a chessboard of couples manoeuvring Martinis

Discussion in 'English Only' started by AlexanderIII, Oct 28, 2015.

  1. AlexanderIII

    AlexanderIII Senior Member

    Dear all,
    this is from GUT SYMMETRIES by Jeanette Winterson. This is a description of the bar at the Algonquin Hotel.

    The bar was a chessboard of couples manoeuvring Martinis, and waiters high-carrying chrome trays. I moved in black knight right angles across and cross the lines (*) but apart from a few appreciative businessmen there was no one who seemed interested in me.

    The first (blue) part of the sentence is vague. I understand it this way.
    (1) The bar with its rows of tables (it is clear from (*) that there were at least 2 rows) resembled a chessboard. Waiters [like chess-pieces] walked to and fro along the rows. Couples sitting at the tables [as if playing chess, from time to time] rearranged Martinis.

    (2) Probably another interpretation is possible: the bar was a chessboard for (or used by) couples and waiters to play [some game].

    Do you think any of the aforesaid is correct?
  2. joanvillafane Senior Member

    U.S., New Jersey
    U.S. English
    I think the "chessboard" is purely metaphorical. I don't know when this was written and the Algonquin bar may have had some distinctive arrangement in the past, but normally a bar may have two areas - the bar itself, where patrons stand or sit on stools, and an adjacent area with tables. It is not clear at all to me that there are at least 2 rows of tables.
    Tables can be arranged in many different ways.
    The idea is that to move around in this area you have to move like a knight on a chessboard.
  3. AlexanderIII

    AlexanderIII Senior Member

    Published in 1997.

    Can one move like a black knight right angles across and cross the lines if there is only one row (line) of tables?

    The bar was a chessboard of couples. They were sitting either at the tables or at the bar counter. Suppose they were sitting at the bar counter. Then she could not walk (a)round them like a black knight. So they were sitting at the tables, were they not?

    I agree. Why is it so? Because there are more than 2 rows of tables. Actually she was going to meet a rival she had never seen before. So she wanted to see if someone was waiting for her, wanted to make herself conspicuous. Had there been an only row (line) of tables she would not have to walk around them like a black knight.
  4. Tunalagatta Senior Member

    English - England
    I don't think you should imagine a literal chessboard arrangement or worry about table positioning. To me it suggests that the bar is fairly full, and movement is restricted and strategic. Or, the person observes people's movements, and thinks they look like chess pieces.
  5. AlexanderIII

    AlexanderIII Senior Member

    To translate this the right way I have to imagine the scene somehow.

    Some readers imagine the scene like you do, Tunalagatta. Probably this is because of the waiters high-carrying trays. But a little later it becomes clear that there was a vacant table in the bar for the narrator and her rival to occupy. So probably the place was not very crowded. Besides it was 6 p.m. on Wednesday.
  6. Tunalagatta Senior Member

    English - England
    Ok not necessarily full, but with people in it performing restricted movements in certain patterns.
  7. Glenfarclas Senior Member

    English (American)
    Then again, the bar might well have been a social chessboard -- a place for strategic romantic and business maneouvering -- instead of a (metaphorical) physical chessboard.
  8. AlexanderIII

    AlexanderIII Senior Member

    Ok, as the sentence is vague and might mean anything at all I think it is reasonable to translate it as close to the original as possible. But what about the "manoeuvring"? Would you agree that here it means to rearrange, to fiddle? Or you see the people purpose their hidden objects with the help of Martinis?
  9. Juhasz Senior Member

    English - United States
    I'm certain you know more about translation than I do, but I was about to suggest the opposite; i.e. that you abandon all the details and keep only the chess metaphor. Like other posters, I assume that the chess metaphor is meant to suggest that the people in the bar are conducting themselves as if playing chess, by making careful, strategic social maneuvers. In the original, the metaphor falls apart because it's not clear who is playing chess (deciding on strategies, moving pieces), who is acting as a chess piece (being moved by the players), and what part of the space is the chessboard.

    There's probably a way a communicate the intended meaning of the chess metaphor more clearly than Winterson has done. Or you could translate it literally and leave your readers as perplexed as English readers probably are.
  10. AlexanderIII

    AlexanderIII Senior Member

    To improve the intended meaning I must understand it first. But it is vague. So I think the best thing to do is to follow an old rule: if there is a clear sense I translate the sense, not words. If the sense is vague or absent (as in case of absurdity) I translate words.

    Thank you, Joanvillafane, Tunalagatta, Glenfarclas and Juhasz.

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