Es brillig war. Die schlichte Toven
Wirrten und wimmelten in Waben;
Und aller-mümsige Burggoven
Die mohmen Räth’ ausgraben.
Even if you can’t speak German I bet you can tell what that is a translation of. And if you’re still struggling the wonderfully Germanic ‘Banderschnätzchen’ in the next verse should give it away. It is of course the opening verse of Jabberwocky, and the translator was the Master of Balliol College in Oxford, Robert Scott – he of the standard dictionary of Ancient Greek, known universally from its authors’ names as ‘Liddell and Scott’ and still used today more than a century after its first publication. The other half of the partnership, Henry George Liddell, Dean of Christ Church, was the father of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice.
One of the themes for Oxford is to celebrate the cultural and linguistic diversity in the city. English as a dominant world language can easily blind us to the joys of different languages and their literatures, but as you see above we do have a distinguished history of working in and with a variety of languages.
Oddly enough, Jabberwocky is probably one of the easiest poems to translate, as it works by evoking associations rather than precise meanings. The translator can make up the words. (One of my favourite authors, Douglas Hofstadter, argues the opposite in a paper on these translations.) What do we do when trying not just to translate the words literally, but to give a feel for all their cultural associations? In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment the protagonist who puts himself outside the pale of society by commiting a murder is called Raskol’nikov, which means ‘schismatic’ – an established Russian surname referring to those who broke away from the established Russian church in the seventeenth century, but clearly relevant to his actions in the novel. The master of evocative names was Gogol’. The hero of his story The Overcoat is Akaki Akakievich Bashmachkin. I can do no better than to quote the Wikipedia entry:
Gogol makes much of Akaky’s name in the opening passages, saying, “Perhaps it may strike the reader as a rather strange and farfetched name, but I can assure him that it was not farfetched at all, that the circumstances were such that it was quite out of the question to give him any other name…” In one way, the name Akaky Akakievich is similar to “John Johnson” and has similar comedic value; it also communicates Akaky’s role as an everyman. Moreover, the name sounds strikingly similar to the word “obkakat'” in Russian, a word which means “to smear with excrement,” or kaka, which means “poop”, thereby rendering his name “Poop Poopson”. In addition to the scatological pun, the literal meaning of the name, derived from the Greek, is “harmless” or “lacking evil”, showcasing the humiliation it must have taken to drive his ghost to violence. His surname Bashmachkin, meanwhile, comes from the word ‘bashmak’ which is a type of shoe. It is used in an expression “быть под башмаком” which means to be “under someone’s thumb” or to “be henpecked”.
Care to suggest an English name that suggests all that? Or leave the name as in Russian, and lose the associations? Or add a scholarly footnote disturbing the flow of the narrative? And that’s just a name. I take my hat off to translators who can convey not just the meaning, but the sense of a whole work.
We can look at all this in 2014, and we have 140 different nationalities in Oxford to help us!