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Some years ago I had to translate a comical text from German into English – a series of supposed ‘dialogues’ between a Walt Disney cartoon character and a contemporary living artist. At one point, for no discernible reason, the artist broke into shrill song, raising things to even greater heights of zaniness. Apart from the need to make the translation of the song rhyme (as it did in German), I had to work out just how closely I should stick to the original subject matter – if something so nutty could be called ‘subject matter’ in the first place.

Since much of the song appeared to be about nothing in particular, I decided I could take plenty of liberties in English, just as long as the translation rhymed – preferably including a high ‘groan factor’, such as making the French word fleuve rhyme with lurve (that jarringly ugly rock musicians’ mangling of the English word love). However, what I was not free to do was take liberties with English syntax. Just as in the German original, the translation had to look as if it might make some kind of grammatical sense, if only readers made more effort to dig out the ‘underlying meaning’ – not that there was one. In the event, I was gratified to hear from the German author that he felt the translation was even better (i.e. nuttier) than the original.

I am reminded of all this on re-reading Douglas Hofstadter’s opus Gödel, Escher Bach: an eternal golden braid. I have always found the book tough going, as a lot of the author’s musings on advanced mathematics and classical music (in both of which he is well versed) frankly go over my head. But what keeps me reading is not only the reproduction and analysis of Escher’s fascinating drawings with their optical illusions and impossible-looking scenes, but the repeated ‘dialogues’ between Achilles and the Tortoise (of racing fame). Though by no means as nutty as the text I had to translate, these include their own share of craziness, such as a ‘palindrome’ dialogue in which the first and last sentences are identical (although spoken first by the Tortoise and later by Achilles), as are the second and second-last sentences, and the third and third-last, and so on all the way through the dialogue (which spans several pages). At the mid-point, the conversation is briefly interrupted by the Crab, who (like the suddenly singing artist) raises things to even greater heights of zaniness. These include transforming the meaning of the common phrase I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole so that when the dialogue resumes in reverse order it refers to a ‘giant fellow from Warsaw’!

The author takes occasional liberties when reversing the order of the dialogue, such as changing lower-case pole to capitalized Pole in order to make its altered meaning evident to the reader. But, amazingly, the whole dialogue makes perfect sense in mirror image, even though whole phrases come to mean completely different things because of the changed order – for they are now uttered in response to quite different statements.

Given this vast amount of intricate English word play (reflecting one of the main themes of the book), it might be thought that such a work would defy all attempts at translation. Yet it has been translated not only into languages such as French (which shares quite a few features with English), but even into one as remote from English as Standard Chinese. Obviously very different puns have had to be used, even in French, and the translations often abandon symmetry of subject matter in order to achieve symmetry of form. Yet the general impact of the vast book is said to be very similar to readers of English, French and Chinese, and the latter two translations have come in for particularly high praise. I know all this because Hofstadter discusses the various translations of Gödel, Escher, Bach at length in his more recent opus Le Ton Beau de Marot (which, to my mind at least, is not at all tough going – in fact, it’s my all-time favourite book).

Gödel, Escher, Bach is often known for short as GEB, and it seems the Chinese translators added an extra pun of their own by rendering the subtitle an eternal golden braid as jí yì bì (集异璧), literally a collection of exotic jade – but also, in an elegant tip of the hat to the original text, an almost perfect rhyme (especially if you ignore the Chinese vowel tones) with the English letters GEB.

Anyway, elsewhere in GEB a short chapter is devoted to Lewis Carroll’s famous ‘nonsense’ poem Jabberwocky, which begins:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe / All mimsy were the borogoves / And the mome raths outgrabe

together with French and German translations of it. Like the nutty German song I had to translate, Jabberwocky clings strictly to normal syntax, again giving readers the curious feeling that with just a little more effort they could dig out the ‘underlying meaning’. This feeling is enhanced by the fact that whole chunks of the poem are in perfectly clear English:

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch….

And stood awhile in thought….

One, two! One, two! And through and through….

He left it dead, and with its head he went [….] back….

But zaniness rears its head again and again, in such words as brillig, slithy, mimsy, borogoves, frumious and vorpal. However, much of the brilliance of Jabberwocky lies in Carroll’s choice of ‘weird’ words that seem to fit perfectly into normal English sentences. It is almost always clear – not quite sure about brillig – which ones are nouns (toves, raths), which are adjectives (manxome, uffish), which are verbs (gyre, gimble), which are interjections (Callooh! Callay!) and so forth. The fearsome beast – at least, that’s what its jaws, claws, whiffling and other scary attributes lead us to assume it is – is called the Jabberwock; but the added -y in the title, like the -ad in Iliad and the -id in Aeneid, suggests some epic tale of adventure with the beast as its theme.

At one point Carroll takes a huge liberty, while remaining within the bounds of English grammar, by inventing a new irregular verb – something that hardly ever happens, at least in English (an exception being shat, the increasingly common irregular past tense of shit). Carroll’s new verb is outgrabe. How do we even know it’s a verb? Because it’s the last in a sequence of clearly past-tense verbs: ’twas, did, were, outgrabe. How do we know the preceding word raths is a plural noun rather than a singular verb, and hence that outgrabe might not be something else? Because a verb ending in -s would have to be present-tense, which would not fit into the sequence of past tenses. But the form of outgrabe, lacking the typical -ed ending of regular past-tense English verbs, indicates an irregular one like forgave or overcame. So what would its present tense be? Outgribe? Outgrub? Hard to say – but whatever the answer, outgrabe is unmistakably a verb. Of course, what it’s supposed to mean is anyone’s guess.

In the absence of a clear meaning, what is a poor translator to do? Of course, since here there is some hint of meaning, you can try to invent words in your own language that hint at the same thing. Take slithy. Whatever it might possibly mean, there is some inescapable sense of slippery, slithering and lithe – and this combination strongly suggests that toves are some kind of agile, elusive animal. The French translator of Jabberwocky in GEB deals with this by making up the greasy- and faintly lewd-sounding word lubricilleux. The overall effect is rather more negative in French than in English, but at least an attempt is made to invent something that hints at the same things. However, in the very same line of the poem I feel the translator has ‘copped out’ by rendering toves on the basis of sound alone: les tôves lubricilleux. The vowel ô is admittedly quite rare in French, and vaguely suggests something exotic and mysterious (as in the title of Flaubert’s novel Salammbô, based in historical Carthage). But to me tôves is an unadventurous choice, given the vast resources of the French language.

Three lines later, things get much worse: the mome raths outgrabe is translated as le mômerade horsgrave. Again that ‘exotic’ vowel ô – but the clearly plural mome raths (whatever these may be, but English-speakers cannot help sensing a sinister resemblance to rats) have become singular. The subtle adjective-noun combination (whatever raths turn out to be, they can also be described as mome, as distinct from…. well, unmome raths) has been replaced by a plain noun, again on the basis of sound alone. And, unlike raths, mômerade suggests nothing in particular. It looks a bit odd, but that’s all. Another cop-out.

Finally, horsgrave – which, like outgrabe, can really only be a verb. It’s in the present tense, but that’s true of all the verbs in the translation. Nothing particularly unusual about that – French often uses the present tense where English would use the past, especially in historical narrative. But here I feel the translator has missed a great opportunity provided by the French language to give the poem a suitably bombastic air: the literary past tense known as the passé simple, with its strikingly characteristic verb endings. Les mômerades horsgravèrent (all in the plural) would have looked a lot less like everyday French, while adding a dash of mystery. Of course, it wouldn’t have rhymed or scanned, but that’s just another problem for the translator to deal with.

In any case, the verb horsgrave itself is surely the worst cop-out of all. Not only is the syllable -grave a slavish reflection of the English -grabe, but hors is a literal translation of out – only in French it is never used to form compound verbs, unlike out in English (outdo, outwit and so on). And here you get a more than sneaking suspicion that the translator is not in fact a native French-speaker. This is also suggested by his (yes, it was a man) failure to treat the mute e as a separate syllable. Although this does not normally happen in French speech (except in the far south of France), it is standard practice in French poetry and most songs. Take the third line of the opening verse: Enmîmés sont les gougebosqueux. Apart from the un-French spelling enmîmés (you would expect emmîmés), this line has one syllable too many to scan – the first (mute) e in gougebosqueux is treated as if it were not there. The same un-French error recurs throughout the poem. At some very basic level, this translator does not seem to realise just what is needed to produce ‘nonsense’ French that still looks as if it might be French. Gougebosqueux is a great word, with all kinds of deeply mysterious, semi-mediaeval echoes, but that’s not the point here.

However dodgy the French translation may seem, the German one is a whole lot dodgier. Among the most notable features of German are inversion (the main verb in main clauses is usually in second place in the sentence, even if this means shifting its subject into third place – compare the English construction Nor did I, with the subject I following the verb did) and subordination (the verb in subordinate clauses usually stands at the very end of the clause). The German translator of Jabberwocky in GEB rides roughshod over these key rules, instantly raising the suspicion that he (yes, again it was a man) is not a native German-speaker. His verbs are usually in places that would be completely unnatural in German. Suspicion is increased by basic grammatical errors and un-German spellings, not to say the omission of such essential things as definite articles if they don’t fit into the rhythm of the verse. Beware the Jubjub bird is thus rendered as Bewahr’ vor Jubjub-Vogel, which is not only grammatically monstrous but frankly sounds like baby talk – by a non-native baby at that.

Worse, the translator often translates invented English words – which are surely the whole point of the poem – with existing German ones: slithy becomes schlichten, gyre and gimble becomes wirrten und wimmelten and so on, suggesting firm meanings that Carroll quite deliberately avoided. On two occasions the ominous underlying tone is severely weakened by the unnecessary addition of the diminutive ending -chen to nouns: Schwertchen and Banderschnätzchen. This gives them an endearing, unthreatening connotation which is completely inappropriate to the context. Schwertchen sounds like ‘swordlet’ (no trace of a ‘vorpal sword’ here, and the translator cops out further by rendering ‘vorpal’ simply as vorpals, which looks more like Latvian than German). As for Banderschnätzchen, with its inescapable echoes of Schätzchen (‘darling’, ‘lovey’), it suggests some cute little marsupial that wouldn’t hurt a fly – not a ‘bandersnatch’ by any means. This translator even omits such crucial background information as the fact that the two direct quotes in the poem are uttered by the hero’s father – for the key words my son are left untranslated! So in German it’s completely unclear who is suddenly speaking, or why these passages are in quotes in the first place. Nice and mysterious, of course, but not in the way Carroll quite clearly intended.

Whereas the French translator (Frank L. Warrin) undoubtedly knows how French works – but not, I think, well enough to produce convincing ‘nonsense French’ – the German translator (Robert Scott) seems to have precious little idea of how German works.

As their names imply, both translations were done by native speakers of English. I suppose they might have been brought up bilingually – but their limited command of their respective target languages strongly suggests they were not.

There have been other, more successful and adventurous translations of Jabberwocky by native French-speakers. As for German ones, I’m not sure, but it’s hard to believe no native German-speakers have ever made the attempt. In any case, both of the GEB translations are clear evidence – if ever it were needed – that translating out of your own language should preferably be avoided, at least for professional purposes. Dutch people regularly ask me if I translate into Dutch as well as English, as if it were perfectly normal to translate correctly in both directions – and they tend to be surprised when I tell them that’s a very rare skill, and one I do not possess.

What puzzles me about the translations in Hofstadter’s book, especially the French one, is that he himself was evidently unaware of their shortcomings. In his early teens his parents moved for a year to Geneva, where he acquired a good command of French. Later he also learned other languages well, including German. Since the translations are presented without further commentary on their quality, I can only assume he did not include them in his book just to make clear how risky it can be to translate into a language that is not your own. Of all the available translations into French and German, he chose ones produced by non-native speakers – a curious choice, given his linguistic grounding.

Translating a text such as Jabberwocky would be hard enough at the best of times – but if you aren’t a native speaker of the language you’re translating it into, it’s surely mission impossible.


From → Languages

  1. ehays permalink

    nice disquisition – personally i liked GEB better than le ton beau de marot, but that’s mostly because it captured very well the somewhat giddy tenor of (then) current thinking about AI – (also i felt le ton beau had a bit too much of an axe to grind about strict adherence to form in poetry translation; i liked pinsky’s inferno, e.g., which dh trashes in his book) –

    re: hofstadter’s failure to notice the errors in the fr and de translations of jabberwocky, i always thought those were his own translations, which would also have accounted for the data, as it were –

  2. And all these years I’d taken outgrabe as an adjective!! ” …….and the womraths (were outrageously out of it, or on cloud 9. So much for my syntax I guess. Thanks for the post.
    Now it’s your turn – do it for your fans!

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