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  • The Transmetrical Snark
  • Peter Consenstein (bio)

To translate is to put a literary theory into practice. When Jacques Roubaud translates, he is sensitive to the source text’s formal qualities, which makes Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark especially attractive. Carroll is one of Roubaud’s “masters,” a literary figure he emulates. Both authors are poet-mathematicians and both use writing to refine, explain and implement theorems and paradoxes. When contrasting Roubaud’s translation of Carroll to other French translations, what is at stake both historically and theoretically when translating constrained literature shows its relevance.

There are numerous translations into French of The Hunting of the Snark, beginning chronologically with Louis Aragon who translated this nonsensical English ballad in 1929. Henri Parisot revised his own translation of the Snark ten times between 1940 and 1976.1 These two are the most well-known translators of The Hunting of the Snark. Other translators include Florence Gilliam and Guy Levis Mano (1948), Roubaud (1981), Bernard Hoepffner (1996), Fabrice Eberhard (1997), François Naudin (1998), Gérard Gâcon (1999), and Matthieu Vertut (2008). Carroll’s work attracted the Surrealist revolutionary in Aragon; it appears in the hyperconscious performance art of Antonin Artaud— who in fact accuses Carroll of anticipated plagiarism (Delaune)—and in the formulations of Gilles Deleuze’s philosophical treatise Logique du sens. What is it in the making of nonsense that attracts Roubaud and so many others, and what is it that links Roubaud’s interest in [End Page 932] the text’s formal qualities to both the orality and the nonsense of Carroll’s ballad?

Author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Jabberwocky, and Through the Looking Glass, Carroll divides his ballad The Hunting of the Snark into eight “fits.” First published in 1876, it has been viewed as a parody of, or inspired by, Samuel Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan” (Gâcon, Le Lait de paradis 95). Who hunts for, and what is, a Snark? In Carroll’s long poem, Snark hunters are various characters, nine in all, whose names start with the letter B: a Bellman, a Bonnet Maker, a Barrister, a Broker, a Billiard-Marker, a Banker, a Butcher, a Baker, and a Beaver. They embarked on a ship whose captain was a Bellman who navigated by tinkling his bell. In the preface, Carroll informs the reader that a “snark” is a portmanteau word (some hypothesize that it is, perhaps, a blend of the words “snake” and “shark”). But the manner in which the word is formed and the theory of its construction unveil certain underlying reasons for the ballad’s machinations. Carroll’s preface references the Humpty Dumpty theory of meaning, in which this classical Mother Goose creature, sounding much like Plato’s Cratylus, explains to Alice that a word means nothing more or less than what he chooses it to mean. A snark is an invented word meaning only what it says: it is the object of a hunt, the hunt for how meaning occurs.

At the origin of Carroll’s interest in the portmanteau is the moment when a speaker attempts to say two words at once, and winds up pronouncing a new word. Carroll challenges the reader to say “fuming” and “furious” and not to determine which word to say first:

If your thoughts incline ever so little towards “fuming,” you will say “fuming-furious;” if they turn, by even a hair’s breadth, towards “furious,” you will say “furious-fuming;” but if you have the rarest of gifts, a perfectly balanced mind, you will say “frumious.”


The portmanteau captures the essence of this nonsense poem: the making of meaning is spontaneous; speaking aloud gives forth meaning; in fact, it is the “perfectly balanced mind” that succeeds at creating a neologism, which could be viewed as the lexical form of creating new meaning. Hunting for a snark is thus quixotic and ephemeral, much like perfect balance and like meaning itself.

The reading of the poem gives an aura of meaning where there is none. The ballad tiptoes the tightrope walk between meaning and nonsense and, for the briefest of spontaneous voicings, gives the...


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