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The great Gumbini
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Well not to start anything here but this whole matter depends on who came first the magician or the actor? Is the magician an actor? Or is the actor a magician as he is able to transform himself into someone else? However I will add that I believe when we look at the definitions given above it does help us to better understand what was meant by the original saying. This is very thoughtful insight.

Good magic to all,


Eric
Bill Palmer
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Quote:
On 2009-03-07 09:46, arielf wrote:
There's a lot of misinformation about this quote, as I explained in the forum on my site (I Saw That!), in 1997 (sorry, Bill Smile ). There are bits of truth in all the above, but a lot of conjecture too. The fact is, what Robert-Houdin said in the original French is extremely clear, even to a contemporary French speaker. But no translation can convey his exact meaning without a full explanation. So, from having been a magician for over 40 years and being a full-fledged francophone myself, I offer the following.

Here's the original:

"Un prestidigitateur n'est point un jongleur; c'est un acteur jouant un role de magicien; c'est un artiste don't les doigts doivent etre plus habiles que prestes. J'ajouterai meme que, dans les exercises de prestidigitation, plus les mouvements sont calmes, plus doit etre facile l'illusion des spectateurs." [This stupid thing keeps adding an apostrophe in D-O-N-T, above -- ignore it.]

Or, in English (my translation):

"A prestidigitator is not a juggler; he's an actor playing the role of a magician; he's a performer whose fingers must be skillful rather than fast. I'll even add that, in the performance of prestidigitation, the more relaxed the movements, the easier it will be to create the illusion for the spectators."

The point he's making is that we should do our sleights without haste, gently, so that we don't draw attention to our dexterity. The idea is that our trickery should look like 'real' magic, not manual skill.

The translation problem stems from two words. Let's look at the French meanings first.

In French, the standard word for our art is "prestidigitation". It has two roots: prest- and digit-, which mean fast (or nimble) and fingers, respectively. In other words, a bit of a misnomer for sleight-of-hand. So when he starts the sentence with "Un prestidigitateur", it's clear that he's referring to us.

The word "magicien", however, meant (in his day) one who does REAL magic, the genuine article, the guy who makes things happen just by snapping his fingers. No trickery -- the black arts.

Replacing the words in the sentence with their explanation, we get: A sleight-of-hand performer is not a juggler; he's an actor playing the role of one who does real magic.

The meaning is very clear. For the record, in contemporary French, "magicien" can refer to either the sleight-of-hand trickster or the real magician, but the meaning of the sentence would still be clear because of the context, since "prestidigitateur" retains its original meaning.

Now comes the tricky part (pun intended). In the original translation, Hoffman did not use the English word "prestidigitator" (perhaps because it was too uncommon). He wrote: "A conjuror is not a juggler; he is an actor playing the part of a magician". I don't know English usage from Hoffman's time, so it may or may not have been clear that conjuror referred to sleight-of-hand trickster and that magician referred to real magician. But in contemporary English, the two are interchangeable: every dictionary I've consulted gives both meanings to both words (or doesn't distinguish between the two meanings). Therefore, to the modern reader, the sentence is a bit of a tautology, especially the rephrased version: a magician is an actor playing the role of a magician.

Regarding the word "artiste": it means artist, but in the context of performing arts, it simply means performer. Jugglers, magicians, singers, acrobats, actors, etc., are all referred to as "artistes" today, and I doubt that it was any different in R-H's day.

A final thought. Hoffman's footnote about this notion not being of interest to English speakers implies that Robert-Houdin wrote about it specifically to prevent aspiring magicians from taking the "prest" part of the word literally. Since I don't have access to the text that precedes the quoted paragraph, I don't know if this is indeed the case; it's possible that magicians of his day were showing off their skill by performing sleights at breakneck speed, as is often the case today. That's MY conjecture Smile

Hope this helps.

Ariel


Just a couple of points -- considering the relative amount of traffic on the I Saw That! web site and the Magic Café, I have a feeling more people saw my column than saw your post, even though you had a head start on me. Although I have visited your site on several occasions, I never saw it.

Another point. "Prestidigitator" was not, at Hoffmann's time, a common word for a magician. It was and is basically a transliteration of the French word.

To understand what Robert-Houdin was writing about, it is absolutely necessary to have the paragraphs that precede the one in question, because they are discussions of the meanings of escamotage and prestidigitation. If you read these paragraphs, then almost everything that you have explained is made quite clear.

Writing about the paragraph without them is almost as dangerous as quoting the paragraph out of context. In fact, it is quoting the paragraph out of context.

Regarding the word "magician" -- no matter how many dictionaries one may consult, there is really only one that is the final authority for British usages. This is the Oxford English Dictionary. It is particularly applicable in this case, because it is contemporaneous with Hoffmann, that is, the compilation that went into the first edition was started about the time that Hoffmann published Modern Magic. It is updated on a regular basis to keep it current. Anyone who writes in English should have a copy of it handy.

The definition of magician in this dictionary starts with the various occult meanings of the word, then it adds occas.(ionally) a conjurer. This is still the common usage in the UK, particularly among people who are over 40 years old. Some of the younger people may use the words magician and conjurer interchangeably, but that is very likely due to influences from the US.
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arielf
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Lots of good info -- thanks Bill!

I was given the quoted paragraph, years ago, and made to understand that it WAS the whole context... ouch. Now that I know that it isn't, I understand why Hoffman's footnote was so terse.

Let me just clarify one point: what I wrote about contemporary English usage of the word 'magician' was to explain why we (the tricksters) misunderstand RH's point so often. From what you're telling me, it's more of a North American thing, then -- which I suspected was the case. So now we know.

(And for the record: at least a DOZEN people saw my original post -- so there! Smile )
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Bill Palmer
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That's understandable. I read a lot of British publications, so I'm fairly aware of the differences in the terminologies between the two areas. When I was writing the Punx translations, I had to arm myself with the Oxford English Dictionary and the second and third editions of Webster's unabridged dictionary, because Craige Snader had been isolated from English for a long period of time, and had a tendency to use words that were basically incorrect.

The paragraph in question actually lies right square in the middle of a three-page chapter called (in English) Escamotage, Prestidigitation. In this chapter, R-H attempts to explain the difference between the two terms and goes into his famous quote distinguishing the sleight of hand performer from a juggler.

All in all, I think Hoffmann did a creditable job of translating this chapter, as well as the whole book.

But it's good to see other interpretations of these things.
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Bob Clayton
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Quote:
On 2009-03-10 23:52, Bill Palmer wrote:

The paragraph in question actually lies right square in the middle of a three-page chapter called (in English) Escamotage, Prestidigitation. In this chapter, R-H attempts to explain the difference between the two terms and goes into his famous quote distinguishing the sleight of hand performer from a juggler.

Key to the whole chapter is the following line.

“Neither one of these denominations [Escamotage and Prestiditation], however, authorized though they are by long use, is in my opinion fully adequate to describe the art of fictitious magic.”

R-H then goes into his famous quote after pointing out the short coming of the above terms.
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That is true.
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Mike Webb
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Invocation... ; )
Bill Palmer
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In this same vein, I have a story that several have told me is true. Therefore, it must be an urban legend. In any case, it applies to this subject.

A psychology professor walked into his classroom and wrote the following on the blackboard, in large block letters:

WALK WITH LIGHT

He paused a few moments and then addressed the class, "Who can tell me what this means?"

Several students tried their hands at explaining it. More than one suggested that it was a philosophical/moral imperative that meant we should follow "the light," whatever that was -- the right hand path, the teachings of the Buddha, the teachings of other great philosophers, God, etc.

After about a half-hour of debate, argument and/or discussion, the professor said, "Those are all very interesting interpretations of this. And they might apply, except not in this context. The context is important here. This was on a sign at a pedestrian crossing, right below a traffic signal."
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JRob
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Quote:
On 2009-06-22 03:03, Bill Palmer wrote:
In this same vein, I have a story that several have told me is true. Therefore, it must be an urban legend. In any case, it applies to this subject.

A psychology professor walked into his classroom and wrote the following on the blackboard, in large block letters:

WALK WITH LIGHT

He paused a few moments and then addressed the class, "Who can tell me what this means?"

Several students tried their hands at explaining it. More than one suggested that it was a philosophical/moral imperative that meant we should follow "the light," whatever that was -- the right hand path, the teachings of the Buddha, the teachings of other great philosophers, God, etc.

After about a half-hour of debate, argument and/or discussion, the professor said, "Those are all very interesting interpretations of this. And they might apply, except not in this context. The context is important here. This was on a sign at a pedestrian crossing, right below a traffic signal."

This reminds me of what my late exegesis professor used to pound us with daily: "CIE: Context is everything"
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Potty the Pirate
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Whilst I agree with the distinction made between "prestidigitator" and "conjuror", nevertheless, even those who perform self-working magic are still "acting the part of real magicians". Unless, of course, they present their shows as a challenge, for the audience to work out "how it's done". Personally, I find those presentations awkward and obtuse, it's missing the whole point of presenting magic as a theatrical entertainment, and instead being a "puzzle-maker".

I regard acting as the vital presentational elements of a good magic show. As mainly a kids' entertainer, the acting element is way, way more important than the tricks themselves. Double-takes, "look don't see", reacting to the magic in feigned astonishment - these are some of the acting skills we employ.

Not to mention theatrical blocking (considering your movements, command of the stage, etc); varied vocal dynamics (whispered, declamatory, etc); interaction with the audience ("breaking the fourth wall"), over-the top reactions ("hamming").....and many other elements of acting, which can all play a vital role in the magician's performance.
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Back B.M.C. (before the Magic Café) I posted a message on the Electronic Grymoire about the Robert-Houdin quote explaining pretty much what many in this thread pointed out in their posts about the whole point of the statement. After my message appeared, a French magician wrote in the following:
-----quote-----
From: "jerome----" <jerome-----@ac.com>
Subject: Magician as Actor & Robert-Houdin

Dear all, Dear all, I would like to thank Amado Narvaez for his excellent explanation of Robert Houdin's statement in EG#1045. Being French myself I did read Robert Houdin's statement in his original words and never quite understood all the fuss that was made about it in the UK and in the US. As Amado explained, Robert Houdin attempts to define a new type of entertainers, the Prestidigitators. He then lists two traits which in essence mean "they act as if they had magical powers; they use skills to present these feats". I also always thought that a much better discussion of the Art in magic can be found in "Our Magic" by Maskelyne and Devant. ... Thank you very much Amado for paying such a tribute to a wonderful text which, like all original texts lose some of their meaning when translated. Regards.
-----end quote-----

Of course, sometimes a writer is not aware himself of the subtext of something he has written, perhaps because the muse that inspired it did not bother to point out all the nuances.

----- Amado "Sonny" Narvaez

Note: Here is the verbatim text of my original comment in the EG that the French magician was referencing:
-----quote-----
“A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” That is the most frequently quoted and most mis-understood statement ever made about the art of magic. It makes about as much sense as saying “A dancer is an actor playing the part of a dancer” or “A singer is an actor playing the part of a singer.” If you go back to Robert-Houdin's original French, you'll see that in context the statement was intended to distinguish a magician who does sleight-of-hand from a magician who does black magic.

-----end quote----
----- Sonny Narvaez
thevirtuoso
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I did a show over the weekend. Serious card work (that's what I do).

I finished the show by telling the audience this quote by Robert Houdin. And then I said, "And so to Robert Houdin, I say, "show me a F-in actor that can do that!"
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Here is a talk on the Robert Houdin quote, that I presented at the Magic and Meaning Conference in Las Vegas, 2015.
https://vimeo.com/186025399/fc9a772beb
Watch it and let me know what you think...
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