At school in the early 1960s we had a History textbook which devoted a chapter to the Reign of Lewis XIV. My teenage self was scornful: He’s called Louis XIV. Why are you removing useful information about how his name is actually spelt? I went on to find fault with other “translations”: Rome when it should be Roma, Joan of Arc when it should be Jeanne d’Arc and so on - but soon bumping up against the awkward squad of names which required diacritical marks. But I persisted and felt that such marks should be preserved too.
Now I’m having some doubts, partly occasioned by the fact that it’s a pain to type or typeset many or most letters which require diacritical marks, but partly for other reasons. Recently, I bought and read a new translation of Marguerite Duras’s 1944 novel La Vie Tranquille (translated with some acknowledged hesitation as The Easy Life (2022)). It’s very short and the publishers have typeset it rather elegantly with wide spacing. There are just a handful of named characters and places, all French and some requiring a diacritical mark (Clémence, Noël, Tiène, Ziès) and one which requires two: Jérôme. That name is actually the first word in the novel.
These accents are carried over faithfully from the French original which I have in front of me. The pages of that original are, of course, littered with diacritical marks of which French is very fond though that fondness is decreasing and some are being abandoned. But in the translation all of those are lost, except those attached to proper names. The opening three paragraphs of my French copy rack up a total of forty one diacritical marks; the English version has just eight, all generated by the repetition of the single word Jérôme. And on the page they simply look intrusive. Could the accents be left off so that we begin the novel reading about Jerome or would that just recreate the horrors of Lewis for Louis?
Interestingly, perhaps, I didn’t react adversely to Clémence or Noël and no doubt because acute accents and what I call umlauts are quite freely used in English to such an extent that, though I am typing in English, Microsoft automatically supplies the accent for café which is a thoroughly anglicised usage. So part of what is at issue is how the page looks as one reads and my experience when reading The Easy Life was that Jérôme is obtrusive though not more than that.
Now I turn to a novel I have just finished reading, Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, The Serial Killer. It’s a very good novel and I recommend it. First published in Nigeria in 2017, it has become a best seller in its US and UK editions, both published in 2019 and shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It was written in English but contains a handful of short, untranslated, passages in which a character speaks in Yoruba. If you think written French is clotted with diacritical marks you’ve clearly never encountered written Yoruba. At page 113, for example, one and a half lines are occupied by nineteen or twenty words which rack up over twenty marks, one letter attracting two marks - a mark above the letter and a mark below.
Is Braithwaite a bi-lingual writer? No. In her Acknowledgments, she writes “Thank you to Ayobami Adebayo for taking the time to add the accents to my Yoruba” (page 226). I google the name and up comes Wikipedia with Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀, a Nigerian writer with seven accents around her Yoruba name (five above and two below the o's). But Braithwaite in her Acknowledgments gives up on the accents and substitutes an accentless, anglicised version. Should her friend be offended?
The general justification for diacritical marks is that they provide a pronunciation guide though often enough we will know the pronunciation already: an English child knows how to pronounce café before starting to read about such places. In the past, such marks proliferated in the hands of (often colonial and missionary) linguists trying to index in writing how native words were pronounced in everyday speech without having the benefit of a tape recorder to illustrate them directly.
I am going to guess that the Yoruba accents we see in Braithwaite's book are the legacy of a colonial past. [ See now the footnote]. I am also going to guess that they are sufficiently complicated to be usable only by quite highly educated people. And I assert more confidently that they gave me absolutely no help in figuring out how to pronounce the Yoruba passages; I don’t possess even the minimal expertise which I possess for French and German marks. Ah! But should I try to acquire some minimal expertise in written Yoruba? If I’m right, maybe such minimal expertise is not possible - maybe I’m staring at a very complicated system when I look at the words on Braithwaite’s pages, a system which will defy the average person’s attempts to understand it and which did not derive from the work of people trying to make life easy for us.
So what are the marks doing on her pages but missing in her Acknowledgments? The options are not reassuring. They could be virtue signalling - I care enough about my Nigerian heritage to get it right. Or they could be adding exoticism to the Yoruba - and nowadays we might well regard that as problematic. Yoruba is one language among thousands, but one which happens to be spoken by over fifty million people - so up there with, say, Italian. So why make it more distant from us by retaining the diacritical marks in a book aimed at English language readers very few of whom will understand the marks as something other than marks of Otherness?
The question becomes this: What would have been lost (and to whom) if Braithwaite had offered us an accentless Yoruba? After all, when I read her Acknowledgments I reckon I have a rough idea how to pronounce the name of Ayobami Adebayo. And so I think do you. And then, to complete the questions, What would have been lost if Jérôme had become Jerome in my English Duras?