Stories of translators: Mark Twain

Mark Twain is certainly not remembered as a translator, but a little experiment that he carried out is worth mentioning in this translation agency blog.

Mark Twain, whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, is certainly not remembered as a translator.  The author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was in fact one of the greatest writers and humorists of United States literature. However, a little experiment that he carried out with his short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County is definitely worth mentioning in the context of this translation agency blog.

A Celebrated Frog

The most famous translation associated with the name of Mark Twain is not one of the many translations carried out in order to disseminate his work throughout the world (and it wasn’t a commercial translation either). Instead, it’s a translation of one of his own texts, that he translated into French himself . The original text is a short story entitled The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, published in 1865. This was Mark Twain’s first great success as a writer, which allowed him to gain nationwide attention.

A Frog in the Land of Frogs

Many years later, Mark Twain came across an article on American humorists in the Revue des Deux Mondes. The author of the article praised the writings of Twain but explained that he didn’t understand what was so funny in his texts. In order to demonstrate his point of view, he translated Twain’s Jumping Frog story into French. The translation was so bad that Mark Twain was outraged and fought back by undertaking a re-translation of his short story into English.

A Re-translated Frog

The re-translation was published in the introduction to the new edition of this short story, now entitled  The Jumping Frog: in English, then in French, and then Clawed Back into a Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil. This text was perceived by some as a critique of what the English call “back-translation”  [link to the article on back-translation]  (a re-translation into the original language) and perceived by others as a warning about the difficulties of translation. It was more likely a humorous attempt to avenge an ignorant reviewer…

We shall see by reading the opening words of the short story below that Twain wasn’t performing a technical translation here, or a financial translation: he was in fact re-translating word-for-word, sticking rigidly to the French syntax in order to make his point…

Original text:

There was a feller here once by the name of Jim Smiley, in the winter of ’49 or may be it was the spring of ’50 I don’t recollect exactly, somehow, though what makes me think it was one or the other is because I remember the big flume wasn’t finished when he first came to the camp; but any way, he was the curiosest man about always betting on any thing that turned up you ever see, if he could get any body to bet on the other side; and if he couldn’t, he’d change sides. Any way that suited the other man would suit him any way just so’s he got a bet, he was satisfied. But still he was lucky, uncommon lucky; he most always come out winner.

Text translated into French:

Il y avait une fois ici un individu connu sous le nom de Jim Smiley: c’était dans l’hiver de 49, peut-être bien au printemps de 50, je ne me rappelle pas exactement. Ce qui me fait croire que c’était l’un ou l’autre, c’est que je me souviens que le grand bief n’était pas achevé lorsqu’il arriva au camp pour la première fois, mais de toutes façons il était l’homme le plus friand de paris qui se put voir, pariant sur tout ce qui se présentait, quand il pouvait trouver un adversaire, et, quand il n’en trouvait pas, il passait du côté opposé. Tout ce qui convenait à l’autre lui convenait; pourvu qu’il eut un pari, Smiley était satisfait. Et il avait une chance! une chance inouïe: presque toujours il gagnait.

Text re-translated into English by Mark Twain:

It there was one time here an individual known under the name of Jim Smiley; it was in the winter of ’49, possibly well at the spring of ‘50, I no me recollect not exactly. This which me makes to believe that it was the one or the other, it is that I shall remember that the grand flume is not achieved when he arrives at the camp for the first time, but of all sides he was the man the most fond of to bet which one have seen, betting upon all that which is presented, when he could find an adversary; and when he not of it could not, he passed to the side opposed. All that which convenienced to the other to him convenienced also; seeing that he had a bet Smiley was satisfied. And he had a chance! a chance even worthless; nearly always he gained.

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