Constrained Writing


In 1996 I first heard about a book written without the letter E (Gadsby, by Wright, published 1939). Then a couple of years later I met a French colleague and was telling him about my comic book in French that exclusively uses French-English cognates and one new French word per page. It reminded him of constrained writing, particularly “lipograms”, and he introduced me to the work of Georges Perec, who wrote various works with or without certain vowels. We exchanged DNA poetry. More recently I dabbled in pilish, adding the constraint of writing in haiku verses.

A recent blog post about OULIPO reminded me about my fascination with such things.

The experience of writing my comic in French is quite different to my dabblings in German and Dutch, due to the differences in cognates (similar looking words with similar meaning) in the different languages.  In French it is hard to generate much text initially, but there is soon an abundance of identically spelt nouns, adjectives and verbs (albeit with slightly different endings).  In Dutch and to a lesser extent in German it is possible to write 20-odd words of meaningful text entirely using exact cognates.  But eventually you hit a wall where there are not many verbs to work with.  I’m still figuring out how to get past that wall before I commit to drawing the (publishable) artwork for and publishing a first episode in those languages.


Green Eggs and Ham


Continuing my articles on easy readers, today’s post is dedicated to Dr Seuss.  His first constrained vocabulary book was The Cat in the Hat, which was released in 1957.  It had a vocabulary of 236 words (though other sources state slightly different numbers) , and yet was entertaining.  Dr Seuss then went on to write other books with a reduced vocabulary, including Green Eggs and Ham, which has only 50 different words.  Wikipedia lists the words used as: a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.

These books are truly brilliant, in that they make children want to keep reading, while being easy for them to read.  A 50 word vocabulary is an amazing achievement.

Green Eggs and Ham has been translated into many languages.  We have a copy in Italian: “Prosciutto e uova verdi”.  However, once translated, the number of distinct words increased to about 127.  A translator has to somehow convey the original story as well as the rhyme and rhythm.  I’m not sure if the translator considered the goal of using the smallest vocabulary possible, as 127 for a text length of 620 words seems quite high.

I’m reminded of a section in the book “Gödel, Escher, Bach: an eternal golden braid” by Douglas Hofstadter, which looks at German and French translations of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky poem.  The original has many made-up words that hint at meanings due to their phonetic similarity to other words.  For example “slithy” hints at “slimy” and “slither”, among other words.  It is translated to “lubricilleux” in the French and “schlichten” in the German version.  Combining made-up words with rhyme and meter makes it a very difficult translation challenge.

But back to easy readers.  While it may be useful to translate an easy reader to another language – particularly when they are as entertaining as those of Dr Seuss –  I think the best work can be achieved by exploiting the quirks of the original language.  Design your easy reader for your specific target language.