Jabberwocky: Translating Doggerel

After visiting Mexico again a couple months back, I decided to practice my Spanish by buying a copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alicia en el pais de las maravillas. I was mildly surprised by the translation for Jabberwocky, which was:

Borgotabo, y los toves visco-agiles
Rijando en la solea, tadralaban;
Misebiles los borogoves,
Y un poco momios los verdos brasiliban.

!Cuidado, hijo, con el Jabberwocky!
!Muerde con los dientes y con las garras apresa!
!Cuidado con el Pajaro Jubjub y escapa del
Furiosamente Magnapresa!

Cogio su espada de vorpa en la mano
Hacia tiempo que buscaba a su enemigo;
Bajo el arbol Tum-Tum descanso
Y alli quedo cavilando.

Y estando inmerso en abismal pensamiento
El Jabberwocky, con ojos incendiados.
Aprecio tufando por el bosque foscuro.
!Rapido y burbujeante!

!Uno. dos; Uno, dos! !De parte a parte
la espada le atraviersa!
Le dio muerte, y con la cabeza
Se marcho galofondo.

?Has dado muerte al Jabberwocky?
!A mis brazos, nino radiante!
!Oh, dia risolegere! !Hurra, hurra!
Risotaba jubiloso.

Borgotaba y los toves visco-agiles,
Rijando en la solea, tadralaban;
Misebiles los borgoves,
Y un poco momios los verdos brasiliban.
Made me think of a few questions, really.

  1. This particular translation was by Marta Olmos Gil. Is there a standard translation of Alice? Are the poems generally translated in a similar way by different people?

  2. Lots of words in the English one are “made up”. Is it better to keep the integrity of the original, or modify it slightly to keep the rhyme scheme? Why do poems translated into English tend to still rhyme?

  3. Is this a good translation, all things considered? Must be hellish to translate something like this…


Here ya go…

Jabberwocky Translations.

On that page, you’ll find links to Jabberwocky translations in Afrikaans, Catalan, Choctaw, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Esperanto, Estonian, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Klingon (yes, Klingon!), Latin, Norweigian, Polish, Portugese, Rumanian, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, Sweedish, Welsh and Yiddish.


Zev Steinhardt

Actually, it may be easier to translate “nonsense” poetry… you can keep the flavor and not be as hampered by the actual meaning.

Translations are like mistresses; the beautiful ones are unfaithful

Zev, what an amazing website! Thanks!

It’s exceedingly difficult to translate the rhyme, the meter, the alliteration, and the sense of a poem. Nonsense verse would presumably be easier.

One of the best essays I’ve found on translations is from G. K. Chesterton’s book about Geoffry Chaucer (Chesterton had his flaws, but his literary criticism and writings are often brilliant stuff.) He is describing translations from Chaucer’s English to modern English, of course, but it’s still applicable in other translations. He discusses the difficulties of the line “Whan that Aprille…” and comes up with different things to do for different situations:

  • Some words can stay the same. For instance, no modern reader has a problem with “Aprille” needing to be changed to “April.” In Jabberwocky, presumably some nonsense words would remain the same (assuming they are still nonsense words; like if “mome” has a meaning in the other lanugage.)

  • Some words/thoughts needs to be translated. In Chaucer, “soute” needs to be changed to “sweet”. In Jabberwocky, “Twas” needs to be translated, frinstance.

  • Sometimes, footnotes are needed. For example, to explain that “soute” [sweet] rhymed with “root” in Chaucer’s day. So perhaps with a portmanteau word in Jabberwocky, to explain that “slithy” implies both “slimy” and “lithe.”

If you haven’t already, get (and read) Martin Gardner’s “Annotated Alice.” The comments on both Alice books are wonderful, as is the extensive commentary on “Jabberwocky.” This is my all-time favorite book.

You’re welcome. We aim to please. :slight_smile:

Zev Steinhardt

So do you think I can convince Czarcasm to change his name to visco-agile?

As one of my Latin teachers once said, a translation of a poem may itself be a poem, and it may even be a good poem, but it’s never the same poem. This is a good illustration of that.
“Jabberwocky” might not actually be so easy as folks are assuming, since those words aren’t really nonsense words: Caroll had definite meanings in mind for each of them, when he wrote the poem, and chose words to match the meanings. F’rinstance, “brilling” means the time of day when one starts broiling things for supper, about 4:00 PM, and to gimble is to put holes through something, like a gimlet. “Gyre” is obviously related to “gyrate”. Somewhere, there’s an explanation of all of them, but those are the only ones I remember.

Oh, and of course, a vorpal weapon is one which decapitates an opponent on a critical hit, but everyone knows that.

If you read the excellent “Annotated Alice” you will find that many of the “nonsense” words are “portmanteaus” of two other words. “Mimsy” is a combination of “miserable” and “flimsy” and so forth.

There is nowhere the amount of drivel as you might think. The translations probably posed a formidable challenge.

I read the Annotated Alice some time back, and I agree the words are portmanteaux. But surely this makes it even harder to translate? Why not make new portmanteaux in Spanish? Seems to me footnotes are the only other good alternative.

By the way, enjoyed zev’s website immensly, and was surprised by just how different all the different translations were. But I guess I shouldn’t have been.

Chronos: << F’rinstance, “brilling” means the time of day when one starts broiling things for supper, about 4:00 PM, and to gimble is to put holes through something, like a gimlet. “Gyre” is obviously related to “gyrate”. Somewhere, there’s an explanation of all of them, but those are the only ones I remember. >>

“Brillig”, Chronos, not “brilling”. Let’s get it right, otherwise we’re down the slithy slope that leads from saying “borogroves” rather than the correct “borogoves.”

The best source for explanations of Jabberwocky is the aforementioned ANNOTATED ALICE by Martin Gardner (there is also a second volume, about 20 years later, called MORE ANNOTATED ALICE, I think, because there have been a lot of discoveries/inquiries since the original version.)

Some of the explanations – like the 4 PM tea-time – are given in the ALICE text, provided by Humpty Dumpty, and should be considered in context. After all, Humpty is the one who says, “When I use a word, it means exactly what I tell it to mean, neither more nor less.” [I’m paraphrasing, I don’t have my text with me.]

But, as others have said, Carroll did NOT just put together meaningless sounds. The joy of his nonsense poems are that they sound so meaningful. The obvious are portmanteau words, two words smushed together to make one, such as “fumious” packs “fuming” and “furious” together, as “frivial” (non-Jabberwocky word) is a portmanteau of “frivilous” and “trivial.”

But other of Carroll’s words also have sound-links, if not so clear as portmanteaus. Frinstance, “gyre and gymble in the wabe” has the connotation of turning and twisting (gyrate), perhaps with some frollicking (gambol) and roiling (wave). “Chortle” has come into the language, with its connotations of “chuckle” and “snort.” “Brillig” is clearly realted to “brilliant” and “light”. Etc.

‘Twuz brillig, and da damn slidy toves Did gyre and gimble in de wabe; All mimsy wuz de bo’ogoves, And da damn mome rads outgrabe. "Beware da damn Jabberwock, mah’ son! Right on! De jaws dat bite, de claws dat catch! Right on! Beware da damn Jubjub bird, and shun De frumious Bandersnatch! Right on!" He took his vo’pal swo’d in hand, dig dis: Long time da damn manxome foe he sought-- So’s rested he by de Tumtum tree, And stood awhile in dought. Man! And, as in uffish dought he stood, De Jabberwock, wid eyes uh flame, Came whifflin’ drough de tulgey wood, And burbled as it came! Right on! One two! Right on! One two! Right on! And drough and drough De vo’pal blade went snicker-snack! Right on! He left it wasted, and wid its haid He went galumphin’ back. Ya’ know? “And hast dou slain de Jabberwock? Come t’my arms, mah’ beamish boy! Right on! O frabjous day! Right on! Callooh! Right on! Callay! Right on!” He cho’tled in his joy. Slap mah fro! 'Twuz brillig, and da damn slidy toves Did gyre and gimble in de wabe; All mimsy wuz de bo’ogoves, And da damn mome rads outgrabe.

Did Martin Gardner also write this new one? I know an anniversary edition of the original Annotated Alice came out within the last few years.

[slight hijack] Check out my new user name! I’ve been wanting to change for a while now, and this thread gave me the “get up and go” to do it. [/hijack]

[nostalgia] When I was a teen, some time ago, a group of us memorized Jabberwocky and performed it at various get-togethers. What a riot we were. [/nostalgia]

Back to the main show.

Obviously, the word is “manxome,” not “manxnome.”

Oy vay - I should have my fingers amputated by a vorpal sword for not noticing that!

::slinks off in shame::

Yes, Martin Garnder compiled the second ANNOTATED ALICE. It include, among other wonderful goodies, the lost chapter, “The Wasp in the Wig”, that was written by Carroll but left out of LOOKING-GLASS in final publication. It was thought to be lost until a manuscript was uncovered a few years ago.

Yes, I read the lost chapter several years ago in a “Smithsonian” article.

Just so you people know – Martin Gardner came out with a THIRD Annotated Alice just over a year ago. I’ve got a copy. It combines the stuff from the original Annotated Alice and the second edition (although not the illustrations from the second version, unfortunately).

You might also be interested in The Philosopher’s Alice, which observes that, although “Jabberwocky” is acknowledged to be nonsense, everyone wants to translate it. Also, Douglas Hofstadter’s “Godel, Escher, Back” has an “inter-stanza” translation of Jabberwocky, weaving the French and German translations from Gardner’s book together.