Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Alternate Jabberwockies

’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!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
Long time the manxome foe he sought -
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

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

What now follows (go to the bottom of the page for the texts of the other two poems) 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. 

I am interested in the choices that languages require of writers, or which translators simply make. The gender of the Jabberwock, for example, which is never given in Carroll's original – verse 4 has "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 her. The English and French also 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 the German familiarise: tu and Du. 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?

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 as "gyro" on the menu at my local Greek restaurant? And is it a hard "tulgey" or a soft "tuljee" in verse 4?

In French it is even more complex – a "g" at the start of a word may be hard (gallomphant) or soft (gougebosqueux), but in the middle of a word it is always soft, so it would be "tulje" not "tulgee", and should therefore be "tullejais" not "tullegais; whereas the soft "w" of "wabe", retained in the French "quave", turns into a "v" in the German "Waben", and the tone, if I may put it this way, is altered utterly in utterance, because a poem is its sounds as much as it is its meanings.

And how does a Jabberwock become a Jaseroque (isn't that a form of modern music: Jazz-Rock? and if so, is it the ancestor of the monster Ummagumma, the demon Zappa, the progenitor of the Spiders from Mars?) let alone a Jammerwoch (apparently a Jammerwoch with three siblings is a Jammermonat, while the full clan, gathered to celebrate their birthdays, is a Jammerjahre)? How would you translate the name into Spanish, into Sanskrit, into Hebrew?

Almost every word, in both meaning and pronunciation, invites debate and discussion, in any one of the three languages, and even more by comparing and contrasting the three. 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 here; 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 here); a study of the three Jabberwocks could teach a would-be poet, or a would-be scholar-critic, everything there is to know about the craft. 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 language, 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.

A thorough translation of the poem into (in)comprehensible English, as well as everything you could ever possibly not really need to know about the poem, or indeed the Alice books, can be found here.

The illustration at the top of the page is John Tenniel's original Jabberwocky for the first edition of Alice in 1871. The second is from Tim Burton's 2010 animated version of "Alice in Wonderland". The third is a very different interpretation for more fragile children, by Joel Stewart.

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