Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Alternate Jabberwockies

(go to the end of this blog for the texts of the two poems)

   This has to be one of the most fascinating exercises in advanced linguistics of all time, the nonsensical translation of a piece of nonsense verse, in which neologisms in one language inspire neologisms in another, while at the same time treating insanity as though it were both meaningful and grammatical, and insisting on remaining consistent. Part of the beauty of neologisms in a language with spelling rules and pronunciation variables as ill-defined as those of English, is that the reader is free to make decisions on behalf of the poet, and thereby alter the poem’s meaning and ambience. Is it, for example, a hard or a soft “g” on “gyre” and “gimble”? If “gyre” is soft, then is this the same “gyre” that Yeats’ falcon turned and turned in, or perhaps that other sort, thin slices of lamb in pitta bread, mis-spelled on the menu at my local Greek restaurant? In French there is no such choice – the “g” is by necessity soft, whereas the soft “w” of “wabe”, retained in the French “quave”, turns into a “v” in “Waben” and is altered utterly. Better even than the two drafts of “Anthem For Doomed Youth”, complete with Siegfried Sassoon’s suggestions to Owen, which Penguin published some years ago and which you can see at http://sites.duke.edu/writing20_34_s2012/files/2012/04/Wilfred_Owen.jpg; better even than the several translations of Rilke’s “Der Panther” (I have given one English translation elsewhere on this blog, but there is a compendium of alternative versions at http://www.thebeckoning.com/poetry/rilke/rilke3.html); a study of the three Jabberwocks could teach a would-be poet everything there is to know about the craft.

   I am interested in the choices that languages require of writers, or which translators simply make. The gender of the Jabberwock is never given in Carroll’s original – verse 4 had “it”, which is neuter, though English dragons from Grendel to Margaret Thatcher have traditionally been female. Yet both the French – “du Jaseroque” – and the German – “vor Jammerwoch” – masculate him. The English and French both count in lower case (verse 5), but the German in upper; the English father addresses his son formally “hast thou?”, but both the French and German familiarise. Even at the seemingly mundane level of punctuation, the English ends the opening couplet with a colon, the German reduces this to a semi-colon, while the French comes to a complete halt with a full stop. Why? And how do you decide?

   I have, on several occasions, presented these two translations to a class of high school students, to see what they made of them. Teachers of English, it is well worth the experience.

Le Jaseroque

Frank L Warren

Il brilque: les tôves lubricilleux
Se gyrent en vrillant dans le guave.
Enmîmés sont les gougebosqueux
Et le mômerade horsgrave.

“Garde-toi du Jaseroque, mon fils!
La queule qui mord; la griffe qui prend!
Garde-toi de l’oiseau Jube, évite
Le frumieux Band-à-prend!”

Son glaive vorpal en main, il va-
T-à la recherche du fauve manscant;
Puis arrivé à l’arbre Té-té,
Il y reste, réfléchissant.

Pendant qu’il pense, tout uffusé,
Le Jaseroque, à l’oeil flambant,
Vient siblant par le bois tullegais,
Et burbule en venant.

Un deux, un deux, par le milieu,
Le glaive vorpal fair pan-à -pan!
La bête défaite, avec sa tête,
Il rentre gallomphant.

“As-tu tué le Jaseroque?
Viens à mon coeur, fils rayonnais!
Ô jour frabbejais! Calleau! Callai!”
Il cortule dans sa joie.

Il brilque: les toves lubricilleux
Se gyrent en vrillant dans le guave.
Enmimes sont les gougeboaqueux
Et le momerade horsgrave.

Der Jammerwoch

Robert Scott

Es brillig war. Die schlichten Toven
Wirten und wimmelten in Waben,
Und aller-mumsige Burggoven
Die mohmen Räth’ ausgraben.

“Bewahre doch vor Jammerwoch!
Die Zähne knirschen, Krallen kratzen!
Bewahr’ vor Jubjub-Vogel, vor
Frumiösen Banderschnätzchen!”

Er griff sein vorpals Schwerchen zu
Er suchte land das manchsam’ Ding;
Dann, stehnd unterm Tumtum Baum,
Er an-zu-denken fing.

Als stand er tief in Andacht auf,
Der Jammerwochen’s Augen-feuer
Durch turgen Wald mit Wiffek kam
Ein burbelnd Ungeheuer!

Eins-zwei! Eins-zwei! Und durch und durch
Sein vorpals Schwert zerschnifer-schnück,
Da blieb es todt! Er, kopf in Hand,
Geläumfig zog zurück.

“Und schlugst Du ja den Jammerwoch?
Umarme mich, mein Böhmsches Kind!
O Freuden-Tag! O Halloo-Schlag!”
Er schortelt froh-gesinnt.

Es brillig war. Die schlichten Toven
Wirten und wimmelten in Waben,
Und aller-mumsige Burggoven
Die mohmen Rath’ ausgraben.

Lewis Carroll's original, from "Alice through the looking-glass and what she found there", can be found at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171647.

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