One of the great pleasures of being a freelancer, its greatest perhaps, is the right to say “no”. Employees cannot refuse a normal task without risking the loss of their entire livelihood. Entrepreneurs have the privilege on passing on work that we would rather not do for whatever reason. Of course, I do not recommend blunt refusals as it creates as it creates more problems than it solves. Better ways exist as I have written in the past. Still, many a time I have received “inappropriate offers” and thought to myself or said out loud in the privacy of my office “No!”
To my surprise and fascination, I learned from an article in the Canard Enchainė of July 8, 2020 that Herman Melville, in a short story in 1853 entitled Bartleby, the Scrivener:A Story of Wall-street, had already published an extremely elegant way to refuse requests. Readers may be confused for several reasons. Canard is known for its articles, which is why I read it, but not necessarily regarding ideal business practices unless by negative example. Secondly, I had no idea that Melville wrote short stories as he is famous for endless novels, most famously Moby Dick. To be fair, he was paid by the word, like Dickens, rendering the writing of short stories even less probable. I was indeed amazed that the response formulated by Melville some 170 years earlier in a completely different word both technologically and industrially.
To explain, in this story, a recently-hired clerk at a stock exchange office works day and night, literally, copying legal texts. His boss is impressed with his skill and even temper, unlike his three other clerks. However, on his third day of work, the boss politely asks Mr. Bartleby to come over and read a text out loud so they can assure the accuracy of the copying. The clerk’s unlikely response to this request is “I would prefer not to”. He responds to all requests to do anything besides copying in the same manner, including the request to resign and leave the office. The beauty of the British English construction is its clear indirectness. On the one hand, it is fully understood that the clerk will not get up from his desk. On the other hand, the refusal is subtle and almost respectful. The boss, like the reader, find it hard to be angry at the clerk in spite of his behavior.
The Canard article mentioned that French has seven translations of the story and its famed phrase. The latest one, proposed by Noёlle de Chambrun and Tandrėde Ramonet, is j’aimerais autant pas. Previously, translators wrote Je préfėrais ne pas, je préfėrais and j’aimerais mieux pas. The autant in the new translation means as much or so much. This element formally does not appear in the original English but, in my opinion, expresses its slipperiness. It flows well in French, a notoriously ambiguous language.
For curiosity’s sakes, I checked the translation in Russian and Hebrew. In the Russian version translated by Maria Federova Loria in 1987, the clerk’s answer is Я бы предпочел отказаться [ya bae predpochel otkazatza] , which literally means I would prefer to forego. Note that Russian version includes a verb while the English one is elliptical. The Hebrew version, translated by Dafna Levi reads הייתי מעדיף שלא [haiti ma’adif shello], is word for word like the English. I have to admit that the Hebrew phrase that entered my mind was הלוואי שכן [halavai sheken], which literally means it would be wonderful if I could. I admit this comes from the opposite direction but somehow also expresses the indirect but clear refusal.
It is amazing how decisive passive resistance can be not just in great political movements but also small human dramas. As a technical translator, I work on nuts and bolts, occasionally literally, but the art and beauty of literary translation fascinates me due the challenges of transmitting the subtleties of simple but powerful words from one language to another. I am so inspired that I plan, one day, on an appropriate occasion of course, to write the following words to a project manager: I would rather not to. The question is how the project manager will take it.
*Add caption to picture for the benefit of the blind. Picture: Image by <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/Barbara-Iandolo-732060/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=4134455">Barbara Iandolo</a> from <a href="https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=4134455">Pixabay</a>