Listening for the Jabberwock

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What is the status of translated texts? Are they essentially different from texts in their original form? One of the arguments I have put forward is that there is a natural tendency towards rhythm, alliteration, and assonance when one writes even the most ordinary prose, and that editing to conform to the linguistic conventions of a different culture can interfere with this. The translator gives priority to the semantic sense, but that sense was also partly guided in the original by what one might call the acoustic inertia of the language.

Naturally, an alert and resourceful translator can sometimes come up with the goods. Here for example is a sentence from Joyce’s The Dead:

It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life.

A monosyllabic onslaught of p’s and h’s—the husband is the bisyllabic odd man out—falls into a melancholic, mostly iambic rhythm. A masterful Italian translation by Marco Papi and Emilio Tadini gives:

Ora non gli dava quasi più pena pensare a quanta poca parte lui, suo marito, aveva avuto nella sua vita.

The Italian inevitably settles for bisyllables but finds a host of p’s and a quiet, even rhythm to match the resigned tone of the English.

Such combinations of luck and achievement are rare, however, and mainly come in literary texts, poetry in particular, where the translator is prepared for the writer’s evident and strategic use of poetic devices. All too often, the generous attempt to match such devices—one thinks of Pinsky’s translation of Dante’s Inferno—only alert us to the strain and effort the translator has to make to force the language of translation into the desired sound patterns, patterns which in the original sounded easy and even natural, to the point that one actually longs for the quieter prose versions of Dante by John Sinclair. Meantime in novels, even the most evident poetic effects are often simply ignored. Here is D. H. Lawrence in Women in Love describing the combative Gudrun’s encounter with an equally combative rabbit, Bismark:

They unlocked the door of the hutch. Gudrun thrust in her arm and seized the great, lusty rabbit as it crouched still, she grasped its long ears. It set its four feet flat, and thrust back.

None of the translations I have looked at match Lawrence’s repetition of “thrust” to suggest a parallel between the woman and the rabbit, the way the violence of the one provokes the response of the other and puts both on the same level. Nor do they capture the nice way the word “lusty” ties the two “thrusts” together soundwise: none of them begins to recover the stubbornness and economy of “set its four feet flat.” It is not a question of poor translation; the text was created in English and that is that. This is what Celan called “the fatal uniqueness of language,” when the creative mind, deeply integrated within a set of native sound patterns, produces something that can exist exclusively in that language.

Another way of approaching the question of what is different about translation, might be to look at a text where the usual relation between semantics and acoustic effects is radically altered. Everybody knows the opening of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”:

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

The comedy of the poem is its reproduction of a range of acoustic and rhythmic strategies that the reader immediately recognizes as typical of a certain kind of poetry, but with nonsense words. The suggestion is that all such poetry is driven to a degree by the inertia of style and convention, that the sound is as decisive as the sense in determining what gets said; indeed, when we “run out of sense” the sound trundles on of its own accord. But how could one begin to translate “mome raths outgrabe”? We have no idea what it means. The only strategy would be to find an equally hackneyed poetic form in the translator’s language and play with it in a similar way. Liberated by the fact that many of the words don’t have any precise meaning, the translator should not find this impossible, though whether strictly speaking it is now a translation is another issue. Here is a heroic Italian version by Milli Graffi:

Era cerfuoso e i viviscidi tuoppi,
Ghiarivan foracchiando nel pedano
Stavano tutti mifri i vilosnuoppi,
Mentre squoltian i momi radi invano.

In general, however, what we find is a reproduction of the sense, but with a much diluted intensity of the Jabberwock effect. Contrary to Frost’s notion that “poetry is what gets lost in translation,” we might say that what we won’t find in translation is this lively, often undiscriminating, pattern of sounds, an ancient enchantment, which the best writers can integrate with their creativity and the worst simply allow to take over the show, as in the marvelously poor poetry of William McGonagall:


Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

Translated texts, then, and there are ever more of them in the world today, tend to be cooler, a little less fluid—they will operate more on the rational intellect than on the rhythm-wired senses. They will deceive you less and charm you less. Of course there are notable exceptions, texts which were translated with the seduction of the reader and the beauty of the language very much in mind. Where these are old and central to our culture—the Bible, most remarkably—they can become canonical on a par with our home-grown writing. But there really are remarkably few of them.

I have often wondered if that is now why, in certain countries, translations even seem to be preferred to native texts. A large study carried out at Università IULM in Milan, where I teach, on four corpuses of texts—Italian novels before 1960, English novels translated into Italian before 1960, Italian novels after 1990, and English novels translated into Italian after 1990—suggests that while the national language in Italy is changing fast, with Italian novelists ever more open to stylistic influence from the cinema or from abroad, translations keep alive a hypercorrect literary Italian that has otherwise lapsed into disuse. Even the most disturbing texts can, at least linguistically, deprived of the Jabberwock effect, prove calm and reassuring.

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