February 2011
Alan Levinovitz

Slaying the Chinese Jabberwock

The Limitations of Translating Nonsense

Discussed: Frumious Bandersnatches, The Victorian Reading Experience, Lion Eating, Resources for Creating Nonsense, Words Like Poached Eggs, The Subtle Dragon Allusion

In 1869, Antonie Zimmermann became the first translator of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Germans were treated to Lewis Carroll’s classic in their native tongue. Sort of. As you might imagine, Alice’s Abenteuer im Wunderland took some pretty serious liberties with the original. How else could Zimmermann have dealt with the Mock Turtle, who studies “reeling and writhing”? Or Alice’s rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat (how I wonder where you’re at)?” Or the Mouse’s Tale?

But these problems were child’s play compared to the nightmare facing Helene Scheu-Riesz, who in 1923 produced the first German translation of Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Aside from constant puns and indecently long, colloquial poems, Carroll’s sequel added an unprecedented challenge in the form of “Jabberwocky,” seven stanzas of nonsense verse packed with twenty-five invented words.

Scheu-Riesz bungles her effort, starting with the poem’s title, which she abbreviates to “Jabberwock” for no apparent reason. The last stanza, a repeat of the first, is inexplicably left out. While frumiousen Banderschlangen works well for frumious Bandersnatch (schlangen means “snake”), Jubjubvogel and Tumtumbaum are lackluster transliterations of Jubjub bird and Tumtum tree. That said, those who value strict textual fidelity might prefer her version to more-adventurous ones that followed, like Jaime de Ojeda’s “Galimatazo,” in which the young hero is cautioned to beware el pájaro Jubo-Jubo and shun el frumioso Zamarrajo, before he rests under el árbol del Tántamo.

Textual fidelity is always an issue for translators, and never more so than in the case of nonsense. Take one simple line: “He chortled in his joy.” To a modern reader, chortle is not nonsensical. It’s right there in the dictionary between chorology and chorus. Yet at the time of “Jabberwocky”’s publication, chortle made as much sense as slithy and brillig, words that, like chortle, were also Carroll’s own invention (and, unlike chortle, incur the wrath of Microsoft Word’s squiggly red line).

Should translators render chortle as a nonsense word in their target language? Modern English readers wouldn’t take it that way, so why should modern French readers, say, be forced to experience something different? But if the translator’s goal is to re-create the reading experience of Carroll’s Victorian audience, or at least honor Carroll’s original intentions, then faithful translation ought to yield a new nonsense word. Of course, adopting that goal means responsible editors of modern English editions should replace chortle with snortle, or something equally nonsensical. Otherwise the nonsense, and Carroll’s original intention, will be lost.

Translators differ on the issue of chortling. Scheu-Riesz chooses schuckelte, an obscure German verb meaning “swing.” De Ojeda has carcajeo, a common Spanish verb meaning “cackle.” Another German version transliterates with chortelt, a complete nonsense word. There are French versions with cortule and glouffait, both their author’s own inventions. To my knowledge, no English editor has been so brave as to replace chortle, but one day it may happen.

The difficulties associated with translating nonsense have led polyglot George Steiner to pronounce nonsense untranslatable. Less drastically, philosopher and nonsense theorist Jean-Jacques Lecercle has suggested that nonsense might be a strictly Western phenomenon. “I may conceive,” he writes, “of Russian, or Renaissance, nonsense, but is there any sense in talking of Japanese nonsense?” Having examined the linguistic conventions of Victorian nonsense, Lecercle speculates that non-Western cultures and languages could lack the resources necessary for reproducing nonsense of the sort found in “Jabberwocky.” It should be noted that if Japanese is incapable of such reproduction, then Chinese doesn’t stand a chance. Written Chinese lacks hiragana and katakana, the Japanese syllabaries employed to “spell” new words and foreign names for which there are no kanji (Chinese characters adopted for use in Japanese writing).

A recent Taiwanese edition of Edward Gorey’s The Epiplectic Bicycle appears to confirm this hypothesis. The translator has left epiplectic out of the title entirely, opting for the rather pedestrian Bicycle Story, and his introduction makes no mention of the omission. Is it true, then, that Chinese (if not all non-Western languages) is really incapable of dealing with nonsense words like epiplectic and Jabberwocky?

Before reaching a hasty verdict, we must travel back to 1921, when an intrepid language pioneer by the name of Y.R. Chao (Y. R. Chao) undertook a remarkable task. Enchanted by Lewis Carroll’s imaginative use of language, this young professor translated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into Chinese.

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Alan Levinovitz is a PhD candidate in religion and literature at the University of Chicago. His research is on play and Chinese philosophy.

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