English As She Is Broke

November 9, 2011

Its delicious unconscious ridiculousness, and its enchanting naïveté, as are supreme and unapproachable, in their way, as are Shakespeare’s sublimities. Whatsoever is perfect in its kind, in literature, is imperishable: nobody can imitate it successfully . . .

So wrote Mark Twain in his introduction to Pedro Carolino’s English As She Is Spoke (1883), a Portuguese-English conversational guide infamous for its incoherent translations and memorable incongruities.

Every page of this short book is rich in non sequiturs and grammatical mishaps that border on the poetic, the cumulative effect of which is a rare and unpredictable entertainment.

Will you this?
Let us amuse rather to the fishing.
The coffee is good in all time.
You hear the bird’s gurgling? Which pleasure! which charm!
Comb-me quickly; don’t put me so much pomatum.
He burns one’s self the brains.
You come too rare.
I row upon the belly on the back and between two waters.

Carolino’s book offers vocabularies, phrases, dialogues, letters and anecdotes, all of them delightfully mangled. There is a pronunciation guide that renders washerwoman as uox’-eur-ummeune, and a list of proverbs that turns “A rolling stone gathers no moss” into “The stone as roll not heap up not foam”.

If it were twice as accurate, it would not be half as beguiling.

The book’s history is also muddled. Collins Library published a new edition in 2002 that followed an early edition in crediting Carolino and José da Fonseca as authors. But Fonseca appears to have had no involvement except that his own work inspired Carolino’s awful effort. (I use the word inspired loosely: Carolino spoke no English, and borrowed wholesale from one of Fonseca’s phrasebooks.)

After linguist Alexander MacBride got a copy of the Collins Library edition, he contacted the publishers to question the dual authorship. He felt that a grave injustice had been done to Fonseca:

Not only was his little phrasebook ripped off, and transformed into an eternal monument of linguistic incompetence — he, the victim of the outrage, is remembered by posterity as its author!

Further digging by MacBride threw more light on how the confusion came about. It’s a nice bit of historical research. He found that Fonseca was “a serious and competent scholar” who had an excellent command of English and was “contemptuous of shoddy and amateurish conversation guides and phrasebooks”.

So English As She Is Spoke — Carolino’s “Jest in Sober Earnest” — would presumably have earned Fonseca’s contempt, but we can enjoy it on its own inimitable terms. After all,

A little learneds are happies enough for to may to satisfy their fancies on the literature.

You can download English As She Is Spoke in various formats at Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive.

Put your confidence at my. How do you can it to deny?