I am a fan of Seuss. Green Eggs and Ham was the first book I can remember reading independently. Jie-jie started reading with Hop on Pop. Horton, the Lorax and the Cat in the Hat are all staples at our place. Seuss is such a big deal in the U.S. it is a bit surprising to learn that he seems largely unknown elsewhere.
One of our neighbors in China freelanced as an English reading tutor. She had a few Dr. Seuss titles in Chinese translation. One was If I Ran the Circus. I had my Chinese tutor look at it because I was curious about the Chinese translation. How would the translator deal with Seuss’ made-up words and the games he plays in naming things? In other words, what was the Chinese equivalent of Circus McGurkus? I was quite disappointed when my tutor told me that there was no playing with language in the book, nor was the meter of the text preserved or any other meter established. The Chinese version was just a literal translation of the original text. I was disappointed and dismayed. In my mind there should be nothing literal about the interpretation of most Seuss books.
Recently I was talking with some of my work colleagues here in Sweden and someone mentioned that he had just learned about an American children’s author named Dr. Seuss. My jaw just about hit the table when my colleagues, all of whom speak English impeccably and many who are quite well-read in English-language literature as well as social science, said that they were unfamiliar with Seuss. I made some recommendations and one of my colleagues ordered some of the books (Seuss does not appear to have been translated into Swedish).
Today we talked about the books a bit. My colleague is clearly enjoying them but what is interesting is that his enjoyment seems to derive in greater share from the plot-lines than from the language itself – a balance that I would expect favors the storylines to a greater extent than a native-English speaking reader. After all, when it comes to plot, Hop on Pop, Fox in Socks, The ABC Book and There’s a Wocket in my Pocket have little to offer. They delight on account of the clever rhymes and the fanciful significations. When my colleague brought up The Lorax, I commented on the thneeds. He paused, confirming for certain that thneeds were not a real thing. It was then that I understood that he had taken the Thneeds seriously, as the indicator of a real thing instead of play – a stand in for a type of thing, defined in its relationship to the actors and circumstances depicted in the story.
It is these significations, I think, that get lost in translation. The fanciful words and names that Seuss offers are not merely the clever response to the demands of poetry, instead, they are placeholders that indicate whatever the reader needs them to represent in order to make the story relevant. So, thneeds, the multipurpose/useless items the Once-ler produces in The Lorax are a stand-in for any mass-produced and cleverly marketed novelty that is unnecessary. The unreality of the signifier aids in the application of the story to any reader’s reality. The Whos (who appear in many books), Sneetches and Butter Side-Up and Down folks are all similarly constructed in such a way that their absurdity and abstraction aids in the reader in recognizing the themes of the book in their own circumstances.
The work of Seuss, while so simple, seems to be difficult to translate.