A Different Kind of Translation

Chris might have promised not to get too far into the “This Old House” mode as he works on the cool old building he plans to turn into the Lost Art Press Bat Cave. I however made no such promise, and my neighbor recently gave me a couple of pallets of old roof tiles as a contribution to renovating my own Bat Cave/barn (with real bats! but no belfry, which doesn’t seem fair or appropriate, somehow).

LAP tiles 2

The tiles are hung on laths nailed across the rafters. The ergot, or the little hook, to the left, is used to hold the tile on the laths. In this one, you could probably get a good fingerprint or two of the fingers of the child or woman that formed it.

When you receive a few thousand old roof tiles as a gift, on the condition that you do not leave the pallets full of tiles decorating your neighbor’s yard for any length of time, you get out the wheelbarrow and decorously start to move them to adorn your own.

The tiles were made from clay deposits down the hill along the river Cher that runs through my village. The clay was pressed into molds and then left in the sun to dry enough to be fired, and during that time various kinds of marks made their way into the fresh clay. So to relieve the tedium of sorting and moving the tiles, it is fun, as part of making sure they are still sound and fit to be re-used, to inspect what was the sunny-side-up, which goes down when they are installed on the roof.

You get dog prints, cat prints, small birds, big birds, various other types of beasts, even children. There was the one with the number 1786 written on the back, which either means it was the 1786th tile of that production run, or that it was made in 1786. I figure that 220 years is pretty good for a hunk of terra-cotta exposed to the weather in all seasons, and if the tiles are sound, they will last for plenty more.

LAP Tiles 1

But the other day, I found a real puzzler, which lead me into a Felibien-esque journey back in time.

“Sante lu Douice” it read as I turned it over.

“Santé” means healthy or in good equilibrium. But there is also the trace of an “i,” after the “a,” which would make it “Sainté” – sainted or blessed.

“Douice” does not exist, as such, in French, but a few minutes rummaging around turned up a couple of books from the 17th century where I saw it as an alternate spelling of “douce,” or possibly “doulce,” meaning pleasant, agreeable, moderate, sweet.

“Lu” is a puzzler, the past tense of “lire” (to read), which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in context. But there is the word “lieu,” which means place, which makes perfect sense.

“Healthy pleasant place” or “Blessed pleasant place” would be exactly what one might expect from somebody wanting to bless the house upon which they were installing a new roof.

Of course it could also mean “Falling off the roof is bad for your health.”

Asking around online and in the neighborhood, the inscription mostly got a Gallic shrug. The writing is obviously a benediction, but as to the specifics, the thoughts ranged from “Who knows?” to an old non-standard spelling, or in the local patois?

There are perhaps 50 more or less regional languages in France, the patois, and they could vary even from village to village. They are based largely on the ancient north vs. south, Langue d’Oil vs. Langue d’Oc language divide in France, with Basque, Breton, Germanic, Catalan and others scattered around the edges. Some of them developed a literature and more or less complete dictionaries, but in the French heartland, they were mostly the spoken dialects, with educated people, publicly anyway, speaking and writing in French. One of the gratifying signs, as I was learning French, was the increasing frequency with which I began to understand conversation around me. One of the surprising things was how often, in more isolated and rural areas, I realized that the French people around me were not in fact speaking French.

In the 1780s the locals speaking patois as their first language would have been a large majority. So it is easy to see how a word in popular inscriptions like this could be misspelled, or a word like “lieu” could end up rendered phonetically as “lu.”

LAP tiles 7

Two more, the top another benediction invoking “St. Clement pa pe”, or Pope St. Clement I. The second tile, slightly smaller than the rest and made with different clay, was apparently made “A BLERE” (in Bleré) a town a couple of miles down the river.

Graham Robb, in his book “The Discovery of France,” has a good account of the history of the patois, along with in this context a perfect anecdote.

He says that nobody knows why the divide between the Langue d’Oil and Langue d’Oc falls where it does. It does not consistently follow any natural or historic boundaries. Is it perhaps a general Roman as opposed to Burgundian influence, or something more ancient? But there is one way to tell where the line runs.

South of the line, the tiled roofs of vernacular buildings have a slope of about 30° and are covered with canal, or Roman, tiles. North of the line, the slope is much steeper, around 45°, and the roofs are covered with flat tiles, like these.

LAP tiles 6

The old barn – late 1600s, probably, roof in split chestnut lathes at least 90 years old. Needs work.

LAP tiles 4

The track of a wading bird. Could be some kind of small heron, but it looks more like a moorhen.

LAP Tiles 10

The top could be a weasel of some kind, but more probably a cat because in the the first two tracks there is no sign of a weasel’s claws, but in the third, the very fine and sharp retractable claws of a cat coming out for the pounce. In the second a dog is turning around and overprinting in the wet clay, perhaps wondering “Why is that guy yelling at me again?”

— Brian Anderson. Anderson is translating Andre Felibien’s “Des Principes de l’Architecture, de la Sculpture, de la Peinture, et des Autres Arts qui en Dépendent.”

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10 Responses to A Different Kind of Translation

  1. fitz says:

    Your renovation is cooler than mine and Chris’s combined. I covet your tiles (and your neighbor).

  2. Matt Merges says:

    Absolutely fantastic, Brian. Do as Chris says and disobey him — keep these mini anthropological missives coming!

  3. tombuhl says:

    Fun investigations Brian. Hope those tiles bless your barn or home. Cheers.

  4. rdwilkins says:

    What a great lesson on vernacular architecture. This is exactly the type of information that’s usually impossible to find. Thanks.

  5. Andrew says:

    Regarding the mystery tile, “saint lieu douche” doesn’t make all that much sense, grammatically.

    I think a crossbar can be made out on what would otherwise be the “long s”, the “a” looks to be an “o” (compare it to the “o” in the last word), and I can’t see an “i” at all. On first glance, I read it as “fonte”, which could refer to a cast mould, or could be a bastardization of third person plural “faire” (or something else entirely).

    The “lu” definitely looks like there’s a half-circle to the left of it, making it “du”, which makes much more sense within the context of the sentence.

    The last word remains a mystery, but if “du” is correct, it’s a word that the writer thought was masculine in gender. Also, the last letter(s) of the last word could be a single “q”.

    Fonte du doui(ce/q) ― mould/made from _____.

    • Andrew – It’s really hard to be sure about it, but there are a couple of points. Everybody I showed it to saw ‘Sante’, and in the right light the i is visible, but looks like it was added later, and in no light was there a bar visible. Also fonte is and was from fondre – to melt, as in a cheese fondue, or fonte meaning cast iron or some metal alloy – or sometimes in cooking or chemistry, to dissolve. For tiles like these or bricks, the wet clay is just pressed into the molds.

      On “lu” there is a trace of a circle to make the L a d, but the trace is in a sort of circular depression, almost as if they started to write du or de, and then went back and rubbed it out, or the trace is just the start of the L in cursive.

      Douice is a puzzler.

      I put the photo out on a couple of carpenter and roofer groups, thinking it might be some common vernacular phrase, but nobody had a better idea. Like I wrote, it’s hard because of the range of possibilities – bad spelling, limited literacy, patois, limited space on the tile, just three words, or any combination of them…

      Hopefully somebody else will pipe up with a better answer. I also have another three pallets to sort, so perhaps there will be another tile in the same hand that sheds more light on the subject. Anyway, it has been really interesting trying to decipher it.

  6. I would go with “San(c)te Ludovice”, which would translate to Saint Louis.

    • That’s interesting Simon – the handwriting is pretty good, even though somebody was writing in clay with a stick – a priest writing more or less in Latin would fit pretty well.

  7. Alex A. says:

    I do not speak french but that last word looks more like “pouic” to me and I know there is a famous french film called Pouic-Pouic but I do not know what the word means.

  8. chucknickerson says:

    If you weren’t already so busy I think there’s a great book in the tiles. Picture a quality photo on the left page, and musings/animal track IDs on the right. It would be a form of local history for your region.

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