Non-Fiction Reviews

Le Ton Beau de Marot

(1997) Douglas Hofstadter, Bloomsbury, 1997, L30, hrdbk, ISBN 07474 3349 0

Douglas Hofstadter has had a near legendary status among the mathematically literate population since the publication of his Pulitzer prize winning book, Godel Escher Bach back in 1979. In there, he took an extremely subtle, yet playful, look at the ideas involved in symmetry, recursion, and self reference by looking at the work of the three eponyms. Hofstadter's viewpoint (along with that of Dan Dennett and Marvin Minsky) has also been extremely influential in the AI community, where he has pioneered computer analogy making as a fundamental area of research (see The Mind's I (with Dan Dennett) for the philosophy, and Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies for an overview of the computational models).

It was obvious from his earlier books that Hofstadter had a playful and intelligent interest in language and translation, but in Le Ton beau de Marot he shows the depth and breadth of his knowledge in this field too. Although impossible to reduce to a few choice phrases, Le Ton beau takes as its starting point a medieval french poem by Clement Marot called A une Damoyselle malade, and interleaves chapters discussing a wealth of ideas using translation as a springboard with chapters consisting of translations of the poem in various styles along with commentary on the translations.

I have to say that I found these poetry chapters less interesting than the main structure of the book - though even they contain much that is of interest. The main chapters though, are a feast of ideas, often explained with dazzling wordplay and wit. There are chapters on the role of constraints, analogy, the possibility of machine translation, untranslatability, nonsense, and much more besides.

The only quibble one could offer would be that sometimes Le Ton beau de Marot seems just too rich to be absorbed - many authors would have been content to get a book out of the ideas in just one chapter of this work. I felt almost resentful that I didn't have the patience to spend a year reading it to the depth that it seems to demand.

Finally, as well as being a great work of ideas, this book is also a deeply felt, personal tribute from Douglas Hofstadter to his late wife, Carol, who died suddenly from a brain tumour in 1993. Her presence is felt in the background of almost every chapter, and this mixing of intensely intellectual work on translation and emotional recollection of personal stories lends the work a poignancy of tone that many novelists would struggle to better. A masterpiece.

Matt Freestone

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