How Are Dr. Seuss's Books Translated?
by Aliya Whiteley
It takes a truly gifted author to write verse as magical as the works of Dr. Seuss. Born on this day in 1904 as Theodor Seuss Geisel, the beloved author wrote more than 60 books during his lifetime, which have sold more than 600 million copies. Even today, more than a quarter-century after his passing, Dr. Seuss's books continue to sell because they entertain children (and adults) so well with their wordplay.
Many readers feel like they know Dr. Seuss from his writing, but the fact is that many of us are mispronouncing his pen name, which he described as having more of a Germanic sound. Alexander Liang, one of the author's collaborators, explained it in a handy poem:
"You're wrong as the deuce, and you shouldn't rejoice. If you're calling him Seuss, he pronounces it Soice (or Zoice)."
Does it really matter? Whether it rhymes with moose or voice only becomes an issue when you’re looking for words to accompany his name in a rhyming poem, and that’s the big problem that translators face with children’s books such as the ones written by Dr. Seuss. They rhyme brilliantly in the language in which they were constructed, but finding a way to phrase them in a different language— while still preserving their original character—is no easy job.
The Cat in the Hat was first published in 1957, and is one of the best-selling children's books of all time. The title is poetic in a number of languages:
French: Le Chat Chapeauté
Italian: Il Gatto Col Cappello
Spanish: El Gato Ensombrerado
Yiddish: Di Kats der Payats
Latin: Cattus Petasatus
Although the German version is the straightforward translation Der Kater mit Hut, the 2003 film version starring Mike Myers as the Cat had a great title in Germany: Ein Kater Macht Theater.
Horton Hears A Who! has also been made into a popular film, and its message of equality for all has been entertaining children since 1954. It is available to read in French as Horton Entend Un Zou!, and in Dutch as Horton hoort een Hun!
There's A Wocket In My Pocket! is a 1974 story of a boy who has to contend with strange creatures around his house, such as a Vug under his rug and a Noothgrush on his toothbrush. Translators have made up some wonderful sounding creatures of their own to keep the rhyme intact:
Spanish: Hay un molillo en mi molsillo!
Italian: C'è un mostrino nel taschino!
Dutch: Er zit een knak in mijn zak!
Yertle the Turtle And Other Stories was published in 1958, and is the tale of a despotic turtle King who doesn't treat his underling turtles with respect. Geisel later stated that Yertle was based on Hitler. In Spanish he's Yoruga La Tortuga.
Perhaps the most elegant translations for a Dr. Seuss book title belong to 1960's One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, a book for younger readers:
Dutch: Visje een visje twee visje visje in de zee (translates as One fish two fish fish fish in the sea)
Chinese: Yi tiao yu, liang tiao yu, hong de yu, lan de yu
Yiddish: Eyn fish tsvey fish royter fish bloyer fish
But the language to which One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish is an absolute gift in translation is French, where it becomes the perfectly rhyming:
Poisson un, poisson deux, poisson rouge, poisson bleu
If only all translating jobs were as simple as that.