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.