What gets found in translation

The New York Times has a nice obituary of the writer Raleigh Trevelyan, who died the other day and came from a long and distinguished British family. One of his ancestors was Thomas Macaulay. The obit contains this lovely snippet:

Mr. Trevelyan’s accounts of his forebears’ role in British history covered well-known historic episodes as well as obscure ones that were telling about imperial rule.

He recounted, for example, a 400-mile journey across the south of India by Thomas Babington Macaulay, the historian and former secretary of war, traveling “on men’s shoulders.” The bearers kept up a chant, which Macaulay presumed to be “extemporaneous eulogies,” but which he later learned were something else.

Roughly translated, Mr. Trevelyan wrote, the bearers sang, “There is a fat hog, a great fat hog/How heavy he is, hum-hum/Shake him, shake him well.”

Which reminds me of the Lone Ranger, one of the comic-book heroes of my early childhood. He was always accompanied, you may recall, by his loyal native American companion-cum-servant, Tonto, whose stock response to anything the Ranger said was “Ke-mo sa-bee”, which of course I interpreted as “yes, boss” or words to that effect — an impression later reinforced by studio assertions that it meant “faithful friend” (radio series) or “trusty scout” (television series) in the language of his tribe.

Imagine my delight, therefore, to meet a guy years ago who had studied the matter and claimed that “ke-mo sa-bee” actually translates as “horseshit”.

As the Italians say, even if it isn’t true, it ought to be.