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[This is a guest post by Thomas Lee Mair]

I'm sending an excerpt from a novel I just finished. This might amuse you the way the Chinglish signs do.

The excerpt is from The Grammarians, a novel by Cathleen Schine, which the NYT listed as one of the 10 best novels of 2019. The novel tracks the lives of a set of twins, Laurel and Daphne, who love words and grammar. The other characters mentioned in this excerpt are Arthur (their father) and Don (Arthur's brother and the twins' uncle).

For their thirteenth birthday, Laurel and Daphne received a portable record player and a copy of Revolver to play on it. Their father also gave them a book entitled The New Guide of the Conversation in Portuguese and English.

"It will make you laugh," he said when they unwrapped it.

They looked uncertainly at the little paperback.

"It's a phrase book," he said. "From the nineteenth century."

"But we don't really want to learn Portuguese, do we, Daphne?"

Daphne shook her head.

"Don't worry," Arthur said. "You won't!"

They opened the book.

" 'Proverbs,' " Laurel read.

Daphne read: " 'The stone as roll not heap up not foam.' "

" 'To make at a stone two blows'!" Laurel read.

" 'It before that you marry look twice'!"

" 'The mountain at work put out a mouse'!"

The girls were in full cry. Arthur watched them and thought, God, I love them.

He said, "It was all the rage in Victorian England. Mark Twain was a fan, too. The translations are so preposterous, it became a comic sensation. It was known as English as She Is Spoke."

" 'That which feels one's snotly blow one's nose.' "

" This is a new edition," Arthur said. "Brendan Gill wrote the introduction." Arthur worshipped the New Yorker critic. He worshipped the New Yorker generally. He kept all the back issues stacked neatly in the den.

"You know you'll never read all these," his brother, Don, said now at the mention of Brendan Gill. He gestured toward the piles of magazines. "They're just gathering dust."

"I might go back to an article. You never know."

Don made a dismissive sound.

"Uncle Don said 'Puh,' " Laurel said loudly to Daphne.

"Puh," Daphne said with great emphasis on the p: "Puh."

"They have never liked me," Uncle Don said to their father.

"No one likes you, Don," Arthur replied. "You're unlikable. You know that."

"Puh," said Don.

The twins retreated happily to their room to listen to Revolver and read aloud to each other from the little phrase book:

" 'Here is a horse who have a bad looks'!"

" 'He not sail know to march, he is pursy, he is foundered'!"

" 'Take care that he not give you a foot's kick'!"

pp. 47-48

[h.t. Gayle Foster Bodorff]


Selected readings [VHM]

"Correctly English" (3/15/15)

Porglish (Wikipedia)

English As She Is Spoke (Wikipedia)


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    January 25, 2020 @ 10:19 am

    I had to read the intro several times before I could reconcile "I'm sending an excerpt from a novel I just finished" with "The excerpt is from The Grammarians, a novel by Cathleen Schine". Eventually I realised that the first part should be interpreted as "I'm sending an excerpt from a novel I just finished reading", as opposed to "I'm sending an excerpt from a novel I just finished writing", which is how my brain repeatedly insisted on interpreting it …

  2. Victor Mair said,

    January 25, 2020 @ 10:24 am

    For people who read hundreds of books (novels and non-fiction), that's the way they refer to them.

  3. ycx said,

    January 25, 2020 @ 10:38 am

    Is there a Portuguese-English version of the book? I was only able to find the fully-English version. While amusing, it doesn't allow us to figure out how exactly the mistranslations happened.

    I'd appreciate a link to the original Portuguese version so comparisons similar to what was done in the Wikipedia article can be made.

  4. Andrew Usher said,

    January 25, 2020 @ 10:39 am

    I had the same reaction as Philip Taylor, so it's not just his idiosyncrasy.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    January 25, 2020 @ 10:50 am

    Nonetheless, that's the way a lot of voracious readers I know talk.

  6. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 25, 2020 @ 11:26 am

    This is akin to Mark Twain's back translation of "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" from French to English. It consists in retaining the exact word order and all the words of the text being translated. Here's the opening passage from Twain's translation:

    “It there was one time here an individual known under the name of Jim Smiley; it was in the winter ’49, possibly well at the spring of ’50, I no me recollect not exactly. This which me makes to believe that it was the one or the other, it is that I shall remember that the grand flume is not achieved when he arrives at the camp for the first time, but of all sides he was the man the most fond of to bet which one have seen, betting upon all that which is presented, when he could find an adversary; and when he not of it could not, he passed to the side opposed.”

  7. Rodger C said,

    January 25, 2020 @ 11:35 am

    "Hear you the birds' gurgling? Which pleasure! Which charm!"

  8. Steve Jones said,

    January 25, 2020 @ 11:48 am

    Looks great! The reference to Revolver is effective, too.

    FWIW, I wrote about the enigmatic, distressed Portuguese widow
    Colete Salva-Vidas sob a Cadeira
    with her daughters
    Rolagem, Descolagem, and (black sheep of the family) Aterragem

    Re phrasebooks, you may be entertained this script I did for the phrases from the 1958 Teach yourself Japanese!

    More posts on language learning are gathered here

  9. Anthony said,

    January 25, 2020 @ 6:51 pm

    In the 1970s I had this bilingual Dover edition (cover has since changed drastically):


  10. John Swindle said,

    January 25, 2020 @ 8:53 pm

    May I quote from New Figure Essence of English Conversation, by Prof Banjamin Shih (Taibei: Chi Wen Book Company, 1972)? "Whether yes or no, please make a buick decision. We are forced to request a postpone of it. If you allow one week's delay, we will manage some way or other. Upon your returning, don't forget to bring back some toys for John. When you meet Wang, please tell him I will be back soon. Will this do? Should it be meeting with your approval? O.K. This will do. Help, help! Please give this patient special treatment as he is in acute case. I want to have my watch repaired. I want to have my hair cut. Please, fix this radio. This is too small, change a pair of bigger size please. How about a discount of 10%? We are waiting for the goods anxiously, please send quickly. Please settle the ald bill within this month, or we will resort to law. If you want to change this for a better one, you have to pay a little more. Based on mutual benefit and friendship, I believe you will be glad to help our company. If you set me free this time, I will reward you in future in the woods, although I am a small mouse."

  11. Counterbander said,

    January 25, 2020 @ 10:24 pm

    What Andrew and Philip said. In my case, I thought Cathleen Shine must be a pseudonym for Thomas Lee Mair.

  12. Laura Morland said,

    January 25, 2020 @ 11:05 pm

    @Philip Taylor @Andrew Usher — I had exactly the same reaction as you.
    Perhaps it's because we expect written English to be more precise than spoken English.

    @Ralph Hickock — Thanks so much for the Twain! We all knew he knew German well enough to make excellent fun of it, but I'd no idea he knew French well (as well).

    It brings to mind Art Buchwald's Thanksgiving column in the Herald Tribune, which is still reprinted every year in France. A sample:

    "Every year on the Jour de Merci Donnant, parents tell their children an amusing story about the first celebration. It concerns a brave capitaine named Miles Standish (known in France as Kilomètres Deboutish)…."

  13. Mark Liberman said,

    January 26, 2020 @ 4:04 am

    See "Vintage Effle" (12/18/2003), which includes some high-quality phrase-book confusions. Unfortunately most of the links have suffered bit rot.

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    January 26, 2020 @ 4:33 am

    The archived version at the Wayback Machine avoids many of the bit-rot problems.

  15. Peter Grubtal said,

    January 26, 2020 @ 5:17 am

    What Andrew, Philip and Counterbander said:

    it's a question of context: the poster's obviously the author of many things, it's plausible he might have finished writing the book (although as an academic, a novel?).
    If you'd heard it from your mate in the pub, your subconscious would come to a different conclusion.
    Depends on the circles you move in.

  16. Fernando said,

    January 26, 2020 @ 8:19 am

    My copy of English as She is Spoke only has some of those proverbs, with their supposed Portuguese equivalents. I don’t know whether the others were added or created by the novelist. They are more interesting than Carolino’s otiginals.

    The Portuguese sometimes feels as weird as the English. Maybe it’s because I’m from Brazil or because of the date, but often it’s mysterious. I don’t really understand “Quem se pica alhos come,” nor how it became “That which feel one’s snotly blow blow one’s nose.” Similarly, “Pedra movediça nunca mofo a cubiça” and “The stone as roll not heap up not foam.”

  17. bks said,

    January 26, 2020 @ 8:33 am

    Just came across this:
    "In her widespread attendance on the San Jose federal courthouse for hearings in her high-stakes felony fraud case, Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes has been flanked by pricey attorneys. Nonetheless in an Arizona civil case, she took half in a listening to this week representing herself, and by cellphone, in retaining with a report Friday. …"


  18. Robert Coren said,

    January 26, 2020 @ 9:44 am

    it would appear that Google Translate and others of its ilk are simply following a long-standing tradition.

  19. Andrew Usher said,

    January 26, 2020 @ 4:57 pm

    That's another one of those 'copyright scrambling' things just discussed. The original is easily found.

  20. Martha said,

    January 26, 2020 @ 5:33 pm

    This would be great to show language learners who insist that they can translate their L1 idioms into their target language.

    Also, I agree with Peter Grubtal. It may well be how voracious readers talk, but is it how they talk devoid of context? As someone who knows the (post) writer, Victor Mair had adequate context, but not us, the readers of the post.

  21. Francisco said,

    January 26, 2020 @ 8:07 pm

    Fernando said: "The Portuguese sometimes feels as weird as the English. Maybe it's because I'm from Brazil or because of the date, but often it's mysterious"

    These proverbs are indeed old-fashioned: I have never met them in actual conversation. They are still intelligible to speakers of European Portuguese but Brazilians might find them bewildering as convoluted syntax is rare in Brazilian Portuguese. They might be translated as "mildew craves not a rolling stone" and "needles and garlic both lead to tears".

  22. Phillip Helbig said,

    January 27, 2020 @ 4:01 am

    Eventually I realised that the first part should be interpreted as "I'm sending an excerpt from a novel I just finished reading", as opposed to "I'm sending an excerpt from a novel I just finished writing", which is how my brain repeatedly insisted on interpreting it …

    Yes, I was confused at first.

    I have a holiday planned for late summer in the south of France, where I hope to finish my second book. I'm a slow reader. :-D

  23. Victor Mair said,

    January 27, 2020 @ 7:56 am

    There has been a lot of repetitious silliness and semi-trollery over "finished" that has nothing to do with the point of the post.

    I reiterate: the people I know who talk like this love books and read plenty of them. It's definitely not because they are slow readers.

  24. KeithB said,

    January 27, 2020 @ 10:56 am

    Just stick a "great" or "good" in:

    "…from a good novel I just finished…"
    Few people are so stuck up to refer to their *own* work that way, so you must have just read it. 8^)

  25. V said,

    January 28, 2020 @ 7:48 pm

    Some other translations for longer phrases:


  26. George said,

    January 30, 2020 @ 12:45 pm

    In fairness, while the side discussion on what it means to 'finish' a book is certainly OT, I wouldn't describe it as anything approaching trollery, semi- or otherwise. It's an interesting question and since it doesn't have its own post this is the only place to discuss it. Not wishing to annoy Professor Mair, I hesitate to add my own tuppence worth but I'll just say that I, like others, had to do a double-take when I got to the second paragraph, as I'd also instinctively interpreted "a novel I just finished" as "a novel I just finished writing".

  27. Victor Mair said,

    January 30, 2020 @ 3:33 pm

    Hasn't the OT "finish" remark been repeated often enough by now, with nothing new having been added since the first iteration? If not trollery, what is this? What's the point of saying what others have already said several times?

  28. Haamu said,

    January 31, 2020 @ 10:55 pm

    Prof. Mair — I'm sympathetic to your frustration, but it's worth pointing out that it's fairly common on this blog for commenters to provide datapoints about their individual linguistic understanding and usage. That convention aside, comments here are generally a lot less repetitive than in most other online venues.

    It's clear that folks are noting something interesting about the connotations of "finish." It would be fair to ask them, if they insist on going OT, to work a little harder to put their finger on whatever that is. It would be less fair to call what they're doing "trollery," which to me entails deliberate provocation and often dishonest motives. I don't see any of that here.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    February 1, 2020 @ 1:14 am

    "annoy Professor Mair"

    9 different folks repeated the same OT topic (actually more, but some spoke against its trollish aspects), the cheapest being "what X & Y said". That's approximately one third of all the comments made on this post. I would prefer that commenters say something useful or interesting about the subject of Portuglish.

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