Twas brillig, and the slithy toves


The comedy of the poem is its reproduction of a range of acoustic and rhythmic strategies that the reader immediately recognizes as typical of a certain kind of poetry, but with nonsense words. The suggestion is that all such poetry is driven to a degree by the inertia of style and convention, that the sound is as decisive as the sense in determining what gets said; indeed, when we “run out of sense” the sound trundles on of its own accord. But how could one begin to translate “mome raths outgrabe”? We have no idea what it means. The only strategy would be to find an equally hackneyed poetic form in the translator’s language and play with it in a similar way. Liberated by the fact that many of the words don’t have any precise meaning, the translator should not find this impossible, though whether strictly speaking it is now a translation is another issue.

more from Tim Parks at the NYRB here.

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