Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language

Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language by Douglas R. Hofstadter has, since its publication in 1997, become a classic in the field of literary translation. This book was recommended to me by John Chew, and although my library had it in its collection, the book’s dimensions and heft made it off-putting. Wider than a standard academic paperback, it tended to flop around and was not easy to hold while standing waiting for the bus. Its total pagination remains a mystery, since in addition to its 632 “regular” pages, the poems therein were numbered and lettered according to their own sequence (and the last alphanumeric poetic sequence stopped at 72b). I decided to read it when my library withdrew it in advance of our two-year closure for a major renovation. So what’s the book about?

The cover of the book tells the story. Depicted on the cross is the full text of the poem A une Damoyselle malade, written in 1537 by French poet Clément Marot. Although entitled correctly on page 1b, Hofstadter refers to it as Ma mignonne, the poem’s first as well as its last line, throughout the text. I normally don’t post book cover photos as large as the one that accompanies this review, but I wanted the poem on the cover to be legible. Hofstadter’s mission was to have the poem translated. Not only did he do so himself–several times over according to various themes and schemes–but also his friends, colleagues, and beloved wife Carol tried translating it as well.

There is a story within a story as aside from critiquing the translations received, Hofstadter shares his love story with his wife. He reveals right away that Carol dies young, from an illness with a cryptic medical name that is later revealed to be a brain tumour.

I wish more authors were like Hofstadter. Before I had even reached page one, I knew I liked the guy. You may call it obsessive or fanatical, but I call it caring for one’s art. Why can’t authors be just as vigilant about their craft? Here’s what he says on pp. xviii-xix:

“Because I have always had a very clear sense of how things should look on a page, I dearly wanted to be able to control every tiny detail of my book’s overall look, ranging from the cover art to the typefaces used to the size of the pages to the way displays are indented, and so on. Fortunately, the people at Basic Books have grown used to me and my idiosyncracies over the years I have worked with them, and they assented to my unusual request.
“Consequently, I have enjoyed total control over such things as line-breaks, page-breaks, hyphenations, widows, orphans, density of word spacing within lines, fine-grained intercharacter spacing (‘kerning’), and so forth and so on–things that most people usually are unaware of and simply leave to their publisher or their word processor. I am a fanatic, though, and these things matter a great deal to me. Not only do they matter to me, they have had an overwhelming impact on this book from start to finish. This may sound crazy, but it is the gospel truth.”

Irony of ironies then that Hofstadter misspelled millennium as millenium on the first line of page 1. I expected him to reveal this as an intentional misspelling and did not give up on this possibility of a mea culpa even after reading hundreds of more pages. But on at least two occasions he spelled the word correctly, as on page 525 as millennia. I felt certain that later printings would have corrected this, but the Amazon on-line preview still shows the misspelling.

Le Ton beau de Marot is as much a psychological study of Hofstadter as it is a breakdown of his linguistic obsessions and neuroses. I would love to debate him on two of his bugaboos, the nonsexist use of guys and man. But that’s another story. In addition to all things pertaining to language and translation, we learned about Hofstadter’s childhood, intense interest in classical music, family life, travels and love affair with Carol. He always wrote about moments in his life when he first encountered a musical piece or discovered a remarkable restaurant in an unlikely destination. These were not non sequitur contributions and enhanced the text inasmuch as the title states: “in praise of the music of translation”, for I believe his perceptive and cultured worldview improved his output as a translator. Thus what we are reading within these 632 pages is a translation study intertwined with memoir.

I can only summarize a book of such colossal heft in bits and pieces and I was lapping up some chapters while loathing others, damning every page I turned to find even more on the same boring topic. My habit, once I start reading, is never to flip ahead to see how much longer a chapter is if I am not enjoying what I am reading. Thus the section on artificial intelligence was a test of patience.

Lipograms, where certain letters of the alphabet are intentionally left out of writing, can present new challenges to the translator. Does one translate the text as a lipogram into the target language? Hofstadter, I gotta hand it to him, never simply posed those questions then left it up to the reader to ponder over. He acted upon them by creating his own lipograms. Hofstadter never left it at one attempt; he was constantly trying to perfect his work and revisited translations and shared the results with us. This holds true not just in regards to his translations of word games, but in poetic styles that he encountered. I lost count of the number of times he translated Ma mignonne based on the translation exercise at hand: was he working with a certain syllable count or a specific rhyming scheme or translating the poem itself into a lipogram or a haiku?

I found the chapter on “untranslatable poetry” to be the most amusing. Hofstadter provided some head-scratching examples by Dylan Thomas and e. e. cummings where native English speakers including me found them indecipherable. So how would you translate them? Likewise the chapter on machine translation programs and their attempts to translate Ma mignonne made me giggle at the results. The Candide program, for example, translated the title of the poem as My Flapper. We learned of transculturation and what is always a debate in translation studies: do you have the freedom to contribute to the text or should a translator only work with what is in front of him?

Hofstadter summed up two chapters within each of the following profound tenets of translation. You can see on which side of the translation debate Hofstadter stands:

“Choice of medium is, to my mind, the most delicious degree of freedom open to a translator, and is what makes translation so open-ended and full of unlimited potential for creativity. Suppress that freedom, and you reduce translation to a tiny and quite boring caricature of itself.”


“The essence of the act of translating poetry is to exercise the highest respect for the original poet’s indissoluble fusion of a message with a medium, the unsunderable wedding of content to form as equal partners.”

As I finished the main text before the final section of Notes, I had to note the poignancy of how life mirrors art on page 566. Or in this particular case how my personal life is imitating someone else’s. As Hofstadter recounted the story of Carol’s headaches, hospitalization and brain tumour diagnosis, I could only steel myself to the diagnosis my doctor gave me less than 24 hours before, that I had a retroperitoneal liposarcoma 13 × 10 × 10 cm in size. I’ll write more as I learn more about it but I’d been putting off writing anything until I knew at least this much. What Carol said herself about her own diagnosis is similar to what my own doctor said to me (maybe he read the same book):

“I had to break the news to Carol, who blinked for a moment as the enormity of it all registered, and then simply said, ‘Some people, when they find out they have a tumor, ask, “Why me?” They don’t think to themselves that they’re made of billions and billions of tiny cells, and just one thing needs to go wrong… It’s just bad luck.'”

By the time I got to the end of the book at page 571, to the full-page photo of Carol and the only time the reader gets to see her, I had to stop and have a closed-eye cry. A beautiful young woman, wife and mother who after 571 pages the reader gets to know as a close friend, suddenly felled by a brain tumour. I can only wonder what my own fate will be.

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