Translating the most recent book by Umberto Eco, La storia della bruttezza, in chapter 7 I run across this phrase:

Tale Berillon durante la prima guerra mondiale aveva scritto La polychesie de la race allemande dove dimostrava che il tedesco medio produce più materia fecale del francese, e di odore più sgradevole.

(A certain Doctor Berillon wrote during WW1 his La polychesie de la race allemande in which he demonstrates that the average German produces a larger amount of faecal matter than the average Frenchman, and which also smells more evil .)

Polychesie? Out with the French dictionary. This word, however, cannot be found in it. Then out with the Greek one, for the prefix ‘poly’ makes obvious the Greek root of the word. But the Greek dictionary does not have χήσις or similar word either.

Ultima ratio rerum: the Google, where this word can be found indeed (what is it that cannot be found in Google?) but in a suspiciously low number: only three hits.

The first two hits are two cries for help. In the forum „L’Amaca” of Finanzaonline.it it was “Roy Dantès” who sent in exactly the above phrase with the subject “Cerco disperatamente” (I’m desperately looking for it), to ask whether anyone knows more about the work mentioned. And in the Russian translators’ forum of Livejournal it was “viesel” who put this question only a couple of days before me:

Мне попалось в колонке Умберто Эко, которую перевожу:

Некий Берийон (приведенный как пример ученого, зараженного национализмом) в самый разгар Первой мировой войны (1915) пишет “La polychésie de la race allemande”, где доказывает, что средний немец производит больше фекальных масс, чем француз, и с более резким запахом.

Что это за слово такое - полишези? По смыслу - "многодерьмовость", но с каким корнем, на каком языке? Не знакомо оно кому?

(In a writing of Umberto Eco I’m just translating, I have found what follows:

A certain Berillon (mentioned by the author as an example of the scholar blinded by nationalism) writes in the middle of the first world war (1915) his book “La polychésie de la race allemande”, in which he demonstrates that
the average German produces a larger amount of faecal matter than the average Frenchman, and which also smells more evil.

What does “polychésie” mean? I guess “multishitting”, but from which root and which language? Is it not familiar to someone?)

Russian inventiveness, as it is well known, is unlimited, and the question of Viesel immediately generates two gorgeous solutions:

может, от Scheiße (дерьмо, нем.)?

(possibly from
Scheiße (German “shit”), isn’t it?)

But the other solution that majestically scrolls over the entire Indo-European language history, is even more captivating:

Deutsch: scheißen Englisch: to shit Französisch: chier de.wiktionary.org/wiki/kacken http://fr.wiktionary.org/wiki/chier (Familier) Diarrhée. J’ai la chiasse. от гл. chier (lat. cacare; Caco - "плохой" латинский префикс из греческ. "kako" - плохой, "kakos" = "зло". Цитата из www.mythography.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=983&st=20: This Greek term comes from the Indo-European root kakka - meaning "to defecate" - это греческое слово имеет индоевропейский корень со значением процесса дефекации. Корень слова Polychesie - из разговорного французского.

(German: scheißen English: to shit French: chier de.wiktionary.org/wiki/kacken http://fr.wiktionary.org/wiki/chier (familiar) Diarrhea. J’ai la chiasse. (I have diarrhea) From the word ‘chier’ (Lat. cacare; Caco - "bad", a Latin prefix from the Greek word "kako" - bad, "kakos" = "badly". Quotation from the site www.mythography.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=983&st=20: This Greek term comes from the Indo-European root ‘kakka’, meaning "to defecate". The root of the word ‘polychesie’ is thus from spoken French.)

It is not a freak of fortune that so many translators start to follow the scent of Doctor Berillon at the same time. In fact, La storia della bruttezza – as if we read it in some novel by Eco – is being translated at the same time by a host of translators from an unexisting original. It is obvious that the Master sold this book standing to the Italian publisher, which – like they did two years earlier with La storia della bellezza – distributed it to the foreign publishers with the condition that the translations would be printed together with the original work in Italy. However, at the beginning of the translation the original Italian text is not yet ready. The new chapters arrive week by week from Eco, and while the translators work on them, he compiles the next one, like the teachers of English of the ’80s the matter of the next lesson. Anyway, it is not worth to hurry with the translation, because it can be taken for granted that the same chapter will arrive again rewritten within a month.

The third hit of Google is, however, not a translator’s guess, but a riddle. The forum “La Guerre du Grammatovo” by François Parée in the Liste Murphypro displays French quotations, each of them including a deliberate error (missing accent does not count) to be hunted by the readers.

„Dans toutes les invasions anterieures, les hordes germaniques s’etaient signalees... par le debordement d'evacuation intestinale dont elles jalonnaient leurs marches... Deja, du temps de Louis XIV, on disait que par le seul aspect de l’enormite des excrements, le voyageur pouvait savoir s'il avait franchi les limites du Bas-Rhin.” – Docteur Berillon, La polychesie de la race allemande (1915)

(“In all earlier invasions, the German hordes were distinguished... by the flood of excrements they indicated their route with... Already in the times of Louis XIV it was told that the traveler could tell from the enormous amount of excrements that he already crossed the lower Rhine.” - Dr. Berillon, La polychesie de la race allemande (1915))

As in this quotation no error can be discovered, the suspicion arises that it is the title itself, and in the title the incriminated word that is mistaken. And in fact: searching for “Berillon+race allemande”, the catalog card of a long sold volume of the second-hand bookshop Galaxidion pops up:

BERILLON (Docteur). - La polychrésie de la race allemande. Das übertriebene Darmleerungsbedürfnis der deutschen Rasse. Superlienteria germanica. - Extrait des Bulletins et Mémoires de la Société de Médecine de Paris, séance du 25 juin 1915. P., Maloine & fils, 1915. 24 x 16 cm, 20 p. Broché. – 'La polychrésie est la manifestation d'une suractivité anormale de la fonction intestinale? Dans tous les cas, la polychrésie est la démonstration formelle de l'infériorité à la fois physiologique et psychologique de la race allemande'. – Cet ouvrage vous est proposé par la Librairie Solstices. Euro 150.00

Everything is illuminated. Polychrésie stems from Greek πολυχρήσις that can be translated as “increased peristaltic movement”. This is how I finally translated it in the above phrase, on page 190 of La storia della bruttezza.

Incidentally, this catalog card is the only occurrence of the title of this work in all the net, including French library catalogs as well, as this study is a separate print that is not cataloged by its title but by that of its journal. And this card – again as in a novel by Eco – like a message in a bottle, was cast up by the waves of the net in the last minute before my eyes, before they swallowed it once for all. I was only able to extract it from the cache of Google, and since then it has been deleted from there as well.

But if this is the case, and if “polychesie” (like this, without an accent) is a mere typo, then a new suspicion arises: is it possible that this rare work came to the knowledge of the Master not by autopsy, but by means of the same net quiz?

* * *

Epilogue. I delivered the translation – appropriately – on May 9, the Day of Victory. On May 11 La Stampa published in its supplement “Libri” the text of the “lectio magistralis” given by Eco on the Torino Book Fair. In this paper he repeats the above quotation by Berillon (still with “polychesie” in the title), and this time he also hints at his source, a catalog called “Cabinet de curiosités”, a veritable goldmine of medical curiosities of the age of Positivism.

The Master has thus justified himself, while letting the roots of the error ever deeper in the common knowledge of Italian literature. There is only one question left: in which form will the French translator of La storia della bruttezza report the title of Berillon’s work?

4 comentarios:

Anónimo dijo...

Thanks for the clarification of that strange word!

I came across it in Hannah Arendt's "Elemente und Ursprünge totaler Herrschaft". She cites the paris medical society releasing a work on the german race suffering from "Polychesia" and "Bromidrosis" (extreme body odour). For more examples, see Jacques Barzun, Race, New York, 1937.

However, these works are cited as examples of science influenced by racism, not nationalism - a very important distinction according to her. It's curious to see that confusion made by Eco...

Studiolum dijo...

Have a look also at the post written on "La policresia del Dr. Berillon" on May 12, 2008 in the blog "Incredibly Strange Books" by Antonio Domínguez Leiva.

Anónimo dijo...

"Polychesia" must be an artificial, "scientific" word based on the ancient (and modern)Greek verb χέζω [chezo]- defecate. If nobody found it, that is because everybody checked roots with η (eta) instead of ε (epsilon). So, "polychesia" does have a meaning: precisely that, which was attributed to it by the doctor Berillon.
As far as I know, there is no such word as "πολυχρήσις" in Greek. There is a rarely used Modern Greek word "πολυχρησία" (pronunciation: "polichrisia"), which, however, doesn't mean "increased peristaltic movement" but "frequent use [of a thing]". I believe that the term "polychresia" is, in this case, a simple "hypercorrectional" mistake that replaced the correct but not understood "polychesia".

jcup dijo...

Dear Sir,

When reading « La storia della Bruttezza » by Umberto Eco, I found a picture of the choir stalls in the basilica of Saint-Materne in Walcourt showing two men shitting (silver spoons).
On the internet, I found your very interesting blog
where you also published this picture, as well as various informations concerning the word « policacata».
Up to now, I haven’t found any precise interpretation of the above mentioned scene. Moreover, the italian text underneath « cacare sulla ciambella » remains nothing less then a complete mystery to me.
I wonder if you could help me understanding scene and expression or give me a link to an authoritive source of information.

Yours faithfully,
Johan Cuppens
Bierbeek (Belgium)