Reading Little Women

À la suite du billet précédent, quelques réflexions sur Little Women, le livre de Louisa May Alcott.

I just posted about how several French translations of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women are wretchedly bowdlerised, pale reflections of the original, and that there is indeed an entire editorial history of a) removing all references to religion (the entire Pilgrim’s Progress dimension, the profession of the girls’ father, the Catholicism of the maid Estelle …), b) cutting down the wildness, queerness of Jo and c) generally pouring heaps of sugar into word choice and descriptions. (To attenuate this harsh judgement, at least two recent translations appear to be doing much better.)

It is likely that the German version I must have come across during my youth — I haunted forever the public library and the book stores — suffered from similar faults, because I had never actually read the book.#[1] But now I’ve rectified the omission, and want to write up a few impressions.

First of all, it’s really quite good. Certainly an enjoyable read, given how little attractive I find the bildungsroman genre#[2]. To be sure, there’s a fair bit of very protestant moralising of the type “every moral failure, however small, will bring the appropriate punishment in its wake”, and at times there’s just a little too much goodness all around. Still, the characters are psychologically complex, even the most faultless ones, the book’s dramatic at times, and I like Alcott’s humour.

A few points about how the author deploys English sprang to mind. There’s singular (undetermined) antecedent themselves:

Jo announced that the coffee was ready, and everyone settled themselves to a hearty meal; for youth is seldom dyspeptic, and exercise develops wholesome appetites.

The bunch of (mostly) adolescents for whom Jo is making coffee here consists of boys and girls, and the preceding passages have been dealing with the interaction between the girls, between the boys, and between boys and girls. The mixed-sex nature of the group is acutely before the reader’s mental eye. To claim that himself would be gender-neutral in this case would be rather preposterous.

There are three occurrences of wet-blanket, two of which as verbs:

‘I know Meg would wet-blanket such a proposal, but I thought you had more spirit,’ began Laurie, insinuatingly.
A few other topics of general interest were introduced by Mr. Brooke and wet-blanketed by Mrs. Brooke, and conversation languished.

Of course! The idiom comes from extinguishing fire with a wet blanket — I’d never thought of this before.

There’s also a sentence that looks like a mild case of Neal Whitman’s “FLOP coordination”:

[…] if he had not possessed a talisman against evil in the memory of the kind old man who was bound up in his success, the motherly friend who watched over him as if he were her son, and last, but not least by any means, the knowledge that four innocent girls loved, admired, and believed in him with all their hearts.

Amy, the youngest and vainest of the sisters, is frequently shown to produce malapropisms. In the beginning, this happens mostly when, out of desire to distinguish herself in front of her older sisters, she employs words that are too big for her and is duly laughed at by the straightforward Jo. But as the books (both volumes) progress, her stabs at elaborate vocabulary and, sometimes, French, becomes just a way to characterise her. In the following bit, the misinterpretation is attributed to the servant Hannah, but it’s Amy speaking, and in a way that’s typical for her:

“Why, Mother, how can you think of such a thing? Not more than six or eight will probably come, so I shall hire a beach wagon and borrow Mr. Laurence’s cherry-bounce.” (Hannah’s pronunciation of charabanc.)

The eggcorn is quite ingenious: You can just imagine Amy and her rich friends bouncing along under the cherry trees in a horse-dawn carriage. (Charabanc comes from the French char à banc(s), i.e. a coach or carriage equipped with benches. In contemporary French, char means tank, though in the Quebecois dialect, the word can also refer to a car.)

Last, just to cite a sentence I admired for its dramatic effect, a bit from the beginning of the second volume, in which Jo has just received a positive reply from a publisher who is prepared to accept her first novel, provided she shortens the text:

So, with Spartan firmness, the young authoress laid her first-born on her table, and chopped it up as ruthlessly as any ogre.

[1]: The German title is Betty und ihre Schwestern (”Betty and her Sisters”). Compare this with the French Les quatre filles du Docteur March (”Doctor March’s four daughters”). Titles tend to survive from the first translations, which, by modern standards, tend to leave much to be desired. They are, after all, what the book is know by. Still, strange choices. At least in French, a literal translation of the title would be entirely feasible without sounding odd. [2]: Embarrassing secret: I just can’t stand Goethe.

3 comment(s) for 'Reading Little Women'

  1. (Comment, 2005-11-28 19:45 )

    I’m not seeing the FLOPness of the coordination here:

    […] if he had not possessed a talisman against evil in the memory of the kind old man who was bound up in his success, the motherly friend who watched over him as if he were her son, and last, but not least by any means, the knowledge that four innocent girls loved, admired, and believed in him with all their hearts.

    The loved, admired, and believed in him part looks like a straightforward case of Right Node Raising to me; I parse it as:

    [[loved ei], [admired ei], and [believed in ei]] himi

    If you mean the larger coordination, then it’s ambiguous, and possibly a faulty parallel, but not FLOPish. We could be coordinating the memory, the motherly friend, and the knowledge, which is fine; or we could be coordinating The memory of [the kind old man, the motherly friend, and the knowledge] (also fine, although the idea of “the memory of the knowledge” is a bit odd); or we could be trying to coordinate the memory of [the kind old man and the motherly friend] and the knowledge, and missing an and.

  2. (Comment, 2005-11-30 21:57 )

    You’re probably right (and yes, I was referring to the coordinated verbs in the last content clause). My intuition, sprachgefühl to use the term, which is quite decent for a non-native speaker, regularly fails when it comes to coordinations. The overall sentence structure didn’t even show up on my radar, except for the sentence being a tad on the long side. Most of Neal’s WTF coordinations would be perfectly fine in German. Sure, the case system would disambiguate some of them.

  3. (Comment, 2005-12-01 05:05 )

    I parse it as RNR, too. But you’re right–I’ve been reading up on German non-parallel coordinations, and they’re a lot like the FLoPs I’ve been noticing. I’d like to find out if similar syntactic analyses can describe both the English and the German data.