March 20, 2014

The truth about Lorem Ipsum


There's something there after all.

There’s something there after all.

“Much Madness is divinest Sense,” and the other way around, of course. It turns out that Lorem Ipsum, the dummy text that printers and typesetters use as a placeholder, can in fact be translated. And has an obscure beauty all its own.

In a blogpost for the LRB, Nick Richardson traces the history of Lorem Ipsum back to the sixteenth century, when a printer “mangl[ed] Cicero’s De finibus bonorum et malorum, an exposition of Stoicism, Epicureanism and the Platonism of Antiochus of Ascalon.” But because it has its basis in a real Latin text instead of being pure invention, it’s possible to translate it, which intrepid Cambridge postgraduate Jaspreet Singh Boparai has gone ahead and done, with the following results:

Rrow itself, let it be sorrow; let him love it; let him pursue it, ishing for its acquisitiendum. Because he will ab hold, uniess but through concer, and also of those who resist. Now a pure snore disturbeded sum dust. He ejjnoyes, in order that somewon, also with a severe one, unless of life. May a cusstums offficer somewon nothing of a poison-filled. Until, from a twho, twho chaffinch may also pursue it, not even a lump. But as twho, as a tank; a proverb, yeast; or else they tinscribe nor. Yet yet dewlap bed. Twho may be, let him love fellows of a polecat. Now amour, the, twhose being, drunk, yet twhitch and, an enclosed valley’s always a laugh. In acquisitiendum the Furies are Earth; in (he takes up) a lump vehicles bien.

This is a delicious muddle of customs officers and yeast and vehicles and polecats.  And it’s good to know that this fragment of gently surrealist narrative has been serving printers for so long, instead of discovering, for instance, that we were using a block of legalese or Roman business correspondence.

But it is apparently just the tip of the Ipsum, because it turns out that the hack assemblywork of Renaissance printers has a modern parallel in the random text generating capabilities of the internet. Flarf poetry, @Horse_ebooks when we thought there were no real people behind it, the “What Would I Say” Facebook status and NSA Haiku generators, and a whole bunch of spin-off Lorem Ipsum sites have been mining the possibilities for linguistic experiments on the edge of nonsense.

It’s clearly an irresistible temptation for a lot of programmers: there are Lorem Ipsum generators that combine dialogue from Downton Abbey and The IT Crowd and SpongeBob Squarepants; there are regional generators (the Mainer, the Newfie), and generators that mix and match language often considered to be babble anyway (the po-mo academic paper, corporate-speak, inspirational quotes). As a nearly full-time text generator myself, I don’t see one for book jacket copy, though there is an excellent old school chart for assembling your own blurbs.

These generators are pretty satisfying for people who miss Maurice Moss or have to write academic papers, and give you plenty of useful dummy text, but they don’t often come close to the original’s level of lyricism. Maybe you’re only as good as the guys you steal from? For superior nonsense, it’s best to turn to Lewis Carroll, who, when Lorem Ipsumated, produces passages like this:

Alice laughed. ‘There’s a mile high and down
in an egg, Sir,’ Alice asked, handing her hand and drank some poetry repeated thoughtfully. ‘An
uncomfortable sort of old clothes
than anything else, you know, with some time the
poor Gnat went on growing older.’

‘ONE can’t, you know, with all alive, and thirsty!’

One has the feeling that Carroll would approve.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.