Le Dauphin

What a glorious thing it is to have Henry V represented on stage, leading the French king prisoner, and forcing both him and the Dolphin to swear fealty.

The above are the words of the English Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe, as quoted in 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, which I’m obviously getting a lot of inspiration from. What obviously interested me about that quote was… the Dolphin.

I immediately knew that he was referring to the Dauphin, a title which historically referred to the heir apparent of the French throne. At some point in my life, my level of French became strong enough for me to notice that dauphin is also the French word for dolphin.

I occasionally wondered why the word would be used with two such different meanings, but never thought to look it up. Until now.

The story is fairly straightforward. It all begins with Guigues IV, 12th-century Count of Vienne, who was nicknamed le Dauphin due to his coat of arms, which bore a pair of dolphins on it. This nickname was passed down among his descendants, until in 1349, Humbert sold his seigneury (lordship, basically) to King Philippe VI on condition the title of le Dauphin was from then on taken up by the heir to the throne.

Of course the really interesting thing to me is that Nashe translated le Dauphin into English. Normally, we don’t do that, partly because it’s a proper noun, which we generally avoid translating more than general nouns. And also because it’s a specific, cultural artifact, unique to France, and without an exact equivalent in the English language. Basically, the Dauphin was not an actual dolphin, so we don’t call him one.

And the French name has just stuck. Like croissant. Croissant is actually the French word for crescent, but we don’t call the pastries crescents, do we?

So why did Nashe translate the title then? I think it’s because he was undoubtedly familiar with French, given his education and social standing. He probably therefore didn’t really distinguish between le Dauphin (the title) and un dauphin (the French for dolphin), and therefore translated the title into English, just as he would un dauphin. Imagine if you were British and the Prince of Wales was actually known as The Dolphin. If you knew French and were writing about him in French, you might automatically translate it into le Dauphin. And I think that Nashe basically did the reverse when he wrote about The Dolphin.

It’s an interesting little glimpse into the logic behind translation, and how we often translate or don’t translate terms from other languages without thinking about why (not), based on systems of logic we might not even be aware of.

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