Anglo Saxon Attitudes

Originally, the Phrase Comes from Through the Looking Glass

Originally, the Phrase Comes from Through the Looking Glass

The following scrap of dialogue appears in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

All this was lost on Alice, who was still looking intently along the road, shading her eyes with one hand. ‘I see somebody now!’ she exclaimed at last. ‘But he’s coming very slowly—and what curious attitudes he goes into!’ (For the messenger kept skipping up and down, and wriggling like an eel, as he came along, with his great hands spread out like fans on each side.)

‘Not at all,’ said the King. ‘He’s an Anglo-Saxon Messenger—and those are Anglo-Saxon attitudes. He only does them when he’s happy. His name is Haigha.’ (He pronounced it so as to rhyme with ‘mayor.’)

Angus Wilson wrote a famous satirical novel by the name of Anglo-Saxon Attitudes back in 1956, but I am going to put a slightly different spin on the phrase. I am somewhat surprised that most Americans only read books originally written in English. My late friend Norman Witty was one such: The only exception was for some books written in French, and then he would only read them in French.

There is an Italian phrase—“traddutore, traditore”—whose meaning is that translators are all traitors. I don’t believe that. Some translators are notoriously inept, but they usually get hammered in the reviews. I remember one such translator of Proust’s Within a Budding Grove, the second volume of his In Search of Lost Time, which was translated by James Grieve into In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. A reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement suggested that one go back to C. K. Scott-Moncrieff’s somewhat prissy rendering which is nearing its centenary.

In my time, I have read many archaic translations, such as Constance Garnett’s of the novels of Dostoyevsky, Ellen Marriage’s of Balzac’s The Human Comedy, and even the dreadful Peter Anthony Motteux translation of Cervantes, which dates back to 1712. It didn’t matter that much. Even a bad translation will help one to appreciate the greatness of Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Cervantes—or anyone else for that matter. There are probably some old chestnuts around that are truly terrible, such as the Portuguese-English phrasebook that Mark Twain published because of its frequent howlers.

Now what I mean by Anglo Saxon Attitudes is a kind of linguistic provincialism, that eschews works from other countries because they were not written in English. I will grant you that English and American literature are remarkably wide, but so is that of other countries. My life would have been relatively impoverished if I had not read the works of Jorge Luis Borges, Euripides, the Icelandic sagas, Gyula Krúdy (a fellow Hungarian), Orhan Pamuk, Mo Yan, Kobo Abe, Stanislaw Lem, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Honoré de Balzac, Jorge Amado, or Fernando Pessoa. I suspect that approximately half the books I read were translated from other languages. So I didn’t get the same from them as a native speaker of the original languages, but I venture I got at least 75%, and that 75% has meant—literally—the world to me.