Notable, perhaps for its lack of noticeability: the dull beige and linen cover, the embossed lettering that I had last seen while perusing ancient Czech tomes in an antiquarian bookshop, and finally the phrasing of the title: “Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases: New Edition Revised and Enlarged with Supplementary Index”.
The ‘New Edition’, it turned out, dated from December 1, 1909, and was a reprint of the first edition of 1852, in which P. M. Roget alludes to an even earlier genesis of his Thesaurus:
Roget then continues with words that can only, I might venture to presume, ring true to any translator:
These days, Roget’s Thesaurus exists as well, understandably, in an online version. And needless to say, a comparison of the 1909 reprint and the 2012 cyber-thesaurus offers a dramatic snapshot of just how radically the English language has changed in that time. Not only the radical differences in the language itself, but in the very way that the language is presented.
The 1909 Thesaurus, after the inevitable Publisher’s Note, various Prefaces and Introductions, List of Abbreviations, and still further explanatory texts, sets out its linguistic material classified according to theme: “I. Abstract Relations; II. Space; III. Matter; IV. Intellect; V. Voluntary Powers; IV. Sentient and Moral Powers”. Fortunately, there is an index at the end where it is possible to search for an individual word without needing to reflect on where it deserves classification. Nor is there any category for words ‘drawn with a fine camel-hair brush’ or ‘that from a long way off resemble flies’ – yet the echoes of Michel Foucault are obvious enough not to need much additional discussion.
Still, each thesaurus, whether printed or virtual, does present its own ‘order of things’, its own organization of the world – or its refusal to do so. As for the 2012 version, at least as accessed on my own computer from continental Europe, it blinks and flashes with seemingly dozens of simultaneous announcements, all in a variety of languages: an offer promising me ‘a better brain’, or an ambiguously shimmering box congratulating me on having won an enormous sum of money, or – perhaps more significantly – a ‘spontaneous’ ad that appears directly above the very word for which I am searching, making all too well-informed guesses about my life (‘Self-Employed in Czech Republic?’). And alongside this hidden observer, there is the series of hypotheses generated by the search engines hoping to hit upon what I need the most at that moment: when I type in the word ‘loss’ I am offered at once “Comprehensive Services in Company Law, Litigation, Family Law.”
In contrast, the printed Thesaurus lacks any advertising at all, let alone any attempts at mind-reading. There is only one inadvertent exception: the printed slip inserted in the back cover, bearing the title ‘Land Credits: A Plea for the American Farmer’. The paper is yellow and frayed at the top, very much as if it had once been the inside flap of the dust jacket. Also on the inside of the rear binding, so miniscule (2x1 cm) as almost to escape notice, is a Wedgewood-blue label with the gold stamp, itself faded to near illegibility: ‘BRENTANO’S, Booksellers and Stationers, New York’. As for the inner front cover, it bears the inventory mark from what would appear to be the volume’s first seller in its new homeland, and a price of 180 Czech crowns. That figure, however, has been summarily crossed out, with the later price (80 Czech crowns, about 3.50 euros) added in an uncertain hand, floating in the upper right corner as if whoever indicated this cheaper price was only making a suggestion of its value. Somewhere near it, in the lower left, an upside-down figure 2 floats on the cream-colored endpaper, completely without connection to any other number, as if swirling in a confused three-legged waltz of digits with the number 80 – whose eight and zero, in turn, stand so far apart as if it were doubtful that they really belong together.
Much could no doubt be written about the various ways in which the second-hand book dealers of continental Europe write (or in most instances scrawl) the price of their wares on the very surface of the object to be sold. Czech book-merchants always place it on the inside front cover, usually in the upper right-hand corner. In Hungary, it seems, the price always emerges on the inner back cover, or at times on the dust jacket or even directly on the back cover itself. In some cases, the price resembles less a numerical quantity than an extremely abstract notation: in one volume of mine, the collected poetry of Lajos Kassák, the penciled price looks like one enormous reversed letter “C” followed by two smaller “c”-s, almost a lettrist typogram of a mother duck followed by two ducklings – yet somehow, after more thought and observation, one can make out the price as an extremely hasty, yet still stylized and elegant ‘300’ forints.
And yet for all this physical difference between the glowing screen and the solid tangible volume, the even greater contrast comes when I attempt to look up a word. What of one of the Hungarian words most difficult to translate, the interjection jaj? László Országh, in his comprehensive Hungarian-English dictionary, defines it in the following way:
3. [problem] woe; jaj nekem! woe is me!, oh dear!, poor me!, I am in for it!, woe betide you (if) (ref. and obs.); jaj szegénykém! my poor dear
This word is especially difficult in that, as Országh’s entry demonstrates, it can be found across all registers of the language. Personally, I have heard it used to express everything from mild regret through ironic self-mockery to deep lamentation. With the familiar sinking feeling of knowing that no English equivalent could ever possibly prove equal to such a task, I type into the online thesaurus search engine: alas. Immediately, I am presented rather comically with a cartoon-like sketch of two bulging stomachs, one male one female, urging me to “CLICK HERE” presumably to avoid the fate of ending up like one of these drawings. Below the monotonously shrinking and swelling guts, the verbal choices presented are – as I suspected – rather meager: “dear, dear me, oh gee, too bad, woe, woe is me”, ranging from the dowdily colloquial to the stiltedly literary – no fault of the thesaurus itself, but rather of the limitations of modern English. I am left with no choice but to click further: ‘dear’ and ‘woe’ are both underlined, implying that they have their own entries. ‘Dear’ leads me onto another semantic trajectory altogether (though I confess to a passing appreciation of one of the example sentences ‘Please, dear college presidents, stop sending for the police’.) Yet before I can even head back to the synonyms for ‘woe’ I am not only told that ‘Your Name Is No Accident’ but am offered a ‘Three-Minute Chakra Test’ (Which of Your Chakras Are Weak?)
So then, back to the Roget of 1909. On my way to ‘alas’ I cannot help noting, yet avoiding the temptation to look further, the many Greek gods who have found a place in the index: Erato and Erebus, for example, are near-neighbors, separated only by ‘ere’. ‘Alas!’ , it turns out, is entry 839.
Every 100 entries in the pages of the 1909 Roget contains a small rounded indent, with the entry number embossed in gold on a black leather-like background. There is something intensely reassuring about these numerical guideposts, while the incuts in the block of pages make it remarkably easy to locate a particular entry. And so I find, under Classification VI, ‘Words Relating to the Sentient and Moral Powers’. Below this, in Section II, ‘Personal Affections’, are two columns of text in parallel to each other: (Expression of pleasure) REJOICING / (Expression of pain) LAMENTATION. Underneath this heading, my eye passes over what is surely a ‘found poem’ of profound grief:
Finally, though I do come to the sub-sub-classification Int. (interjection), under which are listed the following synonyms for ‘Alas!’:
Here, in that final clause, there is almost a distant echo into the future, to George Steiner’s complaint (in his masterwork on the dilemma of translation After Babel) against contemporary English as ‘airport Esperanto’. Yet the difficulty of using the Esperanto of the airport as a basic medium is, however, a fact of life for all of us who translate into English, a fact against which we must always struggle and find some means to overcome.
And so, in our struggle, we turn again to our thesauruses: the ease of the mouse-click or the comforting solidity of a bound volume, and turn the possibilities over in our minds. I do not think I will be reaching for ‘alack-a-day’ any time soon, unless I am faced with a translation that requires very archaic English, yet all the same I am grateful that this compact brown volume made its way onto my desk. Indeed, exceedingly grateful for this glimpse into the language we once spoke, just that much closer to the English of Jane Austen, Boswell, or even Shakespeare.
Tags: Ottilie Mulzet