A Wilderness of Mirrors: Eliot, Max Frisch and the C.I.A.


This article will examine the occurrences of the phrase “The Wilderness of Mirrors”, from Eliot’s “Gerontion”, in a series of surprising contexts and translations. In particular, its use by CIA chief of counter-intelligence James Jesus Angleton to describe double agents will serve to explain how Eliot’s words became a commonplace item of pulp fiction and rock albums. “The Wilderness of Mirrors” is also the title chosen by the American translator of Max Frisch’s Mein Name sei Gantenbein (which translates literally as: “Let’s pretend I’m called Gantenbein”), although the novel does not mention Eliot – but it features, if not a double agent, at least a protagonist with a complex identity. The French translation of the novel is Le Désert des miroirs, that is, a translation of the English translation. Yet it does not use the most easily available French translation of Eliot, that of Pierre Leyris (“cette exubérance de miroirs”) and chooses instead a phrase that also echoes, probably on purpose, Le Désert des Tartares by Dino Buzzati. Navigating these convoluted transfers, this paper will argue that the “wilderness” at hand is not so much a “désert” as a forest of sorts.

Cet article examinera les occurrences de l’expression « The Wilderness of Mirrors », tirée de « Gerontion » d’Eliot, dans une série de contextes et de traductions surprenantes. D’un intérêt particulier, son utilisation par le chef du contre-espionnage de la CIA, James Jesus Angleton, pour décrire les agents doubles, servira à expliquer comment les mots d’Eliot sont devenus un élément banal des romans de gare et des albums de rock. « The Wilderness of Mirrors » est également le titre choisi par le traducteur américain de Mein Name sei Gantenbein de Max Frisch (qui se traduit littéralement par : « Faisons comme si je m’appelais Gantenbein »), bien que le roman ne mentionne pas Eliot – mais il met en scène, sinon un agent double, du moins un protagoniste à l’identité complexe. La traduction française du roman est Le Désert des miroirs, c’est-à-dire une traduction de la traduction anglaise. Mais elle n’utilise pas la traduction française d’Eliot la plus facile à trouver, celle de Pierre Leyris (« cette exubérance de miroirs »), et choisit à la place une phrase qui fait également écho, probablement à dessein, au roman Le Désert des Tartares de Dino Buzzati. En naviguant dans ces transferts alambiqués, cet article soutiendra que le « wilderness » en question n’est pas tant un « désert » qu’une sorte de forêt.



In 1964, Swiss author Max Frisch published the novel Mein Name sei Gantenbein, commonly regarded as one of his greatest achievements. The title, using a form of subjunctive associated with reported speech, which knows no strict English or French equivalent, translates literally as Let’s pretend my name is Gantenbein. Although difficult to summarize, the novel revolves around an unnamed narrator who, after having been left by his wife, invents a number of fictitious characters to help him account for his experience, “trying out stories as if they were clothes” [“” (Frisch, Gesammelte Werke in zeitlicher Folge ,  5 22)]. Among them is Gantenbein, who is passing for blind, and Enderlin, whose name evokes der Andere, the other; the narrator connects them together through their relationship to the same woman, Lila.

The 1966 French translation of the book was published as Le Désert des miroirs (Frisch, Le Désert des miroirs), a title that, at first glance, seems to be meant as an echo to the “mirroring” theme of the novel, with its interplay of identities, at least one explicit mirror scene (when Gantenbein actually tries out clothes in a shop), and an experiment with mirroring names in an Oriental tale made up by Gantenbein for Lila, with characters named Ali and Alil. Gantenbein’s French translator was André Coeuroy. The inside cover of the Gallimard edition mentions, in a somewhat convoluted phrase, that the translation was validated by the author himself (“traduction contrôlée en collaboration avec l’auteur,” which leaves room for interpretation as to what exactly Frisch did control or collaborate on). The French title, however, stems directly, it seems, from the one that had been chosen for the English translation by Michael Bullock, which appeared in 1965, a year before the French version: The Wilderness of Mirrors (Frisch, A Wilderness of Mirrors). It was T. S. Eliot, obviously, who provided Frisch’s novel with both its English and, indirectly, French titles. Here is the passage from “Gerontion” from which it was taken, towards the end of the poem:

These with a thousand small deliberations
Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,
Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,
With pungent sauces, multiply variety
In a wilderness of mirrors. What will the spider do,
Suspend its operations, will the weevil
Delay? […] (Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays 38)

Frisch, who had spent a year in the United States in 1951 on a Rockefeller grant, read English fluently and had been corresponding with Michael Bullock, but it is not known whether the title was his idea, Bullock’s or the publisher’s.[1] The very fact that a phrase from an Eliot poem was used as the title of another book seems, however, interesting per se. There does not seem to be a specifically Eliotian reference in Gantenbein. Of course, the identity-blurring theme is not without connections to Eliot’s own interest in depersonalisation, but it fits more generally in the postmodern landscape of these years. The secondary literature on Frisch makes no mention, it seems, of an Eliotian intertextuality in his work, except one paper by Melanie Rohner focused on Frisch’s writings from the 1950s and on Eliot’s plays, for which Frisch showed particular interest (Rohner). The “wilderness of mirrors,” then, seems to have been used in the English edition of Gantenbein more as a trope, a cliché, than as an explicit Eliot quotation.

Wilde Tropes

Eliot died the same year as the English translation appeared, and was already part of the international canon by then. It comes consequently as no huge surprise that elements from his poems had found their way as stock phrases. A number of bits and pieces from The Waste Land (“April is the cruellest month,” “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” or simply “Shantih shantih shantih”) or from the essays (“objective correlative” and “dissociation of sensibility”) have been repeatedly cited since their first utterance. However, they have generally not lost their connection to their primary author. The situation of “the wilderness of mirrors” is slightly different in that respect, and the Frisch translation appears to be only a by-product of a more thorough translocation process.

When one searches Google scholars for “wilderness of mirrors,” the vast majority of the results yielded are not, in fact, about Eliot. They are even less about Frisch, although this may also have to do with Michael Bullock’s translation having been reprinted in the 1980s under the more neutral title Gantenbein. Most of what comes up is about counter-intelligence. A narrower search in “Project Muse,” the database of scholarly articles on literature, also provides mostly results related to espionage. The origin of the shift appears to be quite clear: “the wilderness of mirrors” happens to be a phrase recurrently used by James Jesus Angleton, who was chief of counter-intelligence for the CIA between 1954 and 1974, to describe the angst and confusion created during the Cold War by moles and double agents. Now the phrase is quite fitting to describe Angleton’s obsession, and, even though it is once again taken out of its “Gerontion” context, its use during the Cold War can be regarded as more or less consistent with Eliot’s own, more poetic interests in the dissolution of the subject, which are also explored in Gantenbein. The phrase, then, seems to have turned trope in the postmodern context because it did fit the sceptic and relativist stance of these times. One may well believe at this stage that Angleton had come across the phrase in his high school or college days, at a time when Eliot had entered syllabi, in particular via New Criticism (for instance the influential textbook Understanding Poetry, edited by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, first published in 1938). But the connection runs deeper: Angleton was, in fact, a double agent of sorts.

An English major at Yale before the war, Angleton was an undergraduate poet himself, as well as the editor of the literary magazine Furioso, which published a number of Modernist writers. In that capacity, Angleton corresponded with Eliot, Pound and Cummings. He studied Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity and was taught most notably by Norman Holmes Pearson, the Yale academic as well as editor, advisor and agent of H.D., and Donald Gallup’s collaborator at the Yale Collection of American literature, which they helped turn into one of the major archive centers in the field, with a particular focus on Modernism. Norman Holmes Pearson was also a prominent counterintelligence agent during the Second World War. He worked at the Office of Strategic Services in London and had a number of people from the Yale English Department recruited, including Donald Gallup, Louis Martz (the Milton scholar), Richard Ellman (the Joyce biographer), and Angleton himself. Although Pearson returned to Yale and to scholarly work after the war, his death in Seoul in 1975 triggered speculation about him still working for the CIA and having been poisoned by North Korea. As for Angleton, he was confronted, while serving in London, to the infamous case of double agent Kim Philby, and remained a CIA official after the war, growing increasingly paranoid about possible KGB spies whom he saw everywhere (Lee Harvey Oswald and Kissinger, among others, were suspected by him of working for the Soviet Union).

In a 1992 New York Times article on poetry and intelligence, Eliot Weinberger writes:

Angleton, who kept reading poetry all his life, claimed in later years that he had always tried to recruit agents from the Yale English Department. He believed that those trained in the New Criticism, with its seven types of ambiguity, were particularly suited to the interpretation of intelligence data.[2]

Weinberger then proceeds to consider the possible ambiguities of a piece of intelligence.

Consider, after all, the ways a spy’s message may be read:
1) It is written by a loyal agent and its information is accurate.
2) It is written by a loyal agent but its information is only partly accurate.
3) It is written by a loyal agent but its information is entirely inaccurate.
4) It is written by a double agent and its information is completely false.
5) It is written by a double agent but its information is partly true, so that the false parts will be believed.
6) It is written by a double agent but its information is entirely true, so that the allegiance of the agent will not be discovered.

Here one may think in particular of the question of allusion and citation in Eliot’s, and their accuracy, their originality, their function as red herrings or misleading devices. Weinberger concludes:

Moreover, the message is written in code, and liable to the vagaries of translation. And it is written in a highly condensed language, whose meanings can offer varying interpretations. Like a poem, the message is only as good as its reader. Roosevelt refused to believe a report on the imminent attack on Pearl Harbor; the Federal Bureau of Investigation thought that Pound’s “Pisan Cantos” were the encoded communications of a spy. (Weinberger, “Tinker, Tailor, Poet, Spy”; republished as “James Jesus Angleton 1917-1987” in Outside Stories, 1987-1991 53–54)

It is just as easy to take “signs for wonders,” as “Gerontion” invites one to do (“Signs are taken for wonder,” when reading Eliot. The FBI did open a file on Eliot in the late 1940s, after his name came up in the socialist paper The Daily Worker (Culleton and Leick 2), as if, perhaps, his vocal conservatism made him suspect of being a crypto-communist. The complexity of The Waste Land, with its mixture of languages – at a time when translation itself, with the development of early machine translation, came to be understood as a branch of cryptography[3] – and its interweaving of quotations, would make the poem look particularly suspicious, one imagines, to the eyes of someone trained in the spotting and decoding of Cold War double-entendre. “Gerontion” is not built in the same way as The Waste Land, and certainly less prone to be read as a secret message. Yet it would definitely strike a chord in someone interested both in poetry and in ciphers: “I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch: / How should I use it for your closer contact?” That the poem has to do with an impossibility, or at least a difficulty, to communicate, does not make of it a coded text, but one understands why it could still be read with interest by an intelligence officer.

Angleton’s use of the “wilderness of mirrors” phrase was, then, likely to have been very well informed; what he was taking up, and relatively early on, was not a trope yet, but a fragment that he read in its context, and then recycled for specific purposes. It is really the recycling that made the phrase popular and turned it into a trope, to the point that, in fact, the content and themes of Gantenbein can be regarded as more consistent with Angleton’s use of the phrase than Eliot’s. One is left to wonder whether the Frisch translation was taking its cue from “Gerontion” or directly from the CIA.

On the Google NGram of the phrase (and even though it is difficult, because of various limitations[4] – in particular the increasing proportion of scientific texts and secondary literature in the Google Books corpus – to draw any firm conclusion from it), one sees that the phrase starts getting popular in the 1970s and peaks in the late 80s. It can mean one of two things, or both at the same time: a surge in Eliot scholarship (a hypothesis which makes sense, if only because of the general growth in academic publications over the century, not to mention Eliot’s position in the world canon since at least his Nobel Prize), and/or a surge in its use in espionage context, a hypothesis that is also corroborated by its recurrence in books on the subject, notably David C. Martin’s history of the CIA in the Angleton years, first published in 1980 and successful enough to have been translated in a number of languages, French included, and to be reprinted as a paperback (Martin, Wilderness of Mirrors; KGB contre CIA ou les cruautés des miroirs). The phrase then served as a title for a number of books on counter-intelligence in the Angleton years (Evered; Seingalt; Magee; Hill). But it came to be used as well for books about spies in general, for instance a novel by Ed Cambro, in 2008, on an FBI agent plotting a nuclear attack on NYC after 9/11, or a  2012 pulp fiction novel by Ella Skye involving a blonde interior designer and, quoting from the summary provided by the publisher, a “world-weary spy” (Cambro; Skye). Ultimately, it also ended up in other romance fictions: “Through the heartwarming tale of an atypical small-town woman, Wilderness of Mirrors entices us to take ventures as a step toward some measure of self-fulfillment,” reads the presentation of Helen Baker’s 2012 novel on Amazon (Baker). Here, it becomes unclear whether the phrase was conveyed from Eliot by Angleton (and his spies), or from Frisch (and his own provincial stories of adultery and jealousy) via Angleton.

Through counter-intelligence, then, the “wilderness of mirrors” became a trope in the late 20th century, and Eliot entered pop culture through pulp fiction, but also rock albums: Wilderness of Mirrors by Waysted, in 2000, and Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors, by Fish, in 1990. The hyperbolic canonization of an avant-garde author entails in itself the risk of turning them into a provider of kitschy phrases. Eliot praised Ernst Robert Curtius’s 1948 Europäische Literatur und Lateinisches Mittlealter (translated by Willard Trask as European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages in 1963), which analysed the “commonplace” in Medieval rhetoric and its influence over modern European literature. The “wilderness of mirrors” seems to represent a modern European “commonplace.” Curtius, who was also a keen philologist of Modernist literature, was the author of the first German translation of The Waste Land, published in 1927 as Das Wüste Land. In the latter, it is Eliot who, with his borrowing policy, built a poem out of commonplaces. Norbert Hummelt, in his recent retranslation, provides a last twist to this mirroring of Modernism and the commonplace. Hummelt changed Curtius’s title to Das Öde Land (Eliot, Das Öde Land).  “Öde”, of course, was taken from the poem itself (“öde und leer / das Meer”); and Eliot took the phrase from Wagner’s Tristan. In the poem, it is a soundbite of high-brow culture, meant to be recognized by those who share it, and haunt the same (common) places; the commonplace being, obviously, a wasteland, the poem also stages the appropriation and hollowing out of the phrase by a corrupt elite stopping in the colonnade. The text from Wagner’s opera becomes (in part) garishly sentimental. The later destiny of the “wilderness of mirrors” indeed mirrors, in a way, the distortion imposed by Eliot on quotations in The Waste Land, as the phrase is turned into a kitschy commonplace.

Deserts and Forest

It is striking that the chosen title for the French version of Gantenbein, Le Désert des miroirs, while literally based on the English translation, is not so much evocative of Eliot to a French reader, as of Dino Buzzati’s 1940 Le Désert des tartares (Tartar Steppe in English, both literal translations of the Italian Il Deserto dei Tartari), whose 1949 French edition, in Michel Arnaud’s translation, was a long-lasting success but bears no obvious connection to Frisch’s novel. Eliot is also less visible in Le Désert des miroirs because, in Pierre Leyris’s translation of “Gerontion,” there is actually no such thing as a désert:

Ces considérations et mille autres pareilles
Prolongent l’agrément de leur délire glacé,
Excitent la muqueuse, le sens ayant froidi,
De leurs sauces poivrées, multiplient les aspects
Dans une exubérance de miroirs. L’araignée,
Que fera-t-elle ? (Eliot, La Terre Vaine 45)

Exubérance” (“exuberance,” but also “luxuriance,” “abundance”) for “wilderness” is quite surprising, to the point that one wonders whether Leyris did not, by a more or less conscious mistake, translate “wildness” instead. It may very well be that prosody dictated his choice: these lines are alexandrines, which Leyris consistently uses to translate Eliot’s iambic pentameters. Leyris actually has a tendency to “over-alexandrinize,” to translate in alexandrines lines that are not regular in English, and it is the case with the “wilderness of mirrors” line – the only discrepancy in Leyris’s French, hereBut even if one considers that Leyris wanted twelve feet and that it determined his choice of words, vaste désert, for instance, would actually have worked better, both semantically and prosodically. Maybe Leyris did not like the idea of désert for wilderness because, to contemporary French readers, the word rather brings to mind an arid, empty, sandy landscape. Yet désert and “wilderness” are both canonical translations for ἔρημον in the Bible, for instance in Matthew 4:1:

Koine: τοτε ο ιησους ανηχθη εις την ερημον υπο του πνευματος πειρασθηναι υπο του διαβολου.
King James: Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.[5]
Vulgate : Tunc Jesus ductus est in desertum a Spiritu, ut tentaretur a diabolo.
Louis Segond: Alors Jésus fut emmené par l’Esprit dans le désert, pour être tenté par le diable.
AELF : Alors Jésus fut conduit au désert par l’Esprit pour être tenté par le diable.

Chateaubriand, in Le Génie du Christianisme (The Genius of Christianity), also uses désert to describe the American wilderness, which, as a typological enactment of the Biblical, is necessarily among the connotations of Eliot’s “wilderness of mirrors:”

Un soir je m’étais égaré dans une forêt, à quelque distance de la cataracte de Niagara ; bientôt je vis le jour s’éteindre autour de moi, et je goûtai, dans toute sa solitude, le beau spectacle d’une nuit dans les déserts du Nouveau Monde.

Auprès tout auroit été silence et repos sans la chute de quelques feuilles, le passage d’un vent subit, le gémissement de la hulotte ; au loin, par intervalles, on entendoit les sourds mugissements de la cataracte du Niagara, qui, dans le calme de la nuit, se prolongeoient de désert en désert et expiroient à travers les forêts solitaires. (Chateaubriand, Génie Du Christianisme 114, 115 emphasis mine)[6]

Chateaubriand’s use of the word désert is not exactly consistent with our modern vision of it, which is of something “öde und leer,” to quote from Wagner as quoted by Eliot: something desolate and empty. His déserts are, rather, close to forests: either assimilated to them, as in the first paragraph quoted above, or geographically and physically close, as in the second. Leyris’s “exubérance”, a word that can be associated to a jungle, to luscious vegetation, is congruous with that kind of déserts. And when Eva Hesse translated “Gerontion” for the Suhrkamp edition of Eliot’ Collected Poems [Gesammelte Gedichte], she wrote:

Das alles, in einem tausendfachen Hin und Her,
Vermehrt den Zuwachs dieses kalten Kollers,
Kitzelt, da das Gefühl erstarb, den Hautnerv
Mit scharfen Würzen, ver-x-facht die Vielfalt
In einem wilden Wald von Spiegeln. Wird die Spinne ihr Werk
In der Schwebe lassen? […] (Eliot, Gesammelte Gedichte emphasis mine)

In einem wilden Wald”: literally, “in a wild forest”. The alliteration, suggestive even of a possible common root between wild und Wald, works beautifully in German. And that understanding of “wilderness” suddenly makes it more germane to an Alpine author such as Max Frisch. But it is not the canonical correspondence to the Biblical ἔρημον in the Luther Bible:

Luther Bible: Da ward Jesus vom Geist in die Wüste geführt, auf daß er von dem Teufel versucht würde. (emphasis mine)

In die Wüste”: in the desert. “Wüste”, of course, rings another bell – as it should: it is the word that became “waste” in English (“Waste, Adj.”).

Conclusion: The Waste Land as a translator’s “wilderness of mirrors”

“The wilderness of mirrors” appears in one of Eliot’s early poems, but it seems to foreshadow the long poem to come by anticipating the luscious forest (of allusions, languages, broken mirrors) that the waste land actually is, as much as it is a desert. Eva Hesse, when she retranslated The Waste Land for Suhrkamp, kept Curtius’s title for it, Das Wüste Land. Translators of Eliot, and of The Waste Land in particular, must first spy out for allusions, quotations and references; their first mission, should they accept it, is to decipher what the palimpsest (a double-agent in itself) both hides and points to, and to account for the tracks, right or wrong, it opens. “There is a book to be written on poetry and espionage” (Weinberger, Outside Stories, 1987-1991 54), wrote Weinberger in his NYT article. A number of such books were indeed written, especially regarding Modernism (Culleton and Leick; Piette; Redding; Shaw especially chapter 1). They don’t make much of translators. But it is on the condition of their skilled self-effacement that these remain, perhaps, the most proficient in the art of literary espionage. Working a century after the deed, re-translators of Eliot have to navigate not only the allusions that the author himself meant to put in his text, but also the evolution of the connotations associated with words, and the fact that Eliot’s “own” (whatever “own” means) phrases may have been given a new twist by having been used in different contexts, may even have turned into clichés and sound like strange allusions to things that appeared later than the text itself. Eliot uses tropes but also builds them; he writes originality out of commonplace and his originality turns commonplace. Translators, then, looking for the right balance between the hackneyed and the hapax, are as ever – and to use a beautiful and singular phrase, a trope, or perhaps a cliché – walking in forest dark.



[1] Michael Bullock’s papers are preserved at the University of British Columbia and include his correspondence with Frisch from 1965 onwards, but with only one letter from 1965 by Frisch in which he discusses a few translation points, the title not being among them. My gratitude to Erwin Wodarczak, an archivist at UBC, who took the time to find and summarize the letter for me.

[2] William R. Johnson, who worked with Angleton, had a very similar discourse, noting that English graduates were taught “to look for multiple meanings, to examine the assumption hidden in words and phrases, and to grasp the whole structure of a poem or a play, not just the superficial plot or statement. So the multiple meanings, the hidden assumptions, and the larger pattern of CI cases were grist for their mill” (Johnson 9–10). Lytle Shaw retrieved and discusses these words (Shaw 58), and also notes that the connection between literature and counter-intelligence in Angleton’s work is explored in great detail in James Holzman’s biography (Holzman).

[3] Warren Weaver, one of the pioneers of the field at MIT, wrote in a letter to his colleague Norbert Wiener, in 1947: “One naturally wonders if the problem of translation could conceivably be treated as a problem in cryptography. When I look at an article in Russian, I say: ‘This is really written in English, but it has been coded in some strange symbols. I will now proceed to decode” (“Warren Weaver”).

[4] (See for instance Pechenick et al.)

[5] A few modern English translations of this verse actually choose “desert” over “wilderness”, for instance the 2011 New American Bible, Revised Edition.

[6]  The 1875 English translation by Charles White chooses “desert” : “I  had  wandered  one  evening  in  the  woods,  at  some  distance from  the  cataract  of  Niagara,  when  soon  the  last  glimmering  of daylight  disappeared,  and  I  enjoyed,  in  all  its  loneliness,  the beauteous  prospect  of  night  amid  the  deserts  of  the  New  World. (…) Near  me,  all  was silence  and  repose,  save  the  fall  of  some  leaf,  the  transient rustling  of  a  sudden  breath  of  wind,  or  the  hooting  of  the  owl ; but  at  a  distance  was  heard,  at  intervals,  the  solemn  roar  of  the Falls  of  Niagara,  which,  in  the  stillness  of  the  night,  was  prolonged from  desert  to  desert,  and  died  away  among  the  solitary  forests.” François-René Chateaubriand, The Genius of Christianity; or, The Spirit and Beauty of the Christian Religion, trans. Charles Ignatius White (Baltimore, Md.: J. Murphy, 1875), 173, http://archive.org/details/geniuschristiani00chatuoft.


Works cited

Baker, Helen. Wilderness of Mirrors. Dorrance publishing, 2012.

Cambro, Ed. A Wilderness of Mirrors. Strategic Book Publishing & Rights Agency, LLC, 2008.

Chateaubriand, François-René de. Génie Du Christianisme. Garnier Frères, 1828.

—. The Genius of Christianity ; or, The Spirit and Beauty of the Christian Religion. Translated by Charles Ignatius White, Baltimore, Md. : J. Murphy, 1875. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/geniuschristiani00chatuoft.

Culleton, Claire A., and Karen Leick, editors. Modernism on File :  Writers, Artists and the FBI, 1920-1950. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Eliot, Thomas Stearns. Das Öde Land. Translated by Norbert Hummelt, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2008.

—. Gesammelte Gedichte: 1909 – 1962. Translated by Eva Hesse, Suhrkamp, 1972.

—. La Terre Vaine :  Et Autres Poèmes. Translated by Pierre Leyris, Éd. bilingue, Éd. du Seuil, 2006.

—. The Complete Poems and Plays. Faber and Faber, 1969.

Evered, Charles. Wilderness of Mirrors. Broadway Play Publishing, Incorporated, 2004.

Frisch, Max. A Wilderness of Mirrors. Translated by Michael Bullock, Methuen & Co., 1965.

—. Gesammelte Werke in zeitlicher Folge ,  5 :  1964-1967. Edited by Hans Mayer, Suhrkamp, 1976.

—. Le Désert des miroirs. Translated by André Coeuroy, Gallimard, 1966.

Hill, Gary. The Other Oswald: A Wilderness of Mirrors. Trine Day, 2020.

Holzman, Michael. James Jesus Angleton, the CIA, and the Craft of Counterintelligence. University of Massachusetts press, 2009.

Johnson, William R. Thwarting Enemies at Home and Abroad: How to Be a Counterintelligence Officer. Georgetown University Press, 2009.

Magee, Aden. The Cold War Wilderness of Mirrors: Counterintelligence and the U.S. and Soviet Military Liaison Missions 1947–1990. 1st edition, Casemate, 2021.

Martin, David C. KGB contre CIA ou les cruautés des miroirs. Translated by Denis Authier, Presses de la renaissance, 1981.

—. Wilderness of Mirrors: Intrigue, Deception, and the Secrets That Destroyed Two of the Cold War’s Most Important Agents. Harper Collins, 1980.

Pechenick, Eitan Adam, et al. “Characterizing the Google Books Corpus: Strong Limits to Inferences of Socio-Cultural and Linguistic Evolution.” PLoS ONE, vol. 10, no. 10, Oct. 2015, p. e0137041. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0137041.

Piette, Adam. The Literary Cold War, 1945 to Vietnam. Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

Redding, Arthur F. Turncoats, Traitors, and Fellow Travelers :  Culture and Politics of the Early Cold War. University press of Mississippi, 2008.

Rohner, Melanie. “Ein ‘Cocktail […] von Eliot Gemixt’. Intertextuelle Bezüge Zu T. S. Eliot.” Max Frischs Werk Der Fünfziger Jahre, Actes Du Colloque International: L’œuvre de Max Frisch Dans Le Contexte de La Littérature Européenne de Son Temps, Université de Haute-Alsace, Mulhouse, 11.5.2011., edited by Régine Battiston and Margit Unser, Königshausen & Neumann, 2012. boris.unibe.ch, https://boris.unibe.ch/13711/.

Seingalt, Benjamin de. The Wilderness of Mirrors: Three Decades of Deception by Kim Philby. Kindle Editions, 2017.

Shaw, Lytle. Narrowcast :  Poetry and Audio Research. Stanford university press, 2018.

Skye, Ella. Wilderness of Mirrors. 1st edition, Ella Skye, 2012.

“Warren Weaver.” Wikipedia, 12 Sept. 2023. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Warren_Weaver&oldid=1175127956.

“Waste, Adj.” OED Online, Oxford University Press. Oxford English Dictionary, https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/226028. Accessed 18 Jan. 2023.

Weinberger, Eliot. Outside Stories, 1987-1991. New Directions, 1992.

—. “Tinker, Tailor, Poet, Spy: Tales of Literary Espionage.” The New York Times, 4 Oct. 1992. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/1992/10/04/books/tinker-tailor-poet-spy-tales-of-literary-espionage.html.


Chloé Thomas is Assistant Professor of American Literature and Translation at the University of Angers, France. Her latest book, Les Excentrés: poètes modernistes américains, on the first generation of Modernist poets (Eliot, Stein, Moore, H.D., Pound, Williams, Stevens…) was published in 2021 with CNRS éditions. She is also a translator from English and German.




Hope in a Handful of Stories. T. S. Eliot’s « The Waste Land » and Neil Gaiman’s « The Sandman »


Until human hands draw us. T. S. Eliot and how he illustrated the modern city
The aim of the paper is to prove that T. S. Eliot’s works influenced not only the so-called traditional media, such as literature, film, and theater but also the new forms of expression that gained extreme popularity in the second half of the 20th century, namely comic books and graphic novels. My speech focuses mainly on the parallels between Eliot’s vision of a modern city and the way that metropoles are represented both in graphic novels, that are directly inspired by Eliot’s poems (such as, for instance, Martin Rowson’s The Waste Land), and in popular superhero comic books series published throughout the 20th century by, among others, DC and Marvel Comics. In the course of the analysis, an additional consideration is given to the similarities that link the neo-gothic character of Batman’s Gotham City to Eliot’s textual transposition of New York, Boston, London, and Paris which derives from the early stage of his poetical endeavor. The study in question offers an interdisciplinary approach, as it tackles the problem of how the visual adaptation of poetry might influence the very process of possible interpretation and how the quite unique perspectives suggested by the modernist literature, whose objective was to be innovative, are subsequently turned into commonplaces of the pop culture.

Jusqu’à ce que des mains humaines nous dessinent: T. S. Eliot et comment il a illustré la ville moderne
L’objectif de cet article est de prouver que les œuvres de T. S. Eliot ont influencé non seulement les médias dits traditionnels, tels que la littérature, le cinéma et le théâtre, mais aussi les nouvelles formes d’expression qui ont gagné en popularité dans la seconde moitié du 20e siècle, notamment les bandes dessinées et les romans graphiques. Mon intervention se concentre principalement sur les parallèles entre la vision d’Eliot d’une ville moderne et la manière dont les métropoles sont représentées dans les romans graphiques qui s’inspirent directement des poèmes d’Eliot (comme, par exemple, The Waste Land de Martin Rowson) et aussi dans les séries de bandes dessinées de super-héros populaires publiées tout au long du 20e siècle :  DC et Marvel Comics, entre autres. Au cours de l’analyse, une considération supplémentaire est accordée aux similitudes qui lient le néo-gothique de Gotham City, la ville de Batman, à la transposition textuelle par Eliot de New York, Boston, Londres et Paris, qui remonte au début de sa démarche poétique. L’étude en question propose une approche interdisciplinaire, puisqu’elle aborde le problème de la façon dont l’adaptation visuelle de la poésie peut influencer le processus même d’interprétation possible et comment les perspectives uniques suggérées par la littérature moderniste, dont l’objectif était d’être innovante, sont ensuite transformées en lieux communs de la culture pop.


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In Convergence culture, a groundbreaking study about various aspects of new and old media, Henry Jenkins acknowledges (and proves with multiple examples) that intertextuality is very much ‘rampant in the era of transmedia storytelling’ (Jenkins 2006). This assumption turns out to be particularly relevant when it comes to comic books. Even though in recent years we have been witnessing a growing interest in the study of graphic novels and its relations with literary canon[1], non specific consideration has yet been given to the works of T.S. Eliot as a source of influence for comic-book artists[2]. Yet, the subtle influence of Eliot‘s ideas may be traced in many recognized comics (such as Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ Watchman or Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns) and some mainstream graphic novels refer to Eliot’s works in a very direct way[3]. That is the case with Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman (1988–1996) which, as proved by Andrés Romero-Jódar (Romero-Jódar 2017), has largely contributed to the change in comic book esthetics in the late 80s. Apart from drawing upon the heavy or even sordid atmosphere of The Waste Land, the creators of The Sandman went as far as to use the most recognizable, if slightly modified, line of Eliot’s poem[4], namely line 30, as a part of marketing strategy. Romero-Jódar points out that the catchphrase from the advertising poster of The Sandman, which read ‘I will show you terror in the handful of dust’ is nothing else than a conscious play with well-known, if not iconic, quotation from The Waste Land, ‘I will show you fear in the handful of dust’ (Romero-Jódar 2017)[5].

The author of The Trauma Graphic Novel provides a historical background which allows a better understanding of why the comic book artists at the turn of the 1980s felt urged to place their works in the context of modernist writings. Once the US authorities, encouraged by the social anti-comic books crusade launched by an American psychiatrist, Dr Frederic Wertham, in his pseud-scientific works[6], had implemented strict censorship on narrative iconical texts in the 1950s, the fate of graphic novels was sealed for the next thirty years because, as Romero-Jódar explains it:

[…] The developing techniques that were favoured by the topics and experimentalism of Modernist authors all over the Western world and on all the fields of art at the beginning of the twentieth century were prevented from percolating into the narrative devices of comic books. The mainstream comic book fell into the entrapment of the Manichean adventure narratives of impossible superheroes, colourful men in tights, and rightful patriots at the service of overt political agendas (such is the case of Superman, Batman, Captain America, and a long etcetera) (Romero-Jódar 2017)

It was only in the 1980s, when the severe censorship guidelines of the Comics Code started to give away before finally disappearing amidst the period of political unstableness (dubbed as ‘Crisis of Confidence’ in Jimmy Carter’s speech), that the comic-book industry got its second wind. After finding the long-lost liberty of expression, curtailed for decades by the ‘sharp scissors of the censor’, as Romero-Jódar vividly puts it, comic-book artists turned to the works of major modernist writers in search of motives, metaphors and experimental narrative technics. In other words, in the 1980s the authors of graphic novels picked up where their predecessors had left off in the 1940s and 1950s when the censors got in their way cutting short any possible originality of comic books for several years. Additionally, references to modernist poets and writers work also as a part of the ‘ennoblement’ strategy that comic-book authors put into practice to gain the approval of more ‘literary’ readers with refined taste who prefer books of recognized national status. Romero-Jódar describes this phenomenon in the following terms:

[…] The impulse given by many authors (mostly of British nationality, like Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean, and Alan Moore, working for mainstream American companies, such as Marvel Comics and DC Comics) to rise the status of narrative iconical texts to the level of serious literature. More concretely, their move to connect graphic novels with the High Modernism of Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, and Eliot, led many other authors to explore the narrative possibilities of stream-of-consciousness novels, and adapt their techniques to the visual world of the graphic novel […]. (Romero-Jódar 2017)

Even though the quotation from The Waste Land used in the marketing campaign for The Sandman fits the aforementioned scheme, it should be noted that Gaiman is far from turning to Eliot only for advertising purposes. Quite the contrary, this reference must not be separated from the broader literary strategy adopted by Gaiman who ceaselessly encourages his readers to seek connections between the universe of his own graphic novel, on the one hand, and scenes, motives, and quotations taken from other renowned works of fiction (be it renaissance, romantic, or modernist), on the other. As Katheryn Hume justly points out, The Sandman is deeply rooted in various cultural contexts that should be understandable for those who are well-versed in history of literature and culture[7]. Accordingly, the famous passage from The Waste Land cited on the publicity poster turns out to be a pivotal reference that organizes the narrative in the first volume of The Sandman series (namely Preludes and Nocturnes) and then returns in its penultimate installment (titled The Kindly Ones) to offer a coherent closure to the whole series.

This volume, the opening of the whole series, consists of issues 1–8 and tells the story of Morpheus, a.k.a. the Sandman, a.k.a the Lord of Dreams, a.k.a Dream of the Endless, who sets off on a quest to regain control over his kingdom after having been captured for almost a century by two generations of an English occultist family. Slightly changed and unfinished, the quotation from The Waste Land appears on the last page of the first issue. Morpheus, finally freed from the cage in which Roderick Burgess had put him in the 1910s, takes revenge on his son, Alex, heavily responsible for the Sandman’s torment throughout the second half of the 20th century. In retribution for his long and painful imprisonment, Morpheus bestows Alex with a dreadful gift – the eternal waking. From now on Alex is trapped in a nightmarish dream in which he keeps waking up just to find out that he is still asleep. The Sandman then pounders upon what he has done. In black squares we are introduced to Morpheus’s mental process expressed in free indirect speech: ‘It was more tiring than I had expected. But he will never return to the life he knew. His is the nightmare everlasting… Eternal waking… […] And I have showed him fear…’ (no 1)[8]. With these words the Sandman disappears from the frame, only to return in the second issue of the volume. His last sentence, ‘And I have showed him fear..’, is a clear play not only with the line from Eliot’s poem, but also with the catchphrase used in the advertising campaign. It seems as though Morpheus was boasting about keeping the promise made by the poster. He indeed showed fear (or terror) to Alex Burgess. Besides, he did it with a handful of dust as it is drawn on the panel with the image of an unreal twisted hand from which glistening grains of magical sand float into the air. At first glance, it might appear that Gaiman was quite faithful when he adapted the famous passage from The Waste Land to the context of his own story, as he literally depicted Eliot’s ‘fear in a handful of dust’ as a nightmare caused by Morpheus’s magical sand thrown into Alex Burgess’ eyes. However, the phrase proudly uttered by the Dream Lord at the end of the first issue is left incomplete. This is no mere evasion of a direct quotation of Eliot’s work, but a narrative strategy that justifies itself when the Sandman’s story from Preludes and Nocturnes finds its closure in the 8th issue (The Sound of Her Wings). Thus, only more profound insight into the world of Gaiman’s series may demonstrate to which extent the first volume of The Sandman consciously comments on and interacts with the text of Eliot’s poem. This analysis proves fruitful, especially with regard to the modern city landscape as it was described, if not canonized, in The Waste Land. Spencer Morrison draws attention to the double, both spatial and temporal, complexity of the ‘unreal city’ from The Waste Land:

While processes of literary and historical allusion render London a palimpsest striated by urban cultures across time, The Waste Land’s collage-like juxtaposition of spaces that are geographically distinct but temporally simultaneous enacts a subtly different type of superimposition: the first is diachronic, the second synchronic. (Morrison 2015)

Consequently, Morrison emphasizes that the characteristic feature that defines Eliot’s image of a metropolis as developed in The Waste Land is the fact that it encompasses a wide range of places and time periods: varying from the 20th–century London (which streets and sides are enumerated, for instance, in The Burial of the Dead) to the ancient empire of Carthage (implied by a reference to the battle of Mylae in the same part of the poem). In What Thunder Said, near the end of the text, Eliot drafts a list of historical capitals, each of them being at some point a center of a magnificent empire, before falling into decay, represented in the poem by an image of ruined buildings:

Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
Unreal (The Waste Land, p. 69)

As for geographical juxtaposition, The Waste Land thrusts together spatially remote locations, combining the landscape of modern Western cities with mountain, jungle and desert scenery. Morrison explains this poetic strategy in terms of symbolic value gained by such a temporal and spatial, collage:

Desert, alpine, and jungle geographies in The Waste Land thus function as multivalent symbols in the poem’s representation of urbanism: these symbols do not simply bind urbanity to wilderness zones by foregrounding shared geographical or material features, nor do they simply link these spaces by reference to common psychological states; rather, these figurative connections rely upon, and elaborate, intricate links between material space and subjectivity itself. (Morrison 2015)

The bond between the spatial and the mental, to which Morrison draws attention, is pertinent especially when it comes to the character of the Fisher King, who is one of the most important figures in Eliot’s poem. Hero of French medieval romances and Grail legends, the Fisher King is, as Craig Raine points it out, ‘the impotent ruler of an infertile land’ (Raine 2006), waiting for a worthy knight (such as Percival in Chrétien de Troye’s work) to come and lift his curse. The correlation between the monarch’s mental and physical health and the state of his realm probed to be of extreme relevance in the Fisher King’s story for the modern city landscape in the Waste Land. To put it simply, King’s ‘lands will die if he is not healed’, as stressed by Emily E. Auger (Auger 2018). Metaphorically, this codependence may stand for the inextricable relationship between modern city inhabitants’ sanity and the places they dwell in. That is the case of, for instance, the married couple from A Game of Chess, whose apartment, with its stifling, claustrophobic and isolating atmosphere, constitutes a material manifestation of their passionless and frustrating relationship. Thus, one of Eliot’s most genuine inventions in The Waste Land is that he engraved the mental state of the poem’s heroes into the very tissue of modern metropolis.

Gaiman seems to draw heavily upon the symbolic urban imaginary of The Waste Land. The first volume of The Sandman links different and distant places, real metropoles (such as London and New York) become entwined with unreal realms (like Lucifer’s palace in hell). Likewise, the city from Eliot’s poem, the heterogenous locations are organized as a whole thanks to the montage-like structure (characteristic of graphic novels). In Preludes and Nocturnes Morpheus travels through those various places in search of his tools, which are not only his royal regalia, but also the very pieces of his self, as he has magically put fragments of his own power into each of them. Now, scattered across the material and spiritual worlds, they must be brought together, so that the Sandman may stop the decay of his realm. Just as it was with Eliot’s Fisher King, the mental and physical state of Morpheus affects deeply the condition of his kingdom. However, unlike the character from The Waste Land the Sandman succeeds in finishing his quest and he reconciles different parts of his existence after having collected all his tools. On the last page of the analyzed volume, we see him throwing grains to pigeons, forsaking his revenge, peaceful. Here, in this particular fragment, Gaiman once again refers to the line from The Waste Land that he previously used as a catchphrase and then left unfinished at the end of the first issue. Feeding pigeons, Morpheus thinks:

There is much to do in my kingdom. Much to restore. Much to create. But that can wait… I have found the solace I sought, though not in the way I imagined. From dreams I conjure a handful of yellow grain… I throw the grain into the air. And I hear it. The sound of wings… (no 8)

A ‘handful of dust’ turns out to be replaced by a handful of yellow grain, a symbol of rejuvenation and rebirth. Thus, at the end of Preludes and Nocturnes Morpheus finds, even if for a brief moment, what habitants of ‘unreal city’ from Eliot’s poem may only yearn for. Victim of the same malaise that afflicts the characters from The Waste Land, that is the utter isolation, the Sandman reconciles different aspects of himself kept in his royal regalia and by doing so he arrives at the place where he can rebuild his dream kingdom, which might be metaphorically understood as a process of restoring his mental sanity after the decades of imprisonment. In other words, Morpheus firmly announces that he will set his lands in order, as opposed to the Fisher King from Eliot’s poem, who only ponders such possibility. Figuratively speaking, the ‘handful of dust’ from the advertising poster turns in Morpheus’s hands into a handful of hope.

If the first volume of the series ends on a rather positive note, its following issues refer to Eliot’s works in a more complicated way. In the next-to-last volume of The Sandman Morpheus finds himself in a most difficult position. He has to confront an ancient and relentless power, a triad of vengeful goddesses known as the Furies or the Eumenides (a term which translates into English as The Kindly Ones, hence the title of the volume). Driven by the desire to avenge the death of Orpheus, Morpheus’s son[9], the blood-thirsty deities seek to bring havoc and destruction upon the Dream Lord and his kingdom, as they kill, one after another, inhabitants of the Dreaming[10]. Knowing that the Furies will not content themselves with nothing less than his life, Morpheus realizes he is left with little choice but to sacrifice himself in order to prevent his realm from utter annihilation. He calls on his sister, Death, to come and put him out of his misery.

A quick look at the above-described plot of The Kindly Ones shows that Gaiman’s story echoes the themes taken from Greek tragedies, especially from Aeschylus’ Oresteia. In this trilogy (composed of three plays: Agamemnon, Choephoroi, and Eumenides), the Furies fulfill a vital role. They hunt and torment Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, to punish him for the matricide he committed while trying to avenge the death of his father, killed by Clytemnestra (Orestes’ mother) and her lover Aegisthus. Both Orestes and Sandman are tragic heroes. The former slays his mother but does that at Apollo’s order, led by intentions that are far from being evil, as he seeks justice for his father’s gruesome death. The latter feels compelled to put an end to his son’s life just to save him from his prolonged ordeal. In the last part of Aeschylus’ trilogy, Orestes is saved due to the decision of the jury assembled for this occasion and Athena’s godly intervention. Morpheus could only escape the Furies’ rage through the utmost sacrifice. The strategy of rewriting Greek myths brings Gaiman’s graphic novel closer to Eliot’s dramatic works, as they are also heavily inspired by Aeschylus. R. G. Tanner points out that Eliot himself claimed to use the situation of the Greek tragedies as a starting point for the real-life situations he tried to portray in his plays (Tanner 1970). For instance, Harry, Earl Monchensey, the protagonist of Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1939), is followed by Furies, since he supposedly murdered his wife while they were crossing the Atlantic. Hence, it is possible to treat his character as a modernized version of Orestes.

Although both Gaiman and Eliot use a pattern drawn from the ancient dramatic tradition, they do so in very different ways and with other motives. Eliot tries to discover how Orestes’ story might be translated into the context of the entanglements of modern family life. As suggested by Tanner, Eliot doesn’t simply attempt to replicate Aeschylus’ story in a slightly changed setting but rather to “work out implications in the original tale that are of no concern to Aeschylus” (Tanner 1970). In other words, by basing The Family Reunion’s plot line on The Oresteia, Eliot looks for additional depths of meaning offered by this trilogy, one that might have been unknown to Aeschylus himself. Whereas The Sandman also reinscribes Oresteia in a more contemporary context, it does so mainly to emphasize Morpheus’s dire situation. The Dream Lord must violate the strict rules governing the existence of deities, as it is the only way he can help his son. The moment when he fully embraces his “human” side turns out to be, consequently, the very beginning of his demise.

However, by focusing on Sandman’s death at the end of the series, Gaiman contemplates not only the humanity of a godly figure but also the modes of existence of ideal values that the Dream Lord is said to embody. Back in his palace before this final confrontation, which serves as the climax to Morpheus’s story, the Dream Lord talks with Mathew, both his loyal raven and his friend. Here, some possible answers are hinted as to why Dream and his siblings name themselves ‘the Endless’[11]. While speaking with Mathew, Morpheus contemplates an extraordinary emerald which happens to be one of many receptacles containing shards of his existence, and thus of his power. He acknowledges that the object belongs to the ‘twelve Dreamstones’ he created long ago and which he characterizes in the following terms: ‘The greatest of them, the one into which I put most of myself, was the Ruby. There were others […]. Some of them are scattered. Some have been destroyed’ (no 69). He then focuses on the specific features of the stone, namely on its glowing surface:

Each facet catches the light in its own way. It glints and sparkles and flashes uniquely. It would be almost possible to believe that the facet was the jewel; not jus a tiny part of it. But, then, as we move the jewel another facet catches the light… (no 69)

When questioned by Mathew, the Sandman gives a rather vague answer as to why he pays so much attention to the stone: ‘My point? I have no point, Matthew. Save for the jewel and the facets, and the light. We see an aspect of the whole. But the facet is not the jewel…’ (no 69). The description of the emerald is crucial, since it foreshadows Morpheus’s ultimate decision and also explains the specific rules by which the Endless must abide. Once dead, Morpheus is replaced as the Dream Lord by Daniel Hall who, to some extent, resembles the late monarch. However, Hume argues that, while Daniel even has some of Morpheus’s memories, ‘these memories, though, are just blueprints. We have no grounds for thinking that Morpheus is actually reborn in his replacement’ (Hume 2013). Thus, it is made clear that the Endless cannot really be killed, that what dies being only their temporal, if in some respects immortal, embodiment. In other words, to refer to the above-quoted excerpt from The Kindly Ones, we might say that Morpheus is but a ‘facet’ to the ‘jewel’ which is the function that he occupies. Therefore, figuratively speaking, his successor shall be seen just as another aspect of the same stone, glistening a bit differently. Every single embodiment of the Dream Lord has its individual features, but together they all represent the same entity, the same idea.

The understanding of one’s existence as consisting of various points of view might be regarded in the light of Eliot’s philosophical views. In his doctoral dissertation, concerned with the though of F. H. Bradley, he suggests that the human consciousness is divided into smaller units (called ‘finite centers’):

The point of view (or finite centre) has for its object one consistent world, and accordingly no finite centre can be self-sufficient, for the life of a soul does not consist in the contemplation of one consistent world but in the painful task of unifying (to a greater or less extent) jarring and incompatible ones, and passing, when possible, from two or more discordant viewpoints to a higher which shall somehow include and transmute them. The soul is so far from being a monad that we have not only to interpret other souls to ourself but to interpret ourself to ourself (Knowledge and Experience in the philosophy of F. H. Bradley, p. 147-148).

When it comes to Eliot’s poetry, the most striking example of a character who might be defined exactly as a collection of ‘jarring’ and ‘incompatible’ points of view is, by all means, Tiresias, an ancient prophet who appears in The Waste Land. Many scholars have already emphasized a pivotal role that Tiresias’s figure plays in the structure of Eliot’s masterpiece. For instance, according to Daniel Albright: ‘The Tiresias episode, in the center of the poem’s central part, is the key to the whole’ (Albright 1997). Albright continues to elaborate on this idea, by stating that: ‘perhaps one might even say that what Tiresias is the substance of the poem, since he seems to represent some pan-anthropoid total human sensibility, capable of taking role in any drama […]’ (Albright 1997). In the Notes on the Waste Land, Eliot himself stressed out the all-encompassing nature of Tiresias’ consciousness which is supposed to integrate every other character from the poem:

Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a ‘character’, is yet the most important personage in the poem, What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of the currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact it, is the substance of the poem. (Notes on the Waste Land, p. 74)

If Tiresias is supposed to unify, in his own voice, those belonging to other personages from the poem, he is far from being able to harmonize them into a coherent pattern. In other words, his character contains different ‘facets’, but they do not arrange themselves in any consistent composition. Albright accurately identifies Tiresias’s figure as an unstable and fragile structure designed to bind together incompatible viewpoints:

The discords of the points of view are simply included, not resolved; this is why such characters as […] Tiresias are so difficult to comprehend as carefully sculpted masks in the tradition of Browning’s dramatic monologues. Each character has several faces at once, several mouths, a preposterous number of fingers; for Eliot could not quite conceive how several points of view could be transcended by a character with a fully human shape. (Albright 1997)

Just as Eliot’s Tiresias, the Endless are entities composed of different aspects, different ‘facets’. However, once again, that what is disturbing and chaotic in the world of The Waste Land, proves to be hopeful and reassuring in regards to the Sandman’s story. In the tenth volume of the series, when a wake is held in order to commemorate Morpheus’s death, Abel, one of inhabitants of the Dreaming, remarks that the Sandman, whose adventures we have been following through the last nine issues of the series, was but an aspect of a bigger whole. Abel says that people gathered at Morpheus’s wake are mourning only ‘A […] point of view’ (no 71), since the idea of dream, temporarily embodied by Morpheus, cannot really be killed. Indeed, as Hume suggests, Gaiman’s story should be regarded primarily as a tale about death. She is certainly right, when she argues that ‘[…] one of the whole work’s major arguments is to push for a saner acceptance of death’s necessity, a refusal to fight frantically to live longer and longer no matter what the cost, especially the cost to those around one. (Hume 2013). This kind of a death-focused story should be grim and dreary, but it is not. This is because Gaiman emphasizes that death brings not only sorrow, but also transformation. Morpheus dies, but given that he was only a ‘facet’ to a bigger ‘jewel’, an embodiment of an immortal idea, he can be replaced by someone new, and thus his legacy may go on. The Dream Lord, as well as the inhabitants of the Dreaming, are going through changes, in this respect they differ from ‘[…] the dwellers in the waste land [who – N.G.] can neither think nor feel, and so are struck in their present shapes forever; they are not intent enough, not sensitive enough, to attain any transmutation of self’ (Albright 1997). In other words, metamorphosis is a gift that neither Tiresias, nor any other character from Eliot’s poem, can hope to obtain.

In the first part of The Kindly Ones, Lucien (that is Morpheus’s librarian), quotes directly a passage from Eliot’s Whispers of Immortality : ‘Webster was much possessed by death and saw the skull beneath the skin’ (no 57; Whispers of Immortality, p. 47). Even though this line obviously foreshadows the main theme of the volume (likewise Webster, Gaiman seems to be indeed ‘possessed by death’ while writing The Kindly Ones), it also suggests, to more literate readers who know the title of Eliot’s poem, that this death will not be definitive, since Dream itself is immortal. In one of the last panels of the ultimate issue of this volume, Moirea are seen weaving Morpheus’s thread of life. After finishing it, one of them asks the rest of the trio: ‘What did we make? What was it, in the end?’ (no 69). Her question is then answered in the following way: ‘What it always is. A handful of yarn […]’ (no 69). Here, once again, Gaiman evokes the context of Eliot’s The Waste Land, to which he referred at the very beginning of the series. Appearing in The Sandman’s advertising campaign, Eliot’s ‘handful of dust’ is, in turn, transformed into a handful of yellow grain (in Preludes and Nocturnes) and a handful of yarn (In The Kindly Ones), a word that is used to describe both a thread and a story. Thus, by following the reformulation of one of the most iconical fragments of Eliot’s poem, we might trace the character arc of Morpheus. He begins, in first issues of Preludes and Nocturnes, as a vengeful creature who seeks to harm those who contributed to his imprisonment, but as the story progresses, he tries to right the wrong that he himself has done to others and, finally, he sacrifices himself to help the subjects of his realm. That what is left of him, at the end, is not a handful of dust but a handful of stories. Death brings an end the Sandman’s life, but it also gives it closure, a necessary part of every good tale.

In The Sandman series, quotations and ideas taken from Eliot’s poetical works are being constantly translated into new contexts. They are far from being only a part of marketing campaign, on the one hand, or simple literary curiosities aimed at a public who is well-versed in cultural tradition, on the other. In fact, they play a considerable role in the Morpheus’s story not only by creating a certain ambience in which the dream kingdom is plunged, but also by contributing to the development of specific philosophy that stems fromm Gaiman’s graphic novel – as I tried to prove in the section of my paper about The Kindly Ones. Fragments of The Waste Land or The Whispers of Immortality are reworked and reprocessed by Gaiman’s imagination, which gives new meaning, let alone new life, to Eliot’s masterpieces.


[1] Among the works that explore this subject, special recognition should be given to works of Jan Baetens,(Graphic Novels:Literature without Text?), Ashley K Dallacqua (Exploring Literary Devices in Graphic Novels), and, above all, to the impressive study presented by Andrés Romero-Jódar (The Trauma Graphic Novel), to mention but a few.

[2] Scholars (like Scott Freer) tend to focus rather on the graphic adaptations of Eliot’s works (such as, for instance, Julian Peters’s visual reinterpretation of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock) than on the references to Eliot’s poems in popular comic books.

[3] It is worth noting that this group includes, among others, the comic book adaptation of The Waste Land, created by Martin Rowson. This work, published in 1990, reconciles themes and motifs from the literature of modernism (the works of Henry James, Aldous Huxley and T. S. Eliot) with elements of classic noir detective stories.

[4] Every time I quote excerpts from Eliot’s works, I refer either to the two-volume complete edition of his poems, established by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, or to his philosophical dissertation (Knowledge and Experience in the philosophy of F. H. Bradley). In the main text of the article, I provide the titles of Eliot’s texts and a page number in parentheses.

[5] Funnily enough, in 2021 Neil Gaiman explained on Twitter that the quotation from The Waste Land has been slightly changed by the DC’s legal department out of fear that ‘the T.S. Eliot estate might sue’ (see: https://twitter.com/neilhimself/status/1392721764816355329 [accessed 17 Dec. 2022.]).

[6] Especially in a book published in 1954 under a telling title: Seduction of the Innocent.

[7] As Kathryn Hume points it out in her article about The Sandman as a mythical romance: ‘Gaiman expects his audience to be knowledgeable in two realms, in that of comics and in that of literary culture. His and his artists’ intertextual references to various heroes in the DC Universe abound, but the audience is also expected to recognize a fat man with a moustache named Gilbert as an avatar of G. K. Chesterton, and that same audience must be comfortable with unexplained allusions to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, and Milton. The audience must also be on nodding terms with Maximilien Robespierre, Aleister Crowley, Marco Polo, Greek and Norse mythology, Chinese philosophy, and biblical figures. Readers can enjoy recognizing phrasing influenced by Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot’ (Hume 2013).

[8] Acknowledging the complicated publication history of Gaiman’s graphic novel, I use the same strategy that Hume has adapted for her article, namely, for the sake of convenience, I refer only to comic issues numbers when I quote passages from The Sandman. However, as the reference edition (listed in source texts) I use Vertigo 30th anniversary edition (Gaiman 2018-2019).

[9] Morpheus kills his son in the 49th issue of the series; which is also the epilogue of its 7th volume (called Brief Lives). However, it is noteworthy that he does not do so out of spite or because of a family feud of any sort. Morpheus’s intentions are pure. Orpheus’s death is, in fact, an act of mercy on his father’s side. After his body had been torn apart by a group of frenzied Maenads – with only his head left intact – Orpheus was compelled to lead a miserable and barren existence. His father finally listened to his pleas and agreed to kill him, just to put an end to his sufferings. Nevertheless, Morpheus’s knew that by such an act he would bring upon himself the vengeance of The Furies, haunting those who spill family blood. Hume explains exhaustibly all the intricacies of father-son relationship between the Dream Lord and his offspring: ‘Orpheus’s immature and grief-stricken rejection of his father for not helping him reclaim Eurydice from death should not have caused Morpheus to meet it with a reciprocal rejection and a refusal to deal with the boy’s head. Morpheus acknowledges this failure in paternal love by promising the prophetic head of Orpheus to help him die some three thousand years after the Bacchantes had torn him to pieces. Killing this magic head still amounts to shedding the blood of kin. Morpheus thus knowingly violates the oldest rule of shedding family blood to right a wrong he himself had perpetrated’ (Hume 2013).

[10] That it the realm which Morpheus controls.

[11] In the Sandman’s world, the Endless are a family of anthropomorphic creatures who embody primordial forces of the universe. The family composes of Dream (that is Morpheus) and his siblings: Destiny, Desire, Destruction, Delirium, Death and Despair.

Works Cited

Albright, Daniel. 1997. Quantum Poetics: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and the Science of Modernism. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Auger, Emily E. 2018. “Tarot and T.S. Eliot in Stephen King’s Dark Tower.” Mythlore 36, 2 (132): 185–214.

Dallacqua, Ashley K. 2012. “Exploring Literary Devices in Graphic Novels.” Language Arts 89 (6): 365–78.

Eliot, T.S. 1964. Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley. London: Faber & Faber.

———. 2015. The Poems of T. S. Eliot, Vol. 1: Collected & Uncollected Poems. Edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue. London: Faber & Faber.

———. 2015. The Poems of T. S. Eliot, Vol. 2: Practical Cats & Further Verses. Edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue. London: Faber & Faber.

Freer, Scott. 2020. “Remediating ‘Prufrock.’” Arts 9 (4): 104.

Gaiman, Neil. 2018. The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2018. The Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll’s House, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2018. The Sandman Vol. 3: Dream Country, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2019. The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2019. The Sandman Vol. 5: A Game of You, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2019. The Sandman Vol. 6: Fables & Reflections, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2019. The Sandman Vol. 7: Brief Lives, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2019. The Sandman Vol. 8: World’s End, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2019. The Sandman Vol. 9: The Kindly Ones, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2019. The Sandman Vol. 10: The Wake, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2019. Sandman Vol. 11: Endless Nights, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2019. The Sandman : The Dream Hunters, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

———. 2019. The Sandman: Overture, 30th Anniversary Edition. Burbank, CA: DC Comics/Vertigo.

Hume, Kathryn. 2013. “Neil Gaiman’s Sandman as Mythic Romance.” Genre 46 (3): 345–65.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York, London: Routledge.

Morrison, Spencer. 2015. “Geographies of Space: Mapping and Reading the Cityscape.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Waste Land, edited by Gabrielle Mcintire, 24–38. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Raine, Craig. 2006. T.S. Eliot. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Romero-Jódar, Andrés. 2017. The Trauma Graphic Novel. New York, London: Routledge.

Tanner, R. G. 1970. “The Dramas of T. S. Eliot and their Greek models.” Greece & Rome 17 (2): 123-134.

Norbert Gacek, Jagiellonian University (Kraków)
09.2021 – 06.2022: stay at Sorbonne University (Université Paris Sorbonne – Paris IV) under the Erasmus programme
10.2020 – present: Jagiellonian University, graduate studies in French and comparative literature (Master thesis in comparative literature: T. S. Eliot as a representative of the symbolist movement)
2016-2020: Jagiellonian University, undergraduate studies in French and publishing
Publications in polish:
Gacek Norbert, Niewiędnące kwiaty. Soupir Stéphane’a Mallarmégo – Uśmiechowi mojej Siostry Wacława Rolicza Liedera – powinowactwa, „Ruch Literacki” 2018, no. 6, p. 699-714.

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.


– – – – – –

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.


Bibliographical References

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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.