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Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll: A Translation

Published March 23, 2015 by ElisaChristy

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll is a nonsense poem. Half the words are made up and the other half are also made up. So why is it that the nonsense words conjure up such a clear image of what is going on in the poem?

Lewis Carroll did provide a translation for the first verse:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves = It was evening, and the smooth active badgers
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe = Were scratching and boring holes in the hill-side,
All mimsy were the borogoves = All unhappy were the parrots
And the mome raths outgrabe. = And the grave turtles squeaked out.

But when I first read this translation I couldn’t help feeling disappointed as the translation was so much duller than I had been imagining. So here is my interpretation and translation of what I picture happening in the poem.

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves = It was late afternoon* and the tall trees
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe = Did sway and rustle in the wind
All mimsy were the borogoves, = All buzzy were the flies
And the mome raths outgrabe. = And the venus flytraps** snapped

`Beware the Jabberwock, my son! = ‘Beware the monster, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! = The jaws that bite, the claws that catch
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun = Beware the squawking bird and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!’ = the grumpy vulture (but with longer legs and less feathers)’

He took his vorpal sword in hand: = He took his shining sword in hand
Long time the manxome foe he sought = Long time the grand foe he sought
So rested he by the Tumtum tree, = So rested he by the baobab tree****
And stood awhile in thought. = And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood, = And as in tired thought he stood
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, = The monster, with eyes of flame
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, = Came wisping**** through the tulgey wood
And burbled as it came! = And gurgled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through = One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack! = The shining blade went in and out
He left it dead, and with its head = He left it dead, and with it’s head
He went galumphing back. = He went lolloping back.

`And has thou slain the Jabberwock? = ‘And has thou slain the monster?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy! = Come to my arms, my smiling boy!
Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ = Oh happy day! Halloo! Hooray!’
He chortled in his joy. = He chortled***** in his joy.

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves = It was late afternoon and the tall trees
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; = Did sway and rustle in the wind
All mimsy were the borogoves, = All buzzy were the flies
And the mome raths outgrabe. = And the venus fly traps snapped.

*I have always thought this even before I heard the translation, something about the word brillig makes you think of the end of the day.

**this is purely because of the use of the word outgrabe. I always imagined giant plants grabbing outwards towards the flies and the only plant that eats flies is a venus fly trap (to my knowledge anyway)

***A tree I only know the name of from reading Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

**** This is not really the word I mean, but I imagine the jabberwock to be able to rush through the trees as if it’s not really corporeal, the same way you might expect a ghost to move.

***** Incidentally chortle is also a made up word, but appears to be the only word in the poem that has made it’s way into standard english as this is the first known use of it. It does of course mean laugh.

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