Thursday, 10 November 2011

Gobblefunking around with words!

The intent of this is not to write my essay. Let me be clear on that.

The intent of this is to write something fun on a fun subject, which until now had remained in the backstage of existence. At least as far as my literary mind was concerned. Then it hit me.
It’s just a load of nonsense! Not only can I write on nonsense, I can actually write nonsense! I could make a living out of it!
Lewis Carroll made it, Edward Lear made it, Roald Dahl made it, Christian Morgenstern made it. Come on, the DADAists, Futurists and Surrealists made it! Ish.
Maybe I should start by looking at what they did. Maybe I should translate what they did! Yeah, that’s a good plan!

Oh, there’s already five versions of an Italian Jabberwocky out there? Do we need more vorpal swords? And what do you mean French cows don’t jump over moons; if they can laugh, they can jump. They can train, they’re disciplined. Like dancers.

Cut to week 3, we are actually assigned the Jabberwocky, as a translation exercise. O frabjous day!
Calloo! Callay! Ok, now how do I translate brillig…?

The Jabberwocky is a part of any English student’s cultural baggage, especially ones with some Drama in them too. The Jabberwocky is part of a loved children’s classic, by real people and academics alike. The Jabberwocky is a big ugly beast who never actually shows up in the story. It is as ugly as it is hard to translate (see picture).

First things first: the metre. Why did Carroll choose a three-tetrameter/one-trimeter pattern? Why is the rhyme scheme ABAB? Does it mean something? Look at other nursery rhymes. Is it a recurring feature? Not exactly. The rhymes are though. Good, let’s work on that. It must rhyme. ABAB if possible.

Next thing: read-aloud qualities. This is a brilliant excuse to watch the Disney animated version. And Johnny ‘Mad Hatter’ Depp reciting fragments of it in a creepy Scottish accent. That’s how it should be. Mocking, menacing, mischievous and mildly confusing.

Ok. What to do with the actual words? Transliterate, adapt, replace, or just write some plain Italian nonsense? Hang on, wasn’t there a chapter that explained some of them..? Re-read Humpty Dumpty.

“And ‘the wabe’ is the grass plot round a sun-dial, I suppose?” said Alice, surprised at her own ingenuity.
“Of course it is. It’s called ‘wabe’, you know, because it goes a long way before it, and a long way behind it—”
“And a long way beyond it on each side”, Alice added.
(Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass)

Now that is a brilliant word. Ok, I am going to do this translation following the egg-head’s directions. I’d like it to feel as though it belongs in its book.
So far I have: it must rhyme, the words must be explainable, albeit nonsensically, the sounds must be creepy at moments, soothing at others. Good. Tell you what, I’ll keep the names more or less as they are. A bit of familiarity with previous works, and some casual foreignisation. That’ll keep the academics at bay.

I think I’ve got it. The tenses are the same, the metre is there (with a couple of necessary slips), the rhymes work, not forced or clunky. And the Jabberwocky remains the Jabberwocky.
Now, for the real test: what does my eight-year-old brother think of it?

I guess I failed in my original mission. I might use this in an essay after all.

Alex Valente translates Italian and French into English, and English into Italian. He claims he also works with Old English and Latin. In the little spare time his MA in Literary Translation leaves him, he dumps some poetic reflections onto (where the Jabberwocky now resides, too). If you really feel the urge to talk to him, you can find him at

No comments:

Post a Comment