Make time to save the pun

Puns are my favorite category of ?troublemakers? when it comes to translating literature. Imagine a poem of only four lines, but with as many as two puns.

It?s not so easy to write such a poem. You probably know this if you write them yourself. However, Bozena Boba-Dyga has managed just that. I would like to present you with this poem and describe the struggle of translating it. The poem and its translation read as follows:
jest noc, cicha
it?s night, silent night
tylko zegar
only the clock
chodzi od ściany do ściany
is running from wall-to-wall
a serce bije
and the heart _______
As can be seen, the last word of the translation is left unwritten. This was done on purpose so as not to lay down all the cards on the table before the play.
The first, and maybe most striking, difference between the original and its translation is between Polish and English clocks. The clocks in Poland ?go? (?chodza?) while in England clocks ?run.? No one knows why English clocks work harder than those in Poland, but it?s a matter of fact that they do. Consequently, the clock in the original poem is somewhat slower from its English counterpart. One could argue that it makes the night in the original Polish version even quieter than that in the English translation. Well, if the English want their clocks to run, they have to come to terms with the fact that it makes life noisier!
Let us now analyze the puns from Bozena Boba-Dyga?s poem. The first pun is in adding ?from wall-to-wall? to the running of the clock. The literal meaning has been assigned to the function of the clock and we can now see it going or running (depending on the perspective taken: Polish or English) from one wall to another.  It?s running and showing the time (we can hear a tick-tock in our heads) but in Boba-Dyga?s poem it?s also running from wall to wall (can you hear a ?wall-wall? as the clock runs from one wall to the other?) It appears to me that the addition of ?from wall-to-wall? strengthens the effect of the steadiness with which the clock is running in the poem. The poet has shown us that the clock can run not only in time, but it can also do it in space: wall-wall, wall-wall.
Another hidden pun is connected with the omitted word. The original could be translated into English as ?and the heart beats,? but then there would be no pun in the English translation. In Polish the word for ?to beat? (?bić?) is used for the beating of the heart as well as for the clock?s striking a particular hour. Unfortunately, it?s not so in English, in which hearts beat and clocks strike. As any persevering translator, I searched my memory hoping that there might be a word in English, which would express both meanings at the same time. Nothing came to mind, so I decided to consult my dictionaries — again, nothing. I searched on the Internet hoping that maybe hearts can strike in English. They can?t — at least, not in the same sense. After spending a couple of hours thinking of and searching for an appropriate equivalent, I decided to do the only reasonable thing left to do and took a break.
During the following days, I couldn?t help thinking about a possible word which could save the pun — all in vain. I concluded that the poem was untranslatable. This wasn?t easy to accept as my admiration of the poem made me want the translation to convey the original meaning as accurately as possible. Finally, it seemed best to leave ?and the heart beats? in the final line and for the author to decide whether to include the translation into her next volume of poems or not.
When later writing an article about this poem, it occurred to me; why not call my English friend and ask him what he thinks? He may have some English words of wisdom to share with me. This turned out to be the best thing to do. After explaining the problem, he asked me to read the poem a couple of times. After some thought, he suggested saying, ?and the heart is keepings time,? since ?to keep time? means ?to show time,? as well as ?to tap the rhythm.?
The latter meaning of the phrase allows us to use it in this poem since keeping rhythm is a characteristic feature of both hearts and clocks. In fact, I wanted to find the word which would incorporate the meaning of the clock?s striking and the heart?s beating. Obviously the phrase, ?the heart is keeping time? can be used with ?heart? in the sense of the heart?s beating. Still, if we use it to refer to ?clock? it has a broader meaning than the sole striking of particular hours — namely it means keeping general time. However, it?s self-evident that striking particular hours takes place when the clock keeps time.
Of course, there are clocks which don?t strike hours at all, but the one from the poem does.  So, fortunately, the meaning of the clock?s striking is included in the phrase ?to keep time? as far as clocks are concerned.
When there is no one-to-one equivalent the translator has to try to find a way to solve this problem. One possibility is to compensate for the absence of equivalent meanings. Fortunately, this time we?ve found the phrase to save the pun.
I would like to thank the English people who come to Poland and for their willingness to help those who try to make a living out of their own passion for the English language and poetry.

One thought on “Make time to save the pun

  • July 19, 2012 at 6:27 am

    I’m not sure if you already thought of the word ‘tick’ for your translation. In informal (American) English, both clocks and hearts can tick (as in the slang term ‘ticker’ for heart). I know that ticking does not convey the same sense as striking for a clock, but it might make the pun work.


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