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8. The language of puns, wit and agudeza: the comical and the satirical as markers of the boundary between the translatable and the untranslatable


b) The pun after its ghosts

In The Frogs, Aristophanes imagines that when Euripides descends to the Underworld, he must cross a pond full of frogs which, on seeing him, utter: "brekekex koax koax". This is the very first use of onomatopy with parodistic aims, in the history of literature. In fact, in this case, Aristophanes, "the critic of the Sophists", clearly wants to connote the long ‘harangues’ of the Euripidean characters as nonsense tongue-twisters. Therefore, parodistically, instead of placing himself in a ‘high’ perspective (the poetic contest, and the oratory challenge, so fashionable in his times), he chooses to lower the point of view to a subhuman level. In this case, the parody involves an overturning of linguistic planes.

A contrasting case characterizes the beginning of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, where the protagonist is created while his father criticizes his wife for her carelessness in winding the household clocks. This carelessness means that Tristan is conceived as a ‘comment’, ‘outside time’. In an age like that of Enlightenment, which was obsessed with time, a symbol of human evolution, comparing this parodistic distortion of what John Donne says regarding the "tolls of the Eternal" with the sex act seems a philosophical derision of the Encylopaedists.

A third case develops an intermediate point of view between these two total reversals, in the pun. Today, Alfred Jarry is only known for King Ubu, and yet his most brilliant work is not this monstrous theatrical scatology, but that manifest of "paraphysics", Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, where even the protagonist’s name states the author’s intention to overturn the Faustian legend in the vain attempt by an intellectual midget (troll) to climb to a higher level. Jarry calls this climb, ‘paraphysics’, because it brings one proposition alongside (parà, in Greek) another, without ever being able to achieve a synthesis. No other work has brought the expressive possibility of linguistic structures so close to its extreme limits. Jarry deconstructs and recomposes the phonemes, creates associations in burlesque rhymes and above all distorts any faculty of the language to imply ‘actions’. Faustroll points out, precisely defines and examines, but the only character that acts is his gigantic ape, which merely interjects in his learned discourse with a repeated "ah, ah!".

For a translator, the above three cases - within the context of the parody of the sign - involve a dual procedure: on the one hand, an assimilation of the rules strongly denied by the parodist; and on the other, the translation of their polemical potentialities into the target culture. It therefore concerns identifying the ‘polemical’ idola of one’s own time, and adopting their stereotypes and repeating them until reversing their sign. In the case of Aristophanes, the procedure is facilitated by the playwright’s mythopoetic ability; in fact, after him, the association between the frogs and popular belief became proverbial: one only has to consider Leopardi’s Paralipomeni della Batracomiomachia. Sterne’s case is more subtle: if a translator were to stage Tristram’s father while copulating before the console of his computer, distracted by reading his e-mails, this would certainly be a misuse, but would make the parody a system of thought, and not a phenomenon of literary history. For Jarry, the only rule is that of borrowing the dissociated language of the autistic, bearing in mind that in similar parodistic operations of elegant rhetoric, a ‘private’ grammar, all the stricter the more it remains hidden, must be created. Knowledge of children’s nursery and nonsense rhymes will be of considerable help to the translator.