nuit? Leur aiguillon atteint la chair à travers les vêtements, et qu’on se démène en fureur ou qu’on essaye vainement de se reposer, on n’en est pas moins couvert de buveurs de sang toujours inassouvis. Le matin, les zancudos disparaissent à leur tour, mais une autre légion de moustiques est prête comme un relais pour leur succéder, et à peine a-t-on pu respirer un instant que l’on est enveloppé d’un nouveau tourbillon d’ennemis. Il est aussi des maringouins qui ne se reposent jamais, entre autres le jejen, insecte imperceptible qu’on sent à peine sous le doigt qui l’écrase, et une espèce de moustique dont le dard agit comme une ventouse et laisse une petite tache de sang coagulé qui s’exfolie au bout de quelques semaines. Si l’on reste longtemps exposé aux attaques de ces insectes, la figure, toute boursouflée de piqûres, prend bientôt un aspect hideux.
1.Gyrocarpus americanus.

Later, Reclus relates how the attempts of some would-be prospectors to obtain the gold in the area were foiled by its loyal guardian fauna:

The stream that flows next to the Voldaor cabin has a large quantity of gold specks, but everyone who has attempted to collect them has failed, being forced to flee from the mosquitoes. Two years prior, the French Vice-Consul of Riohacha had obtained rights to the placeres of the Volador and had an ingeniously made gauze tent placed there. For two days, he tried to live in the tent to supervise his workers. The workers had gloves on and their faces covered, but at the end of the second day, the Vice-Consul and his workers agreed to give up their lucrative, yet tiring, work. Later, an avaricious Italian who had received permission from the Vice-Consul to wash the Volador’s golden sands did not even last two days and left after only having collected gold worth about ten pieces of eight. The only humans who can take full advantage of the resources in the streams of the Volador are the inhabitants of Dibulla and the neighboring villages, who are protected by their leprous shells—but they are also the only people who have no interest in increasing their wealth.

Le ruisseau qui coule à côté de la cabane du Volador roule, dans ses sables, une grande quantité de paillettes d’or ; mais toutes les tentatives qu’on a faites pour les recueillir ont été vaines : il a fallu s’enfuir devant les moustiques. Le vice-consul français de Rio-Hacha, ayant obtenu la concession des placeres du Volador, y avait fait transporter, deux années auparavant, une tente de gaze très-ingénieusement disposée. Pendant deux jours, il essaya dé vivre sous cet abri pour surveiller le travail de ses ouvriers : ceux-ci étaient gantés et avaient la figure voilée; mais à la fin du deuxième jour, maître et ouvriers abandonnèrent, d’un commun accord, leur tâche, aussi fatigante que lucrative. Plus tard, un Italien avide, qui avait reçu du vice-consul la permission de laver les sables aurifères du Volador, ne put même travailler pendant deux jours entiers, et quitta la besogne après avoir recueilli la valeur d’environ dix piastres. Les seuls êtres humains qui pourraient impunément exploiter les ruisseaux du Volador, parce qu’ils sont protégés par une carapace de lèpre, les habitants du Dibulla et des villages voisins, sont justement les seuls qui ne tiennent point à l’accroissement de leurs richesses.

The curious case of the epenthetic “md”: Yorkshire “Hahsomdiver” in Wuthering Heights

While reading Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, I enjoyed reading the passages in which Joseph speaks in Yorkshire dialect (or at least, Brontë’s rendering of it). One word that I found particularly interesting because of its (to me) opaqueness was hahsomdiver, as in the following sentence from Chapter IX: “Hahsomdiver, t’ maister ‘ull play t’ devil to-morn, and he’ll do weel.” After some sleuthing, I found a site that contained a translation of the sentence into standard English rendering the word as “however”.

Having found a translation, I was nevertheless confused by the morphological composition of the word: hah clearly corresponded to “how”, and iver to “ever”, but what could somd mean? I found a partial answer in a glossary of Yorkshire terms that lists hahsiver (“howsoever”), which to me suggested that the “so” in hahsomdiver corresponded to the “so” in “howsoever”. Yet the glossary did not actually contain the word hahsomdiver. Was hahsomdiver the same word as hahsiver, and if so, why were the translations different (“however” as opposed to “howsoever”)?

Determined to find the answer, I turned to Google. Searching “hahsomdiver” led mostly to various editions of Wuthering Heights and was not very helpful. Then I had the idea of reversing my search by starting from the word “howsoever” and searching for its Yorkshire equivalent. As a result, I found a 1876 book by C. Clough Robinson entitled A Glossary of Words Pertaining to the Dialect of Mid-Yorkshire containing the following entry for a word almost identical in form to hahsomdiver:

Howsomivver [oo˙˙sumiv˙ur, oo˙˙suomiv˙ur, aoh’sumiv˙ur, aoh’suomiv˙ur], adv. howsoever; nevertheless. Wh. Gl.; gen. Also, however, when signifying at all events.

This definition seems to indicate that hahsomdiver is in fact etymologically equivalent to “howsoever”, but acquired (or perhaps preserved?) the additional meaning of “however”. (Incidentally, I found out a way to reproduce the dots in the glossary thanks to this article on the dot diacritic.)

Yet I am not sure why the “d” in hahsomdiver is not present in howsomivver. Perhaps the former disappeared from general use in the roughly 30 years between the creation of Wuthering Heights and the publication of the dictionary, or perhaps hahsomdiver was used in a different region of Yorkshire from that studied by Robinson. The latter view would seem to be at least plausible, if this review of the glossary is to be believed (emphasis added):

The present issue of the English Dialect Society’s works is full of interest. It contains more original matter than any of the other issues has done, and this is saying a great deal. We will first take Mr. Clough Robinson’s “Dialect of Mid-Yorkshire,” because it very clearly illustrates how utterly absurd is the doctrine which has been so vehemently put forward, that no glossary should contain any word which is contained in another. Mr. Clough Robinson had resolved to exclude all words which were to be found in the “Whitby Glossary.” Now what would have been the result? Simply this, that a philologist comparing the two glossaries would have supposed that “keld,” a spring, was used in the neighbourhood of Whitby, but not near York; that “kink,” a convulsion or fit; “mauf,” a companion, and a hundred more words, were peculiar to the East Coast, but were utterly unknown in the centre of Yorkshire. No plan could have been better devised for promoting the utmost confusion and the most disastrous results. A glossary compiled upon such a principle would have done far more harm than good. Most fortunately Mr. Clough Robinson was prevented by Mr. Ellis and Mr. Skeat from carrying out his plan. His work, as it now stands, is admirable. Mr. Clough Robinson is already well known as the author of the “Leeds Glossary,” which was compiled some five-and-thirty years ago. The present volume shows the same industry and patient research as his older work. As we turn over the pages, we are met by a number of old-world words, many of them pregnant with meaning; such as “hunger-slain” for starved; “black-avised” for black-visaged; “housen-stuff” for household furniture; “catwhelp” for kitten, and many more equally expressive and picturesque. Other words, too, have a far greater value, as explaining passages in our old writers and poets, especially Chaucer. But this field is far too large for us to enter. The reader must turn to Mr. Robinson’s pages for the valuable information which it contains. Wide, however, as the net is which Mr. Robinson has thrown, he still must not imagine that he has swept the district quite clean. He has certainly done a great deal, but of making a glossary, especially of Yorkshire words, is there no end. We miss not a few, and some of them very common ones, from his pages. We find “ratch,” a streak, but not the expressive “ratch-faced,” applied to a horse with a blaze down its face. The housewife’s “battledore” for rolling clothes is not obsolete in the district. “Beck,” a bow (still used in the United States), and “beckon,” to bow, may be heard almost under the shadow of York Minster. “Bodin,” a bundle of sticks or stones, is used by the farmers who come to York “Saumas” Fair. “Cockonies,” cockchafers, are to be found on that Strenshal Common whose fame Mr. Robinson rightly commemorates; and “crake-feet,” orchisses, and the “seal-tree” and “wilfe-tree,” willows, grow on the clay lands of the neighbouring village of Foston, where Sidney Smith used to say he was ten miles from a lemon. We hope, therefore, that Mr. Robinson will once more make another cast over the district, as there are still many rich hauls waiting him. As it is, however, his work is well worthy of his reputation, and is one of the most interesting which the English Dialect Society has yet issued.
The next volume contains no less than five original glossaries of different counties. But we would first call attention to Mr. Skeat’s introduction. He there lays down the true principle on which the Society’s labours can alone be utilised. We are fully persuaded that there is no other plan but Mr. Skeat’s which is practicable, and we most sincerely trust that collectors of provincialisms will not be led away by any arguments to the contrary, however plausible they may seem. We here see what the result would have been if Mr. Clough Robinson had not followed Mr. Skeat’s and Mr. Ellis’s advice. The business of the glossarist, for the present, at all events, is to register all provincial words which come under his notice. He should adopt Cobden’s political watchword, “Register, register,” as his watchword. Of course it is very easy for critics to find objections. The ideal plan would be to map out all England into ethnographical divisions, and to appoint trained men to collect in each district. But, unfortunately, ideal plans are only fit for an ideal world. As it is, men must work with what tools they have, and do the best that they can.

I also wonder if there is any phonological reason for the epenthetic md, and if this is a general phenomenon in Yorkshire English or limited to this one word.

De las traducciones (On Translation), by Mariano José de Larra (excerpt)

The Spanish writer Mariano José de Larra (1809-1837), under the pseudonym Figaro, wrote an essay entitled De las traducciones (“On Translation”), in which he discusses, among other things, his view of the role of theater translators. Below is the opening of the essay, taken from an 1866 edition of Obras completas de Figaro (Complete Works of Figaro):

Several things are necessary for anyone who wants to translate a comedy from French into Spanish: first, an understanding of comedy; second, an understanding of French theater and the French public; third, an understanding of Spanish theater and the Spanish public; fourth, the ability to read French; fifth, the ability to write Spanish. All this, of course, applies to translating a comedy well; to translate one badly, all one needs is audacity and a dictionary. Those who have to resort to using the latter usually have abundant reserves of the former.

Nevertheless, it is generally accepted that taste in theater varies in that: the community of emotions and sensations between the author and the public is affected by the use of theatrical effects; different national customs can lead to ideas being expressed in different ways; a graceful witticism in one country may become nonsensical inanity in another; a character that is new in France might be an old one in Spain. In short, translating plays almost never involves merely interpreting: it involves finding equivalents not for words, but for situations. To translate a comedy well is to take an idea and a structure alien to the customs of the intended audience, and express them as if they were originally written in the target language. As a result, comedies generally cannot be translated well except by those who know how to write them. Otherwise, it is as if one were an interpreter sitting in a prompter box and telling the Spanish public: “Mr. Scribe says,” etc.

What I have said applies to comedies. By contrast, historical dramas, tragedies, or any other dramatic works based on a historical event, love story, or well-known character, are all equally presentable in every country. History is part of the domain of every language, and so translating such a play requires only having a well-tempered soul and the discerning literary taste to understand the beauty of the original text. One does not need to be Victor Hugo to understand Victor Hugo, but one does have to be a poet in order to translate a poet well.

Thus, the translator’s task is not as easy as is commonly supposed, and it is for that reason that it is difficult to find good translators; if someone has the skills to be a good translator, it would be odd for him to want to invest so much time and effort only to enable someone else to shine.

Varias cosas se necesitan para traducir del francés al castellano una comedia. Primera, saber lo que son comedias; segunda, conocer el teatro y el público francés; tercera, conocer el teatro y el público español; cuarta, saber leer el francés; y quinta, saber escribir el castellano. Todo eso se necesita, y algo más, para traducir una comedia, se entiende, bien; porque para traducirla mal no se necesita más que atrevimiento y diccionario: por lo regular, el que tiene que servirse del segundo no anda escaso del primero.

Sabiendo todas estas cosas, no se ignora que el gusto en teatros es variable; que en tanto hay efectos teatrales, en cuanto se establece entre el autor y el espectador una comunidad de afectos y de sensaciones; que de diversidad de costumbres nace la diferente expresión de las ideas; que lo que en un país y en una lengua es una chanza llena de sal ática puede llegar a ser en otros una necedad vacía de sentido; que un carácter nuevo en Francia puede ser viejo en España: no se ignora en fin que el traducir en materias de teatro casi nunca es interpretar; es buscar el equivalente, no de las palabras, sino de las situaciones. Traducir bien una comedia es adoptar una idea y un plan ajenos que estén en relación con las costumbres del país á que se traduce, y expresarlos y dialogarlos como si se escribiera originalmente: de donde se infiere que por lo regular no puede traducir bien comedias quien no es capaz de escribirlas originales. Lo demás es ser un truchiman, sentarse en el agujero del apuntador y decirle al público español: Dice monsieur Scribe, etc., etc.

Esto con respecto á la comedia; por lo que hace al drama histórico, á la tragedia, ó cualquiera otra composición dramática cuya base sea un hecho heroico, ó una pasión, ó un carácter célebre conocido, éstos ya son cuadros igualmente presentables en todos los países. La historia es del dominio de todas las lenguas; en ese caso basta tener una alma bien templada y gusto literario ejercitado para comprender las bellezas del original; no se necesita ser Víctor Hugo para comprender a Víctor Hugo, pero es preciso ser poeta para traducir bien á un poeta.

La tarea, pues, del traductor no es tan fácil como a todos les parece, y por eso es tan difícil hallar buenos traductores; porque cuando un hombre se halla con los elementos para serlo bueno, es raro que quiera invertir tanto trabajo sólo en hacer resaltar la gloria de otro.

Poetas Fúnebres (Funerary Poets), by Luis Taboada

The following is a translation of Poetas Fúnebres, a humorous short story by the Spanish humorist Luis Taboada (1848-1906) published in his 1892 short story collection Caricaturas.

Funerary Poets, by Luis Taboada

The foundation dedicated to the illustrious Rafael Calvo1 by his fellow lovers of the Spanish language will, thank God, not be holding any poetry readings.

The Committee charged with organizing this solemn artistic event has decided to make a compilation of the more or less poetic works dedicated to the deceased; this way, fathers who don’t know anything about rhyme are free to read them or give them to their children so they can have a better idea of how our lyric poetry has flourished.

There is nothing sadder than going to the theater to enjoy yourself and seeing an actor in mourning dress come out and sobbingly start reading a poem.

“Hey, I came here to have fun!” exclaims the audience member, who bought a ticket to shake off the yoke of his mother-in-law and just for a moment forget the troubles of married life.

“We’re going to be listening to poetry for a while,” answers the person next to him. “Do you see all those people who look like they’re standing around doing nothing? They all have a poem in their pocket.”

Indeed, so it is. There are many actors eagerly awaiting the demise of their colleagues so they can read half a dozen verses over their grave. When the day comes, they hastily finish their meal and dash off to the funeral after telling their wives:

“Bring me the soup; I have a performance today.”

“Are you premiering a new play?”

“No: we’re going to read poetry in honor of Rodríguez, the character actor, may he rest in peace.”


It wouldn’t be so bad if those who wrote poems to read over artists’ graves were reasonable people, but when a consumerist writer thinks he is skilled enough to write a sonnet, the public, common sense, and Spanish grammar end up having to pay for it.

The organizers of poetry nights usually have visitors like this one:

“Are you Mr. Gumersindo?”

“Yes. At your service.”

“I was wondering if I could read you a dactylic poem I wrote yesterday in City Hall, where I work for you in the Sewage Department.”

“Of course.”

“I know you are organizing a poetry night, and I didn’t want to miss it. It wouldn’t be the first time people have read my work. For the Mayor’s birthday, I wrote him an ode, and the City Hall secretary read it to him in a private session. After that, they sent me an honorary encrusted desk and half a dozen pocket squares.”

“Well, the thing is that we already have quite a few poems.”

“I thought you might, but I would like to note that mine almost certainly has a lovelier selection of dactyls than they do. Listen to this:

Fate, in its total stupidity,
Snatched you from us far too suddenly;
Grant me, with your generosity,
Leave to come visit your tomb.”

“Enough! Enough!”

“Take these choice lines’ luminosity
And their poetic loquacity;
Suffering from my morosity,
Crying, I weep over you.”

The man on the Organizing Committee becomes agitated and tries to get the bard to leave, but the poet takes out a letter of recommendation from a very influential leather worker on Postas street whose orders the man must defer to. Defeated, the man says:

“All right, I’ll have someone read your poem.”

“Tell the actor who will be reading it to pay particular attention to the part near the bottom, because that’s the part I spent the most time perfecting, and make sure he says my name: John Salmonford Chinley.”

“Fine, don’t worry.”

“I want people where I’m from to see how far I’ve come.

They thought I was an idiot, and my teacher expelled me twice saying I’d never amount to anything. But now, thank God, I’ve proven them all wrong; in fact, the city councilmen come to me and ask me to dictate their letters and edit their speeches. Well, goodbye. If there are any expenses related to my poetry, I can take care of it.”

“Go to hell!”

This is what the Committee member said to him privately, but as he did not want to slight the leather worker, the verses were read at the poetry night, and the newspapers showered the young Salmonford with praise, calling him an inspired and sparkling poet of infinite sensibility, though at the same time modest and not very handsome.

There are quite a few poets like Salmonford who spend their lives lying in wait for some poetry night where they can demonstrate their brilliance, and as soon as they find the opportunity, they get recommendations and move mountains so their poetry will be read in public.

One of the funerary poets we know of is a lady flecked with smallpox scars (which, in addition to her bad breath, are the reason she has not married) who gives crème caramels to people on all the Committees. It is to be seen whether this will allow her to rise out of “obscurantism” (as she calls it) and be hailed as a national bard, like many others who are in no way her intellectual superior, but who have been able to acquire an enviable and lucrative reputation.

1. This is probably a reference to the actor Rafael Calvo Revilla, who died in 1888, four years before the publication of Caricaturas.

Costumes Madrilenos (The Customs of Madrid), by Sebastião de Magalhães Lima (excerpts)

Costumes Madrilenos (The Customs of Madrid) is a book by the Portuguese journalist Sebastião de Magalhães Lima (1850-1928) in which he journeys to Madrid and reflects on the differences between Spanish and Portuguese culture. (The second edition of the book, which is the one used in this post, was published in 1877).

In the chapter Nós e Elles (“Us and Them”), Lima makes a curious observation on the opinions the Spanish and Portuguese had of each other:

It is of course true that we are not them, and they are not us.
Despite this, they want to be us, but we do not want to be them.
A curious world we live in!
We are constantly singing the praises of Madrid, and they never get tired of extolling Lisbon.
Mutatis mutandis, the grass is always greener on the other side.

Não ha duvida que nós não somos elles, nem elles são nós.
Não obstante, elles querem ser nós, mas nós é que não queremos ser elles.
Coisas d’este mundo!
Nós, não nos fartamos de elogiar Madrid; e elles não se cançam nunca de exaltar Lisboa.
Mutatis mutandis, ninguem está bem senão onde não está.

In the same chapter, Lima quotes a witticism about the difference between a wealthy man’s youth and old age and uses it as an analogy for the development of Lisbon:

When Emile Péreire was writing for the National under Armand Carrel, he was so poor that he had no idea of the riches he would eventually come to have.
When he looked back on that period of misery later in life, he pronounced that splendid phrase caricatured by Charlet:
“At the age of thirty, I had teeth, but no bread; at the age of sixty, I have bread, but no teeth.”
One might say the same about our capital: when it had character and money, it lacked spirit and intellectual development; now that it is more developed and suited to the concepts of the modern world, it lacks character and frankness.

Emile Péreire, no tempo em que escrevia no Nacional, sob as ordens de Armand Carrel, tão pobre era que longe estava de imaginar o futuro de riqueza que o esperava.
Foi, recordando-se d’esse passado de miseria, que elle pronunciou aquella esplendida phrase, de que Charlet fez uma caricatura:
—Aos trinta annos tinha dentes e não tinha pão; aos sessenta tenho pão e não tenho dentes.
Pois assim está a nossa capital—quando tinha caracter e dinheiro faltava-lhe o espirito e o desenvolvimento intellectual; agora que naturalmente está mais desinvolvida e mais apta para as concepções do mundo moderno, escasseia-lhe o caracter e a franqueza.

The book does not specify the source of this anecdote, but it could be a translation of a passage from Volume 65 of the French newspaper L’Illustration, which differs somewhat in that the attribution is treated as possibly apocryphal and, even if true, ultimately predated by a similar quote not originating with Péreire:

Emile Péreire wrote for the National under Armand Carrel. He was then very poor and had no idea he would eventually become a wealthy millionaire.
It is said that when he looked back on that period of misery later in life, he uttered the phrase attributed to him:
—At the age of thirty, I had teeth, but no bread; at the age of sixty, I have bread, but no more teeth!
N. B. — This philosophical phrase, incidentally, echoes one of Charlet’s caricatures.

M. Emile Péreire écrivit au National, sous les ordres d’Armand Carrel. Il était fort pauvre alors, très-éloigné de supposer qu’il pût devenir un jour si grand millionnaire.
Ce serait en rappelant ces souvenirs qu’il aurait dit le mot qu’on lui attribue.
— À trente ans, j’avais des dents et pas de pain ; a soixante ans, j’ai du pain et plus de dents !
N. B. — Ce mot, si philosophique, est d’ailleurs l’écho d’une caricature de Charlet.

Later on in the chapter, Lima also talks about cafés:

In Madrid, cafés are people’s lives. When one wants to get ahold of an important person in Madrid, one asks not where they live, but what café they go to. That is also the reason why, in the capital of Spain, cafés, which are practically small villages in size, are full, completely full during the night and day. Cafés are where politics is done, and they are also where the future of the country is prepared.

Em Madrid vive-se no café e pelo café. Quando se quer procurar qualquer pessoa importante, não se pergunta nunca pela casa onde reside, mas sim pelo café que costuma frequentar. E ahi está tambem o motivo, porque, na capital da Hespanha, os cafés, que quasi se podem dizer pequenas aldeias pela extensão e pelo comprimento, estão cheios, perfeitamente cheios, durante a noite e durante o dia. É ahi que se faz a politica, e é ahi tambem que se preparam os futuros acontecimentos do paiz.

Later, in the chapter A Cidade (“The City”), he tells an amusing anecdote:

There is a story about a Spanish mayor who once gave three speeches over the course of three days.
On the first day, he asked the crowd:
“If I give a speech, will you understand it?”
No one answered.
“Well, if no one will understand it, then there’s no point in me preaching in the wilderness.”
The next day, he returned and asked the same question.
“Yes!” the crowd answered, irritated with what had happened the previous day and curious to know what the illustrious orator expected of them.
“In that case, there’s no need for explanations.”
On the third and last day, the audience answered indistinctly.
“Do you know what the point of my speech is?” asked the mayor.
“Yes! No!” answered the crowd ambivalently.
“Then the people who know should explain it to those who don’t.”

Conta-se que um alcaide hespanhol se compromettera certo dia a fazer tres discursos numa dada povoação.
Chegou o primeiro dia, e perguntou á turba:
—Entenderão o que lhes vou dizer?
Ninguem respondeu.
—Pois se não têm de entender-me é escusado pregar no deserto.
No segundo dia voltou, e repetiu a mesma pergunta.
—Sim! responderam todos, já zangados com a occorrencia do dia anterior e desejosos por saber o que tão illustre orador d’elles queria.
—Nesse caso, se comprehendem, são inuteis as explicações.
Chegou, porém, o dia da terceira e ultima prelecção, e o povo concordou em responder indistinctamente.
—Serão capazes de perceber qual é o fim do meu discurso?
Sim! Não! conclamou a turba em dois córos.
—Então aquelle que percebeu que explique ao que não entendeu.

In introducing the chapter Edificios Publicos e Outras Curiosidades Historicas (“Public Buildings and Other Historical Curiosities”), Lima expresses his belief in the importance of stability in human life:

A famous German writer once said that life is like a train ride: marriage is a train collision; sleep is going through a tunnel; business is crossing a bridge; and destiny is an engineer quietly taking us to the end of our journey.
If what this eccentric thinker tells us is true, then it seems that for man, life is just a series of rapid and imprudent sensations, without a single constant thought to occupy him, without respite, without any attachments, family, belief, or humanity.
And yet, despite everything, the universe appears completely different from what the aforementioned writer would have us believe.
Everywhere we look, stability is an essential element of the life of all peoples. As societies evolved, the first thing humans focused on doing was undoubtedly to settle, build a hut to spend the night in and establish a definitive base for their work and operations.

Dizia um celebre escriptor allemão que a vida era uma viagem em caminho de ferro: o casamento um choque de trens; o somno a passagem de um tunel; um negocio a passagem de uma ponte; o destino um machinista que nos leva silencioso ao termo da viagem.
Nestas circumstancias, e a ser verdade o que nos diz tão excentrico pensador, parece, de facto, que ao homem nada mais resta neste mundo do que uma vida de sensações rapidas e imprudentes, sem um unico pensamento, que o preoccupe, sem repouso, sem ligações, sem familia, sem crenças, sem humanidade.
E apesar de tudo, e sem embargo do auctor citado, o universo apresenta-nos um aspecto perfeitamente em contrario do que acima transcrevemos.
Por toda a parte a fixidez se nos antólha como elemento essencialissimo na vida dos povos. Na evolução das sociedades a primeira cousa que o homem teve em vista foi certamente fixar-se, construir a cabana onde tinha de pernoitar e estabelecer definitivamente a séde dos seus trabalhos e operações.

The book ends with Lima arriving in Lisbon and saying goodbye to the reader:

Six in the morning. We must almost be in Lisbon.
“Lisbon! Lisbon!” exclaims a guard outside.
Well then, dear and amiable reader, allow me to shake your hand and, with great sadness, say farewell.
I will always be your humble servant.

6 horas da madrugada. Devemos estar perto de Lisboa.
—Lisboa! Lisboa! exclama um guarda de fóra.
Assim, pois, leitor amigo, permitta-me que lhe aperte a mão, e que com tristeza me despeça da sua extrema amabilidade.
Um seu creado!

Interestingly, though um seu creado (or its modern spelling um seu criado) seems to be a rather rare phrase, with one of the few Google results for it being Lima’s novel A Senhora Viscondessa, it is also part of the title of the television series Alves dos Reis: Um Seu Criado (“Alves Reis, Your Servant”).