Translation Of A Pun

Hello there! How are you doing? It’s been a long time since I last posted anything. While it’s easy to weave a few excuses on why I haven’t been blogging, I’d refrain to do so. All I can say is that the last three or so months weren’t pleasant for me. Several real-life issues had cropped up simultaneously which kept me away from blogging.

I’m just glad that the “turbulences” I am experiencing seemed to calm down somewhat. So, I can now focus on blogging once more.


alice in wonderland

Puns are usually only effective in the language which they originated from. If you translate a pun to another language, it’s meaning would probably be lost in translation. So, it’s not uncommon to see several witty puns that were unable to survive in translated works either due to the translator’s ignorance of the puns or the absence of similar puns in the target language. Translators solve this problem through improvisation and in worst case scenarios, through the use of lengthy footnotes to explain the puns.

Sometimes, a translator can get lucky even if the language is translating could not reproduce the pun used in the original language.

Henri Bué, in his 1869 French translation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, he had found an ingenious way to translate the following lines from Chapter 6:

‘If everybody minded their own business,’ the Duchess said in a hoarse growl, ‘the world would go round a deal faster than it does.’

“Which would not be an advantage,” said Alice … “Just think what work it would make with the day and night! You see the earth takes twenty-four hours to turn round on its axis –”

“Talking of axes,” said the Duchess, “chop off her head.”

Hache, the French word for “axe”, can’t be used as a pun in the same way as in English. So Bué had to employ some finesse. Here’s what he did:

“Si chacun s’occupait de ses affaires,” dit la Duchesse avec un grognement rauque, “le mond n’en irait que mieux.”

“Ce qui ne serait guère avantageux,” dit Alice … “Songez à ce que deviendraient le jour et la nuit; vous voyez bien, la terre met vingt-quatre heures à faire sa révolution.”

“Ah! vous parlez de faire des révolutions!” dit la Duchesse. “Qu’on lui coupe la tête!”

Note that Bué did not directly translate “axe” into French. What he did was translating the word into a different word, namely, révolution (revolution). So, when “the Duchess” was translated into “la Duchesse”, the axe, by implication, becomes a guillotine!

Compare this to Antonie Zimmermann’s German translation of the same passage:

“… Die Erde braucht doch jetz vier-und-zwanzig Stunden, sich in ihre Achse zu drehen—”

“Was, redest du vom Axt?” fragte die Herzogin. “Hau’ ihr den Kopf ab!”

This translation was satisfactory but the ingenuity of Bué’s translation is noteworthy.

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My name Edmark M. Law. I work as a freelance writer, mainly writing about science and mathematics. I am an ardent hobbyist. I like to read, solve puzzles, play chess, make origami and play basketball. In addition, I dabble in magic, particularly card magic and other sleight-of-hand type magic. I live in Hong Kong. You can find me on Twitter` and Facebook. My email is edmarklaw@learnfunfacts.com

63 thoughts on “Translation Of A Pun

      1. And here are two for you to ponder over:
        The *thirteen* letters of “eleven plus two”, when rearranged, also spells “twelve plus one”.
        This year, people born in 1919 are turning 99, while people born in 1999 are turning 19.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ve found several more examples similar to the first one. They’re deep in my files though, so I have to find them first…

        As for the second one, that’s the first time I heard that.

        Thanks for sharing.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Welcome back! I was just thinking the other day, “Where had Edmark been?” I certainly understand your situation, things happen… I have not been writing so regularly myself, just needed a mental break to focus on other things. SO, GLAD YOU ARE BACK!!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I really love this one! Hurrah for genius in translation to match original works that deserve so much attention.
    And, on a personal level, all my best wishes for a return to a life that leaves ample time and energy for blogging. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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