Tag Archives: proverbs

Farts in their drawers: Using and abusing foreign proverbs in fiction

fartsOne of my most treasured books is Arabic Proverbs by  J. L. Burckhardt, a Swiss orientalist famous for travelling to Mecca disguised as a Muslim in 1814-15. I’ve always found the book fascinating, and I couldn’t resist drawing on it in writing my novel Cairo Mon Amour.

A difficult technical challenge in writing this book was finding a narrative voice for my Egyptian characters. I used proverbs here and there to give some oriental spice without stereotyping; I get tired of the Bad Arab Syndrome, a condition that seems to afflict many thriller writers. I’ve vowed that no character of mine will say, “By Allah, the infidel dog will taste bitter dates this night”.

One of my favourite characters is Zouzou Paris. She’s a film actress with a notorious reputation, the mistress of a shady senior military figure. She can barely act, and admits to her friend Pierre that ‘the owl became an actress’. Here she’s explaining to her friend Pierre how she got her start:

” … I couldn’t act, but I could – let’s say – give him the kind of companionship he needed. So with the help of his movie cronies the owl became an actress, as the old saying goes,” [Zouzou said].

“You’re known as a fine actress, hardly an owl.”

“You obviously haven’t seen any of my films…”

In fact, Burckhardt’s original proverb is ‘the owl has become a poetess’, intended to describe a person who is operating above their level of competence. I adapted it to the context and added a bit of support for the reader with ‘as the old saying goes’.

Later, Pierre describes Zouzou as ‘tough as a sheep’s ear’, but this isn’t one of Burkhardt’s: I made it up. My Arabic is reasonably good, but I have no idea whether the Egyptians say this. Does is matter? I think not.

My favourite appropriation is when I have two policemen complaining about their unappreciative superiors. Here’s a snippet:

“Ha! They whine about the breeze around their turbans, but what about the farts in their drawers?” one officer said bitterly.

“And we’re the ones sniffing their farts …”

The original (see illustration) is somewhat different, and Burkhardt’s translation treats the fart word delicately: ‘a slight wind’ in the translation, and then the Latin flatus in the commentary. My version is as bawdy as the original, but I’ve modified the first part so that I give farts more emphasis by placing it later in the proverb. And I couldn’t resist adding the sniffing comeback.

I wonder if other writers have used this strategy?

Stuart Campbell

You can find out about my novels here.

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Foreign words in a novel: When is it time to hold the condiments?

KPSU card 001How many foreign words can an author pepper their work with, and when does the reader get indigestion? This question came up at one of my writers groups recently when I introduced a new character who opens the second part of my novel in progress Cairo Mon Amour.

I had sprinkled the text with Russian words in order to flavour the narrative voice of the third person narrator, Ivan Maksimovich Zlotnik, a Soviet spy posted to Cairo. By the way, half of my bachelor degree was in Russian, and although I last spoke the language in Hanoi twenty years ago, I have enough residual knowledge not to make gross errors.

Here’s an example that didn’t seem to bother my writing pals:

‘ … the one who sat out the Great Patriotic War in capitalist luxury while they froze their yaytsa off and lived on barely enough calories to sustain a bird’.

Transparent I think: If you guesses nuts or bollocks, you’d be right, and if you went for dick, then no harm done. Incidentally, how many readers will divine the meaning of Great Patriotic War? Did my technique of using the Soviet counterpart for WWII backfire?

This example of my ‘fake proverb’ also didn’t offend:

‘No spare words with this one, cold as yesterday’s borshch.’

I haven’t a clue whether Russians say this, but since I’m faking it I can control the comprehensibility of the foreign words; I’d expect any reader of my books to know what borshch is.

But there was a problem with this example: My character is the son of one of the nomenklatura, but some of the group were lukewarm about the word. I’d hoped that the context would suggest that nomenklatura means something like the ‘A list’ of the Communist Party. Maybe rethink that one.

And things got really tricky with:

‘”You always had it made, Ivan,” his fellow MGIMO graduates would say.”

Some of my comrades didn’t mind encountering MGIMO without a formal introduction, and then learning later that it was the Russian acronym for Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Others were happy to wait for the meaning of MGIMO to be revealed.

It was at this point that I began to suspect that another issue was at play: Is it that readers belong to one of two camps – those that can wait and those that can’t? Coincidentally I was at my other writers group on the following night when one member read what I thought was a very elegant prologue. It was only in the last sentence that the identity of a mysterious ‘she’ was revealed. A marvelous strategy, I thought. But one or two of the members complained that they’d wanted to know who ‘she’ was up front!

On balance I think I prefer my readers to wait, so MGIMO stays where it is.  As my friend Raymond Saucisson*, editor of Charcuterie Monthly, often says: Putain, je préfère ma saucisse pour le plat principal.

Stuart Campbell

*Monsieur Saucisson kindly wrote the introduction to my anthology of essays On Becoming a Butcher in Paris.

You can buy Stuart’s novels in e-book and paperback by clicking on these links:

An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

The Play’s the Thing