Letters to Malcolm

The Lewis Legacy-Issue 81, Summer 1999 The C.S. Lewis Foundation for Truth in Publishing

The Wonders of International E-Mail

On 26 April, Bill Fong, the son of immigrant parents from China, sent Kathryn Lindskoog an e-mail from Sacramento, CA, introducing himself and asking, among other things, if Lewis had been translated into Chinese. Fong, who had once been a classics major and studied Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, said he was no longer fluent in Chinese. Lindskoog advised him to contact Joshua Pong, a C. S. Lewis expert in Hong Kong.

Before Fong could do so, on 1 May Pong sent Lindskoog an e-mail from Hong Kong asking for help. He had been working on a Chinese translation of Letters to Malcolm, and with the deadline at hand he needed help with six non-English phrases that he had to have in English so he could translate them into Chinese.

  1. Mettez-vous en la presence de Dieu. Chapter XV
  2. Verbum superne prodiens Chapter XV, p. 81
  3. …neque secundum iniquitates nostras retribuas nobis. Chapter XVIII
  4. Favete linguis. Chapter XIX
  5. litel winde, unethe hit might be lesse. Chapter XXI
  6. passion inutile Chapter XXI

Lindskoog put the two in touch, and Fong provided the following answers for Pong:

1. “Mettez-vous en la presence de Dieu” (French).

As Lewis mentions, St. Francois de Sales (17th C.) begins every meditation with this command, “Place yourself in the presence of God.” See de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life where this phrase is repeated. Also at the beginning of the paragraph where the next phrase (#2) appears, Lewis translates this for us as such.

2. “Verbum superne prodiens” (Latin).

Lewis translated this as “the Word coming forth from the Father,” which at first made me wonder if I had to review the ancient Trinitarian controversy of whether only Christ or both Christ and the Spirit proceeded from the Father. It literally translates as “the Word going forth (alt.: advancing, appearing, going forward) from above”. As with the first phrase, Lewis is looking at the process from his vantage point.

3. “…neque secundum iniquitates nostras retribuas nobis” (Latin).

From the Latin Vulgate, as Lewis notes the King James version, keeping the word order, this translates as “…neither according to our sins give us our due”. It appears the Latin quotation is cut off for the portion “be not angry with us forever.” As you know, Hebrew poetry often repeats a thought or phrase in different wording and this is reflected in English translation of the Psalms. I wish I had the Vulgate to see the entire phrase, however.

4. “Favete linguis” (Latin).

This is an imperative (2nd person pl.), “Support (your, pl.) speech.” (Alternates for support = “be favorable to, aid, help”; alternates for speech = languages, tongues; but in the plural form means “speech”.) I’ll search to see if there is some origin to the phrase of which we might not be aware.

5. “litel winde, unethe hit might be lesse” (Old or Middle English).

Can’t help much with this one. “little wind…..might be less / loss” (guessing). I haven’t seen an online translator that will go beyond identifying the language.

6. “passion inutile” (prob. Italian, rather than Latin).

In the context of the passage, I think this means, “unsuitable passion” or “worthless zeal”. The minor difficulty is that “passion” is not spelled that way in Italian or Latin. If it’s Italian, it’s “passione”, like “ardore” (glow, heat, passion; or fervor, zeal). If it’s Latin, “passio” is used only in an ecclesiastical context to refer, of course, to the suffering of Christ. Most likely it is Italian with the final “e” dropped (either as a rule of ellision in Italian or as an editorial mistake).

Pong then sent an e-mail question to Walter Hooper in Oxford and received the following answer:

4. Regarding ‘Favete linguis’, I’ve asked a friend who’s a Classical scholar, and his answer is: ‘Favete linguis is a formula from Roman religious ritual, meaning ‘Avoid words of ill omen’. As a result, the phrase comes to mean ‘Keep silence’, since that (quite sensibly) is the best way of avoiding words of ill omen! CSL may have had in mind Horace, Odes, Book 3, Poem 1, Line 2, where the phrase occurs, but it is common enough elsewhere.

5. The other one, which should read ‘Therwith a wynd, unnethe it myghte be lesse’ is from Chaucer’s ‘Parliament of Fowls’, line 201. It is followed by ‘Made in the leves grene a noyse softe/ Acordaunt to the foule’s song aloft.’ This may be translated ‘Then a wind, the very slightest, made in the green leaves a soft noise/ In tune with the bird’s song above.’ So, if I were translating the passage Lewis gives, I think I’d say, ‘Then a wind, the very slightest.’ Or, you might find some translation of Chaucer that will give you something better.

Thus a Lewis buff in Hong Kong was able to almost instantly correspond with Lewis buffs in California and England in order to get French, Latin, Middle English, and possibly Italian phrases translated into English so he in turn could translate them into Chinese.