This evening I saw a lovely new film from Quebec called Monsieur Lazhar. It was in French with English subtitles, and I always enjoy comparing the dialogue with its translation – there are a great many things that can’t be translated as easily as people think they can (you can lose subtleties with subtitles). It’s not simply that it’s not exactly word-for-word, or that there are little inflectional things that exist in one language that don’t in another; entire ways of approaching subjects exist in one language that don’t readily exist in another. Even where both are capable of expressing pretty much the same thing, for a given language a given way of putting something may be more or lesson common, more or less formal, may have different connotations…

Obviously, if you use something like machine translation, you’re taking your chances (and Google Chinglish for some hilarious examples), but even the best translation by the best translator can be a chancy thing. You just have to roll the dice. As is said in Italian, Traduttore, traditore – literally “translator, traitor,” more anglice “A translator is a traitor,” or, as some people put it (those who think they are supposed to explicate when translating), “To translate is to betray” (really, I’ve seen that, and even still such a cack-handed handling of it leaves me downcast).

An example that particularly caught my attention in Monsieur Lazhar was when one character was explaining to another what shuffle meant (as in iPod Shuffle). What was especially interesting to me was that it almost seemed smoother in the English subtitle than in the French: where the English had random, the original French was de façon aléatoire. Which looks as though it would translate better into English as in an aleatory manner.

Except that aleatory is a low-frequency word in English. Meaning your odds of hearing it are somewhat lower, and so it’s worth more. We get our highfalutin vocabulary from Latin and Greek, often by way of French, but French gets its words from Latin by simple evolution – they’re as basic to it as Anglo-Saxon words are to English. And, while a passage of English may be direct and functional or ornate and luxurious or technical, like a meal in a fast-food restaurant or in an expensive dining room or on a space station, a passage of French of whatever level has an element of deliberate pleasure, be it like baguette and Brie on stone steps or like the the most elaborate assemblage à la Carême. They love the longer prepositional phrases just as they love the myriad silent letters. (Of course, it seems doubly exquisite when it is foreign.)

English does, as always, have a panoply of lexemes to suit the context. Random is popular among youth and has overtones of randy, dumb, and a sort of sense of wandering; stochastic is from Greek and is very percussive and technical, seeming almost as though the randomness were produced by some air-driven punch-press machine. But aleatory

It’s as formal as stochastic, of course, but it carries with it a greater sense of a losing proposition (I’m talking about in English; matters are different in French). This comes from its reference to dice (I won’t presume it has any influence from the echo of alas). All of you who have ever loved Asterix know the phrase Alea jacta est, something the Romans in those comics like to say every so often; it’s what Julius Caesar said when he had crossed the Rubicon: “The die is cast.” The Rubicon was the line in the sand, as it were; actually, it was a river. Crossing it was a declaration of war.

War is always a gamble; you are always dicing with destiny. Romans liked to gamble with dice, too, their soldiers in particular being known for it. But does fortune favour the bold? You may think so, and then meet it in some dark alley and wake up chained in a laboratory… O Furtuna, velut luna, statu variabilis! (Do sit down and read a translation of the opening “O Fortuna” chorus of the Carmina Burana. Better yet, read three and compare them: here’s one; here’s another; and here’s another.)

Fortune is often seen as being a woman – by men, anyway. And what would this woman’s name be? I think Aleatory would be a good one; it sounds like a mix of Allie and Tori. It flows off the tongue, liquids rippling on either side of the /t/, hidden in the silken folds: a stiletto (but do I mean high heel or dagger?). And aleatory has a lovely set of vowels, but look: where are u and i? We own no piece of it.

The Gauls of Asterix knew the ups and downs of fortune well enough, as they had lost an epic battle at Alesia, which, come to think of it, sounds like a woman’s name too – and a bit like aleatory. And yet Caesar, who vanquished Vercingetorix at Alesia, was himself no so long afterwards brutally assassinated.

Randomizers on computers, such as on an iPod Shuffle, are not truly random; they simply use an algorithm of sufficient complexity that it is beyond your power and mine to predict the results. But, then, the same is true of a roll of the dice. If we knew exactly the force and direction of the throw, the spin imparted by the friction in the hand, the resistance of the table, the air currents, and so on, we would be able to predict the result exactly every time. But we lack the capacity to do so. We cannot deduce; we can only say “Aleatory, dear Watson.”

The plot of Monsieur Lazhar is driven by two precipitating events, sudden downstrokes, baleful occurrences that defy the characters to find meaning in them. And such events will always have different meanings for different people; we may be not truly able to make sense of them at all, but able only to translate them into something we can parse, if clumsily. They seem in some ways almost random.

But no, not random; it’s not like the output of a simple mixing-up algorithm where the various outputs are roughly equally fortuitous. They are catastrophes – catastrophe is from Greek for “downstroke” – and they have been cast like dice: snake eyes or boxcars. Abruptly, you must pay, and there is no appeal. The only point you can see is the stiletto in the satin folds. You do not know the telos, but you have found the end.

8 responses to “aleatory

  1. Have you seen Raymond Queneau’s aleatory sonnet ‘Cent mille milliards de poèmes’, in which each line is selected randomly from a set of ten? There is an interactive version in both the original French and English at
    — this page is the introduction, and you should click on the link ‘See the poems’.

  2. Is more or lesson common meant to be a pun on more or less uncommon? 😉

  3. Aleatory has an ongoing life in modern music, as well. Experimental musicians (see, e.g., Frank Zappa playing the bicycle on the Steve Allen Show) “composed” entire pieces of aleatoric music, which is all or partly decided at the time of performance. Each performance is therefore unique.

    Aleatory music is still around, though I usually only see it in small sections of larger works.

    The idea that a bad translation can betray the original work is so true. I will never forget the subtitles of a movie rendition of my favorite play, Cyrano De Bergerac (it might have been the Gerard Depardieu movie). Cyrano’s final words — the final words of the play, in fact — are “Mon panache.” In the movie, it was translated as “my white plume,” which completely obliterated the double-meaning of the original “panache,” which can refer both to the big ole feather in his cap and to his overwhelming self-confidence in battle.

    • Ah, the things I forget to mention in a note! And I’m a fan of John Cage, so you would think I would have mentioned it… I think I had it in mind and then it slipped out.

  4. Pingback: fortune, chance | Sesquiotica

  5. Speaking of things happening “de façon aléatoire”… I remember stumbling upon this site of yours a few months back while doing online research for a book I started writing on Vietnamese spelling and pronunciation. I thought your “ghotiun” expedition handout on English spelling was great and downloaded it. Fast-forward a few months…I join Twitter, come across @Languagebandit’s post on English spelling, immediately thought of your handout, tweeted at him (and you) with a link to the handout, decide to revisit your site, entered the word tasting index, and decided to click on “aleatory.” Why? Because I had just watched Monsieur Lazhar a few days before, and the French word had popped out at me. You can imagine my surprise when I began reading your entry 🙂

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