Humor and Translation

More Fictional Translators
By Mark Herman
More Fictional Translators

Two works of fiction featuring translators as protagonists have recently attracted attention. The first is the 55-page Story of Your Life1 by Ted Chiang (1967- ), first published in 1998, which is the basis for the 2016 motion picture Arrival.2 The second is the 1970 novel Zettel’s Traum3 by Arno Schmidt (1914-1979), published in 2016 as Bottom’s Dream in the English translation by John E. Woods.4 Woods’ English version has 1,496 pages, 1.3 million words, a 14-inch spine, and weighs more than 13 pounds. The original German novel is only slightly shorter. Story of Your Life has humorous moments and Bottom’s Dream, taking its cue from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake,5 is full of puns and jokes.

One of the most interesting aspects of Story of Your Life is the discussion of nonlinear language. Speech is by nature linear; that is, one word follows another because that is how the vocal system works. It is also how the auditory system mainly works, though it is sometimes possible to understand two words spoken at the same time. And written language, following spoken language, is also almost always linear. But since the eye can take in an entire picture at once, why does written language have to be linear?

Consider a sign with a cigarette within a circle and a diameter drawn diagonally across the cigarette. It has no letters, does not read left to right, right to left, or up and down, and yet clearly conveys, to those who know how to read it, the message “no smoking.” The alien creatures in Story of Your Life use such a graphical language to convey not only two-word phrases, but whole paragraphs and pages. This requires different thought processes from those of linear language.

The user of linear language can think of words one at a time, but whoever draws the “no smoking” sign must have the whole sign in mind before he or she begins to draw. However, even linear language usually requires users to have some idea of a sentence’s entire content before they speak or write it. For example, the two phrases “the person whom I saw” and “the person who saw me” require the speaker or writer (or at least those speakers and writers who still make the grammatical distinction) to choose between “whom” and “who” before the words requiring the choice are spoken or written. Also, since English places most adjectives before the nouns they modify, the use of English requires forethought for most sentences. In Story of Your Life, via some questionable reasoning, the use of a graphical written language supposedly conditions the minds of the aliens (and eventually also the mind of the human linguist protagonist) to predict and even “remember” the future.

Alas, what does ring all too true in Story of Your Life is the mindset of those who commission translations. Those who engage the linguistic team to learn and translate the aliens’ language have no idea how an unknown language is actually acquired and persist in the belief that some sort of “universal translator,” human or mechanical, is possible:

Colonel Weber asked, “Suppose I gave you an hour’s worth of recordings; how long would it take you to determine if we need this sound spectrograph [to analyze the aliens’ speech] or not?”

“I couldn’t determine that with just a recording no matter how much time I had. I’d need to talk with the aliens directly.”

The colonel shook his head. “Not possible.”

I tried to break it to him gently. “That’s your call, of course. But the only way to learn an unknown language is to interact with a native speaker, and by that I mean asking questions, holding a conversation, that sort of thing. Without that, it’s simply not possible. So if you want to learn the aliens’ language, someone with training in field linguistics—whether it’s me or someone else—will have to talk with an alien. Recordings alone aren’t sufficient.”

Colonel Weber frowned. (94)

Bottom’s Dream, despite a title taken from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the use of Bottom’s Dream as a central metaphor, is about German translators of Edgar Allen Poe, not Shakespeare, and, despite its length, the entire book takes place during a 25-hour period. Here is translator John E. Woods’ explanation of the title:6

In the classic Schlegel-Tieck translation of Shakespeare, “Bottom, the weaver” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is given the name “Zettel,” which is the warp of a fabric. And it is of course Bottom’s dream which is a central metaphor of the novel. Lost again is a pun, for a Zettel is also a small slip of paper, especially one used to jot something down on; Schmidt used thousands of such slips of notepaper to construct his later novels, by arranging them in large homemade file-boxes. Also lost, at least at first for the English speaker, is the fact that in German your Po is your “bottom,” and after all it is a novel about Edgar Allan Poe. As I [have] said … translation is an impossibility.

In the same interview, Woods discusses translating Arno Schmidt in particular:

Arno Schmidt is in one sense just another case of impossibility. The density of his prose is sui generis, even in German, which can be intimidatingly dense. Then there’s the word play, the dance of literary references, the Rabelaisian humor, all packed into what I like to think of as “fairy tales for adults.” So, what does a translator do? He puts on his fool’s cap and plays and dances and hopes he amuses.

In short, for works like Zettel’s Traum, an unfunny translation is an unsuccessful translation.

  1. Chiang, Ted. Story of Your Life. In Stories of Your Life and Others (Vintage Books, 2016), 91-145,
  1. Arrival, an American science fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer (2016).
  1. Schmidt, Arno. Zettels Traum (Fischer S. Verlag GmbH, 2004),
  1. Schmidt, Arno. Bottom’s Dream. Translated by John E. Woods (Dalkey Archive Press, 2016),
  1. Joyce, James. Finnegan’s Wake (Viking Press, 1966),’s-Wake.
  1. Toolan, Kathryn. “An Interview with John E. Woods,”


Submit items for future columns via e-mail to Discussions of the translation of humor and examples thereof are preferred, but humorous anecdotes about translators, translations, and mistranslations are also welcome. Include copyright information and permission if relevant.

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