Translating nonsense

February 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

Linguists love two things. Well teaching linguists, anyway. They love cartoons and they love children’s literature. It is hard to find an introductory textbook without a Dennis the Menace cartoon or a quote from Alice in Wonderland. Me, not so much the cartoons, and usually rather than Lewis Carroll, I illustrate lectures with bits of Dr Seuss. His creation of nonce words can easily illustrate syllable structure and phonotactic constraints of possible words. This got me ildly thinking about Suess in translation. So for example, how would There’s a Wocket in my Pocket (1974) appear in other languages. Well here’s the Spanish:


Here the equivalent for wocket is molillo, a Spanish nonce made to rhyme with pocket. In Dutch, Ik heb een gak in myn Zak.

Lewis Caroll’s famous nonsense poem . Here’s the English, or should that be ‘English’ of the first two verses:

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

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

In the book, Humpty Dumpty explains some of the nonsense words meanings. Brillig, for example, means four o’clock in the afternoon. Others appear to be blends. Slithy might consist of lithe and slimy, and frumiousfurious + fuming?

‘The Jabberwocky’ seems also to have captured the attention of translators. Here are a few translations. Look out for how the translators dealt with such terms as frumious, gimble, wabe. Do the translators interpret the nonsense words as types of blends and look for words they can blend in the target language?

Welsh:
Mae’n brydgell ac mae’r brochgim stwd
Yn gimblo a gyrian yn y mhello:
Pob cólomrws yn féddabwd,
A’r hoch oma’n chwibruo.

‘Gwylia’r hen Siaberwoc, fy mab!
Y brathiad llym a’r crafanc tynn!
A rhed pan weli’r Gwbigab
A’r ofnynllyd Barllyn!’

German 1:
Es brillig war. Die schlichte Toven
Wirrten und wimmelten in Waben;
Und aller-mümsige Burggoven
Die mohmen Räth’ ausgraben.

»Bewahre doch vor Jammerwoch!
Die Zähne knirschen, Krallen kratzen!
Bewahr’ vor Jubjub-Vogel, vor
Frumiösen Banderschntzchen!«

German 2
Es sunnte Gold, und Molch und Lurch
krawallten ‘rum im grünen Kreis,
den Flattrings ging es durch und durch,
sie quiepsten wie die Quiekedeis.

»Nimm dich in acht vorm Brabbelback,
mein Sohn! Er beißt, wenn er dich packt.
Reiß aus, reiß aus vorm Sabbelschnack,
vorm Jubjub, der dich zwickt und zwackt!«

Japanese
Buririggu datta. Soshite suraivi na to-v ga
We-bu ni jairu shite jimburu shita
Baroguro-bu wa totemo mimuji de
Mo-mu rasu ga autogure-bu shita.

“Jabawo-ku to iu kaijuu ni ki o tsukete
Kamitsuku ago ni, hittakuru tsume ni
Jabujabu no tori to iu kaijuu ni ki o tsukete
Furu-miasu na Ba-ndasnatchi o sakeru no da!”

And just becuase it exists! Klingon:(the second verse)
puqloDwI’ ja’pu’vawq Dayep
pe’vIl chop Ho’Du’Daj; pe’vIl Suq pachDu’Daj
Ha’DIbaH puv juchyub yIyep
bInDepSuHach vaQeHmuS ghombe’ DanIDjaj

You can read the complete translations and more here

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