Many people will recognize “tootle your horn” as a weirdly wonderful translation, from Japanese to English, of an admonition to drivers. When one translates from one language to another, normal usage sometimes falls by the wayside, and screwy translations result. (Find more funny examples here.) In my last post, I wrote about the pitfalls of translating English into Latin tattoos, permanently inscribing grammar mistakes onto the skin. Adding to those examples, I have a Latin tattoo story of my own to share.
A few years ago, a grad student at Case Western Reserve University I’ll call Steve emailed a colleague of mine at Cleveland State for help with translating some favorite lines into Latin for a tattoo. My colleague was sick and passed the email on to me. Questions immediately arise. CWRU has a classics department, so why did he contact a stranger at CSU? No answer to that one. The other questions I’ll leave till later.
Here’s his original email.
I have a rather strange request for you. I am getting a tattoo of a well known phrase from a Shakespeare play (Henry V) in Latin and I want a professional to verify for me that this is in fact correctly translated. I am getting this phrase in Latin: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”
Based on what some of my friends have told me, this is roughly (I use this term loosely) what it is in Latin: “Nos pauci, nos gauisus pauci, nos manus manus of frater; pro is ut-dies ut effundo suus cruor me vadum exsisto meus frater.”
Forgive me if this is an embarrassing attempt at the classical language!
Readers may recognize the English lines as part of the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech, in which Shakespeare’s Henry V urges his troops on to battle the French. If, by the way, you’ve never seen the 1998 film version directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, I recommend it. Great music, too.
Anyway, as my CSU colleague said, “Where to start?” It should be evident to anyone that “manus manus of frater” is not good Latin, because “manus” should not be repeated and, more obviously, “of” is not Latin. Most people would, I believe, recognize “of” as an English word. Which makes one suspicious of Steve’s so-called friends helping him with the translation.
Quite likely, Steve’s friend was Google Translator or one of its similarly inept cousins. The nouns and adjectives don’t agree, and the verbs don’t have the proper endings. The Latin word for “today” is “hodie.” The online translator couldn’t decipher “to-day” with a hyphen and and translated it as two separate words, “ut-dies.” In short, it’s not even a rough (I, too, use the term loosely) translation. It’s nonsense. I re-translated the passage as well as I could for Steve and then couldn’t help asking. What’s the point of a Latin translation, even a correct one? He responded thusly:
Thank you for your help. I greatly appreciate it. Well that particular part of that speech in Henry V really just hits hard for me and I get a lot of meaning out of it. I guess getting it in English would seem to ‘cheapen’ it (to me at least) and so I thought Latin would be an appropriate alternative. What are your thoughts?
Here is my reply, which I made as calm and reasonable as I could:
Well, it’s interesting. Shakespeare is Shakespeare, after all. The reason those lines are so famous and effective is because of the way Shakespeare wrote them. He’s pretty much the gold standard in English. The Latin translation is a literal one which doesn’t convey the sound of the English poetry, and none, of course, of the context of the play.
Steve never responded.
I kind of get, actually, why people think Latin looks elegantly mysterious on their skin. But I wanted to convey to Steve as kindly as possible how idiotic I felt this enterprise was. Shakespeare’s words, Shakespeare’s brilliant English words, moved him to begin with. In what universe is “manus fratrum” an improvement on “band of brothers”?