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Mark Twain’s back translation

A few weeks ago, I made a post about back translations, but this time I wanted to share a famous example of a back translation gone wrong. In 1865, Mark Twain published a short story entitled “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”, which, shortly thereafter was translated into French. Appalled by the French translation and seeing much of his signature humor and style lost, Twain re-translated the text word for word with intentional incoherency back into English with a new title (The Jumping Frog: In English, Then in French, and Then Clawed Back Into A Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil) to prove his point. This witty piece not only illustrates Twain’s sense of humor but also the inherent problems involved in translation. Below are some examples of the original text and the text Twain translated from French. The full text can be found here.

Original: “There was a feller here once by the name of Jim Smiley, in the winter of ’49 or maybe 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 warn’t finished when he first came to the camp; but anyway, 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.”

Back Translation: “It there was one time here an individual known under the name of Jim Smiley; it was in the winter ’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.”

Original: ‘Well,’ he says, ‘I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s any better’n any other frog.’

Back Translation: “Eh bien! I no saw not that that frog had nothing of better than each frog.”