Thursday, July 30, 2015

Belling the Cat: Another Fable of Aesop That Still Speaks Today

A week or two ago I received an interesting email from my daughter Christina regarding a book about translating poetry into different languages. The book's premises revolve around a French poem called "A une Damoyselle malade" by Clement Marot. My daughter wrote that "it's a cute little poem that is 28 lines long, each line has 3 syllables with the stress on the final syllable, and it's a string of rhyming couplets (AA, BB, CC...)" The author, Douglas Hofstadter, made a challenge to his translator friends to try to translate the poem and keep as many of these constraints as possible, and keep the same sort of vibe as the original poem, which is light hearted and sweet. She then shared the poem  with me and some of the translations she liked best because she thought I'd find them interesting. Which I did.

This came to mind because last night I was looking for a good translation of Aesop's fable titled Belling the Cat. When we were growing up I doubt there were many of us who ever considered that we were not reading Aesop's Fables in the original language, that these stories and many others we read as kids -- such as Grimm's Fairy Tales -- were originally conceived in some other language that may have had more nuanced connotations at times.

For example, in the 1990's my story "Terrorists Preying" was translated into French by a student working on his Master's degree. At the end of the project he contacted me regarding the challenge of translating the title, which in English conveys a bit of word play that gets lost in translation.

In my email exchange with Christina she shared a several versions of the poem with me. The first was quite literal, but missed all the emotional weight and came across flat. The others took liberties and were much improved.

I decided to share two versions of the fable in part to show how different they can be. I like the telling of the tale better in the second one, but I like the wording of the story's moral better in the first. In either case, you can easily get the message.You can find this first version here at

Belling the Cat

The Mice once called a meeting to decide on a plan to free themselves of their enemy, the Cat. At least they wished to find some way of knowing when she was coming, so they might have time to run away. Indeed, something had to be done, for they lived in such constant fear of her claws that they hardly dared stir from their dens by night or day.

Many plans were discussed, but none of them was thought good enough. At last a very young Mouse got up and said:

"I have a plan that seems very simple, but I know it will be successful. All we have to do is to hang a bell about the Cat's neck. When we hear the bell ringing we will know immediately that our enemy is coming."

All the Mice were much surprised that they had not thought of such a plan before. But in the midst of the rejoicing over their good fortune, an old Mouse arose and said:

"I will say that the plan of the young Mouse is very good. But let me ask one question: Who will bell the Cat?"

It is one thing to say that something should be done, but quite a different matter to do it.

* * * *

Here's version two from the Harvard Classics.

Belling the Cat

LONG ago, the mice had a general council to consider what measures they could take to outwit their common enemy, the Cat. Some said this, and some said that; but at last a young mouse got up and said he had a proposal to make, which he thought would meet the case. “You will all agree,” said he, “that our chief danger consists in the sly and treacherous manner in which the enemy approaches us. Now, if we could receive some signal of her approach, we could easily escape from her. I venture, therefore, to propose that a small bell be procured, and attached by a ribbon round the neck of the Cat. By this means we should always know when she was about, and could easily retire while she was in the neighbourhood.”

This proposal met with general applause, until an old mouse got up and said: “That is all very well, but who is to bell the Cat?” The mice looked at one another and nobody spoke. Then the old mouse said: “IT IS EASY TO PROPOSE IMPOSSIBLE REMEDIES.”

* * * *

Whether you prefer one over the other, both illustrate perfectly one of my favorite maxims: "Everything is easy for the one who doesn't have to do it."

EdNote: For another blog post dealing with translating poetry visit my page on Rilke's The Panther

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