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In Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion", Eliza Doolittle, a flower girl, is worried that Higgins, whom she sees making notes and mistakes for a plain-clothed cop, will "take away her character":

  • Oh, sir, don’t let him charge me. You dunno what it means to me. They’ll take away my character and drive me on the streets for speaking to gentlemen. They—

  • He’s no right to take away my character. My character is the same to me as any lady’s.

Apparently, she is afraid that she would be charged with soliciting for prostitution, then "they" would "take away her character" (whatever it means), and this would make her lose her home.

The Russian translation of "Pygmalion", which otherwise is good (as far as I can judge), has it as у меня отберут патент, which literally means "they'll suspend my (street vendor's) permit".

The second phrase is translated as Нет у него таких правов, чтобы забрать мой патент. Мне нужен патент, как и всякой леди. The last sentence, literally, means: "I need my permit, as any lady does". It doesn't make a lot of sense, because only a street vendor would need a permit, and not "any lady".

I think that this just means "ruin my reputation". But the peculiar wording, and the fact that the Russian translator decided to go with a different meaning, planted some doubt in my mind.

What is the specific meaning of the phrase "take away my character"? Is it some kind of legal procedure which would label her as a known prostitute, or just a rumor going on, or what?

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    She probably means her reputation. Compare character reference. Jan 19, 2023 at 19:07
  • The tricky thing here is that Eliza Doolittle is supposed to speak a non-standard, low-prestige dialect. "Take away my character" may not be something that more posh speakers would have said, but it's possible that it was common in early 20th century Cockney.
    – Juhasz
    Jan 19, 2023 at 19:11
  • Incidentally, I wonder if the Russian translator misread "character" as "charter"
    – Juhasz
    Jan 19, 2023 at 19:13

2 Answers 2

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The Russian translation of "Pygmalion", which otherwise is good (as far as I can judge), has it as у меня отберут патент, which literally means "they'll suspend my (street vendor's) permit".

The Russian is accurate as far as the meaning goes, but does not capture the nuance that roots Eliza firmly in the low-aspirational working classes.

Eliza was a flower seller: she needed a permit. The permit was granted only to those “of good character”. This was usually by way of a statement from the police that the person had not been convicted of any crime, or an official stamp from the police station that the declaration by made by the applicant of "being of good character" was true. It was commonly referred to as “a character.”

(I have looked at my city's regulations for street traders, and a character reference is still done, but now it is more commonly known as a "police check" or "police vetting" or "criminal records check".)

But in this case, it doesn't make a lot of sense, because only a street vendor would need a permit, and not "any lady".

You have misunderstood. In the first quote it is the “Character reference” and in the second it is the general “character”, i.e. reputation - that people see you as trustworthy and honest. Eliza is confusing them to create a comic effect.

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  • Could you please give an example of "a character" being used in the sense of "character reference"?
    – Quassnoi
    Jan 19, 2023 at 23:44
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The Free Dictionary notes that "character" can mean:

Public estimation of someone; reputation: personal attacks that damaged her character.

It also gives the example phrases "character assassination" and "a stain on one's character."

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