“The Art of Checkmate” by Renaud & Kahn – Reviewed by Cecil Purdy

[This book review was published in the Australian magazine Chess World and is written by Cecil Purdy.]

“The Art of Checkmate” by George Renaud. and Victor Kahn, former champions of France, is yet another demonstration of how very suited the French literary tradition is to chess exposition. The close attention to the order and neatness of presentation makes study of most of the French chess writers a pleasure. In this case, a clumsy translation has succeeded in making merely delightful what could have been made super-delightful. It is a magnificent exposition of that vital department of chess skill, the mating combination.

The original was “L’Art de Faire Mat,” of which my copy—I don’t know if a nicer edition was printed— is on poor paper and very unattractive to the eye. Bells have produced an English edition in their usual style—well-nigh impossible to better as far as the appearance goes.

The excellence of the presentation is still there, too—the order, the neatness, and the pleasing system of classification according to names, which makes everything so easily remembered, e.g., Legal’s Pseudo-Sacrifice, Greco’s Mate, Anastasia’s Mate, Boden’s Mate, Blackburne’s Mate, Anderssèn’s Mate, Pillsbury’s Mate, Damiano’s Mate, Morphy’s Mate, the Arabian Mate, and so on. All these mates—the student discovers—are typical mates that occur daily. They are not ephemeral flights of genius recalled only in print, but part of the stock in trade of every expert player; but a book like this that codifies them so elegantly and interestingly gives even an expert a far better grip of them, so that his chances of scoring a vital extra point in a tournament are appreciably increased. Over and over again, the authors quote instances of forced mates missed by masters in the heat of battle. And for the average player, from now on we list this as a MUST book.

I am strongly opposed to the view that skill in chess can be attained only by hard work. I once studied a book on the differential calculus that was written quite flippantly, and yet gave a newcomer to the calculus a much better idea of its mysteries than the ponderous school texts I was supposed to be using. A chess book that is interesting and entertaining and yet has the subject all sewn up—that’s the ideal, and Renaud and Kahn have hit the jackpot.

They could, however, institute a lawsuit against the translator. I really must comment on this aspect in the hope that chess publishers may exercise more care in the selection of people for this work. Previously, I railed at some faults in translations of books by Botvinnik—faults that were obvious without knowing Russian. But the translation of Renaud’s and Kahn’s work reaches what I sincerely hope is an all-time low. I am no French scholar, but any fourth-former could fault this stuff.

In almost every page one finds sentences that are not translations at all, or even paraphrases. They contain as much of the original as the pathetic skull of Yorick contained of the soul of that lively jester, and the bones are padded out not with the thoughts of Renaud and Kahn but, rather, thoughts of the translator’s own which he seems—for no valid reason—to prefer.

For example, after saying that Tartakover’s most famous work is “The Hypermodern Game of Chess” —this already commits one of the worst offences in the criminal code of translation, namely, the rendering of a book-title in a language into which the book has not been translated—the translator was faced with the simple task of giving the authors’ comment on the work—”La vivacite de see notes et commentaires en font une lecture agreable”—sorry we can’t print accents. A fair stab would be, “The liveliness of his notes and comments makes it enjoyable reading”— for “pleasant” in this context is a shade weak, and “delightful” a little strong. The translator says, “His brilliant style adds to the joy of his comments.” The authors did not mention a brilliant style, nor did they say the comments were joyous. Their remark was grammatically loose, but not hysterical.

The authors are made to appear offensive and patronising where they were really their normal urbane selves—yes, urbanity is their hallmark, especially of Georges Renaud, who has written many charming essays on various aspects of the game. The translator makes them say, “The following game was played between two second-rate players who, nevertheless, seem to be pretty well versed in the opening theory (‘the’ should be omitted, of course, a typical bit of slovenliness, this), as the first sixteen moves will show.”

“Second-rate” is always offensive. The authors said, “. . . Amateurs of the second rank—but amateurs of some erudition, for, as we are about to see, White’s first sixteen moves are all ‘book.’” The translator has made no attempt to preserve the little echo between “erudition” and “book.”

Again we are told that Taubenhaus was a “second-rate” master,” which in English is a contradiction in terms, in view of the slight implied in “second-rate.” The authors wrote “maitre de deuxieme plan,” which you can translate as “second-rank master” or, better, to conform to English usage, “minor master.”

The translator also tells us that Fred Lazard “was the most all-round master in France.” A school pupil who perpetrated that would have it read out to the class to draw a laugh. You cannot be more all-round or most all-round. The authors said Lazard was “the most complete of French players,” and incidentally, “in France” does not necessarily mean “French.” The context shows that “most versatile of all French players” would be a fair rendering.

These are only a few samples—no need to pile on the agony.

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