Posts Tagged ‘Ruth Rendell’

Patchett’s patchy Portuguese

January 6, 2017

It’s only in the last few years that I have expanded my reading of contemporary fiction beyond detective novels (and the occasional New Yorker  short story), thanks to a wonderful institution a few blocks from my house: the El Cerrito Recycling + Environmental Resource Center, and specifically its Exchange Zone, where thousands of used books can be found free for the taking. It was there that I discovered Barbara Kingsolver, Nick Hornby, Jonathan Franzen and their ilk — writers whose names I had heard of or read about, but not actually delved into. My latest such discovery is Ann Patchett, whose State of Wonder (2011) I am currently reading.

Despite the lovely writing – in free indirect style, entirely representing the protagonist, Marina Singh – I did not become absorbed in the book until Marina got to Manaus, in the Amazon region of Brazil. But then I was gripped by the vivid descriptions of the city’s air – beginning with “the musty wind of the tropical air-conditioning” at the airport —  and people.

And those of the people who are local and speak with one another do so in Portuguese. That’s where things get patchy, and I have to don my ling-crit mantle. The first sentence is, Negócio é negócio,  “business is business.” The second is, “Dr. Singh conhece o Dr. Swenson,” “Dr. Singh knows Dr. Swenson.”

I have long believed that writers should not use abbreviations, symbols or numerals in dialogue, only words as they are spoken. Initialisms or acronyms are okay,  if they are said as such, but the author needs to make it clear how they are said. I can make allowances for “Mr.” and “Mrs.”, because there is really only one way of saying them, but “Dr.” is read differently in different languages; in Portuguese it happns to be doutor.

But doutor, or o doutor with the definite article required when “doctor” is used as a title, is strictly masculine. And both Dr. Singh (the aforementioned Marina) and Dr. Swenson are women, so that of course they would be (a) doutora, or, if abbreviated, (a) Dra.

What seems to have happened is that Patchett used some kind of translation resource (electronic, written or personal) to translate “Dr. Singh knows Dr. Swenson” while neglecting to specify gender.

The rest of the Portuguese dialogue I have read so far seems similarly patched together.

Another linguistic weakness, one that Patchett seems to share with the late Ruth Rendell (I discussed it here), is the apparent belief that Indians necessarily speak Hindi. Marina, whose father is Indian, is reported to have, as a child, visited him in Calcutta, where she found herself swallowed up by a Hindi-speaking crowd. Hindi is in fact spoken in West Bengal — by about 7% of the population — but it’s hard to imagine a crowd in Calcutta speaking anything but Bengali.


Upton Something

January 10, 2013

No, I don’t mean Upton Sinclair, but I’m sorry, I just haven’t been able to come up with a pithy two-word phrase that would encapsulate the opposite or counterpart of Downton Abbey. But it so happens that I watched the first episode of Series 3 (“Season 3” in the US) just as I was finishing Ruth Rendell’s latest novel, The St. Zita Society, and I couldn’t help thinking of it as just such a counterpart.

Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, and Ruth Rendell are both life peers and hence members of the House of Lords. He is Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, Conservative, and she is Baroness Rendell of Babergh, Labour. Though they are of different generations, they surely know each other. But Fellowes belongs to the literary/show business set that Rendell so often mocks. And he seems to admire nobility: both the hereditary nobility of titles (he was upset that his wife, the niece of a childless earl, could not succeed to the title) and the nobility of spirit that one finds among the loyal servants of the titled. In Downton Abbey scoundrels are few, and they are mostly outside these two sets, like the upstart press lord Sir Richard Carlisle and Bates’s wife Vera. And of the mostly noble rest of the characters, some are excruciatingly so, like Matthew Crawley and Anna Smith-Bates.

The St. Zita Society is also about rich people (titled and not) and their servants, but nobility is not to be found among them. With a few exceptions (all of whom belong to ethnic minorities) they are all mean, or stupid, or both; or else insane. I don’t know any writer who can get into the mind of a mentally disturbed person, and get their thoughts and actions to follow logically from their state of mind, better than Ruth Rendell. Here, as elsewhere, the one crazy person plays a crucial part.

It isn’t that Ruth Rendell does not recognize human decency. In the Inspector Wexford series, the inspector and his family and associates are mainly intelligent, sensitive persons. And in the novels written under the name Barbara Vine, which are invariably in the first person, the narrator is always such a person as well. But as for the world around them, look out!

One thing that made me feel that Ruth Rendell’s book is perhaps an intentional antidote to Downton Abbey is a plot element common to both: a lord’s daughter marrying his chauffeur. But the circumstances are as different as the eras (almost a century apart) and as the two authors.


March 27, 2012

On reviewing my latest post I noticed two things that had not occurred to me as I was writing it.

One was that whenever I did not refer to Elizabeth George by her full lname (or, at least, her author name) I called her Ms. George. On the other hand, when I wrote about Ian Rankin, I called him Rankin. I evidently have not yet absorbed the by-now-not-so-new convention of referring to women simply by their surnames. It is, of course, a journalistic convention, not a novelistic one: George herself (there, I did it!) refers to Thomas Lynley as Lynley, but to Barbara Havers as Barbara. And its common use in journalism (outside the New York Times, which maintains Mr. and Ms.) can be confusing, as when in an article about Hillary Clinton, in which there may be references to her husband, she is called simply Clinton.

I also wrote that Elizabeth George “showed herself as being even more like a British writer in another respect: clumsiness in writing about non-anglophone culture,” letting it go at that, without citing examples. An example came my way the next day, as I was reading Ruth Rendell’s The Vault. Here a key element of the plot is the use of the French word punaise as a mnemonic for a person’s PIN, since punaise supposedly means ‘pin.’ But the primary meaning (that is, the first meaning that will come to a French person’s mind) of punaise is ‘bug’ (specifically ‘bedbug’); a secondary meaning is ‘pin’ of the kind that in Britain is known as drawing pin, in America thumbtack, but the general word for ‘pin’ is épingle. And just before this book I had read Rendell’s Portobello, one of whose characters has a mother who is a Muslim from Assam and whose language is not Assamese or Bengali or Sylheti but Hindi, a language practically unknown in Assam (see Wikipedia).

Even supposedly cosmopolitan, world-traveling British writers, like E. M. Forster, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham or John le Carré, often betray in their writings the likelihood that they spend most of their time abroad chatting with other Brits. Le Carré, for example, worked as a diplomat in Germany, and yet his knowledge of German language and culture shows considerable lapses. And George Orwell, who wrote Homage to Catalonia, didn’t know Catalan.

American writers, by and large, have not exhibited these symptoms. Hispanic culture, for example, has been portrayed by some of our greatest writers, from Washington Irving and Helen Hunt Jackson to Hemingway, Steinbeck, Thornton Wilder and Katherine Anne Porter, and in reading their works one feels that their knowledge of the culture, or at least the subcultures they wrote about, is thorough.

An exception comes to mind in Tony Hillerman’s The Sinister Pig, where the digressions on Spanish and Latin American culture and history are a sorry mess, surprising from someone who spent most of his life in the half-Hispanic city of Albuquerque, and enough to almost (but not quite) make me doubt the authenticity of his Navajo lore.

Elizabeth George spent most of her life in California, another place with a large Hispanic population, so I would expect her (meticulous researcher that she is, to gather from her forewords and afterwords) to know better. My guess is that she deliberately botched the Spanish in order to seem more British.