Adventures in the Shadow of BabelIt may interest some of you to know that, thus far, Just a Couple of Days has been translated into Spanish, Italian, Polish, Turkish, French, and Hebrew. Curious about the process of translation, I did some research and happened across a discussion board where the Turkish translator of Just a Couple of Days was inquiring if anyone could explain what “wise-assed” specifically meant. Thence ensued a lively discussion with contributors from the US, France, Turkey, Germany, Ireland, and Israel attempting to draw distinctions between a wise-ass, a smart-ass, a smart-aleck, a wise-guy, as well as a klugschitter (a German word whose literal English translation is wise-shitter), which of course led to a spirited debate as to the proper distinction between the verb forms of shit and bullshit.


Not long after, I received an e-mail from the Italian translator of Just a Couple of Days, who was in a state of puzzlement over how to translate certain sections. My sympathies were with her, for as some of you know, there are passages in Just a Couple of Days so thick with puns, similes, allegories, allusions, metaphors, and nonsensical non sequiturs that they have inspired a seething hatred of my presence on this planet from a vocal few, and this from native speakers of English. I cannot imagine the task of translating such wordplay. The Italian translator writes:


Adventures in the Shadow of BabelThe Billet-doux at pp. 198-9 is the most obscure for me. Could you explain what it is exactly about?
Rosehips: We really must hand it to ourselves. We quibble and we quoth, and quack as much as quick, but quiver do we niver a cold and lonesome shiver.
Sweetlick: Fe fi fo fum, enough of this enterprising ho hum. Yo ho ho and a bottle of pennies. Money is our shortage, loans, bills, and mortgage…


I’m not sure I was much help in my reply. I can only pray that Saint Peter won’t read those words, else I’ll find myself at the gates of heaven one day staring down his accusing index finger as he bounces a tattered copy of Just a Couple of Days off my head and thunders, “What the christ is the meaning of this horseshit?” and I’m forced to kick at the clouds beneath my feet and stammer that I really have no idea.


Fortunately, I was able to assist with the translator’s other earnest perplexities. In a way, it reminded me of what Just a Couple of Days was all about in the first place: How much we take for granted when we use language—what is known as the etcetera principle in social psychology. Every word is deeply embedded in a cultural context so all-encompassing that we forget it even exists, and it’s not until we’re forced to explain what we exactly mean that its existence becomes apparent. For the sake of posterity, and for the sake of an adventure in the shadow of Babel, I’ve included some of her questions below, along with my tormented replies.


Adventures in the Shadow of BabelDoom is on the loom?… What is the meaning?
Tragedy is looming.


Shiver me timbers… Is it a Tom Waits’ song?
I don’t know the Tom Waits song, but I intended it as a reference to pirates, “shiver me timbers” being an alleged expletive of pirates.


Tofu! Tofu! and MOMMEEEEEE!… The inmates shout these words. Can you explain?
Tofu is a soybean-based protein food. It’s intended to be utter nonsense without sensible context. As for MOMMEEEEEE!, they’re terrified and shouting “Mommy!”, as in a derivate of “mother.”


Gotten a pick-up game of co-ed naked Red Rover going with the nuns next door… Could you explain to me what is Red Rover?
Red Rover is a childhood game in which two opposing lines face one another with hands clasped and call individuals from the other line to try to run and break through their hands. It’s fun.


Hands now flirting with his fiddle like the devil down in Georgia… Is it an idiom? Otherwise I don’t know anything about a Georgian devil.
The Devil Went Down to Georgia is a popular song by the Charlie Daniels Band in which the devil challenges a fiddler to a fiddle-playing contest down in the U.S. state of Georgia. I don’t know anything about a Georgian devil, either.


Adventures in the Shadow of BabelPropriety shmo-priety… What does it mean?
Shm- is a prefix of mockery or dismissal, possibly of Yiddish orgin (e.g., shmuck), as in money shmoney, dance shmance, or propriety shmo-priety.  In any event, the meaning is “propriety be damned.”


Whom he called “li’l pumpkin”… What does li’l mean?
Li’l is a contraction of little.


He settled for wagging his whippersnapper… Whippersnapper = penis?
Regrettably, yes.


I’d rather you jack yourself off than off yourself Jack… jack oneself = masturbate; off Jack = cut off one’s penis?  Who would cut it? Flake to himself?
“Off yourself” means to kill yourself, and Kiljoy is only calling Flake “Jack” for the word reversal.  Essentially he’s saying “I’d rather you masturbate than commit suicide. To be clear, there is no genital mutilation in this passage.


And began twirling his tamale… Tamale = penis?
Once again, regrettably, yes. Kiljoy plays with his privates a lot, and every time the narrator observes this he uses a different euphemism. I was young when I wrote this.


Adventures in the Shadow of BabelPleased as a peach in fourth grad, or a plum in fifth… Could you explain it, please?
This is an allusion to a grade school rhyme in some regions of the U.S. that goes: Kindergarten babies, first grade snots, second grade angels, third grade pots, fourth grade peaches, fifth grade plums, and all the rest are dirty bums.


Miss Mary may well have shaken herself to death… Does it mean that Miss Mary is frightened?
Miss Mary was addicted to cigarettes, and people in nicotine withdrawal get “the shakes,” uncontrolled nervousness and jitteriness. “Shaken herself to death” is hyperbole.


And so the shit riseth, and life is crappy… riseth = rises?


They ran for it… What do they run for, exactly?
“Run for it” is an idiom, to depart as fast as possible.


Brahmic brap… Brahmic = family of scripts? Brap = loud noise of an engine or an onomatopoeic word for burp?
Brahmic refers to the highest form of consciousness in Hinduism. And yes, brap is an onomatopoeic word for burp.


Jujis and jubas… What does it mean?
This passage is an ascent (or descent) into celebratory gibberish. It has no specific meaning other than its rhythm and rhyme to the words around it.


Adventures in the Shadow of BabelSo there you have it. Relying on so much etcetera behind every single word, it’s really a wonder we can communicate at all, even in the same language. If you don’t believe me, the next time you’re talking with a friend, try asking, “what do you mean?” in response to everything they say. You can hardly do this four times without pissing them off something dangerous. Add another language into this process and you have an unbearable confusion, and so I offer my gratitude and compliments to Cristina, the talented Italian translator.


Although, to be honest, I remain curious as to why The Flash dominates the cover of the Italian edition of Just a Couple of Days, as I do not remember writing any superheroes into the story.


Due Giorni Alla Fine,


Tony Vigorito


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