The Astonishment of Words

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The Astonishment of Words

An Experiment in the Comparison of Languages

By Victor Proetz

Foreword by Alastair Reid

Afterword by Charles Nagel

An exploration of how English words are translated.



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6 x 9 | 200 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-72938-4

One, two! one, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

Un deux, un deux, par le milieu,
Le glaive vorpal fait pat-à-pan!
La bête défaite, avec sa tête,
Il rentre gallomphant.

Eins, Zwei! Eins, Zwei! Und durch und durch
Seins vorpals Schwert zerschniferschnück.
Da blieb es todt! Er, Kopf in Hand,
Geläumfig zog zurück!

The late Victor Proetz was by vocation a visual artist who created many distinguished architectural and decorative designs. His favorite avocation, however, was to explore the possibilities (and impossibilities) of words, especially words in translation, and to share his discoveries. As Alastair Reid says in his foreword, "He turned words over in his head, he listened to them, he unraveled them, he looked them up, he played with them, he passed them on like presents, all with an unjadeable astonishment."

What, Proetz wondered, do some of the familiar and not-so-familiar works of English and American literature sound like in French? In German? "How," he asked, "do you say 'Yankee Doodle' in French—if you can?" And "How do they say 'Hounyhnhnm' and 'Cheshire Cat' and things like that in German?" And, in either language, "How, in God's name, can you possibly say 'There she blows!'?"

This book, unfortunately left incomplete on his death in 1966, contains many of his answers. They are given not only in the assembled texts and translations but also in his wry, curious, sometimes hilarious commentaries. None of it is scholarly in any formal, academic sense—"and yet," Reid reminds us, "his is precisely the kind of enthusiastic curiosity that gives scholarship its pointers."

Foreword by Alastair Reid
The Game
The Illustrations
Anonymous: “Rune of Hospitality”
Anonymous: “The Three Ravens”
Anonymous: “Edward, Edward”
Anonymous: From “Yankee Doodle”
W. H. Auden: “Look, stranger, on this island now”
Jane Austen: From Pride and Prejudice
Irving Berlin
William Blake: “The Tiger”
Rupert Brooke: “The Soldier”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning: From Sonnets from the Portuguese
Robert Browning: Song from Pippa Passes
Robert Burns: “Auld Lang Syne”
Robert Burns: “To a Mouse”
Lord Byron: “She walks in beauty”
Lewis Carroll: From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll: “Jabberwocky”
Geoffrey Chaucer: From Canterbury Tales
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Kubla Khan”
E. E. Cummings: “the hours rise up”
Charles Dickens: From A Christmas Carol
Emily Dickinson: “I lost a world the other day”
T. S. Eliot: “Sweeney among the Nightingales”
Daniel Decatur Emmett
Stephen Foster
W. S. Gilbert: From The Mikado
Thomas Jefferson: From the Constitution of the United States
Herman Melville: From Moby Dick
Beatrix Potter
James Stephens: “Stephen’s Green”
Afterword by Charles Nagel

Alastair Reid, the English writer, is a well-known poet and translator. Charles Nagel, whose afterword is a biographical and personal memoir of Mr. Proetz, was the first director of the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.