And, Speaking of Translation

February 12, 2014


When I worked for international classical record labels, I was particularly alert to differences of English usage around the world, not only as a matter of courtesy and tact but in the interests of commerce. This consciousness also emerges in everyday conversation, since I live in a cosmopolitan community in which foreign languages are not the only source of verbal challenge, the majority of English-speakers that I encounter daily not being Americans. (My only English conversation yesterday was with a half-Greek, half-German woman who lives on a Spanish-governed island in the Mediterranean.)

Today, in writing an electronic message, I spoke of a recent event “on the Carrer de Verdi” — a street in Barcelona. But, since I was writing to an Englishman, I changed — considerately, I thought — “on the Carrer de Verdi” to “in the Carrer de Verdi.” As often happens in such situations, meditations and speculations on usage sprang up unbidden. Why, I thought, do we have this difference in British and American usage? Is it possibly because, in a town setting like that of, say, Oxford (the kind of place where standard usage may be assumed to have been established), entering into a comparatively narrow street is rather like entering into a sort of structure, albeit open to the sky. In a country initially and fundamentally rural, as the United States long were, it would feel absurd to speak of such-and-such farm, with structures set well back from the road, as being in a particular country road, any more than, nowadays, a certain shopping center would be in a six-lane highway. The same might even apply to American towns, where the streets tend to be wider than in Europe, except in the older, formerly colonial parts like Wall Street, where tall buildings create urban canyons. Even if my guess about the reason for the difference is wrong, I can’t say that I regret the fact that a single English monosyllable can set off such chains of speculation.

I’m also reminded that the distinction occurs in Anna Russell’s famous disquisition on Wagner’s Ring Cycle when she evokes laughter by speaking of the Rhine Maidens’ scene as opening not on the river, but in it. And, come to think of it, while I’m content to type this post in the Carrer de l’Illa de Cuba, no one lives in the actual island of Cuba, but on it. It’s an efficient language in which a single letter can make such a difference.

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