Sunday, November 2, 2008

Where the Wild Things Are

Maurice Sendak's book, Where the Wild Things Are, was banned by my son's Christian preschool in Virginia, once upon a time. (I guess it is just too wild. The language play certainly is.) It is absolutely one of our favorite books.

Now, one of my favorite bloggers, John F. Hobbins, speaks of "the metalepsis of Maurice Sendak's book." Hobbins is pointing to the children's book rightly to defend and explain his very own brilliant translation of Genesis 3:1 (in his post, "On the Importance of Taking the Bible Literally"):
The serpent was the shrewdest / most nakedly cunning / smoothest operator of all the wild things the Lord God made.
If you've read the Hebrew, then you can see just how wonderful the translating by Hobbins is. As he correctly notes, "A verse like this has to be taken literally in severally different interlocking ways before it can be grasped non-literally, which is, after all, its ultimate literal (genre-accurate) meaning." His is a "a translation that preserves metaphors and more generally, the vehicles of complex genres (genres to be read at more [than] one level, literal and so-called non-levels)." Hobbins is saying that language works on multiple levels.

Which reminds me of something linguist Kenneth L. Pike used to tell some of us. Pike used to say language is personal, that persons make meanings by language. Persons are above logic, always prior to its formalism for language and for translation. He used to call language "n-dimensional," which meant, for him and then for us, that "n" is "infinite," because our sloppy languages really are without (many) limits. (He'd struggle with that infinity thing, and would paraphrase Nelson Goodman in Ways of Worldmaking, saying "What we need is radical relativism within rigid restraints." He used to get upset with deconstructionists who would try to take authority away from authors, so he thought, and postmodern anthropologists who would question the work of missionary anthropologists. He was initially unhappy with the "materialist" anthropologist Marvin Harris, who coopted Pike's neologisms "emic" and "etic" and began using them in radically different, "wild" ways.) But, Pike was always a learner, teaching us to learn. And he told this wild story, a true one, of one of his own teachers. That teacher would, professorially, stand up in front of his pupils and declare: "What we need, really, is for each word of any given language to have one and only one meaning." Young Kenneth replied with a rather wild answer, a question: "How then, sir, would we ever learn language?" Now, in my dissertation, I'm calling the methods of my teacher Pike something that he
himself never called his methods, something wild: "feminist rhetorical translating." (The astute observational method of Pike is itself a metalepsis! It's right where the wild things are! And my apologies for this paragraph being so jargony. Please keep going, and you'll get Sendak again, and Max, his wild things, and mamá, his mother too.)

If you don't as easily grasp Hebrew, like Hobbins does, and if you more readily understand English and Spanish and French and German and Finnish and Swedish and American Sign Language (ASL), then try something else. Get your copies of Sendak's book in these languages. And compare them.

A reader-reviewer at has done just that (i.e., read Where the Wild Things Are in English and in Spanish and French translations). Notice the difference the astute reviewer notices:

I like this in English, LOVE it in Spanish and deplore the French translation.
The spanish moves along smoothly, neatly matching the english yet retaining enough of its own flavor so that it's not a painful literal translation of the original (see: Cat in the Hat for awful translation).
The french translation is so bad I couldn't get more than a few pages in before I lost it in crankiness. Results in a very different feel/flow.
Notice that some translations can, on the one hand, be "bad" and "awful."

But then there is the brilliant translation, on the other hand. The best translation "moves along smoothly," and the wonderful translation is "neatly matching" the original, and the really cool translation is one that is still "retaining enough of its own [other-language] flavor."

Researcher Riitta Oittinen looks at Sendak's book in translation "as rereading and rewriting: every time a book is translated, it takes on a new language, a new culture, and new target-language readers."

I've linked to Oittinen's fascinating, wild article, below. She examines the Finnish, Swedish, German, and English versions of Where the Wild Things Are. She confesses something subjective, something very personal (in contrast to Aristotle's impersonal logic): "The reasons why I take such a special interest in translating picture books are twofold: cultural and national as well as individual. In Finland, we translate a lot: 70-80% of all the books published for children annually are translations."

And, for my daughter who signs, there are Charles Katz's wonderfully textured versions, wild ones too, in ASL. And soon for all of us, there's a new film adaptation of the book.

Look, listen, enjoy on many levels (and then send those wild things off where they belong in the proper ways):

su mamá le dijo: "¡ERES UN MONSTRUO!"
y Max le contestó: "¡TE VOY A COMER!"
y lo mandaron a la cama

his mother called him "WILD THING!"
and Max said "I'LL EAT YOU UP!"
so he was sent to bed without eating anything.

"¡Basta ya!" gritó Max y ordenó a los monstruos que se fueran a la cama sin cenar.

"Now stop!" Max said and sent the wild things off to bed without their supper.


Jane said...

thank you for this - it is one of the most important books of my childhood and I still absolutely love it - but now I come to think about it I've never read it in French - must try and find that.
Wonderful post about how books in translation take on another life - brilliant!

J. K. Gayle said...

Jane, Thanks as always for your enthusiastic comments! When you find the French, please do let us know what you think.

Jane said...

The local bookshop has a great children's section so I must give it a go - just need to get back from work in time to go there!!
When my younger brother was in a bit of a mood we would say he was wearing his wolf suite.