by Rahul Bery, Translator in Residence at the British Library for 2018-19. The British Libraryâs Translator in Residence scheme, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), offers a translator the opportunity to become part of the British Libraryâs multilingual community of staff, readers and visitors for one year. The exhibition, P.G. Wodehouse: The Man and His Work, runs until February 24th.
One thing I feel not sufficiently covered by the BLâs otherwise wonderful mini-exhibition on the life and works of P.G. Wodehouse, currently running in the treasures gallery, is his appeal beyond the Anglo-American world, both in English and in translation. Wodehouseâs popularity in India is well-known: a childhood friend of my fatherâs â and an avowed superfan of Jeeves and Wooster, Blandings & co â once recalled the sage advice given them by the English teacher at their Himalayan boarding school: âWant to write good English? Read P.G. Wodehouse!â But far less has been written about his appeal beyond the Anglosphere.
Initial research on Google revealed, among other things, a thesis by one Petronella Stille which was quite rightly concerned with the question of how Wodehouseâs Japanese translator, Morimura Tamaki, had âadapted suchâŠexpressions such as Right hoâ, âBy Joveâ, âTinkerty Tonkâ, âDash itâ or âWhat hoâ?â Well, in case you are curious, the answer for the first example is âYoshikitaâ. She also handily highlights some of the unique features of Wodehousian prose that make it so enchanting and absurd, and also difficult to translate, including my personal favourite, the âtransferred epithetâ, that is, the âstrained forkful of salmonâ, the âastonished cigaretteâ falling from Bertie Woosterâs lips. Overall, she acknowledges both the heroic attempts of the translator whilst exploring in depth just what it is about this brand of humour that is so hard to recreate.
Inspired by this, I moved on to the BL catalogue to find out what translations there were in the collections, if any. Starting with a pre-1973 physical catalogue, I found a smattering of translations into Esperanto (La Princo kaj Betty), Italian (Jim di Piccadilly) Polish (Wielce zobowiaÌązany Jeeves), and âin keeping with the Indian theme- Marathi, before finally finding some in a language I could understand, Portuguese.
The front cover of Edmundo Paula Rosa's Portuguese translation of Leave it to Psmith (1938)
Isso Ă© comigo! is the title of Edmundo Paula Rosaâs 1938 translation of Leave it to Psmith, originally published in 1923. From what I could tell, Rosaâs translation is fluid, and he seems to have had the skills to match not only the liveliness of the dialogue, but also the convoluted wit of Wodehouseâs descriptive prose. When translating Portuguese writing myself I often find myself marvelling at how the sentences can just go on and on, before then cursing the writer as I find myself torturously unpicking and reconstructing the sentences back into equally convoluted English. Perhaps, then, Portuguese is an equal match for Wodehouseâs opening, single-sentence paragraph:
âAt the open window of the great library of Blandings castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain.â
Rosa tackles this sentence admirably, adapting the wet sock simile, but preserving the structure of the sentence. But he leaves out âboneheadedâ entirely! And the quintessentially Wodehousian âRight ho!â is paraphrased out of existence, leaving us with âNesse caso, esta bemâ (âIn that case, fineâ or less literally, something like âAs you see fitâ). The meaning of âRight ho!â in this context is more or less captured, but precious little else is. Rather interestingly, âyour lordshipâ is translated not into a Portuguese equivalent but into another English word, âmilordâ. One can only assume that for whatever the latter would have been more recognisable than the former to the Portuguese reader of 80 years ago.
There is, Iâm sure, far more work to be done on this. But donât believe people when they claim that Finnegans wake or a similar tome is âuntranslatableâ. I suspect that even Joyce himself would have been flummoxed by âtinkerty tonkâ!