National Limerick Day

Many people would say that poetry is the highest form of language, not only requiring careful selection of the right word for the right thought, but also fitting it to a rhythm and often a rhyme scheme.  This often leads it to be labelled ‘untranslatable’ – although in fact there’s a long history of good translated poetry.

No form is probably more untranslatable than the humble limerick, a form with the rhyme pattern A-A-B-B-A, probably originating in France in the middle ages.

Popularised in the 19th century by Edward Lear (whose birthday is today, 12th May), it is now best known as ‘funny’ poetry. Since his first volume was published in 1845, almost all poets have tried their hand at one at some point or another, from Shakespeare to Dylan Thomas.

As a less serious, short form, it’s ideal for wordplay, which makes it even harder to faithfully render in another language:

A tutor who taught on the flute

Tried to teach two tooters to toot.

Said the two to the tutor,

“Is it harder to toot, or

To tutor two tooters to toot?” – Carolyn Wells (1869-1942)


While it’s relatively straightforward to translate a reminder for interpreters not to talk with their mouth full into German, something like this would take much more skill:

There was a translator from Leeds

Who often ate peanuts and seeds

She’d limit her snacking

To when she’s not working

To meet your interpreting needs.[1]


I’m not a translator, and far from fluent, but couldn’t resist trying. The closest I got was:

Ein guter Dolmetscher aus Leeds

Genoss den Klang eines Liedes.

Er sang nie zu laut;

Es war zu unvertraut.

Es sprach von dem Schmerz eines Abschieds.


This is more sad than funny. We’re sure you can do better, so please send your translations and localisation-themed limericks in!

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