The Topic At Hand: Seconds

I am Sam. Sam I am. You can already see where this is going. There will be fox. There will be socks. Ultimately, of course, there will be green eggs and ham. It’s a story of a pushy little fellow named Sam and his obsessive desire to force a more laconic other dude to try some green eggs and ham. Incidentally, the ham seems not to be green. Just the eggs. In any case, Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham has been an almost universally loved classic of children’s literature since it was first published in 1960.

I hate it. In fact, these days I hate almost all Dr. Seuss books. I do not simply hate the silly words or the difficult, repeated rhymes and concepts. I do not merely hate the careful rhythm and the tight integration of pictures and words. I hate the density, the care with which they are constructed. They build on sounds, references and structure. It is because Dr Seuss books are so tightly well written that they utterly resist translation.


Black People Speak French

Kids associate languages with people (and types of people). This is just the way our brains work. I was born in French-speaking Africa and so was my older brother, Adam. When my family moved back to the US when Adam was 2 and a half years old, he spent a bit of time trying to speak French to all of the Black people he encountered. This caused some amusing confusion during a plane-change in Chicago, but it made perfect sense, at least to Adam. Until that trip, every brown-skinned person he had ever met spoke French, and most of the lighter-skinned people he had met spoke English (or English plus some other European language). Our brains are adapted to associate languages with individuals and classes of people, rather than situations. This is at least part of why it is extremely difficult, even for bilingual people, to maintain a communication relationship that is sometimes in one language and sometimes in another. My family’s history in French-speaking Africa left me with an obvious lesson and a choice: I only speak Spanish to my children, of course.


In the end, I grew up mostly in Puerto Rico, in a little town called Humacao on the South Eastern side of the island. My father married an Argentinian woman and they started a Montessori school together in Puerto Rico. At first, Adam and I were just along for the ride. But for me the timing was just right. I was old enough to be a real human being but young enough to go with the flow. And the spirit and character and history of Puerto Rico ended up in me. I went to school in that clipped, hurried, beautiful Puerto Rican Spanish that the rest of the Spanish-speaking world loves to hate. I made my first real friends in Spanish. I went to my first school dances in Spanish. When I met my partner, I made it clear that speaking (and more importantly, understanding) Spanish was not optional—it was a part of who I am and it would be required to relate to me and to my family And when I had kids, I couldn’t imagine them not speaking Spanish.


Children’s Books Kick My Ass

When my daughter Agatha was born, I knew I would have to read every single book to her in Spanish, regardless of what the letters on the page actually said. I had done some written and spoken simultaneous translation so this didn’t worry me. I also knew that all of my favorite books as a kid had been in English. So I knew that I would be shouldering the majority of the translation burden in my household. “This is not my puppy: his paws are too rough” == “Éste no es mi perro: sus patas estan demasiadas ásperas”. Easy stuff. I got lulled into a false sense of security. And then we got the Lorax. “And deep in the Grickle-grass, some people say if you look deep enough you can still see, today…” “The old Once-ler still lives here. …” How the hell do you translate “Grickle-grass” or “Onceler”. (I did Grama-Grica and ViejoUnaVez but those were spur-of-the-moment choices, not carefully considered terms that built the rhythm of the story). Not only does Dr Seuss uses lots of non-words, but the non-words tend to resonate with each other and imply, without directly signifying, meanings in English. As I tried simultaneous translation of the Lorax, every off-the-cuff choice led me to more difficult choices on future pages. By the end of the story, even I was confused and I can guarantee that Agatha had no idea what the hell was going on. Clearly Dr. Seuss was graduate-school-level translation. Not to be attempted off the top of one’s head while reading a bedtime story. Translating truly hard texts requires more than skill. It requires imagination and bold choices. Any vaguely poetic use of language is fundamentally untranslatable—it violates the separation of signifier and signified. Onomatopoeia, connotation, meter and rhyme all disappear in obvious, literal translation. The only way to bring them back is to layer on your own thick slathering of poetry. I knew I needed help.


Teresa Mlawer, Aida Marcuse and Dr Seuss the Second Time Around

“En la gran habitación verde, hay un globo rojo…” Goodnight Moon, thanks to Teresa Mlawer. Mlawer is a giant of Spanish-language kids books. She has personally translated over 250 children’s books, including many of the great ones. If your kids have books in Spanish in the US, her name is on your bookshelf at least twice. Her translations are smooth, idiomatic, and they try to preserve rhythm and context. But it was Aida Marcuse’s translation of “Green Eggs and Ham” that finally showed me Dr Seuss done right. Sam I am gets a new name: Juan Ramón, so the symmetry is lost right from the very beginning: “Yo soy Juan… Juan Ramón…” The first time I read it, I lost faith in Ms. Marcuse almost immediately. And there was the awkward ‘caserón’ for ‘house’ (which admitedly does rhyme with ‘ratón’ for mouse, but that hardly redeems it). But by the time we were refusing green eggs and ham in a ‘coche’ (car) and ‘de noche’ (at night) I was sold. The meter, the ridiculousness, the rhyme and the moral of the story are all captured by this translation. And best of all, I can turn my brain down and just read it. And what I find is that sometimes I have a richer understanding of the English-language books that I loved as a kid when I read them in Spanish translation, the second time around.


Family Circus parody by cutup

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23 responses to “Dr. Seuss, Otra Vez”

  1. Yimji Wills says:

    Well, yeah, I very much like the thoughts here about language. On the whole, though, I prefer reading the original whatever-it-is, in whatever language it started out in, even if I don't speak it very well. I can refer to a translation to help out. (A big exception is Rumi, because I speak/read absolutely no mid-eastern anything. And it's so astounding in translation, I wonder what it might be like in the original.) Children are amazing creatures who can drink in language, and get all the sounds and rhythms and connections in an enviable way.

    • Todd Underwood says:

      I completely agree. One of the things that I'd like to have is better recommendations for Childrens' books that are originally written in Spanish. I'd love to read my kids native books in their native language (even if that means that there are some treasures that they only get from their mother). But in order to do that, I need at least 2 or 3 thousand good childrens' books in Spanish. Thoughts?

      • Liznwyrk says:

        Oye Celia by Katie Sciurba is a wonderful picture book about salsa music and Celia Cruz written in English with many Spanish words. The rhythm and pacing is exceptional and it makes a great read aloud.

  2. Amy Meckler says:

    In a workshop for Sign Language interpreters, we had to interpret “Jabberwocky.” It was ridiculously difficult. I think knowing a second (or third) language gives you more respect for your first language, and language in general, because you can see how it works–no longer does it seem inevitable, but rather, a constructed and reconstructed cultural artifact. Just one of many equally arbitrary ways of expressing thought. You see the workings behind the curtain, the strings on Peter Pan.

  3. adammenendez says:

    Thanks for the great read, Todd – much more fun than reading Dr. Seuss in either English or Spanish!

  4. This is great. It expresses something I've been noticing since I've been trying to learn Spanish. There are so few books for small children that translate well. I was hoping to find some to read to my daughter to help us both learn Spanish. Thanks for crystallizing the issue so well.

  5. JK says:

    The cruelty to the cat by a young child — or anyone — is NOT funny.

    • The humor in that cartoon is not about the cruelty to the cat, but rather the juxtaposition of something horrible being said in a context (Family Circus) known for its fluffy naivete.

      • JK says:

        On, well then, ha ha ha! It's NOT funny, no matter how it's intended. I'm not stupid, but I recognize what's sick when I see it. If you think sick is funny, that's your problem — and unfortunately you have lots of company. Healthy humor does require a bit more intelligence than dirty, sick humor but I think it's well worth it.

        • I love cats, and I chose that image to be used in this piece. You have the right to say it's not funny, but nobody is going to bring harm to any animals because that cartoon appeared here.

          • JK says:

            The harm comes to the souls of those that think, or are told they should think, it's funny, especially those of children. We have responsibility to others, not just ourselves and our own interests. Sickness can be of the soul and spirit as well as the body. Fostering it hurts sensitivity, something that is becoming less common because of the sicknesses in our world and the way many people raise their children. People who do harm animals have more damaged souls than most of us. It's been recognized that harming animals is a sign of potential for harming vulnerable people as well. People who think it's funny have taken a step in that same direction. That comic is not funny to anyone with healthy sensitivity. I'll tell you who comes to mind when I see something like that: some of the prison inmates I used to teach. They would have thought that was very funny, whether or not they “got” the “humor' of the juxtaposition.

          • The joke isn't about cats at all. It's a comment on naive, whitewashed depictions of family, children, and life in general. Family Circus portrays a non-existent, wholesome world in which disturbing issues like cruelty to animals or the sadism of children simply doesn't exist. Denying the complex realities of human nature by taking refuge in fluffy escapism can be its own kind of soul-sickness.

            This cartoon is part of a series called the “Family Circus Redemption Project.” For those of us who grew up hating the original Family Circus for its insipid insistence that children are always adorable and that all is good in the world, it can be satisfying to see that particular fragile reality shattered by the introduction of disturbing elements from real life. The joke here is about the relationship between life and art; it has nothing to do with cats. The artist is implicitly recognizing the horror of what's being described; that's why he's using it, because it's so horrible.

            If you think that the reference to a disturbing act, separate from the act to which it refers, is a problem in itself, then you might enjoy the original, unsullied Family Circus cartoons, whose value was essentially that they never contained even the vaguest implication that there was anything unpleasant going on anywhere.

          • JK says:

            I have left Family Circus and Dr. Seuss out of this because I don't think either are relevant. As a teacher who is particularly concerned about the demise of our language, I counsel parents to avoid Dr. Seuss. Besides making a mockery of language, he does, in spite of his avowal to the contrary, moralize . Children who are brought up without that and other poor influences on language, such as television and baby einstein, tend to be better writers and less likely to engage in any of the cartoonish characterizations and caricatures in our world. I can't imagine anyone being so concerned about the real-life quality of a comic strip that one would think it necessary to portray cruelty in any form as a means of objection, let alone humor.

          • debcha says:

            Children who are brought up without that and other poor influences on language, such as television and baby einstein, tend to be better writers and less likely to engage in any of the cartoonish characterizations and caricatures in our world.

            Can you please provide a reference to a study that substantiates this assertion?

          • JK says:

            I'm not sure what assertion(s) you want substantiated.
            The effects of television and baby einstein are researched and documented:
            The effects of time spent with Dr. Seuss is my own observation and experience, as well as that of other educators, but you might find the following articles interesting:
            By the way, if you're looking for something realistic, you sure won't find it in Dr. Seuss. As the second articles notes, we used to read our children real literature and that is what leads to good vocabulary, comprehension, moral development, and a good general education.

          • debcha says:

            Your assertions:

            i) Children who are brought up without Dr Seuss and television 'tend to be better writers.'

            ii) Children who are brought up without Dr Seuss and television 'tend to be less likely to engage in any of the cartoonish characterizations and caricatures in our world.'

            (and just added)

            iii) [Real literature] leads to good vocabulary, comprehension, moral development, and a good general education.

            The studies that are cited in the Time article address the effects of television on some specific aspects of cognitive development (such as language acquisition), but not on what you assert. Also, the latter two links that you provided are editorial in nature, not experimental research.

            I understand that you hold these opinions. If you wish to assert them as fact, however, you need to provide evidence (such as scientific studies comparing the writing ability of individuals who were or were not exposed to Dr Seuss as children) to support your case.

          • JK says:

            Yes, that's what I said, except that an observation is more than an opinion. You are trying to make it sound as if I included the latter articles as research. I clearly stated that the Time articles were about research and the others were observations: The effects of time spent with Dr. Seuss is my own observation and experience, as well as that of other educators, but “you might find the following articles interesting.” Your reply seems to mimic mine and I don't see how it adds or changes anything that I said. To my knowledge, nobody has done any actual research on Dr. Suess but he is part of our pop culture and that is generally agreed to be degrading more than our use of language.

          • “I have left Family Circus and Dr. Seuss out of this because I don't think either are relevant.”

            That's a bit of a stretch, considering that we're having this discussion on a web page that exists for the purpose of presenting an essay about Dr. Seuss, and the cartoon was chosen specifically in order to go along with that essay. Context really does matter.

            “I can't imagine anyone being so concerned about the real-life quality of a comic strip that one would think it necessary to portray cruelty in any form as a means of objection, let alone humor.”

            Hard as it may be for you to imagine, that's what is going on in that cartoon. I understood it right away, but then, I learned to read with Dr. Seuss, so my mind has been warped.

            Watch out for that Lewis Carroll; Jabberwocky is a doozy.

          • JK says:

            I realize that's what is going on, which confirms what I have said: The sad state of our pop culture leads people to concern about a comic strip because it's not real (as if any are) and the response is ugliness that also isn't real. Dr. Seuss is also not real and is ugly besides. You are correct, reality is one of the many things lost by Dr. Seuss and his admirers. Context is not everything. If you harm a soul, it's harmed, no matter in what the context. Ugliness is ugly, cruelty is cruel, and degrading is degrading. If I decide to steal something to make a statement or because I think it's funny, it's still immoral. My comment is that the statement is cruel and it doesn't matter where it's made. That's the point you seem to be missing, although possibly intentionally.
            Also, it's hard to give up our childhood and what we accepted at the time as true will carry on in and through us unless we are able to see it more objectively, which is rare. It is the unfortunate norm for parents to share their childhood with their children without regard to its actual value and to buy into commercial claims without regard to the reality behind them. They take it personally when unfavorable comments are made and can't see the objective points through their nostalgia. I have not meant to offend you, even though your “humor” is offensive to any sensitive soul, especially those of children.

          • “My comment is that the statement is cruel and it doesn't matter where it's made. That's the point you seem to be missing, although possibly intentionally.”

            I'm not missing it; I just don't agree. Then again, I also don't subscribe to the model of malleable souls that you're taking as a given.

            Also, the cartoon above that has you so upset is not directed at children. It's directed at adults who are familiar with Family Circus. I suppose that a particularly sensitive adult might still be traumatized by that cartoon, even if they did understand the context, but that's rather difficult for me to get worked up about.

            Certainly, Dr. Seuss stories are not realistic, nor are they meant to be. Neither are the Greek myths, or the legends of Camelot, or any number of popular and influential stories that have been told in various cultures since the dawn of civilization. You talk about reading children “real literature,” but surely some of the literature you have in mind involves some kind of magic, or talking animals, or something that could not happen in real life. People need metaphor and fantasy to contemplate abstract concepts, to hone their imaginations, and for a host of other reasons. And in my view, the very notion that we have “souls” that can be “damaged” is ultimately just another such story. Like “The Cat In The Hat,” the story of “souls” is a story that resonates with a great many people, but it's ultimately important to separate the comfort and joy we find therein from the reality in which we live.

            Above, you say “To my knowledge, nobody has done any actual research on Dr. Seuss,” and that is far from the truth; a number of books and articles have been written about him; some are academic works. Seuss also had an extensive career outside of children's books, so quite a bit is known about him, his points of view, and his philosophy of art and language. His wikipedia page is a good starting point for such stuff, of course, although I'm sure you're not interested. You also say that Seuss “does, in spite of his avowal to the contrary, moralize,” and he certainly does moralize, but I can't imagine him avowing to the contrary. The Lorax, for example, is plainly about environmentalism. The Butter Battle Book is plainly about war. Oh The Places You'll Go is about the value of self-esteem. Green Eggs And Ham is about keeping an open mind, etc.

          • aliciamaud74 says:

            My own experience and observations as a teacher point to the fact that children in language-rich environments (which, yes, may include Dr. Seuss, and should ABSOLUTELY include HUMOR), who learn that one purpose of language is *play,* tend to be very free and creative writers, willing to experiment, and eager to find the *fun* in writing as a form of expression. On the contrary, students who learn to valourize a very limited array of texts tend to see the process of writing as a method for producing grammatically correct, tepid, and soulless text, and those are the papers it's really crushing to read.

            A further purpose of story is framing out lessons and teaching people, particularly the young, but certainly not exclusively, what we value as a culture and society. So, I don't really *get* the objection to Seuss on the grounds that he “moralizes.” Inherent in any book for children are lessons and opportunity for reflection, and though they often seem like heavy-handed lessons when viewed through adult eyes, I'm unconvinced that children experience them that way, or that it's necessarily problematic if they do.

            I also think it's important to note that–as proven by the Family Circus cartoon–different people have vastly different experiences of different texts. (I, for one, found that pretty funny, and my cat is not at all in harm's way.) Not all kids find Seuss engaging and hilarious, but some do. I think the possibility of joy and laughter that comes with a child engaging with a book they love and find funny–the literal and literary worlds that opens up for them—far outweighs the threat of “degradation” of language presented by Seuss.

            If my nephew giggles his way through a book, delighting in the sound and cadence of words, I'll reread the book to him over and over, even at the risk of him thinking “wocket” is a real word for a day or two.

  6. Jimsass says:

    get jim to kiss your ass

  7. […] Eggs and Ham (Huevos verdes con jamón) is not quite the same when translated to Spanish. Check out this blog to read just how hard it can be to translate Dr. Suess books. Sam-I-Am becomes Juan Ramon, but […]

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The Author

Todd Underwood

Todd Underwood is a computer geek who works on a variety of large scale systems. He has done work on Internet routing and large scale supercomputers as well as more pedestrian stuff, like making sure your mail gets to you. Language, culture and technology all fascinate him. He has a BA in Philosophy from Columbia University and an MS in Computer Science from University of New Mexico. He lives in Pittsburgh, PA.

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