Le Ton Beau de Marot Essay - Critical Essays

Douglas R. Hofstadter

Le Ton Beau de Marot

Though the title of Douglas R. Hofstadter’s book, LE TON BEAU DE MAROT: IN PRAISE OF THE MUSIC OF LANGUAGE, refers explicitly to the pleasing sound of Clement Marot’s sixteenth century verse, the book’s purpose is far more comprehensive than to study a minor French courtier poet. Hofstadter considers the process of translation itself and its relationship to cognition and intelligence. As a grounding element for his work, Hofstadter uses a Marot poem written in trisyllabic couplets in which the narrator urges a young woman or girl to leave her sickbed and eat fruit preserves so that she will not lose her pleasingly plump beauty.

Hofstadter reproduces this poem as a separately paginated intertext in every imaginable translation by a variety of translators. The various translators, responding to Hofstadter’s challenge, provide versions appropriate not only to their conceptions of the original but also to what they feel the original should be. Consequently, the translations run the gamut from slavishly literal, to idiomatic, to avant garde. The paradox is that a translation which bears little verbal resemblance to Marot’s original might actually more accurately correspond to the spirit of Marot’s poem.

The larger question that follows from this is what constitutes original thought. The Marot poem itself follows a formula, as charming as it is, and its translations have offered variations, some of which are in effect new works. Seen from this perspective, time itself becomes a continuum rather than a linear process. To use Hofstadter’s analogy, a game of chess played on two boards, one with squares the other with hexagons, is actually the same game though its appearance is entirely different.

Intelligence, which one might compare to braided patterns of infinite extent, is a direct function of altered perspective. It is this, understood in terms of historical period, cultural setting, or technology that deepens insight. Translation itself assumes an aesthetic rather than a merely reproductive role.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. July 4, 1997, p. D6.

Library Journal. CXXII, April 1, 1997, p. 92.

New Scientist. CLV, July 26, 1997, p. 60.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, July 20, 1997, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, March 3, 1997, p. 55.

The Times Literary Supplement. July 4, 1997, p. 12.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, June 29, 1997, p. 1.