nonsense in translation: Nina Cassian and the Jabberwocky

jabberwockyRomanian poet Nina Cassian died one month ago today. (Here she is reading her work, and here’s a great poem she wrote in New York exile). She also translated Brecht, Molière and Shakespeare, but was especially proud of her translation of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

You can see why – this poem is in nonsense English, so how on earth can you translate it? It hasn’t stopped people from trying, as Keith Lim’s collection shows. Without speaking the language, you can see that Cassian’s Romanian Jabberwocky  is very different Frida Papadache’s.

Why are they so different? The original word might sound like another word in the target language. The Germans can choose between Robert Scott’s moaning Jammerwoch and Lieselotte & Martin Remane’s babbling Brabbelback, for Finns “brillig” might mean a warm night (Kirsi Kunnas and Eeva-Liisa Manner: illanpaisto Alice Martin: kuumon aika) while Smolyński’s Dżabbersmok combines the English sound with the Polish word for dragon, smok. His is one of eight translations for Polish speakers to enjoy, including one by Stanisław Barańczak, another poet and translator of Shakespeare, who gives it the epic title Dziaberliada.

The best translations play to the strengths of the target language. Becky Wright’s linguistic analysis shows that translators into American Sign Language (ASL) used new made-up words (“tulgey” has a new sign related to “rubber” or to “tree”) or emphasised different associations from the English (“frabjous” is translated as “happy” or “excited”). The ASL translations incorporate elements of mime and dance. You don’t have to be fluent in ASL to enjoy these performances, which are very much of their time: a translation by Joe Velez in 1968  and one on YouTube 40 years later.

Nina Cassian should have the last word. Is it time for a Jabberwocky translation into her own invented language, Spargan? When you see one of her Spargan poems in English, you can see how the language could work for Lewis Carroll’s verse:


Te-mboridez, guruvă şi stelpică norangă,
te-mboridez să-ţi calpeni introstul şi să-ţi gui
multembilara voşcă pe-o creptiruă pangă
şi să-ţi jumizi firiga lângă-un hisar mârzui.

Te-mboridez, cu zarga veglină şi alteră,
să-ntrauri eligenţa unui letusc aţod
pe care tentezina humblidelor ţiferă
şi plenturează istra în care hurge Dod.

IMPRECATION (in English Spargan)

I frollop you, gromanching and shaloppy intruger,
I frollop you to hulper your tellymot, to ack
Your multikunk entankler, your dimical, so phlooger,
And cloff on many flanches, on spinch, on sminch, on swack.

I frollop you, with ordle and highmischevaled orkle,
To gaver a tozander, to blisk in eftic wod
And to oblet your fipsy on every fallid gorkle
And to remolk the spilder on which molanders DOD.



Translator, editor, writer, reader

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