The Impenetrable Mr. Lapham

Some writers are impenetrable because it’s impossible to figure out what they’re saying. Other writers are impenetrable because it’s impossible to force your eyes to read anything they’ve written from beginning to end. For Chatterbox, these two afflictions collide in the work of Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper’s, a pretty good magazine marred by the opaque fin de siècle musings that regularly appear in Lapham’s “Notebook” column. The hallmarks of Lapham’s style are a magnificent contempt for mankind’s folly and an apparent conviction that the United States is reenacting the last days of Rome. Beyond that, Chatterbox can’t really tell you what Lapham is saying. But Chatterbox was excited to see in the May issue of Harper’s a sentence that appeared to summarize all of Lapham’s obsessions. If I read this sentence, Chatterbox realized, I may never have to read anything Lapham writes again! Here it is:

The swarm of cameras following Monica Lewinsky on her progress through a Washington airport or a New York restaurant wouldn’t have surprised the Roman mob familiar with the expensive claques traipsing after the magnificence of the Emperor Nero, their eager and well-fed sycophancy presumably equivalent to the breathless enthusiasms of Barbara Walters.

But what does it mean? Chatterbox, who has never read Gibbon, despaired of ever knowing. Then he remembered: This is the Web! We have, at our fingertips, machinery that is much, much smarter than Chatterbox! One of these resources is AltaVista’s translation Web page , which uses SYSTRAN software to translate text from English into various other languages. Perhaps, Chatterbox thought, Lapham’s allusion-shrouded meaning would reveal itself in French. Here’s what Alta Vista spat back:

L’essaim des appareils-photo suivant Monica Lewinsky sur son progrès par un aéroport de Washington ou un restaurant de New York n’aurait pas étonné l’au courant romain de foule des claques chers traipsing après le magnificence de l’empereur Nero, leur sycophancy désireux et bien-alimenté vraisemblablement équivalent aux enthusiasms essoufflés de Barbara Walters.

Hmm, Chatterbox thought. Interesting. But still elusive. Chatterbox clicked next to the Dialectizer Web page . As the name suggests, the Dialectizer translates text into various dialects. (It is best known for its “jive” function, which Chatterbox thought best to avoid.) Here is Lapham’s sentence translated into “Elmer Fudd”:

De swawm of camewas fowwowing Monica Wewinsky on hew pwogwess thwough a Washington aiwpowt ow a New Yowk westauwant wouwdn’t have suwpwised the Woman mob famiwiaw wif the expensive cwaqwes twaipsing aftew the magnificence of the Empewow Newo, theiw eagew and weww-fed sycophancy pwesumabwy eqwivawent to the bweathwess enthusiasms of Bawbawa Wawtews. Oh, dat scwewy wabbit!

And here’s Lapham translated into “[the Muppets’] Swedish Chef”:

Zee sverm ooff cemeres fullooeeng Muneeca Looeensky oon her prugress thruoogh a Vesheengtun eurpurt oor a Noo Yurk restoorunt vuooldn’t hefe-a soorpreesed zee Rumun mub femeelier veet zee ixpenseefe-a cleqooes treeepsing effter zee megneefficence-a ooff zee Imperur Neru, zeeur ieger und vell-fed sycuphuncy presoomebly iqooeefelent tu zee breethless inthooseeesms ooff Berbera Velters. Um gesh dee bork, bork!

To Chatterbox’s mind, both dialect versions cleanse some of the murk from Lapham’s rhetoric. Apparently he’s saying reporters are suck-ups. But surely that can’t be all. It’s too obvious! And Lapham is anything but obvious. Chatterbox went back to the AltaVista translator, translated Lapham from English into French, then back into English, then into German, then back into English again. Here is what he got:

The Swarm of the apparatus photo Monica Lewinsky on its progress of an airport of Washington or of restaurant of New York following, they have opera of the hat with current Roman of the mass of the expensive Traipsings after that magnificence of the emperor Nero, them not astonishment the eager sycophancy and good-pull probably equivalent with enthusiasmsschlag from Barbara of walter.

Alas, artificial intelligence hasn’t evolved to the point where it can penetrate Lapham’s prose. Perhaps we’ll get there in the next century.

–Timothy Noah