How can a colorless idea be green?

August 14, 2018
The oracle of the dolphins

From Sabine Müller. Thomas Melle and the ten translators from the Merck Social Translating project meet almost every day on the Lectory e-book platform. Their exchange is usually not accessible to outsiders. At this point we give you a little insight into the questions and many creative solutions that are discussed on the platform.

It is only a few clicks of the mouse that separate the author Thomas Melle and the ten translators of his novel “The World at Your Back”. A closed virtual room is available to them on the Lectory e-book platform in which they can meet and exchange ideas. Those involved can post translation-related questions and / or comments on text passages or as general comments from anywhere and at any time. A mark in the digital edition of the book on the left and a comment on the right half of the screen are visible to everyone and allow further reactions and entire series of comments. Not only verbal contributions are possible, but links, photos and videos can also be placed directly at the given place for everyone to see.
At this point we offer selected examples of this lively exchange, which show which questions and considerations the translators deal with when translating the novel into their respective language with a clear distance to German-speaking experiences and living environments and which references the author with comments in Creates words, sounds and images for a deeper understanding of his text.

Exchange on the term "dolphins jumped out of my mouth"

Under the year 1999, chapter 30, during the first manic phase, on the verge of collapse. The author roams restlessly through Berlin, distributes leaflets, behaves conspicuously. Memories of scenes that occurred on his forays through the city or at events as well as reactions from friends and strangers alternate with thoughts and fragments of thoughts.
© Goethe-Institut Korea via

Text passage
Dolphins jumped out of my mouth, and colorless green ideas slept furiously again.
Translator 1
Is it only referring to the animal or is it also referring to the oracle of Delphi?
Thomas Melle
No, just the animals, but of course the connotation is quite nice.
Translator 1
Then the picture seems a bit surreal to me ... what do the animals stand for? Or is there perhaps such a phrase?
Thomas Melle
No, there is no idiom. In fact, the image is surreal and a little pointless. In connection with this, the Chomsky quote afterwards: “The linguist Noam Chomsky referred to the sentence“ Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. ” (German: "Colorless green ideas sleep angrily.") as an example of a nonsensical, but syntactically grammatical sentence. Logically this makes no sense, because ideas are not green and do not sleep; what is green cannot be colorless, and angry sleep is eliminated. In poetry, on the other hand, such a sentence can definitely have a meaning. Accordingly, nonsense is not necessarily characterized by a lack of meaning. As a metaphor, there could be “colorless green ideas” in a figurative sense. This gives the sentence a new meaning. “Green ideas” could be the ideas of green politics. These appear to some people as "colorless" (in the sense of not being noticeable), they are still sleeping, but are already active "under the covers". Interpreted in this way, the sentence has meaning. Whether this is understandable is decided on another level. “Https://
Thomas Melle
So it is so, maybe that the nonsense in my head has just taken over. The dolphin use is just a quick example, and visually it can also be taken literally, like in a comic. The dolphins are part of the nonsense, and the reader doesn't quite know what that is about.
Translator 1
Okay, then it would be better to literally translate the sentence into Japanese. Thanks for the reference to Chomsky's sentence!
Thomas Melle
Yes, literally. In German it makes as little or as much sense as it just seems to you. Like a sharp comic picture with no meaning for the further course of the story. Quite a mini surrealism. With pleasure, greetings

The “jumping dolphins” surprise the reader at this point in the text due to their surreal context. The reference to Chomsky in the following part of the sentence is not familiar to every reader. The exchange makes it clear which further (literary and philosophical) dimensions the novel receives through its references.

Recommended reading: The title of linguist and influential intellectual Noam Chomsky, referred to by Thomas Melle, is Syntactic Structures. It was published in 1957 in Mouton, Den Haag and in 1989 by de Gruyter, Berlin / New York in 1989.