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The Perils and Nonpereils of Literary Nonsense Translation

By Michael Heyman

After the 1923 publication of Sukumar Ray’s seminal book of Bengali nonsense literature, Abol Tabol, nobody dared to translate it into English.  Bengalis tended to revere Ray’s masterful, layered language and cultural clout as sacred—a kind of perfect, and perfectly impenetrable (to an English speaker) literary play. It would take Ray’s son, the famous author and filmmaker Satyajit, to break that taboo with his small, limited-run translation of his father’s book, in 1970. Even Satyajit Ray, however, contended that certain pieces were impossible to translate—until 1987, when the next translator, Sukanta Chaudhuri came along, who in Satyajit Ray’s own words, produced a “very able and imaginative translation [which] is a refutation of my contention” (n.p.).  Still, pieces were left out, to be partly filled in by more recent translators, most notably Sampurna Chattarji in her celebrated 2004 volume.  These ever-bolder attempts at translation have not happened because Bengalis have suddenly discovered new means of translation—nor because they have simply compromised more. Rather, they have come to realize that nonsense literature, though it presents special challenges, is, like most other texts, translatable.

In the West, translations of nonsense literature have also been “far and few, far and few,” so much so that Langford Reed, in the introduction to his 1926 anthology of nonsense verse, outrageously concluded that “Nonsense versification is […] essentially a British and American art” (18).  Only in more recent times, particularly with Hugh Haughton’s anthology, The Chatto Book of Nonsense Poetry (1988), my own The Tenth Rasa: An Anthology of Indian Nonsense (2007), and John Agard and Grace Nichols’ Pumpkin Grumpkin: Nonsense Poems From Around the World (2012), have significant strides been stridden towards English translation of nonsense literature—not without peril, but also not without moments, dare I say, of the nonsense nonpareil.  And many of the nonpareil perils have indeed turned out to be nonpereils. In this brief essay, I’ll attempt to explain some of the reasons for nonsense’s rocky translation history and give examples of the special challenges I’ve faced in editing volumes of the stuff.[1]

Often when I ask scholars, writers, or librarians for nonsense material to translate and anthologize, I am met with the classic stages of Nonsense Denial:[2] blank stares, a baffled sense of pity for what must obviously be a worthless endeavor, and an indignant protest that there is no nonsense in their culture’s literature. These responses, I would say, stem from  misunderstandings of the problematic word “nonsense” and the lack of distinction between its literal meaning and the (somewhat unfortunate) name given to the genre.[3]  The former, of course, is senseless gibberish. Call it piffle, twaddle, or codswallop, but do not call it literary nonsense.  Of course, it’s understandable that one might take offence at the idea that one’s sacred literature contains codswallop.  The idea that there is “no nonsense” in any particular culture’s literature is a matter of semantics.  To give an outrageously brief and extraordinarily faulty definition: nonsense literature is a kind of structured, playful subversion of language and logic, or as T. S. Eliot claimed, a parody of sense (56), and thus, it is far from being inconsequential, meaningless, or simple (as opposed to complex) silliness.  It maintains a balanced tension between meaning(s) and lack of meaning, skirting “sense” in many ways, but creating it in other, unexpected ways (Tigges 47).  Understanding the definition, and the (ig)noble pedigree of nonsense better, my sources confess to nonsense commission (and also, thankfully, put away their jokes, riddles, and light verse), but they still object: how can one possibly translate nonsense?

This last step in denial often comes from exposure to an old friend, Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.”  It turns out that “Jabberwocky,” despite its reputation as the quintessential nonsense poem, is actually more of an outlier: that is, unlike most nonsense literature, it shies away from play with logic, creating the nonsense effect, instead, with neologism and language manipulation.[4] Of course, translation of this particular type of nonsense might indeed seem impossible, or highly fraught at best, which is why “Jabberwocky” has always been a kind of holy grail of translation.  As Alice protests when asked to translate “fiddle-dee-dee” to French, how does one translate a word that isn’t a word?  Luckily, most nonsense literature actually is dominated by logical, rather than linguistic play, making it far easier translate than deniers might imagine.  This issue arose when I was editing the translation from Tamil (a South Indian language) of S. Ramakrishnan’s “The History of the Ramasamy Lineage: The Hidden Truths,” and I came across the odd phrase, “Outside, a person was selling non-linear lollipops” (125). In this story, thousands of people named “Ramasamy,” one of the most popular surnames in Tamil Nadu, are gathering for a Ramasamy festival.  Exalted, exaggerated, and ridiculous Ramasamys from national and international locales mingle, and in the scene in question, we have “Counter-Culture Ramasamy” claiming his fandom of “Umberto Ramasamy” (as in Umberto Eco).  When Umberto arrives, however, Counter-Culture “beat[s] a hasty retreat” (125).  Just then, the dubious, postmodern sweet-selling takes place.  I immediately wrote off to Latha Ramakrishnan, the translator, to ask about this phrase, and to the author, as well.  It could have been an issue of language play or some language oddity or difficulty, rather than intentional nonsense technique.  It turns out that, indeed, this was quite a literal and accurate translation. The author intended it, the translator translated it perfectly, and we are left with a characteristic nonsense tension of logic, rather than language: Counter-Culture’s retreat certainly is not “in line” with his professed devotion, and yet, well, lollipops? Meanings do clunk around, related to commercialism, dum-dumbing things down, placating the masses, and more, but the arbitrariness and tension between the inconclusive meanings loop us in a lemniscate of nonsense.  That is, perfectly translated nonsense.   

Such successes, and certain challenges like idioms and cultural references, make nonsense translation, in many ways, like any other kind.  Of course literary nonsense sometimes presents a whole other kettle of “brainlesse butter’d fish.” To be sure, the inventiveness and baffling polysemy of language manipulation present particularly difficult challenges to the translator, but even these are not always insurmountable.  In Nanda Kishore Bala’s poem “Raven, O Raven,” for instance, the Tinimanjika beast lurks in the hills. In the original Oriya, this name is a kind of portmanteau, with “tini” meaning “three” and “manjika” meaning “whore,” but also being a variant of the word “seed.”  Our solution was to name the creature “Threeseedy,” a word that  captures much of the word play, keeping at least some connection to the “seediness” of prostitution.  The original word’s sound, which conveys a vague sense of foreboding, was lost, though I hope our new word also resonates mystereeouslee.

Keeping semantic integrity, however, is not always desirable when we realize, as Susan Stewart states, that nonsense tends to function by “bringing attention to form, to method, to the ways in which experience is organized rather than to the ‘content’ of the organization” (147).  In Sukumar Ray’s “Mish-Mash,” for instance, we are presented with a bestiary of portmanteau animals, such as the “duckupine,” a curious combination of duck and porcupine.  The last couplet mostly operates according to Bengali wordplay.  The original line, “Shingher shing nei mone bhari koshto,” translates literally to “The lion was desperate to own a pair of horns,” but the play here is that the word for horn, “shing,” is a part of the possessive from of lion, “shingher.”  In English, a lion wanting horns is simply arbitrary and doesn’t capture the humor, but it just so happens that another animal with “horn” in its name also lacks horns, the hornbill bird.  Our translation thus reads, “The hornbill was desperate because it had no horns,” (17) capturing the method of the humorous wordplay, rather than the exact creature portrayed.  I would argue that the method here, as with much nonsense, is what creates the nonsense world.

Sukanta Choudhury comments in his Translator’s Preface to Ray’s Abol Tabol: “Clever men might debate whether nonsense can be translated; but I reassure myself that at worst, the result will still be nonsense” (np). It all comes down to what he, or any translator, means by “nonsense.” Choudhury’s response may be a bit glib, but for a text to remain “still” nonsense (and here I must impose, despite Choudhury’s nudge in the other direction,  the more earnest literary rather than literal definition), even after translation, means it must engage in similar kinds of sense-frustration, using similar methods.  In the example of “non-linear lollipops,” meaning and method are translated with the same tension of logic. But the “sense” of nonsense literature is also, as Stewart notes, the mechanics of the vehicle rather than simply where it takes you.  In “Threeseedy” both method and meaning approximate the original linguistic play, but in “Mish-Mash,” it is primarily the method that brings us the nonsense: the “meaning” is the vehicle, in a manner of speaking.  This is a mixed victory, but one where it counts the most, where it engages with the unique workings of literary nonsense. 

Note: Special thanks to Sampurna Chattarji, Sayoni Basu, Samita Basu, and Debjani Banerji.

Works Cited

A Book of Nonsense Verse. Collected by Langford Reed. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1926.

Eliot, T.S. “The Music of Poetry,” in Selected Prose, ed. J. Hayward, Melbourne, et al. New York: Penguin, 1953. (56-67).

Ramakrishnan, S. “The History of the Ramasamy Lineage: The Hidden Truths.” in The Tenth Rasa: An Anthology of Indian Nonsense. Ed. Michael Heyman, with Sumanya Satpathy and Anushka Ravishankar. New Delhi: Penguin, 2007.

Ray, Sukumar. The Select Nonsense of Sukumar Ray, trans. Sukanta Chaudhuri. Calcutta: OUP, 1987.

-----------------. “Mish-Mash.” in The Tenth Rasa: An Anthology of Indian Nonsense. Ed. Michael Heyman, with Sumanya Satpathy and Anushka Ravishankar. New Delhi: Penguin, 2007.

Stewart, Susan. Nonsense: Aspects of Intertextuality in Folklore and Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Tigges, Wim. An Anatomy of Literary Nonsense. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988.


[1] and nonsense.

[2] Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition. 697.32x2.  While this condition is commonly called, “Nonsense Denial,” its actual designation is named “Anti-Polysemitic Paralysis.” Of course, its designation is, “Incensed Sense at Senselessness,” but it actually is, “Bosh Blitz Bonanza.”

[3] The blame falls mostly on Edward Lear, but even in his lifetime he progressed from using the word “nonsense” as more of an abstract term for his literary output (i.e. A Book of Nonsense), to, years later, calling his work “nonsense poetry,” a significant predictive preposthumous amelioration.

[4] More play with logic actually comes from Humpty Dumpty’s engagement with the text, and Carroll’s subsequent engagement with Humpty Dumpty’s engagement. Of course, manipulating language also involves logic, but of a different nature.

Published Jun 2, 2014   Copyright 2014 Michael Heyman

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