In the fall of 1537, a child was confined to bed for some time. The French poet Clément Marot wrote her a get-well poem, 28 lines long, each line a scant three syllables. In the mid-1980s, the outrageously gifted Douglas R. Hofstadter--il miglior fabbro of Godel, Escher, Bach--first attempted to translate this "sweet, old, small elegant French poem into English." He was later to challenge friends, relations, and colleagues to do the same. The results were exceptional, and are now contained in Le Ton Beau De Marot, a sunny exploration of scholarly and linguistic play and love's infinity. Less sunny, however, is the tragedy that hangs over Hofstadter's book, the sudden death of his wife, Carol, from a brain tumor. (Her translation is among the book's finest.)
Marot's poem, in Hofstadter's initial translation (he is to compose many more), begins: "My sweet, / I bid you / A good day; / The stay / Is prison. / Health / Recover, / Then open / Your door ... "--a slim frame on which to hang 600 or so pages of text. But the book is far more than a compendium of translators' triumphs (with the occasional misstep). Most of the renderings are original and lively, some lovely, though Hofstadter often feels compelled to improve them. He lightly laments that Bill Cavnar's rendering, "though superb along so many dimensions at once, still seems to lack a bit of that intangible verbal sparkle that I associate with the deepest Maroticity."
Hofstadter's talents lie in linking his intoxication, erudition, and vision with humor, autobiography, and free association. His book takes on "rigidists," asks questions like, "Is plagiarism potentially creative?" and strives to define linguistic soul. Along the way, it accords the same level of respect to the seemingly trivial: sex jokes, Texas jokes, The Seven Year Itch, and the puzzle of how someone you love can hate a food that you adore. Throughout there is pun, ingenuity, and above all, love for language--which can compress distance and, through constraint, lead to freedom. [via]