Ad-Dressing the Playful Translation of Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”


T.S. Eliot’s celebrated collection of poems Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) is a widely recognised work which has gained public renown due to its adaptation as the acclaimed musical Cats, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber (1981). Just as an adaptation involves a profoundly creative and interpretive act, so does translation proper from one language into another. In that respect, in the last few years, there has been a growing interest in Eliot’s Practical Cats in the Spanish market, as several new editions are being published. In this paper, I propose to analyse the reception of Eliot’s Practical Cats in Spain, comparing several translations and examining potential differences. For this purpose, there will be an exploration of poetic language and the creative process behind its translation into Spanish, treating translation as a creative process which implies interpretation, and sometimes even rewriting or transcreation. Though it may be regarded as a mere poetry collection for children, Eliot’s verses prove to be rather challenging for the translator, as they rely on nursery rhyme and nonsense poetry, with the poet inventing nonsense words which play with the sound patterns of language. The poems are, moreover, very musical, due to their repetitive structure, heavy rhymes, and strong rhythm. Further, Eliot plays with the metre in the poems when there is a change of speaker. This examination, then, will allow us to perceive the manner in which translation attempts to (re)present the whimsical mood and playful language of the source text for the target culture

Le célèbre recueil de poèmes Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) de T. S. Eliot est une œuvre largement reconnue qui a gagné en notoriété grâce à son adaptation sous la forme de la célèbre comédie musicale « Cats », écrite par Andrew Lloyd Webber (1981). Tout comme une adaptation implique un acte profondément créatif et interprétatif, la traduction proprement dite d’une langue vers une autre l’est également. À cet égard, le Practical Cats d’Eliot a suscité ces dernières années un intérêt croissant sur le marché espagnol, avec la publication de plusieurs nouvelles éditions. Dans cet article, je me propose d’analyser la réception de Practical Cats d’Eliot en Espagne, en comparant plusieurs traductions et en examinant les différences potentielles. Pour ce faire, il y aura une exploration du langage poétique et du processus créatif derrière sa traduction en espagnol, en traitant la traduction comme un processus créatif qui implique l’interprétation, et parfois même la réécriture ou la transcréation. Bien qu’ils puissent être considérés comme un simple recueil de poèmes pour enfants, les vers d’Eliot s’avèrent plutôt difficiles pour le traducteur car ils s’appuient sur des comptines et des poèmes absurdes, le poète inventant des mots absurdes qui jouent avec les schémas sonores de la langue. Les poèmes sont en outre très musicaux, en raison de leur structure répétitive, de leurs rimes lourdes et de leur rythme soutenu. En outre, Eliot joue avec le mètre dans les poèmes lorsqu’il y a un changement de locuteur. Cet examen nous permettra donc de percevoir la manière dont la traduction tente de (re)présenter l’humeur fantaisiste et le langage ludique du texte source pour la culture ciblée.


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Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is a collection of poems for children written by T. S. Eliot. Since its first publication in 1939 with cover illustrations by Eliot himself, the book has been constantly present on the stage and in illustrated editions. Edited several times accompanied by artworks by different artists, such as Nicolas Bentley (1940), Edward Gorey (1982) or Axel Scheffler (2009), it would be its adaptation as an accoladed musical written by Andrew Lloyd Webber (1981) which gave a huge popularity to these whimsical poems about the feline world. Though it may be regarded as a mere poetry collection for children, Eliot’s verses prove to be rather challenging for the potential translator, as they rely on nursery rhyme and nonsense poetry. The poems are, moreover, very musical, due to their repetitive structure, heavy rhymes, and strong rhythm. Further, Eliot plays with the metre in the poems when there is a change of speaker, as shall briefly be seen, not to mention the cultural dimensions and humour of the poems, which are likewise of great relevance.

Just as an adaptation involves a profoundly creative and interpretive act, so does translation proper from one language into another. Interestingly, poets, more than translators or linguists, have been the ones to point out that translation is an act that requires creativity from the translator. As the poet Octavio Paz said, “[t]ranslation and creation are twin processes” (qtd. in Bassnett 51). The translator is a creator, who produces an artistic text in a parallel process to the writing of the original poem, creating, therefore, a new text. As his work as a translator demonstrates, Jorge Luis Borges agreed on the creativity of poetry translations or rewriting, just as Umberto Eco, who argues that translation necessarily entails a process of creation by interpreting and reorganizing what is being translated, as he concludes in his book Experiences in Translation (2008). The translation of a poem, as a result, becomes a poem in its own right, as this paper will illustrate. For that reason, the purpose of this article is to delve into the difficulties and challenges posed for the translator in Eliot’s Practical Cats by drawing examples from the two currently available editions published in Spain in order to observe the creative process behind the translation of light verse.

The following sections will consider Eliot’s most salient characteristics in his feline poems so as to enable us to grasp the complexities behind the poet’s jocular language and the daunting choices of adaptation they open for translators. These key elements will be examined in the context of the two aforementioned translations. This will allow us to directly compare and see if translators apply different approaches to the translation of proper names, culture-bound elements, along with Eliot’s playful language. As it happens, given Eliot’s status and relevance in the literary canon, it is quite significant to note that only two translations are currently available in the Spanish market. While there are multiple editions of his works available in the Spanish market, some of them very recent, this poetry collection has mainly gone unnoticed until the twenty-first century.

For the purposes of this article, the focus will be on two Spanish translations. The first one was translated by Regla Ortiz and published without illustrations in 2001 by Pre-Textos, targeted at adults. The second edition is by Spanish award-winning author and poet Juan Bonilla, published in 2017 by Nordica with illustrations by Edward Gorey. As Cristina-Mihaela Botîlcă explains, “the source-text is immortal, only the translation can age and must be replaced with a fresh one” (144), hence the need to publish new translations of the same source text. Since the translator is influenced by several factors, including their sociocultural context, some differences will be observed between Ortiz (2001) and Bonilla’s (2017) final texts, for different in time translates into different translation strategies.

Several of the elements discussed in the following sections might ask for cultural transplantation, and translators may struggle to find equivalents to the numerous cultural elements in Eliot’s poems, as the English and Spanish culture may differ in various aspects. In that sense, translators may decide to transplant the cultural elements of the source text into the culture of the target text, instead of merely translating word to word. Translators may follow Friedrich Schleiermacher’s advice that “Either the translator leaves the author in peace, as much as possible, and moves the reader towards him; or he leaves the reader in peace, as much as possible, and moves the author towards him” (74). For that reason, it is especially significant to observe how the different translations of Eliot’s collection of poems have dealt with names, apart from cultural references, idioms, colloquialisms, or refrains. As Practical Cats was originally meant for children, but equally enjoyed by adult audiences, the translator must bear in mind the playful tone of the poems, as well as the style, which should sound acceptable and convincing to the reader, besides the content itself.

In that respect, it is important to consider a few aspects regarding translation and its acceptability.  In The Translator’s Invisibility Venuti (1) discusses what people consider as an acceptable translation and states that for most an acceptable translation is the one which can be read fluently, as fluently as an original text, that is to say, without any marked characteristics which would render the translation process noticeable. In this sense, Venuti distinguishes between two main types of translation strategies: through a domesticating practice or through a foreignizing practice. While the former advocates for rendering the target text as close to the target culture and language as possible, and, thus, losing features of the source language and culture, the latter favours preserving the information from the source text, retaining those foreign features whenever possible.

It will be examined, then, to what extent Spanish translators have created a new product, as when there are no equivalents in the target language or culture, or if a process of transcreation has taken place. Through transcreation, a translator produces a final product which manages to achieve a similar effect on the target audience, by appropriating a work and making it almost their own. Furthermore, it is always extremely important consider the target audience of a text, most especially in this case, as this collection of poetry is mainly targeted at children. What is more, Göte Klingberg (95-96) argues that furthering children’s international understanding is one of the main goals of translating children’s literature. Hence, a complete adaptation of all culture-bound elements in a text will not provide such awareness. Engaging with previous work on Eliot’s poetic language in Practical Cats such as those by Dorothy Dodge Robbins, (2013), Paul Douglass (1983), and Sarah Bay-Cheng (2014), this article aims to claim its due attention to this wondrous collection of poetry by offering a new perspective into Eliot’s poetic inventiveness and the creative work behind its potential translation into a different language and culture by providing the counterparts of key elements in Eliot’s poems in their Spanish translation.

  1. Eliot’s Playfulness in Practical Cats

There is a tendency in scholarly work to focus on the seriousness of Eliot’s poetry and prose so much that we might be tempted to forget that he had a humorous side as well. W. H. Auden pointed that out when he said:

In Eliot the critic, as in Eliot the man, there is a lot, to be sure, of a conscientious church-warden, but there was also a twelve-year-old boy, who likes to surprise over-solemn wigs by offering them explosive cigars, or cushions which fart when sat upon. It is this practical joker who suddenly interrupts the church-warden to remark that Milton or Goethe are no good” (qtd. in Ricks and McCue 39).

It is when he writes for children that this ludicrous aspect of Eliot’s may be better glimpsed, as he adored both children and cats. There is a lot of action taking place in his Practical Cats, for these felines, just as their creator, are very playful and they are always in the midst of some mess or adventure. These are cats who love performing, dancing, conducting trains, stealing, among other – very human – activities.

As a cat-enthusiast, the way in which Eliot portrays his feline characters and how he writes about them proves to be extremely cheerful. In Bay-Cheng’s words, these are indeed “poems that revel in the pleasures of play” (31). The content of the poems is lively, and Eliot also uses language itself in a playful manner. For that purpose, the poet employs whimsical rhymes coupled with refrains. Besides, the English language featured in these verses, especially as regards vocabulary and structure, reminds readers of the language from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, even though Eliot wrote and published these poems in the 1930s.

Furthermore, Practical Cats is an interesting example to examine the relevance of popular culture in Eliot’s works. John Sutherland explains that Eliot resorts to two main traditions of children’s verse, namely nonsense poetry and nursery rhymes. The Waste Land (1922) had already demonstrated the poet’s inclination towards children’s rhyme, as his use of the line from the famous nursery rhyme “London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down” attests. Practical Cats as a poetry collection features different qualities which evoke children’s traditional verse in its employment of strong rhythms and rhymes. As such, these verses present numerous witty rhymes and puns, as well as heavily relying on the repetition of structures, words, and catch phrases. All these characteristics lead to an easy memorisation of Eliot’s lines, besides adding a singsong quality to the poems, all of which favours its adaptation to music. As a matter of fact, such aspects would be exploited by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber in his musical production of Cats. If one hears the poems in Practical Cats read aloud – as in Eliot’s recording of his reading of the collection –, it is impossible to overpass the musicality in Eliot’s lines. For that very reason, in 1954 British composer Alan Rawsthorne decided to choose six poems in the collection to set them to music. Later, Lloyd Webber (qtd. in Riedel 281) admitted that Eliot’s poems had song lyrics qualities, evoking the songs which were popular in the poet’s own time. Eliot’s use of a very expressive rhythm and rhyme, at times even internal, may hinder the translator’s task.

As Fernando Ortiz, a Spanish poet and father of the translator, says in his prologue to the edition, Ortiz successfully translated these poems with rhythm, in most cases maintaining the rhymes, even internal, of the source text, in addition to preserving Eliot’s sense of humour. For his part, Bonilla explains in his notes to the edition how he had already published his translation as versions or adaptations of Eliot’s Practical Cats, since the publishing house did not have the rights to market a Spanish translation of the book. His poems, revised in this edition, are, therefore, full of liberties, for he emphasises the importance of the target audience, i.e., children, adapting rhyme and rhythm for that purpose. In order to examine rhythm and rhyme in the Spanish translations, we will look into a couple of brief examples to see how translators adapt Eliot’s poetical language. An illustrative case in point is the first poem of the collection, “The Naming of Cats”, a short poem with a very strong rhythm. As Ajtony argues, “[m]ost poems in the volume use […] four-beat lines; Eliot’s fondest were the dactyls and the anapaests” (6). “The Naming of Cats” generally employs the dactylic tetrameter with an ABAB scheme rhyme:

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES. (Eliot, Practical Cats 1)

Ortiz retains the rhythm throughout her translation of the poem and strives to keep some rhymes whenever possible. The first four lines, in fact, closely resemble Eliot’s with the ABAB rhyme scheme, though the b rhyme is assonant. The rest of the poem, however, does not consistently maintain this rhyme, except for a few lines, especially at the end of the poem:

Ponerle nombre a un gato es harto complicado,
desde luego no es juego para los muy simplones.
Pueden pensar ustedes que estoy algo chiflado
cuando digo que al menos ha de tener tres nombres. (Ortiz 15)

Bonilla, for his part, retranslates the poem and adapts it to a common Spanish poetic form, the sonnet, with some playful modifications. His translation, thus, conforms to the format of the hendecasyllable with seven quatrains in total and a final quintain, instead of the typical two tercets in the original sonnet form, all this with an ABBA/CDDC rhyme scheme. In fact, the translator could be said to be more consistent about rhyming than Eliot, as he uses here a more standard rhyming scheme. In this manner, Bonilla succeeds in adapting Eliot’s strong rhyme in the poem while adapting it according to the Spanish poetic form conventions:

Ponerle nombre a un gato, no te asombres,
es cosa complicada y no banal.
Seguro que piensas que estoy muy mal,
pero es que un gato ha de tener tres nombres. (Bonilla 11)

Going back to nonsense poetry, it is clear that this type of poetry is extremely playful. Bay-Cheng indeed argues that Eliot’s “rhymes are often surprising and sometimes rely on invented words” (231). The poem “The Old Gumbie Cat” provides us with such an example, when Eliot writes, “She thinks that cockroaches just need employment / To prevent them from idle and wanton destroyment” (Eliot Practical Cats 13, my emphasis). In that sense, Eliot comes up with nonsense portmanteau words together with humorous invented terms which mainly rely on sound patterns to achieve playfulness. Illustrative examples of that are words such as “effanineffable”, “huffery-snuffery”, “Firefrorefiddle”, or cat names such as “Bombalurina”, “Jennyanydots”, “Rumpelteazer”, among others. As can be observed, these made-up words predominantly rely upon pronunciation or sound effects, displacing meaning to a second position. By way of further illustration, there are the famous terms “Pollicle Dogs” and “Jellicle Cats”, being the first a corruption of “poor little dogs”, while the latter of “dear little cats”.

When dealing with the inventiveness of Eliot’s language, the Spanish translators have, for the most part, also showed their creativity by inventing words and names, and by “helping the language in the source-text adapt better to the language in the target-text” (Botîlcă 145). As such, Ortiz translates “effanineffable” as “efaninefable” in a similar frisky manner to Eliot, playing with meaning and sound at the same time, while Bonilla translates it to “pronuncimpronunciable”, in a very similar way but changing the semantic root, primarily, from “ineffable” to “unpronounceable”, and underscoring, thus, the “p” sound whereas the English source word highlighted the “f” sound. Both Spanish words mainly convey the same meaning but employ different semantic roots. Moreover, translators put a strong emphasis on sound patterns and sound effects, as the two of them rely upon the repetition of a particular sound (f/p). Conversely, the terms “Pollicle Dogs” and “Jellicle Cats” are translated, respectively, to “pólicols” and “misimisis” by Ortiz, and to “pollicles” and “gatos melifluos” by Bonilla. While the word “pollicle dogs” loses all its reference and wordplay, the translation – or rather transcreation – of the term “Jellicle” is more ingenious: Ortiz plays with a popular nursery rhyme in Spanish (“misi gatito”), where “misi” is usually applied as a colloquial term to call cats. For his part, Bonilla employs a very sonorous word with the alliteration of the “l” sound and which translates to “soft, delicate, tender”, since its Latin origins associate the word with “honey”, probably in an attempt to imitate Eliot’s use of the term “jelly” in his “jellicle cats”.

Apart from the frequent wordplays, slang coupled with colloquialisms and idioms are common in this poetry collection. In a similar manner, translators have played with informal language in their texts to keep the humour and tone of the source poems. For instance, Ortiz calls “Gus, The Theatre Cat” perlético, a term used in Extremadura, or Bonilla’s “Cat Morgan” is a salao who enjoys pescaíto. In fact, the poem “Cat Morgan Introduces Himself” is a very interesting case to study the use of slang in Eliot and the translations. Both Ortiz and Bonilla offer transcreations of this poem, adapting Eliot’s linguistic characterisation of Cat Morgan to the Spanish language in very successful manners. Additionally, the poet employs italics and capitalisation throughout the poems in cases such as “The Naming of Cats” or, in this same poem, “THREE DIFFERENT NAMES”, besides using onomatopoeia, such as in “ker-flip, ker-flop” in “Growltiger’s Last Stand” or “bark bark bark bark” in “Of the Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles”. Translator Ortiz chooses to play with italics, capitalisation, and onomatopoeia as well, translating, for example, “ker-flip, ker-flop” to the Spanish equivalent “glup-glop”, while Bonilla usually keeps his distance from the employment of capital letters or onomatopoeia.

Further, in Eliot’s poems there is a strong psychological characterisation of the felines, who have names, descriptions, a particular habitat, and peculiar personalities. In line with his notion and use of the dramatic monologue in his works, the poet also employs metre so as to further characterise his felines, portraying different voices in his verses and resorting to a different type of poetry which identifies each character based on their memorable peculiarities. In that sense, metrical variation along with varying rhythms are used to establish the change of speakers: a cat is introduced through the narrative voice of the poet by employing a specific metre which is then varied when another character within the poem speaks. Consequently, Eliot chooses to represent voices by making use of different metres and positions of lines. As Bay-Cheng concludes, “Eliot do the cats in different voices” (232). As Douglass (117-118) observes, the rhythms of these poems are captivating, with a metrical flexibility evident in the varying beats, from the dactylic tetrameter to the iambic octameter. Many of the poems use a four-beat line, while the rest still maintain a four-beat rhythm. Despite that, each poem is unique in its development of rhythm and rhyme, presenting exciting structures that, regardless of their repetitions, are never identical.

Since the characterisation of voices through metrical and rhythm variation is such an important aspect of Eliot’s poems, it is interesting to observe how translators have dealt with this peculiarity in their Spanish translations. For that purpose, we will focus on the last verses in “Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer”, written in rhyming couplets, where there is change between the tetrameter of the narrator’s voice in the refrain, whose line positions also varies, and the exclamatory voice of the family, whose lines are longer:

 And when you heard a dining-room smash
Or up from the pantry there came a loud crash
Or down from the library came a loud ping
From a vase which was commonly said to be Ming—
Then the family would say: ‘Now which was which cat?
It was Mungojerrie! AND Rumpelteazer!’— And there’s nothing
at all to be done about that! (Eliot, Practical Cats 42).

For the most part, Ortiz preserves Eliot’s placement of lines and changing of rhythms to introduce different voices in the poems. As such, in the translation of the above lines in “Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer”, she keeps the rhyming couplets and alternates longer lines with shorter lines for the narrator’s voice, though she does not follow a strict metre:

Cuando en el comedor escuches, tras
o donde la despensa un sonoro cras
o de la biblioteca el fuerte ping
de una porcelana tenida por Ming.
Entonces la familia dice: “¿Quién habrá sido de ambos?
¡Fue Mangozipi Y Rampelzape!”: ¡Nada que hacer en estos casos!”. (Ortiz 39)

Bonilla also alternates stanzas with longer lines and refrains with shorter lines and features Eliot’s rhyming couplets. Yet, in his translation the family’s voice loses its exclamatory intonation and changing of metre. As can be here observed, there is no difference between the narrator’s voice and the family’s voice:

Cuando oyes en el comedor un golpe de repente
o en la despensa, arriba, hay algún accidente,
o allá abajo, desde la biblioteca, sube el ruido de algo que choca,
un jarrón, por ejemplo, que estaba hecho de roca,
entonces todo el mundo dirá: “¿Quién habrá sido?
Mungojerrie o Rumpelteazer”, y nada más dirán,
pues discutir carece de sentido. (Bonilla 32)

Hence, the translator does not recreate Eliot’s characterisation of voices, though he strives to keep the change of rhythm between stanzas and refrains.

  1. There’s how you ad-Dress a translation: Dealing with Culture-Bound Elements

This whimsical poetry collection is awash with cultural references, and one of the most important ones is the music hall tradition, as exemplified in the feline characters. Eliot created cats which are strongly influenced by the popular entertainment he relished. As such, the epitome of this source of inspiration can be traced in the thespian character of “Gus, The Theatre Cat”, since his stage career exemplifies the whole of Victorian theatre. Numerous hints at the theatrical entertainment of this era can be found in this poem: from Queen Victoria to the Victorian pantomime, from actors Sir Henry Irving and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree to the sensation novel East Lynne, or fictional characters such as Charles Dickens’ Little Nell. It is noteworthy that these references are for the most part kept in the Spanish translations, given that most are presumably unfamiliar to Spanish readers, most especially children. Nevertheless, Bonilla offers at points some transcreations in this poem, such as when he portrays Gus acting in Los últimos de Manila, a made-up name for a play referring to a Spanish historical event, instead of Eliot’s reference to East Lynne.

Another illustrative case is Bustopher Jones, reminiscent of the lion comique, a parody of the so-called “swells”, i.e., the rich and fashionable upper classes. Eliot describes Bustopher Jones as an “aristocratic” cat, as “the St. James’s Street Cat!” (Eliot Practical Cats 88), leading an idle life from pub to pub. He is, in fact, dubbed the “Brummell of Cats” (Eliot Practical Cats 90), an allusion to Beau Brummell, a very popular man of fashion in Regency England. Spanish translator Bonilla decides to keep this reference, though it might be lost on most readers, but Ortiz changed it for the more generalised term “dandy” to ensure comprehension. Most interestingly, though, Bonilla proposes his own transcreation, for he takes Bustopher Jones to Madrid’s glamourous Barrio de Salamanca, with references to private and religious educational centre La Salle and making him a proper Spanish pijo [posh] or even presents Morgan as the cat from Nordica, the publishing house which issued this translation. Similarly, Bonilla transcreates and actualises at some points Eliot’s poems, as when he makes the Jellicles dance hip-hop and tango, instead of a gavotte and a jig.

The allusions to the Victorian era are indeed frequent throughout the text. For instance, “The Old Gumbie Cat” teaches the mice “crocheting and tatting” (Eliot Practical Cats 8), words used in this meaning for the first time in the Victorian period, along with the term “hustle”. There are many additional cultural references to this period, as in “Old Deuteronomy”, who “was famous in proverb and famous in rhyme / A long while before Queen Victoria’s accession” (Eliot Practical Cats 43); or in “Macavity, The Mystery Cat”, with a nod to Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty or even Scotland Yard. There is a hint as well at Woolworth in the poem “Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer”, which is the name of the retailing company F. W. Woolworth opened in Britain in the Edwardian era, used here to designate low-priced goods, according to the OED (qtd. in Ricks and McCue 63). This very specific reference is completely omitted in both Spanish translations, meaning that the Spanish versions lose Eliot’s ironic connotation that the pearls stolen by the felines thieves are not high-quality products.

“Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer” is, moreover, a poem amply reflecting Victorian London geography: the cats live in Victoria Grove, built during the first decades of Victoria’s reign in Kensington; they are known in Cornwall Gardens, in South Kensington, developed as they are known today during the nineteenth century, and so forth. In fact, the geographical locations given in the poem refer to residential streets between Kensington Hight Street and Cromwell Road in London. In “Macavity, The Mystery Cat” there are again cultural references to London, with the name of Scotland Yard – an allusion to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes too –, and the Flying Squad, a branch of the Metropolitan Police founded in 1919 to investigate robberies. Despite the fact that some of them might not be easily identifiable for a young audience, most of these references are maintained in both Spanish translations, as a way to introduce readers into the British culture.

The city of London is, in fact, home to the numerous cats which inhabit this book, as most of the poems are set in the British capital, except for the poem “Skimbleshanks, The Railway Cat”, which takes place in a train to Scotland. This could lead us to consider Practical Cats as urban poetry, even if urban life is not the main location in the general children’s literature trend. The poems detail parts of London where these felines live: Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer in Victoria Grove, Bustopher Jones in St James Square, Cat Morgan in Bloomsbury. The city, thus, becomes the background of Eliot’s feline poems. As it happens, Aneesh Barai examined Eliot’s book as a means of “introducing children to the city” (3), portraying these felines as petits flâneurs, in line with Eliot’s previous poetry, whose peculiarities echo “Londoners’ own idiosyncratic behaviors and personalities”, in Dodge Robbin’s words (23).

When dealing with all these sociocultural and geographical references, translators must decide whether to keep them in their target texts or whether to implement a cultural transplantation, that is, to employ a domestication technique whereby the translation moves closer to the target audience. Some cultural elements in Eliot’s poems, indeed, might differ from the Spanish culture, which could hinder comprehension for the target audience or make it lose its humorous aspect if merely preserved. This is one of the first and most relevant decisions a translator must tackle when dealing with the translation of such a book. Interestingly, decades before the translations in the corpus of this article were published in Spain, French translator Jacques Charpentreau had already confronted this dilemma, and his words illustrate the adapting choices opened for the translators of this collection. In his preface, he also points to the importance of the location, especially the city of London, in these poems. Given the significance of the urban location, he decides to translate but also adapt and transplant the poems, so as to introduce French readers to the feline world in their own country and culture:

Les chats formant une aristocratie internationale, les amis des chats se retrouvant dans de nombreux pays francophones, il m’a semblé nécessaire non seulement de traduire ce savoureux manuel, mais de l’adapter à notre propre civilisation. Car nous avons aussi nos chats pirates comme Grostigré (ils ne hantent pas la Tamise, mais la Seine), nos chats mondains comme Florimond d’Orsay (ils ne fréquentent pas St James, mais les Champs-Élysées), nos chats voyageurs comme Roulifrotambole (ils ne roulent pas vers l’Écosse, mais vers la Côte d’Azur), etc. Il reste que L’art de s’adresser aux chats est le même partout et que les judicieux conseils de T. S. Eliot sont valables ici comme outre-Manche. (Charpentreau 6)

In the twenty-first century, Romanian translator Florin Bican culturally transplanted and retranslated Eliot’s collection of poems as well. Yet Spanish translators have opted to a large extent to retain all these geographical references to London in an attempt to introduce the Spanish audience to the British capital and familiarise the target audience with the foreign city. In this sense, Ortiz and Bonilla preserve the British cosmopolitan atmosphere of the feline poems, except for Bonilla’s Bustopher Jones, which is moved to Madrid, as has been explained.

Geographical locations also play an important role in “Growltiger’s Last Stand”, which describes the life of a “Bravo Cat” who terrorises the inhabitants along the river Thames, with numerous villages and cities mentioned in the poem by Eliot, from Oxford to Molesey or Gravesend. For that reason, translators resolved to maintain those references whenever possible, most especially Ortiz. This poem truly offers a view of the multicultural docks of the English river, citing the “Persian” and “Siamese” cats (Eliot Practical Cats 16), but, in addition, employing derogatory terms such as “Chinks”, referring to Siamese cats, or a “fierce Mongolian horde”. In fact, the poem raises some offensive remarks to Asian people, as Growltiger is portrayed as a bigoted feline who hates “Cats of foreign race” (Eliot Practical Cats 16). The poem’s conclusion links it to a cautionary tale, though, for this xenophobic cat will end up walking the plank himself, to the joy of his enemies. Translators have tended to generalise or omit the derogatory terms employed in the source poem. Thus, Bonilla merely omits both references while Ortiz directly translates the “fierce Mongolian horde” into “mongólica horda”, she skirts around the offensive term “Chinks”, generalising to “asiáticos” [Asian people].

What is more, the names of dishes and food listed in “The Ad-Dressing of Cats” are properly British: Strassburg pie, potted grouse, salmon paste, rabbit. There are at least thirteen pubs and clubs named throughout the poems, mostly real or historical ones, such as the historic pub Fox and French Horn in Clerkenwell mentioned in “Old Deutoronomy”, or the oldest pub in Putney, Bricklayer’s Arms, cited in “Of the Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles”. England, its culture, and history are essential key points to the poems, since these are poems about English cats originally written for English children. There are nods to pubs, the Admiralty, Indian colonels, London places, for instance. Yet the 1939 edition of the book was published and republished both in London and in New York, including adults as well as children as target audience. As a matter of fact, “[m]uch of the appeal for readers of Eliot’s volume derives from recognizing distinctly British environs and practices from references within the poems” (27), as Dodge Robbins states.

Historical events are alluded to throughout the poems as well, as when in “Growltiger’s Last Stand” Eliot makes an allusion to the British Empire’s colonialism. All the while, Eliot addresses names and terms typical of other British nationalities: “braw” is a chiefly Scottish term meaning “good, fine” (Merriam-Webster), while “tyke” could be “a nickname for a Yorkshireman” (Ricks and McCue 65) other than for dogs. These can be found in Eliot’s “Of the Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles”, which further hints at a traditional Scottish song based on a poem by Sir Walter Scott, When the Blue Bonnets Came Over the Border, which celebrates the Jacobite army in their march in 1745. Cultural references are, hence, a fundamental part in Eliot’s Practical Cats as a means of introducing readers to the British customs. Their translation, adaptations or transcreation will, consequently, bear a strong importance in how these feline poems are perceived by the target audience. That might explain why the Spanish translators have deemed relevant to preserve the British flavour of these poems so as to fully immerse young audiences into a new culture, though, at the same time, this decision might imply hindering comprehension.

  1. The Naming of Cats

As Eliot concedes himself, “The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter” (Practical Cats 1). The title of the book is interesting itself, for “Old Possum” was the nickname given to Eliot by Ezra Pound. On the other hand, readers might wonder about the meaning of “practical” in the title. Ricks and McCue point to the earliest recorded sense of “practical” as “That practises art or craft; crafty, scheming, artful” (38). Yet it could also be linked to the sense of “practical jokes”. Dodge Robbins (23), for her part, argues that Practical Cats is a misnomer, as there is nothing “practical” about these quirky felines. Douglass observes that “[t]he majority of Possum’s cats seem to have ‘practical’ ends in view that do not conduce much to social stability” (114). In our case, the Spanish translations examined offer different perspectives in translating the title of this poetry collection: Ortiz opts for preserving the reference to Eliot’s nickname Possum by translating the title to El libro de los gatos habilidosos del viejo Possum; whilst Bonilla chooses to literally translate the nickname to El libro de los gatos sensatos de la vieja zarigüeya, which implies a change in gender, as the animal’s name in Spanish is female.

As said before, Eliot’s cats have names, a few of them very peculiar indeed, sometimes playful, sometimes bewitching. The feline onomastics might prove to be a challenge for translators. The names given by Eliot to the felines prove his Anglophile tastes acquired since living in London. In fact, Eliot’s intention in presenting such a plethora of proper names is to provide an image of London in the 1930s through the introduction of an entire world inhabited by felines. There are numerous names given in the book (54 names, approx.), as cats are the real protagonists of this collection, many of them included in the titles of the poems or in the very first lines. In her article “Imperial Names for ‘Practical Cats’”, Dodge Robbins (2013) was the first scholar to pay due attention to Eliot’s unique feline names, analysing their sources and origins. Furthermore, Eliot takes inspiration for the names from literary sources – from Conan Doyle, nonsense poetry, the Bible, or fairytales.

The names Eliot lists in his first poem, “The Naming of Cats”, are human names, all of them single name except for the last one, Bill Bailey, which derives from the 1902 popular song “(Won’t You Come Home) Bill Bailey”. In addition, he includes names which are “fancier” and “sweeter”, and even features names of Greek origins – Electra, Demeter, Plato, Admetus. Eliot provides as well biblical names for his felines, in conjunction with made-up names which depend on sound or meaning, such as Quaxo or Coricopat, which Ricks and McCue (56) associate to Paxo – a spiced stuffing – and coriander, respectively, as origins of the names. On the other hand, Coricopat could be a linguistic variation of Calico Cat too, a name popularised in Eugene Field’s children’s poem “The Duel” (Dodge Robbins 24). Another interesting example is Bombalurina, which might come from combining bomb(astic) plus ballerina, as Eliot enjoyed compound nouns.

The list of names is very long indeed, yet there are some other curious examples. Rumpelteazer may come from the Grimms’ fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, or it might be a hint at Rumpelmayer’s, a well-known café mentioned as well in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) which in London was located in the aforementioned St. James Street. Similarly, with the name of Old Deuteronomy, Eliot plays with the Greek language this time, where, instead of Deutero-nomy as in the Book of the Bible, he playfully divides the word as Deuter-onomy. Therefore, instead of meaning “second law” as the Book of Deuteronomy, it means “second name”: δεύτερ [deuter], second, plus όνομα [onoma], name. For his part, there is the magical Mr. Mistoffelees, whose name seems to come by combining Mister and Mephistophele, from the Faust legend. Further, the name of Bustopher Jones may have originated, according to Ricks and McCue (72), from Mustapha – an Arabic name meaning “the Chosen one” – combined with Christopher, but it could also be a combination of Christopher and Buster. Be that as it may, Bustopher Jones is an aristocat, although his surname, Jones, “evokes his ordinariness”, “suggestive of working-class origins” (Dodge Robbins 23).

Lastly, Gus comes from the vegetable name Asparagus. His performance as “Firefrorefiddle the Fiend of the Fell” is mentioned in the poem. Dodge Robbins (30) argues that Firefrorefiddle identifies the character, while Fiend of the Fell offer clues to the personality and his origins in the regions of the Northern England known as the fell. Both names are connected through alliteration of the “f” sound with words associated with the devil, such as fire, fiend, fell, or fiddle, a musical instrument commonly associated with the demonic in certain American religious communities as well as in post-Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation Europe, and most especially later due to the rumours around virtuoso violinist Paganini. Ortiz retains this association in her translation “Faustofarius, Felino Infernal”, where the alliteration of the “f” also becomes important, while Bonilla opts for “Micifú, Demonio del Desierto”, changing the alliteration to the “d” sound and playing with the Spanish word “micifú”, a cat name first coined by Lope de Vega, tapping into Spanish culture. There are also nonsense names such as the Rum Tug Tugger, Skimbleshanks, or Grymbuskin. The Rum Tum Tugger as a name consists of three parts; the first appears in the dictionary as an adjective meaning “unusual, strange” (Cambridge Dictionary), while the rest of the name in its totality gives it a rhythmic sound evocative of a drum roll, and, at the same time, is evocative of A. A. Milne’s Tigger in Winnie-the-Pooh.

The translation of proper names poses a difficulty to the translator, most especially when the author plays with invented words, internal rhymes and literary references. Ritva Leppihalme (79) proposes different strategies for this purpose:

  • Retention of the name unaltered, with or without some guidance or detailed explanation.
  • Replacement of the name by another, whether another SL name or by a TL name.
  • Omission of the name, transferring the sense by other means or omitting the name and the allusion altogether.

As the following table shows, translations have for the most part decided to replace names by directly translating those English names who have a coined translation, or by inventing their own nonsense names which play with sounds and/or meaning.


ST name Regla Ortiz Juan Bonilla
Peter Pedro Pedro
Augustus Augusto Gabriel
Alonzo Alonso Ana
Plato Platón Napoleón
Admetus Admetus Godofredo
Electra Electra Electra
Quaxo Quaxo Walstato
Coricopat Quoricopat
Bombalurina Bamboliurina Bombabulina
Jennyanydots Ana-topitos Jenny
Growltiger Gruñetigre Tigre Fiero
Rum Tum Tugger Ram Tam Tagger Rum Tum Tugger
Mungojerrie Mangozipi Mungojerrie
Rumpelteazer Rampelzape Rumpelteazer
Mr. Mistoffelees Mr. Mefistolisto El señor Mistoffeles
Macavity Macávity Macavity
Gus Gos (Espárragos) Gus
Bustopher Jones Bástofer Jones Bustopher Jones

Table 1. List of several feline names with their Spanish translation.


Keeping names such as Peter, Augustus, George, or even Bill Bailey would probably bear no meaning for the Spanish audience; for this reason, translating those names to ones closer to the target audience is an important step. Very interesting is the case of Ortiz’s translation for Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer as Mangozipi and Rampelzape which is a word play of the Spanish “zipizape”, meaning turmoil or chaos. On top of this, her translation of this onomastic taps into Spanish popular culture, as there are two very famous Spanish comic book characters, Zipi y Zape, created by José Escobar in 1948, whose names derive from this word “zipizape”, since they are two mischievous young twins.

In addition, important for the naming of cats are the refrains Eliot associates with these felines, which contribute to an easy memorisation. There are set phrases such as “But when the day’s hustle and bustle is done” in “The Old Gumbie Cat”, or “Macavity’s not there! in “Macavity, The Mystery Cat”. In a similar fashion, Eliot uses more complex and exclamatory refrains such as in the Rum Tum Tugger, Mr. Mistoffelees, Old Deuteronomy, amongst others. In that sense, it is of particular interest to observe how translators have dealt with these refrains: the poetic structure of the original, the translation solutions undertaken, and the like. Taking the Rum Tum Tugger again as an example, the refrain consists of five lines and it is always placed at the end of the stanza, highlighting the importance of its function within the poem:

Yes the Rum Tum Tugger is a Curious Cat–
And there isn’t any call for me to shout it:
For he will do
As he do do
And there is no doing anything about it! (Eliot, Practical Cats 24).

This refrain, nevertheless, suffers some alterations the following times it appears in the poem: the second time it says, “And it isn’t any use for you to doubt it” (Eliot Practical Cats 26), and then “And there isn’t any need for me to spout it” (Eliot Practical Cats 28). In Ortiz’s translation, the five-line refrain is preserved:

Sí, el Ram Tam Tagger es harto raro
y no tengo por qué pregonarlo,
porque ha de hacer
lo que quiera él
y no hay nada que pueda evitarlo. (Ortiz 29)

Ortiz changes the second line of the refrain accordingly to “y no tiene sentido que vayas a dudarlo” and then to “y no tengo por qué soltarlo” (Ortiz 29-31), preserving the rhythm and rhyme of these refrains. For his part, Bonilla equally keeps the five-line refrain, but he adds further changes to it. The first time it appears he translates it to:

Rum Tum Tugger: no es un gato sencillo.
Pero reñirle no podré,
pues siempre hará
lo que quiera sin más.
Y contra eso qué se puede hacer. (Bonilla 23)

Later, he omits the cat’s name, changing the second line to “Ponerlo en duda no va bien” (Bonilla 23). The third and last refrain shows further modifications:

Rum Tum Tugger, como él no hay dos
No le pretendas convencer,
pues siempre hará
lo que quiera sin más.
Y contra eso qué se puede hacer. (Bonilla 24)

Bonilla demonstrates his own creativity when dealing with refrains and rhythms, with translations which tend towards transcreation. It is, thus, clear that Eliot’s refrains – and their translations – are awash with wordplays, onomatopoeia, and character names, all of them aspects which contribute to the creation of a special rhythm within the poems.

  1. Conclusions

As it has been argued, in this collection of poems, Eliot enjoys being playful in his manipulation of language, a language, in fact, which is reminiscent of children’s games in its playfulness, heavy rhythms, and repetitive patterns. Cats are given free room to amuse themselves and readers are invited to join in this playground to experience this giant game through imaginative language. As a poet, Eliot gives individuality to his felines in his names, descriptions and refrains, but equally through language itself, employing vibrant rhythms and rhymes. He further incorporates invented and inventive words, apart from including humorous cultural references, which contribute to the construction of an exciting urban world of disorderly wonder which mirrors the British culture in which he was deeply immersed. In brief, it is through this verbal game that Eliot immerses us in the experience of the cats.

Overall, recalling the introductory section of this article, through the examples analysed it is possible to observe that the Spanish translations are both target- and source-oriented in differing aspects. On the one hand, translators offer readers a text which holds on to Eliot’s frolicsome and lively language, and for the most part they immerse audiences in the British culture. On the other hand, they adapt Eliot’s poetic brilliance to the new language for the new Spanish audience through an equally playful Spanish language full of creativity, rhythm, and rhyme. In that respect, the Spanish translators accord importance to the communicative aspect of translation, in their aim to produce a similar effect on the target audience, that is, to ensure reader enjoyment. That is why we understand that a translation is faithful, not because it renders a perfect equivalence among words or sentences, but because both texts, original and translation, have the same function on their corresponding target cultures.

The examination of the Spanish translations of Eliot’s Practical Cats has allowed us to see the creativity and diversity behind the process of translating poetry. Both translators offer readers playful translations which retain Eliot’s whimsical mood by providing texts awash with rhythm, rhyme, and refrains. They mainly tend to foreignize the poems by keeping the cultural references so as to introduce readers to the British culture, except for the aforementioned examples given by Bonilla. By contrast, translators mostly opt for transcreation of the names of cats and invented places. In brief, writing about cats is a serious matter – and so is translating Eliot’s poems about this feline world, or in Fernando Ortiz’s words in his poem-tribute (10), “Si no has leído Old Possum, ignoras todavía / algo de Eliot y de poesía […] / Hay algo más y es la alegría. Pues el tiempo pasa sin prisas para quien tiene siete vidas” [If you haven’t read Old Possum yet, you still ignore something about Eliot and about poetry […] There is something else and that is joy. For time passes without hurry for who has nine lives]. These translations strive to transcreate Eliot’s original form, as well as the aesthetic aspect of his poetry, to convey the nuances of the source text to a different audience who will relish this new life given to Eliot’s bunch of friendly cats.


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[1] The research resulting in this article relates to the project “T. S. Eliot’s Drama from Spain: Translation, Critical Study, Performance (TEATREL-SP),” funded by the Spanish Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovación y Universidades and by the European Regional Development Fund (PGC2018-097143-A-I00).


Ester Díaz is a PhD fellow in English Literary Studies at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Spain, where she holds a FPI grant. Her doctoral research focuses on the study of the poetic language and how it can be translated, adapted, or transferred into other languages or artistic means such as painting and music. Her main research interests include transmediation, adaptation and translation studies, as well as the sisterhood of the arts.




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