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Translating Jabberwocky

How do you translate something which doesn’t mean anything? If a text is written using words that don’t exist in the original language, is it possible to translate that text into another language? This question is fundamental to the process of translating Lewis Carroll’s (in)famous nonsense poem, Jabberwocky, from Through the Looking Glass. The fascination of the poem lies in the fact that it is composed almost entirely of ‘nonce words’, that is, of words which are suggestive of other, real, words, but which don’t mean anything in themselves (or, at least, which didn’t until Carroll coined them). Here’s the original:

Jabberwocky

’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.

Postmodern renaissance man Douglas Hofstader observes that ‘in the brain of a native speaker of English, “slithy” probably activates such symbols as “slimy”, “slither”, “slippery”, “lithe”, and “sly”, to varying extents.’ Many of the neologisms in the poem are likewise extremely suggestive to a native speaker: ‘galumphing’, for example, suggests a combination of gallop and triumphant, whilst ‘chortle’ seems to fuse chortle and snort.

Carroll himself explains this process, apropos ‘frumious’: “[T]ake the two words ‘fuming’ and ‘furious’. Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first. Now open your mouth and speak. If your thoughts incline ever so little towards ‘fuming’, you will say ‘fuming-furious’; if they turn, by even a hair’s breadth, towards ‘furious’, you will say ‘furious-fuming’; but if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say ‘fruminous’.’

Given the fact that most of the words rely on their relation to ‘real’ English words, would it be possible to translate Jabberwocky into different languages? The answer is a resounding yes, as we will shortly see…

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