Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Cake Is a Lie

My mum and dad had to explain to me what
Let them eat cake!
meant when I first heard about it. I didn’t really understand it at first, because, generally, nobody mentions the bit about wanting bread. Some years later, I wanted to find out what it was in French. I was fairly sure that it would be
qu’ils mangent du gâteau
And, as wikipedia will confirm I was right, at least about the ‘qu’ils mangent...’ anyway. Textbook French subjunctive, five points, zero effort.

Turns out the cake wasn’t a gateau though. It was a brioche. Which is also weird, because I wouldn’t call a brioche a cake. I’d call it a brioche. Mind you, I’d probably also say “ooh lah-di-da” and flounce round pretending to drink cappuccino. ‘Brioche’ might be fine in French, but you say it in English and you sound like some Waitrose-faced southern ponce. The kind of peasants who can be bought off with brioche were probably only upset in the first place because none of the bread available had a name. Basically, translating food isn’t nearly as easy as it looks, just because different countries eat different stuff. So for starters, what counts as cake varies all over. The German ‘kuchen’ can be a cake or a pie, and ‘torte’ can be cake, tart or gateau. They even call the pie in the chart a ‘torte’. I mean, even cobs get renamed 'baps' if you go to the wrong parts of England, even ‘barm cakes’ in the more savage areas. Nailing down definitions of food is a difficult area – just ask someone what’s a pie and what’s a pudding. Then ask an American. And if you scroll back up, you’ll notice there’s all kinds of cultural, class and regional associations with different foodstuffs which I only take semi-seriously. Anyway, it’s a simplistic-looking area where, in fact, there’s a lot of crossover, ambiguity and untranslatability (which my computer says is not a word, but damn well is now), and that’s just now. Back in 1789, there was no Marks and Spencers and English speakers probably wouldn’t have known what a ‘brioche’ was. ‘Cake’ was probably the closest thing the roast-beef philistines would understand.

The brioche isn’t even the most interesting bit here. For example, do the French quote Marie Antoinette or whoever it was quite as much as we do, and for the same things? But anyway, even after my parents explained the story, I still wasn’t really satisfied. The opening “let them...” didn’t really make sense. Because it doesn’t. The “let...” rendering of this French subjunctive isn’t very common these days, because English speakers don’t really talk or think in subjunctives. We have lots of other ways to express the same thing, the kind of vague wishful thinking, an allusion to something desirable but beyond our control, a half-hearted attempt to will it into being through speech, the declaration of what we will let x equal this time, and all that froggy sentiment that I could explain a lot better through frantic gesticulation than actual words. Anyway, this is an awful, or at least awful tricky, translation because, Sainsbury’s Tâstez le Différence organic hand-brioched pain au lait aside, we’ve got something massively vague being translated into something massively ambiguous. The French version, in this context, can only mean one thing: “Well, I consider it a reasonable and indeed desirable suggestion that they eat cake”. The English translation can mean that, but the far more usual sense is “Well, allow them to eat cake”. As if the peasants were, at the time, banned from eating cake, brioche or sun-dried tomatoes, and Marie Antionette was being rather progressive and suggesting they open up the laws, what with the famine and everything. Which actually sounds rather believable, especially when you’re only yea high.

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