It’s no coincidence that the very first two nursery rhyme anthologies, the song-books of Nancy Cock and Tommy Thumb, were collected and published in 1744 by some merry wags in London. And it’s no exaggeration to say that English language nonsense is rooted in its vibrant and salty tradition of nursery rhymes. Nonsense isn’t supposed to travel well because the humor depends so much on the resources of the language in which it was created. If that were true, then why has Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland has been translated into so many languages? A better explanation might be that when there is a will, there is a way to recast the wordplay so people in another culture can delight in its absurdities.
Old Mother Hubbard and the antics of her dog is another classic of English nonsense that has made people in Europe laugh too, a fact that you won’t learn from the indispensable Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. The Opies recorded the continuation and a sequel “by another hand” issued shortly after the John Harris first edition of 1805, imitations like Old Mother Lantry and her Goat (1819), the first pantomime version of 1833, and a translation into German ca. 1830.
What the Opies didn’t make clear is that it was the 1820 edition in Harris’s “Cabinet of Amusement and Instruction” with the hand-colored wood engravings attributed to Robert Branson that captured imaginations overseas, not the original edition illustrated with etchings. See the beautiful high-relief carvings of the amazing dog’s head in the corners of the elaborate gilt frame of the good old lady’s portrait?
Her steeple-crowned hat on top of a mob-cap, the gown with a laced stomacher and ruffled sleeves over a quilted petticoat, became iconic internationally, as did her dog’s ensemble of an opera hat, powdered wig, waistcoat, breeches, stockings with clocks and buckled shoes. They are both unmistakable in the New Adventures of Mother Hubbard, when they visit the sights of London ca. 1840, the year Victoria married her cousin Albert.
Audot published a French prose translation, Aventures plaisantes de Madame Gaudichon et de son chien, in 1832. Baumgaertner in Leipzig quickly picked it up and repackaged it as an entertaining text carefully annotated for German-speaking children to learn French. The dog is named “Zozo” here (he isn’t called anything in the English original).
The German translation, unlike the French one, is in verse and it tries to preserve something of the rhythm in English. The illustrations are very careful copies of Branston’s for the Harris Cabinet edition, although the colorist occasionally changed the palette. Mother Hubbard’s cloak is still crimson and her stomacher green, but her quilted petticoat is light yellow and her hat pale green with crimson trim. In some of the illustrations, the stomacher is Dutch blue! Frau Hubbard offers her Liebchen a more generous portion of beer than Mother Hubbard did in a stein redrawn with gently swelling contours. Unfortunately it conforms to one national stereotype of Germans as beer swillers…
Mother Hubbard and her spaniel turn up in an 1840 Baumgaertner picture book, Herr Kickebusch und sein Katzchen Schnurr, which seems to be inspired partly by old Dame Trot, the owner of a clever kitty, whose rhyme predated the first appearance of Mother Hubbard both in English and in German translation by a few years. The story accompanying plate VIII describes how Madame Kickebusch, the lady in the Mother Hubbard costume comes to visit Herr Kickebusch with her gallant little gentleman, Azor. Here the two pets are being introduced to each other.
There are no less than four Russian translations of Alice in Wonderland, included one by Vladimir Nabokov, so why not two radically different ones of Mother Hubbard? Russia’s first fine art book publisher Knebel’ was responsible for the earlier one. Josef Nikolaevich Knebel is a fascinating figure, who apparently had no scruples about issuing unauthorized reprints of famous modern Western European picture books like Elsa Beskov’s Olles skifard and Tomtebobarnen. There are no clues in Knebel’ translation of Mother Hubbard, Babushka Zabavushka i sobachka Bum [The Jolly Grandma and her Little Dog Boom], as to who wrote the text or drew the pictures. The mystery author was Raisa Kudasheva (1878-1964), who also translated the Knebel rip-off of one of the Beskow picture books. While the illustrations are in the unmistakable style of W. W. Denslow, whoever drew them was not copying the American’s version of Mother Hubbard.
Of all the versions here, perhaps the closest to the spirit of the English nursery rhyme is the poem Pudel’ [Pudel] by the great Soviet children’s poet, Samuil Marshak. In some people’s opinion, Marshak beats the original cold and they may have a point. To what extent the inspired illustrations by Vladimir Lebedev play into this is impossible to say. It begins something like this: An old lady who loves a quiet life drinking coffee and making croutons. Or would, if she didn’t own a rumbustious purebred poodle. She decides to get him a bone for lunch out of the cupboard, but what does she find inside? The poodle!
There is no end to his naughty tricks. This is what happens when he gets his paws on the old lady’s ball of knitting wool…
Marshak’s spin on Mother Hubbard is still so beloved in Russia that an animated film was made by Nina Shorina in 1985. This version on You Tube has optional subtitles so the poetry and pictures can be enjoyed together by non-Russian speakers.
A world traveler, this very English bit of nonsense!