Daily Archives: July 24, 2016

The Art of Translation

I grew up knowing German and so can find certain English translations of familiar books disconcerting. Take Hoffman’s Der Struwwelpeter.  I knew it first in German and delighted in certain rhymes, say the cats warning Paulinchen if she played with matches:

Und M i n z und M a u n z , die Katzen,
Erheben ihre Tatzen.
Sie drohen mit den Pfoten :
“Der Vater hat’s verboten !”
Miau ! Mio ! Miau ! Mio !
Laß stehn ! Sonst brennst Du lichterloh !”

Much later I came across two very different English translations.  One seems to be more common, serviceable, but completely lacking the rhyme of the original.  Here’s that translation for the cats’ warning to Paulinchen:

The Pussy-cats saw this
And said: “Oh, naughty, naughty Miss!”
And stretched their claws,
And raised their paws:
“‘Tis very, very wrong, you know,
Me-ow, me-o, me-ow, me-o,
You will be burnt, if you do so.”

But then one day I came across Mark Twain’s translation.  His lesser known version captures for me far more successfully the energy and rhyme of Hoffman’s original German:

And Mintz and Mountz, the catties,
Lift up their little patties,
They threaten with their pawses:
“It’s against the lawses!
Me-yow! Me-yo! Me-yow! Me-yo!
You’ll burn yourself to ashes, O!”

(If you can, try scanning all three and you may see what I mean.)

Perhaps because of this early experience and subsequent time in countries where other languages dominated, I’ve always been fascinated by translation. So much is involved beyond the simple matching of grammar. Today’s Guardian article, “The Subtle Art of Translation” is excellent, featuring thoughts from a number of translators. While the focus is on adult fiction, their ruminations are completely applicable to all translation, children’s books too. Highly recommended.

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