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Tim Parks on translating Jabberwocky and the Bible

February 11, 2013

Last week, Tim Parks blogged at the New York Review of Books on translation, putting forward his theory:

[T]here 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.

He points to some examples notice largely monosyllabic p’s and h’s in this 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.

or “D. H. Lawrence in Women in Love describing the combative Gudrun’s encounter with an equally combative rabbit, Bismark” (notice the parallelism between Gundrun and Bismark suggested by the repetition of the word “thrust” and how “lusty” ties them together):

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.

But for his main argument, Parks points to the opening of Lewis Carroll’s “Jaberwocky”:

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

According to Parks:

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.

(If you are interested in reading the remarkable effect of McGonagall’s terrifyingly bad poetry, look here for the full poem – which has an [unintentionally ironic] title “The Tay Bridge Disaster.”  Be sure to keep you eyes’s peeled “for the striking moral in the final couplet.”)

Parks finally calls out the issue of Biblical translation:

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.

It is clear from context that Parks is speaking here of the literary phase of Biblical translation – Tyndale and KJV – rather than the “cooler” translations contemporary translators have given us.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    February 11, 2013 5:29 pm

    Acoustic inertia – I love that phrase. That is just how it feels. If you compose making the sounds in your head, alliteration is a natural tendency, not a overlay or a contrived feature.

  2. February 11, 2013 11:06 pm

    And, as well as sound, words make other sorts of echo. My most frustrating cross-language task was translating an article I’d written from French to English for publication. I knew all the echoes and allusions I intended, and I couldn’t do them in English 😦

    A new different article would have been less work!

  3. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    February 11, 2013 11:16 pm


    That reminds me of a radio interview that i just listened to with Yann Martel, describing how much trouble his parents had translating Life of Pi into French, even tho French was the first language of all of them. Some passages were creatively rewritten.

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