Slaying the Chinese Jabberwock

The Limitations of Translating Nonsense
Frumious Bandersnatches, The Victorian Reading Experience, Lion Eating, Resources for Creating Nonsense, Words Like Poached Eggs, The Subtle Dragon Allusion
by Alan Levinovitz
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Slaying the Chinese Jabberwock

Alan Levinovitz
134 Snaps

In 1869, Antonie Zimmermann became the first translator of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Germans were treated to Lewis Carroll’s classic in their native tongue. Sort of. As you might imagine, Alice’s Abenteuer im Wunderland took some pretty serious liberties with the original. How else could Zimmermann have dealt with the Mock Turtle, who studies “reeling and writhing”? Or Alice’s rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat (how I wonder where you’re at)?” Or the Mouse’s Tale?

But these problems were child’s play compared to the nightmare facing Helene Scheu-Riesz, who in 1923 produced the first German translation of Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Aside from constant puns and indecently long, colloquial poems, Carroll’s sequel added an unprecedented challenge in the form of “Jabberwocky,” seven stanzas of nonsense verse packed with twenty-five invented words.

Scheu-Riesz bungles her effort, starting with the poem’s title, which she abbreviates to “Jabberwock” for no apparent reason. The last stanza, a repeat of the first, is inexplicably left out. While frumiousen Banderschlangen works well for frumious Bandersnatch (schlangen means “snake”), Jubjubvogel and Tumtumbaum are lackluster transliterations of Jubjub bird and Tumtum tree. That said, those who value strict textual fidelity might prefer her version to more-adventurous ones that followed, like Jaime de Ojeda’s “Galimatazo,” in which the young hero is cautioned to beware el pájaro Jubo-Jubo and shun el frumioso Zamarrajo, before he rests under el árbol del Tántamo.

Textual fidelity is always an issue for translators, and never more so than in the case of nonsense. Take one simple line: “He chortled in his joy.” To a modern reader, chortle is not nonsensical. It’s right there in the dictionary between chorology and chorus. Yet at the time of “Jabberwocky”’s publication, chortle made as much sense as slithy and brillig, words that, like chortle, were also Carroll’s own invention (and, unlike chortle, incur the wrath of Microsoft Word’s squiggly red line).

Should translators render chortle as a nonsense word in their target language? Modern English readers wouldn’t take it that way, so why should modern French readers, say, be forced to experience something different? But if the translator’s goal is to re-create the reading experience of Carroll’s Victorian audience, or at least honor Carroll’s original intentions, then faithful translation ought to yield a new nonsense word. Of course, adopting that goal means responsible editors of modern English editions should replace chortle with snortle, or something equally nonsensical. Otherwise the nonsense, and Carroll’s original intention, will be lost.

Translators differ on the issue of chortling. Scheu-Riesz chooses schuckelte, an obscure German verb meaning “swing.” De Ojeda has carcajeo, a common Spanish verb meaning “cackle.” Another German version transliterates with chortelt, a complete nonsense word. There are French versions with cortule and glouffait, both their author’s own inventions. To my knowledge, no English editor has been so brave as to replace chortle, but one day it may happen.

The difficulties associated with translating nonsense have led polyglot George Steiner to pronounce nonsense untranslatable. Less drastically, philosopher and nonsense theorist Jean-Jacques Lecercle has suggested that nonsense might be a strictly Western phenomenon. “I may conceive,” he writes, “of ­Russian, or Renaissance, nonsense, but is there any sense in talking of Japanese nonsense?” Having examined the linguistic conventions of Victorian nonsense, Lecercle speculates that non-Western ­cultures and languages could lack the resources necessary for reproducing nonsense of the sort found in “Jabberwocky.” It should be noted that if Japanese is incapable of such reproduction, then Chinese doesn’t stand a chance. Written Chinese lacks hiragana and katakana, the Japanese syllabaries employed to “spell” new words and foreign names for which there are no kanji (Chinese characters adopted for use in Japanese writing).

A recent Taiwanese edition of Edward Gorey’s The Epiplectic Bicycle appears to confirm this hypothesis. The translator has left epiplectic out of the title entirely, opting for the rather pedestrian Bicycle Story, and his introduction makes no mention of the omission. Is it true, then, that Chinese (if not all ­non-Western languages) is really incapable of dealing with nonsense words like epiplectic and Jabberwocky?

Before reaching a hasty verdict, we must travel back to 1921, when an intrepid language pioneer by the name of‭ ‬趙元任‭ ‬(Y. R. Chao) undertook a remarkable task. Enchanted by Lewis Carroll’s imaginative use of language, this young professor translated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into Chinese.

If anyone was equipped for the seemingly impossible feat, it was Chao. Born in China, he studied math and linguistics as an undergraduate at Cornell before completing a PhD at Harvard in mathematical logic. Though he’d always been attracted to language, it was only after a stint teaching physics at Cornell and Tsinghua University that language began to dominate his career. In 1920 Chao was called away from his post at Tsinghua to Beijing, where he served as interpreter for the philosopher Bertrand Russell, fueling his interest in translation. That same year, he met his wife, who spoke several Chinese dialects. Chao’s “linguistic autobiography” describes how the two created a “schedule of speaking a dialect a day: today Mandarin, tomorrow the Hupeh dialect, and the day after tomorrow the Shanghai dialect.” Shortly after his marriage, he returned to America and taught philosophy and Chinese at Harvard while taking courses in linguistics, which quickly became his primary focus.

Chao qualified, in no uncertain terms, as a genius. One anecdote should suffice: He was known to begin lectures speaking incomprehensible gibberish. After two or three minutes he would stop and play a recording of his speech. Backward. The backward recording welcomed his audience to the lecture and outlined its contents, in perfectly intoned English.    

More important, Chao had a long-standing interest in puns, wordplay, and nonsense, exemplified by his own poem entitled‭ ‬施氏食獅‭ ‬史 or “The History of Mr. Shi’s Lion Eating.” Written as an objection to the romanization of classical Chinese, it employs only characters rendered phonetically as shi. In truth, this Oulipian constraint actually yields four phonemes, since Chinese is a tonal language: shı¯, shí, shı˘, shì. Nevertheless, when romanized or read out loud, the title becomes “Shı¯ Shì shí shı¯ shı˘,” and the rest of Mr. Shi’s history is similarly ambiguous.

Chao’s poem is an excellent example of how two languages can have vastly different resources for creating nonsense. Thanks to its abundant homophones, written Chinese is able to sustain a narrative while obeying incredibly strict phonetic restrictions. In English, the closest one could get would be something like, “Aye-Aye, Eye! I, Eye, eye Eye.” That is: “I am at attention, person named Eye! I, another person by the name of Eye, am eyeing yet another person with the same name.” A literal translation of “The History of Mr. Shi’s Lion Eating” into English sacrifices aural ambiguity, while an English poem that merely replicates its “feel” would be exceedingly difficult to sustain. This is all to say that Chinese and English have very different semantic dimensions and limitations. Faithful translations of even simple jokes or puns can be difficult, if not impossible.

Despite these obstacles, Chao’s Alice met with success. It went through numerous early printings, prompted some Chinese parents to name their daughters 愛麗絲 (Ai-li-si, a phonetic equivalent of Alice), inspired a political satire named Alice in China, and remains a standard edition today.

The subsequent translation of Through the Looking-Glass met with a different fate. First published and scheduled for distribution in 1938, all copies were burned during the Sino-Japanese War, and it was not republished until 1968, as the second volume in Chao’s Readings in Sayable Chinese series of books. The series was part of a continuing attempt to popularize his Gwoyeu Romatzyh system of writing Mandarin Chinese in a Latin alphabet. Both Gwoyeu Romatzyh and Through the Looking-Glass experienced considerably less success than Alice. The former evolved into the current romanization system of pinyin, and is now a historical footnote. The latter is available in only five libraries worldwide, reprinted in its entirety by one Chinese press and an obscure American publishing house.

Why did Through the Looking-Glass fail? Is Chinese really incapable of rendering Jabberwockian nonsense, as Lecercle might have us believe? Was it the fault of Chao’s translation? There are no unbiased authorities to settle the matter. The only person to provide an in-depth analysis of Chao’s work is Chao himself. In a scholarly article on semantic and textual fidelity, he declares, “In Through the Looking-Glass I was able not only to make point for point in the play on words but also keep practically the same meter and rhyming patterns in all the verses.”

That’s a bold claim, even for a genius like Chao, and there’s only one way to verify it. But before you experience his “Jabberwocky,” some preparatory comments are in order. First, written Chinese is largely picto-phonetic, which means many characters consist of a semantic element that denotes meaning and a phonetic element that denotes pronunciation. Cat, for example, is represented by the character 貓. The left side of the character, 豸, is semantic, and means “beast.” It recurs in many animal characters (you can use it to find the character for lion in the title of Chao’s nonsense poem). The right side, 苗, is phonetic—from its pronunciation as “miao,” modern Chinese derives the word for cat: mao. Simpler characters may consist of only one element, and those recur in other characters as the semantic or phonetic element—miao actually means “seedling” or “young plant” when it appears on its own. “Words” can also consist of two characters in combination: kitten is written 小貓, or small + cat.

Second, keep in mind that “Jabberwocky” figures twice in Through the Looking-Glass. Initially, Alice encounters the poem toward the end of chapter one, and receives no clues as to its meaning. The poem resurfaces in a later encounter with  Humpty Dumpty, when Alice asks him for help interpreting it. Her choice proves ideal.  Humpty Dumpty informs her, “I can explain all the poems that ever were ­invented—and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet,” and follows his assertion with confident glosses of Carroll’s inventions. Any translator of “Jabberwocky” who wishes to deal with the whole book must therefore invent nonsense words amenable to  Humpty Dumpty’s subsequent etymologies.

So what does Chao do, and does it work? To answer this question requires an imaginative exercise, a re-creation of a Chinese person’s reading experience when he or she encounters “Jabberwocky” for the first time. So please set aside everything you know about Jabberwocks, slithy toves, and the frumious Bandersnatch. You are now entering the head of a Chinese ­Ai-li-si, who, like the protagonist, has never met  Humpty Dumpty, and never read the English versions of Carroll’s works. Her inner monologue is also unusually meticulous.

Let’s begin with just the title and the first line. Alice, having recently arrived in Looking-glass House, picks up a peculiar book and begins to read:

炸‭ ‬脖‭ ‬

     What an unusual title! It’s a combination of three characters I’ve never encountered together before. The first one, 炸, is pronounced “ja” and means “explosion” or “exploding.” OK. The second one, 脖, is pronounced “bwhoa” and means “neck.” And the third one, … curiouser and curiouser! It’s a character I’ve never seen before! The top part indicates to me that it might be pronounced “whoa,” but I can’t be sure. And the bottom part is the semantic indicator for dragon. 炸‭ ‬脖‭ ‬. “Ja-bwhoa-whoa.” “Exploding neck dragon”? I’ll keep reading.

有‭ ‬一‭ ‬天‭  ‬里,那‭ ‬些‭ ‬活‭ ‬济‭ ‬济‭ ‬的子

     “One day…”—my goodness! I’ve never seen that fourth character, , before, either. The top part indicates it might be pronounced “bye.” And the bottom part means “fire”…. This , “bye,” seems to go with the fifth character,‭ ‬里‭, ‬“lee,” a common preposition. 里‭.‬ “Bye lee.” But what sort of role is “lee” playing? Grammatically, this first clause is very unclear. Maybe the next one clears things up.

     “One day was bye-lee, and the…” Shoot! Another three-character combination I’ve never seen before, although this time I recognize them all. 活‭ ‬济‭ ‬济. “Hwah-gee-gee.” The semantic element common to all three on the left is “water,” but that’s all I know for sure. Together they don’t mean anything. Looks like an adjective, though, because they’re followed by the character 的, which indicates they modify the following noun. Hmm… The noun they modify, “,” is also a made-up character. The “beast” element on the left and the character that comes afterward (子, zi) tell me it might be a creature. And the other part on the right, 俞, could be pronounced “yo” or “toe.” 子‭.‬ Yo-zi. Toe-zi. I don’t know what it means.   

As you can see, sometimes Chao employs new combinations of characters, and sometimes he creates new characters entirely, using semantic and phonetic elements from other Chinese characters. In deference to traditional textual fidelity, these are crafted to reflect the pronunciation of the original English words: “ja-bwhoa-whoa” is a transcription of Jabberwocky, “bye-lee” of brillig, and so on. If you were a little confused, that’s as it should be. Nonsense isn’t easy, especially when you don’t know what it means.

Now fast-forward to Alice’s encounter with  Humpty Dumpty. After he agrees to lend a hermeneutic hand, she begins to read the poem, and, mercifully for future translators, he stops her after the first stanza. We’ll stop after the first couple of glosses.

“Enough,” interrupted Humpty Dumpty.  “The first part is enough, there’s plenty of hard words in it.  里‭ ‬[bye-lee] means ‘late afternoon time,’ looking a little like 白天 [daytime] and a little like 黑下 [eve-time].”

     “Oh, that’s quite clear,” said Alice. “And‭ ‬活济济的‭ ‬[hwah-gee-gee]?”

     “Well, 活济济的 has a little of 活泼 [lively], and a little of 滑济济‭ ‬[slippery], isn’t that so? It’s like a‭ ‬荷包蛋‭ ‬[poached egg]—there are two meanings packed up into one word. ”

     So what does this Humpty Dumpty have to say? Ah, the first character in  里‭,‬ “bye-lee,” really does combine part of 白天‭,‬ “daytime” (白), with the bottom portion of the first character from 黑下‭,‬ “eve-time” (黑). “Eve-time” sure is a strange way to say evening, though I think I’ve heard it before. But I’m still not sure how to pronounce that first character, even with all these definitions. Probably “bye.” And I don’t know why the “lee” part is there.‭ ‬活济济的‭ ‬definitely combines the first character from lively 活 with the last two from slippery‭ ‬济济.  Wow! Combo words like 活济济的‭ ‬really do resemble a poached egg. They’ve got two parts, and so do poached eggs: the yolk on the inside and the white on the outside, although I’ve never heard “poached egg” used to refer to a word like that before.

Miraculously, Chao ­actually achieves some fidelity to the “­English” original. Humpty Dumpty defines brillig as “four o’clock in the afternoon”—hence “bye-lee” becomes “late-afternoon time.” Alice learns that slithy is a combination of “lithe and slimy,” which Chao replicates almost exactly using “lively and slippery.”

Equally impressive is his treatment of portmanteau (Humpty Dumpty refers to slithy as a “portmanteau” word). In Victorian ­England, portmanteau meant a briefcase that opened into two parts, but thanks to Carroll it now refers to words that are made by combining the sound and meaning of two other words. Chao coins his own Chinese term for this phenomenon in “poached-egg.”

The translation even manages to obey the formal rules of nonsense laid out by theorists like Lecercle. Chao imitates his own language and appeals to real etymological practices: many Chinese characters really did come about through unusual combinations of semantic components, and a thorough Chinese dictionary definition traces these origins.

So why isn’t his approach popular in China? Wu Juntao’s 2003 full-length translation (the only one mentioned on Wikipedia) employs no invented characters. The title is a wordy plot synopsis—“The Kraken Jabberwock Is Put to Death”—and the first stanza describes howling winds and dark haze, in a classical poetic idiom free of toves, borogoves, or nonsense of any kind.  Invented characters are also absent from  “Dinosaur Strange Beast” in Wang Yongnian’s 2002 translation.  But shouldn’t Ai-li-si enjoy the experience of Chao’s “Jabberwocky” like the myriad English-speaking Alices that preceded her? Are Chinese people just incapable of appreciating this kind of nonsense?

Here imagination reaches its limits, and fieldwork is the only recourse. I brought the full Chinese text of “Jabberwocky,” along with  Humpty Dumpty’s explanation, to a native Chinese reader, a friend of mine who is also a professor of Chinese language. She was entirely unfamiliar with the original poem, and the Alice stories in general, and while she reported some mild amusement, mostly at the notion that someone would take the time to write something so strange, her predominant attitude was one of frustration and disengagement.

“We don’t do this in Chinese,” she said to me.  “You can’t invent characters like this, because no one will know how to pronounce them.”

“But couldn’t you guess at them?” I asked her.

“No. We don’t do this in Chinese.”

“Well, what if you want to write down a sound, or colloquial speech?”

“We really don’t do that.”

“But aren’t characters actually made this way? In early China, weren’t characters being invented by philosophers and scribes?”

“This poem isn’t from early China. It’s from a children’s book.” (I had given her that much background before she began reading.)

“How do you think your daughter would react to it?” I asked.

“She would ask me what these characters meant, and I would tell her exactly what I’m telling you now.”

“I see,” I said. We proceeded to discuss some of Chao’s strategies and characters, and I expressed admiration for the subtle dragon

“How did Chao know the Jabberwocky was a dragon?” she asked. (I didn’t point out that the creature is actually a Jabberwock, a forgivable slip given that some European translators similarly err and translate Jabberwocky as a noun.)

“It’s not actually a dragon,”
I explain. “It’s whatever you want it to be. But there was a picture of a dragon in the original edition, drawn by John Tenniel.”

“That would have helped me, I think. But I still wouldn’t have liked it.”

My arguments fell on deaf ears. The idea that Chao could have the authority to create new characters was utterly unappealing and extremely strange. People who write dictionaries, or Chinese classics, are the ones who create characters. Not authors or translators of novels.

To be fair, I wrenched the poem (and its testy hermeneut) out of its textual context, which in the case of Through the Looking-Glass includes not only Tenniel’s illustrations but also prefatory material. In his 1896 preface, omitted by Chao, Carroll anticipates his readers’ confusion and natural distaste for unfamiliar words: “The new words in the poem ‘Jabberwocky’ have given rise to some difference of opinion as to their pronunciation: so it may be well to give instructions on that point also….”

Reassurance of this sort is ­important, since nonsense is forbidding territory. It usually denotes a mistake on the part of the author or the text, or a deficiency on the part of the reader. By acknowledging that some words ought to appear unfamiliar, Carroll carves out space for play instead of error, and Chao and I would have been well served to do the same.

Yet even with pictures and a preface, modern Chinese readers might still find “Jabberwocky” ­boring, valueless, or even objectionable. In fact, it’s likely they would, given the history of the Chinese language. Focusing on Chao’s linguistic acrobatics misses the larger picture of a country deeply ­concerned with simplification and efficiency. In 1956, frustrated by perceived pedagogical shortcomings, Chinese script-reformers published an official list of 544 characters, 29 of which were abolished and the ­remainder simplified. Another list ­followed in 1964. During the simplification process, characters often lost entire components, and while there were (and are) detractors, most people welcomed the changes. The truth is that many Chinese do not view the separable elements of their complicated characters as intrinsically valuable, but rather as cumbersome impediments.

Even in places like Taiwan and Hong Kong, which never embraced simplification, it remains the case that Chao’s nonsense is highly unsuited to new forms of media. Invented characters are impossible to type, since Chinese typing (and text-messaging) works by matching pinyin input with a previously stored bank of symbols. That’s why the online transcription of Chao’s Through the Looking-Glass in Chinese is forced to substitute Xs for Chao’s inventions (with an apologetic footnote).

Given such concerns, most readers, young or old, would have little or no appetite for Chao’s brand of nonsense. And I should admit that after the irritating process of individually scanning and inserting all his invented characters for this article, I partially lost my taste for it.

This is not to say that linguistic innovation doesn’t occur in China, nor that it is restricted to authorities like dictionary writers. The combination of three characters to make a foreign-sounding creature like the “Ja-bwhoa-whoa” is actually quite common, and my Chinese friend agreed that, absent the final invented character, Chao’s strange creature might have been fun, a palatable form of nonsense given its foundation in current linguistic practices.

Unfortunately, the practice of combining characters is usually reserved for rendering foreign nouns and sounds, and results in words that are obviously from other languages, a slightly different effect than Carroll’s nonsense. Better yet would be to employ language games that are unique to Chinese, in addition to being comprehensible to children and adults. But how?

One possible strategy is the use of common symbols in new contexts, like 88. Modern Chinese youth, and anyone who chats on the Internet or text-messages in Chinese, will immediately recognize that 88 means “good-bye.” Why? The number 8 is pronounced “ba” in Mandarin. “Ba-ba” is a phonetic equivalent for bye-bye, a now highly familiar English word, like OK. Translators whose genius approaches Chao’s could play in this way, creating nonsense that grows out of Chinese appropriations of Western symbols.

There is also the increasing popularity of Chinese emoticons, which resurrect extant but obscure characters for their pictographic value. The character “囧” has no modern meaning, but it is still available in the text-bank of Chinese computer and phone users. Now‭ ‬囧‭ ‬is used to denote a feeling of surprise or a frowning face, anthropomorphizations that have nothing to do with its original meaning, “bright.” These obsolete characters provide a valuable and untapped resource for translators struggling to convey the sense of Western nonsense, while remaining friendly to the limits imposed by current forms of media.

There are countless potential ingredients for nonsense waiting to be discovered, in every language and in every culture. To quote Ludwig Wittgenstein, himself an ardent admirer of Lewis Carroll:

How many kinds of sentence are there? Say assertion, question, and command?—There are countless kinds: countless different kinds of use of what we call ‘symbols’, ‘words’,  ‘sentences’. And this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once for all; but new types of language, new language-games, as we may say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten.

These symbols, words, and sentences are the translator’s weapons, and the frabjous day will come when another Y. R. Chao picks up a vorpal pen and slays the Chinese Jabberwock. In the meantime, be on the lookout for exploding neck dragons. 

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