The d’Antin Manuscript

February 01, 2005

Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames

I think I was about 15 when a family friend turned me on to Luis d’Antin Van Rooten’s extremely clever and hilarious 1967 book Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames—The d’Antin Manuscript. The conceit of the book is that it’s an annotated version of an obscure collection of medieval French verse. But it’s actually a homophonic translation of Mother Goose rhymes from English to French. What that means is that Van Rooten translated the sounds of the words, not the words themselves. The resulting “French” versions only make sense as French-accented English. So “Mother Goose Rhymes” becomes “Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames”; “Jack and Jill” becomes “Chacun Gille”; and “Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater” becomes “Pis-terre, Pis-terre / Pomme qui n’y terre.” D’Antin’s “translations” use real French words but are utterly nonsensical in French. You don’t have to understand actual French to read d’Antin’s rhymes; you just need a fairly good grasp of French pronunciation rules and an ability to recall Mother Goose. D’Antin’s elaborate, deadpan annotations, in which he purports to extract meaning from the incoherent French, are great parodies of academic pretentiousness. The annotations are amusing even if you don’t know French (I don’t, not really), and I’m sure they’re even funnier if you do.

Here is d’Antin’s version of “Humpty Dumpty”:

Un petit d’un petit
S’étonne aux Halles
Un petit d’un petit
Ah! degrés te fallent
Indolent qui ne sort cesse
Indolent qui ne se mène
Qu’importe un petit d’un petit
Tout Gai de Reguennes.

And here is “Little Miss Muffet”:

Lit-elle messe, moffette,
Satan ne te fête,
Et digne somme coeurs et nouez.
À longue qu’aime est-ce pailles d’Eure.
Et ne Satan bise ailleurs
Et ne fredonne messe. Moffette, ah, ouais!

I think the book was out of print when I learned of it 20 years ago, so I ended up going to the library back then and photocopying the entire book, all 40 pages of it. I stumbled onto that photocopied packet earlier this evening, so I went to Amazon, where I discovered that the book is back in print in a paperback edition from Penguin. I don’t know much about Van Rooten, but a piece that appeared in Time when the book was published identifies him as “a polyglot Manhattan actor.” (It occurred to me that the author’s odd name might be a pseudonym, or even a homophonic translation of his actual name, but a Google search on “Luis d’Antin Van Rooten” and “pseudonym” reveals nothing.) I also discovered tonight that a friend of d’Antin’s named Ormonde de Kay later published a similar book called N’Heures Souris Rames (now out of print), which contained the following version of a classic nursery rhyme:

Georgie Port-régie,
peu digne en paille,
Qui se dégeule sans mais. Dame craille.
Où haine de bouées ce qu’ aime a tout pilé:
Georgie Port-régie règne. Ohé.

Okay, I’m done with this post. Tiens, de.