Translations of the Non-English Quotations

From time to time in the Sherlock Holmes stories foreign phrases dot the page, and you may find yourself wondering what those phrases mean.  Well you do not have to wonder any longer because this post will set your mind at ease.

Near the beginning of chapter 6, part 1, of ‘A Study in Scarlet’ Holmes quotes Nicolas Boileau when describing the lot of the police detectives: “Un sot trouve toujours un plus sot qui l’admire,” which translates from French into: “A fool always finds a greater fool to admire him.” At the end of that story, Watson quotes this Latin phrase from Horace: “Populus me sibilat, at mihi plaudo; Ipse domi simul ac nummos contemplar in arca” (Book 1, Satire 1).  It means, “The public hisses at me, but I applaud myself in my own house, and simultaneously contemplate the money in my chest.”  Also, in ‘A Study in Scarlet’ the French word “adieu” means “good-bye” or, literally, “until God.”

‘The Sign of Four’ has several foreign phrases and words.  Thaddeus Sholto quotes the French phrase of Stendhal in chapter 4: “Le mauvais gout mene au crime.” Which means, “Bad taste leads to crime.”  In chapter 6, Holmes slightly misquotes a French saying of Francois de la Rochefoucauld.  In commenting upon Inspector Athelney Jones’ noticing the trap-door in the roof, Holmes says, “He can find something, he has occasional glimmerings of reason.  Il n’y a pas des sots si incommodes que ceux qui ont de l’esprit!” (the original starts “Il n’y a point de . . .”) and it means: “There are no fools so troublesome as those that have some wit.”  In chapter 6, Holmes quotes Johann Wolfgang von Goethe on the first of two occasions; this time referring to the methods of Inspector Athelney Jones: “Wir sind gewohnt dass die Menschen verhohnen was sie nicht verstehen.”  The translation from German goes: “We are used to seeing that Man despises what he never comprehends.”  In chapter 10, Watson writes that Athelney Jones “faced his dinner with the air of a bon vivant.”  The translation of ‘bon vivant’ from French is someone who knows how to enjoy life.  Near the end of the story in chapter 12, Holmes says: “Yes, there are in me the makings of a very fine loafer, and also of a pretty spry sort of a fellow.  I often think of those lines of old Goethe:  Schade dass die Natur nur einen Mensch aus Dir schuf, / Denn zum wuerdigen Mann war und zum Schlemen der Stoff.”  The translation from German goes: “Nature, alas, made only one being out of you although there was material for a good man and a rogue.”

In the short story ‘The Red-Headed League,’ Holmes laments explaining his reasoning by stating in Latin, “Omne ignotum pro magnifico,” or “Everything unknown seems magnificent.”  At the end of the story Holmes says, “‘L’homme c’est rien–l’oeuvre c’est tout,’ as Gustave Flaubert wrote to George Sand.”  The translation from French is: “The man is nothing–the work is everything.”

In ‘A Case of Identity’ the French phrase “affaire du coeur” translates as “an affair of the heart” or “love affair.” Also, at the end of the story Holmes finishes by saying “Voilà tout!” in French, which simply means “That is all!”

Sherlock Holmes says, “Nous verrons, you work your own method, and I shall work mine.  I shall be busy this afternoon, and shall probably return to London by the evening train,” in ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery.  The translation of the French is: “We shall see.”

In ‘The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor’ the French phrase “fait accompli” translates as “fact realised or accomplished,” and it might be better understood with the modern idiom a done deal.

We find three French phrases or words in ‘The Valley of Fear,’ the first “genius loci” means roughly the mental impression left by a location.  Second, Watson writes that no “peine forte et dure” would ever force Cecil James Barker to plead against his will.  The translation of the French means: “Strong and hard punishment” or “torture.”  Third, John McMurdo calls Ettie Shafter “acushla” several times which means “darling” in Irish.

Holmes calls Isadora Klein the “the ‘belle dame sans merci’ of fiction.” In ‘The Adventure of the Three Gables.  The French translation is ‘The beautiful woman without mercy,’ and he is presumably referring to the 1424 poem of Alain Chartier or the 1819 English poem of John Keats both using the French title.

Several stories use the French phrase “au revoir” which literally means “to the next time we see one another.”

If anyone wants to add or correct anything, please make a comment out of it for the benefit of other readers.

NEXT WEEK: Woolly Wordings 6

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  15. Nice but you missed to translate the meaning of two french words which are at the last of “A Case Of Identity”.

    • Thank you very much for pointing this out. It is corrected now, and I have posted the fact. Also, perhaps we may now say ‘voilà tout’ the corrections!

  16. Wonderful explanations of translations. Since you asked for corrections I note that it is Watson – not Holmes – who quotes Horace at the end of Study in Scarlet. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

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