Can You Translate a Palindrome?

Published on Mar 17, 2020

by Marcos Dinnerstein

Summary: Palindromes are firmly wedded to their source languages and cannot be translated.

In days and days of searching language and translation websites and blogs, I don’t find a single case where a palindrome in one language can be translated directly into a palindrome in another language. Even in cases where you have cognates those will not read the same in both directions for both languages. 

Translation is impossible. We’ll surrender to that fact and review some languages where people enjoy finding and playing with palindromes. There may be no English translation for a palindrome in French, German, Dutch, Italian, or Chinese but that’s what makes languages unique. Let’s celebrate that uniqueness and how palindromes blithely defy translation.

Here are some of my favorites, with commentary: 

English Palindromes

This one is clever for combining two well-known people from different era’s. And it’s a great one to visualize.

“Ed, I saw Harpo Marx ram Oprah W. aside.”

"Was it a cat I saw?" And was it a

"Senile feline"? 

"Do geese see God"?

That question then leads to the question, would a goose’s god have feathers and webbed feet?

German Palindromes

“Ein Esel lese nie”

This one translates as, ‘A donkey should never read’. Wise words indeed!

And in a related vein we have, 

“Reit’ nie tot ein Tier!” 

This translates as “Never ride an animal to death”. This seems like a decent thing to do, especially for donkeys, who are barred from reading.

And for those who like snarky remarks we have, 

“O Genie, der Herr ehre dein Ego!” 

The translation of that is, “O Genius, let the Lord praise your ego!” Ouch!

French Palindromes

“Engage le jeu que je le gagne“ 

The English translation of this is, “Kick off the game, so that I win it” We love a positive attitude!

Continuing  with our animal theme we have, 

“Élu par cette crapule“. 

The English translation is, “Elected by that toad.” If we kiss the toad, will it change into a prince? You go first.

Our next animal-themed palindrome is,

Eh, ça va la vache ? 

The translation for this is, “Hey, how is it, cow?” Who doesn’t like speaking with cows?

Italian Palindromes

And the final animal example is,

“I topi non avevano nipoti” 

We have the sad duty to tell you this translates as, “The mice had no grandsons". 

“Otto, l'ateo poeta, lottò” "

Otto, the atheist poet, fought" is how we translate the tale of this non-believer.

Chinese Palindromes

For those who know about languages that use word units, such as Chinese you won’t be surprised to learn about word-unit palindromes. That means that the series of units can be read in reverse and will be an intelligible sentence. 

Chinese palindromes can be more complex than those in Western languages in that some can be read forward, backward, horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. This is the case with a poem by the poet Su Hui.  She lived from 365-427 C.E and the poem below, Star Gauge, is the only surviving example of her work. This palindromic poem is a grid of 29 x 29 characters that can be read in 2,848 different ways. It is truly a towering intellectual achievement and a rare thing of beauty.

You’ll enjoy reading more about this exceptional woman and the masterful poem she created in: Su Hui and the Star Gauge

And don't miss
Weird Al performing, Bob (an assortment of palindromes)


More on Wordplay

English Translation: Eggcorns, Homophones and Mondegreens

Spanish Translation of Wordplay From English


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