The Accidental Comedy Masterpiece Mark Twain Called “Perfect”
In his introduction to the 1883 American edition of English As She Is Spoke, Mark Twain wrote some of the most glowing praise he’s ever laid on any work, ever:
“Whatsoever is perfect in its kind, in literature, is imperishable: nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect, it must and will stand alone: its immortality is secure. … One cannot open this book anywhere and not find richness.”
Twain isn’t being entirely sarcastic. While his claim that, “this celebrated little phrase-book will never die while the English language lasts” might be slightly facetious, English As She Is Spoke is still a popular text over a hundred years after its release, often published and now available in over a dozen e-book editions. That’s rare for the ever temporary humor genre, yet extremely funny for what can only be described as a stupidly-translated phrasebook.
English As She Is Spoke is a broken Portuguese-to-English phrasebook written by two translators, José da Fonseca and Pedro Carolino. Sort of. You see, in reality, translator Pedro Carolino wanted to create a phrasebook on his own. Not knowing English, he took José da Fonseca’s French-to-English phrasebook and then used a Portuguese-to-French phrasebook to translate that. It’s sort of like what you and your friends do on Google Translate, but with a poor, mislead Portuguese man doing it by hand in candlelight.
Although it was originally published in Portugal under a much more benign title, it was only so long before the book migrated to literary circles in London, where it became the Victorian equivalent of a viral video. Friends passed it to friends who giggled over — even then — unintentionally sexual phrases such as, “He do the devil at four.” Soon it was republished in America and England under its more famous title, quickly becoming a bestseller on both sides of the pond.
While it’s easy to call the humor derived from English As She Is Spoke xenophobic (the same accusation often lobbed at blogs documenting Asian “Engrish”), the joke here isn’t just “stupid foreigner.” Rather, the laughs are from the around-the-world path that these common phrases took to English. It’s supposed to be educational, but there is no way this book could ever teach you English.
“Familiar Phrases” are neither familiar nor really phrases. The mistranslation of “Idioms” as “Idiotisms” is just childishly delightful. And the “Anecdotes” section — oh, the “Anecdotes” section! — is a series of jokes that are so butchered that they end up sounding more like a crazy dream than a funny story with a punchline. Check out the second joke below, which is actually coherent until its entirely nonsense ending.
And therein lies the beauty of English As She Is Spoke: the nonsense seems to come at the perfect moment. Most of the time, the book is simply a poorly-translated mess. Ha-ha, fine. But every page has one shining moment where the reader thinks she’s about to have a handle on what Carolino’s getting at, only to have her legs cut out from under her. And it is a beautiful, hilarious moment.
While mistranslations are funny, English As She Is Spoke makes you work for your humor. When you read a phrase like, “To craunch the marmoset,” you aren’t just laughing because that’s a funny series of words, you’re laughing because you’re trying to figure out what intentional meaning that phrase could have possibly had. And when you see “Chinaman” listed under “Trades,” you can’t help by wonder how the hell it got there.
As an Ur text of unintentional humor, English As She Is Spoke holds up surprisingly well today. While some of the phrases were funnier then than now, there are other phrases that are much funnier today than they were a hundred years ago (especially the common use of the giggle-worthy, “come in mouth”).
Is it juvenile to laugh at mistranslations? Yes. Is this book older than any person currently living? Yes. Is it worth reading for free? Absolutely.
To make paps for the cats.
Mike Drucker is a lovely man with many positive characteristics. He has written for Saturday Night Live, The Onion, McSweeney’s, and Nintendo. He’s also a stand-up or something, I guess.