Slips of the Tongue

••• English as a Really Foreign Language

Collins says he can't reveal future titles, but mentions as likely contenders a "very odd POW escape narrative" and a couple of missing links from the Bloomsbury circle. Some of the authors on his short list, he adds, are so obscure that "Google searches on their names turned up zero hits—nothing at all, not even different people with the same name."

His own Web site (www.collinslibrary.com) contains mini-discoveries made during his prolonged library trawls—and also a revision to the story of EASIS's genesis, as she is known, from Alexander MacBride, a graduate student in linguistics at UCLA. In brief, MacBride thinks da Fonseca (described by Collins as author of "a long and respectable list of published works in poetry, linguistics, and translation") may have been the victim of a shoddy publisher and an incompetent fellow countryman.

MacBride's suspicions were initially aroused by internal evidence in the book itself, notably the authors' brain-twisting preface. "Untwisted," he writes on the site, it "becomes a sensible (though somewhat boastful) introduction to what sounds like a decent little textbook." Intrigued, he consulted the online catalog of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France—and found a French-Portuguese phrasebook by da Fonseca alone, published by J.-P. Aillaud in 1836.

illustration: Douglas Boehm

If MacBride is correct that Aillaud did assign another writer to do an English knockoff, the hack in question was presumably Carolino, of whom, Collins informs us, little is known beyond his authorship of a manual on letter writing. MacBride soon discovered he was not the first to reach this conclusion. A 1967 British edition features an introduction by Leslie Shepard that likewise puts the blame on Carolino, though he speculates that da Fonseca may have been complicit. "The idea of an English-language version was perhaps a natural one, and it seems that da Fonseca became acquainted with a certain Pedro Carolino, who confidently undertook the task of producing an exact English edition," Shepard wrote.

But MacBride is dubious that the genesis of EASIS lies in da Fonseca's unwarranted faith in a newfound friend's language skills: "[It] looks an awful lot like a guess on Shepard's part, and if it's a known fact, Shepard provides no source for it," he tells the Voice.

Then there's the point that in 1853, Aillaud brought out an edition of da Fonseca's 1836 Portuguese-French phrasebook, just two years before publishing the work that would achieve infamy as EASIS. Could the latter primer simply have been a blind translation of the former? MacBride says it's possible da Fonseca had nothing to do with either of these books: "If he didn't live in France, he may not have even known about them."

A further twist to the tangled tale occurred when MacBride came upon an article by George Monteiro from the 1983-84 issue of the journal Estudos Anglo-Americanos. According to Monteiro, "It is now accepted . . . that [Carolino] was merely a pseudonym for [da Fonseca], whose dates are given on library catalog cards as 1792?-1866."

MacBride contacted Monteiro, who was unable to provide any further information. It would certainly seem bizarre for da Fonseca to include his own name along with a pseudonym, since this is usually a tactic of writers who wish to conceal their identity, not multiply it. In fact, the proliferating histories of EASIS itself begin to read like bad translations from a decayed source. "Every time I look at this stuff again, it becomes more mysterious," says MacBride, adding that da Fonseca is "the Lautréamont of incompetence."

Unable to find any biographical information on either da Fonseca or Carolino, MacBride has nevertheless discovered a clue that may prove decisive—da Fonseca had published books on English prior to 1855, including phrasebooks; he would later translate Gulliver's Travels. "I'm wondering now if da Fonseca actually did have some solid work in English, and the bad phrasebook was an attempt to cash in on his reputation," MacBride says. "If not, and the earlier English works are as bad as this one, he must have been a tremendous imbecile." The books that could prove the case, one way or the other, reside in French libraries. MacBride is trying to secure copies.


Was da Fonseca an unknowing dupe, a too trusting friend, a linguistic serial killer, or a borderline schizophrenic? "My first assumption was that the mysterious 'Pedro Carolino' was some hack who'd gone through the original phrasebook with a dictionary, and that Fonseca was completely innocent," MacBride says. "I still think that's likely, but I'm not tremendously confident about it."

Indeed, the ground shifts like the tenses in EASIS. Yet MacBride's initial hypothesis still seems the most probable. If da Fonseca did have some command of English, it's unlikely he would have had his name tied to such a work. If he did not—well, the mind boggles at the prospect of other books of this ilk remaining undiscovered for so long. And how did he continue to get commissions? Surely someone in France spoke English.

If the hypothesis holds, da Fonseca (one imagines a thin, quiet man with a neatly clipped moustache) has been the innocent victim of the worst possible press. As Collins says, "Da Fonseca has gone down as the worst scholar in history—and probably undeservedly. The irony is that, unlike most of his colleagues, it means that people still read him."

But would such immortality have appealed to the respectable da Fonseca, or was he the first to be caught in the trap? If the latter, the calumny is unspeakable. A moment of silence, then, for his tormented shade. To use a Familiar Phrase, He is tears.

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