Jabberwocky Variations
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Translations of Jabberwocky

Douglas R. Hofstadter

Imagine native speakers of English, French, and German, all of whom have excellent command of their respective native languages, and all of whom enjoy wordplay in their own language. Would their symbol networks be similar on a local level, or on a global level? Or is it meaningful to ask such a question? The question becomes concrete when you look at the preceding translations of Lewis Carroll's famous "Jabberwocky".

[The "preceding translations" were "Jabberwocky" (English, original), by Lewis Carroll, "Le Jaseroque", (French), by Frank L. Warrin, and "Der Jammerwoch" (German), by Robert Scott. --kl]

I chose this example because it demonstrates, perhaps better than an example in ordinary prose, the problem of trying to find "the same node" in two different networks which are, on some level of analysis, extremely nonisomorphic. In ordinary language, the task of translation is more straightforward, since to each word or phrase in the original language, there can usually be found a corresponding word or phrase in the new language. By contrast, in a poem of this type, many "words" do not carry ordinary meaning, but act purely as exciters of nearby symbols. However, what is nearby in one language may be remote in another.

Thus, in the brain of a native speaker of English, "slithy" probably activates such symbols as "slimy", "slither", "slippery", "lithe", and "sly", to varying extents. Does "lubricilleux" do the corresponding thing in the brain of a Frenchman? What indeed would be "the corresponding thing"? Would it be to activate symbols which are the ordinary translations of those words? What if there is no word, real or fabricated, which will accomplish that? Or what if a word does exist, but it is very intellectual-sounding and Latinate ("lubricilleux"), rather than earthy and Anglo-Saxon ("slithy")? Perhaps "huilasse" would be better than "lubricilleux"? Or does the Latin origin of the word "lubricilleux" not make itself felt to a speaker of French in the way that it would if it were an English word ("lubricilious", perhaps)?

An interesting feature of the translation into French is the transposition into the present tense. To keep it in the past would make some unnatural turns of phrase necessary, and the present tense has a much fresher flavour in French than in the past. The translator sensed that this would be "more appropriate"--in some ill-defined yet compelling sense--and made the switch. Who can say whether remaining faithful to the English tense would have been better?

In the German version, the droll phrase "er an-zu-denken-fing" occurs; it does not correspond to any English original. It is a playful reversal of words, whose flavour vaguely resembles that of the English phrase "he out-to-ponder set", if I may hazard a reverse translation. Most likely this funny turnabout of words was inspired by the similar playful reversal in the English of one line earlier: "So rested he by the Tumtum tree". It corresponds, yet doesn't correspond.

Incidentally, why did the Tumtum tree get changed into an "arbre Té-té" in French? Figure it out for yourself.

The word "manxome" in the original, whose "x" imbues it with many rich overtones, is weakly rendered in German by "manchsam", which back-translates into English as "maniful". The French "manscant" also lacks the manifold overtones of "manxome". There is no end to the interest of this kind of translation task.

When confronted with such an example, one realizes that it is utterly impossible to make an exact translation. Yet even in this pathologically difficult case of translation, there seems to be some rough equivalence obtainable. Why is this so, if there really is no isomorphism between the brains of people who will read the different versions? The answer is that there is a kind of rough isomorphism, partly global, partly local, between the brains of all the readers of these three poems.

Hofstadter, Douglas R. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Basic Books, 1980; Vintage Books Edition, Sep 1980. ISBN 0-394-74502-7.

In the book, this excerpt is from Part II: EGB, Chapter XII: Minds and Thoughts. The 3 versions of the poem are in "English French German Suite" at the end of the previous chapter.

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