The Pooh-Bear Effect

Yin day, when Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh and Wee Grumphie were aw haein a crack thegither, Christopher Robin said lichtsomely, “I saw a Huffalamp, the-day, Wee Grumphie.”
“Whit wis it daein?” spiered Wee Grumphie.
“Jist lampin alang,” said Christopher Robin. “I dinna think it saw me.”

This afternoon my mother and I were listening to some radio station or other and we came across the news that Winnie the Pooh has been translated into the Scots language.  What’s more, there seems to be a great proliferation of articles on this all over the web.  This is important because the Scots language, usually one sorely lacking in any type of publicity or awareness, has now been relatively catapulted into general perception.  Some of the articles seem to anticipate this work as a forthcoming dark horse which will become a runaway bestseller, storming the charts, which may be going a bit far.

On the other hand, Winnie Ille Puh, the Latin translation of the first book, was the first foreign-language book ever to appear on the New York Times Bestseller List (in 1960), which is quite impressive considering it was written is what is clearly not such a dead language after all – so maybe there is something in it.  After all, there is a surprisingly large market catering to weird people (like me) who buy works, generally children’s books such as Harry Potter, in minority languages like Welsh or Irish Gaelic.  The intention is to publicise the language’s existence and provide engaging material to encourage usage of the language by children, whose enthuasiasm, or lack of it, will after all determine whether the language lives or dies in the coming generations.  In this sense this (which we might and I have called the Pooh-Bear effect) is a very good trend.

In another sense, of course, it’s highly damaging, as the plethora of translated fiction in these languages is often matched by a dearth of works written in them originally, and can actually contribute to them becoming thought of as museum pieces lacking a distinct culture, creaking and useless, and therefore not worth defending.  A rather hideous example from Scots given on Wikipedia demonstrates a typical attitude to these sorts of languages: “Write a poem in Scots. (It is important not to be worried about spelling in this – write as you hear the sounds in your head.)

Another reason this whole story interested me was that during the interview with James Robertson, he defended himself well against the interviewer’s accusations that he had “taken liberties” with the original text, particularly as regards the songs.  This is an obvious point, really, considering the number of little songs in the Winnie-the-Pooh cannon, and as Robertson pointed out, the “whenever it snows, tiddley-pom” rhyme works well until you change ‘snows’ to ‘snaws’.  It is often very difficult for non-linguists to realise that translation is more than just a word-to-word correspondence, and people often think that if you speak a language, you can translate into or from it, which is simply not the case.  But that’s a rant for another day.  What Robertson also said was the he found the characters took on different personas in Scots: Christopher Robin became less “wimpy”, as he put it, as Eeyore (or Hee-haw) became more thoroughly pessimistic.  This put me in mind of the way I become a different person when I speak a different language.  But that, again, is something for another day.

Of course, as an Orientalist, the other thing that crossed my mind was if an Arabic translation of Winne the Pooh existed.  As it turns out, it doesn’t, although searching for ويني الدبدوب reveals that he is known in the Arab world, even though it’s only in the form of a Disney character.  This rather unfortunate inversion of the way things should be, in my opinion.  Perhaps my summer project should be to translate Winnie the Pooh into Arabic…?


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