In and Out of Weeks.

Daniel Hahn’s piece on translating children’s books (archived) in the special issue of the New York Times Book Review on translation I wrote about here starts with one of the best examples of what a translator should be able to deal with that I’ve seen:

In “Where the Wild Things Are,” the boy Max finds himself sailing off, in a private boat, “through night and day / and in and out of weeks / and almost over a year,” to the eponymous land. There are about a thousand little components that combine to make “Where the Wild Things Are,” for me, one of the greatest of American books, and among them is that brief phrase “in and out of weeks.” It is entirely new, yet comprehensible, positioning the reader right in the middle of that experience of time passing.

Another writer might express a roughly similar idea in more predictable terms, of course. But Maurice Sendak was a genius, and any paraphrase will always diminish him.

Over its 60 years, “Where the Wild Things Are” has been translated into several dozen languages. I’ve looked at many of the translations, and I have yet to find one that makes that line as interesting as Sendak’s. The translators seem to assume that dull simplicity is good enough (it’s only a children’s book, after all), that “in and out of weeks” is essentially no different than “for several weeks” and that, in short, blunt meaning trumps everything.

The inadequacy of the world’s “Where the Wild Things Are” translations is one of my pet peeves. (We translators can be demanding.) Sendak’s book is marvelous across so many dimensions, and I feel the losses keenly — more keenly than is perhaps reasonable. But I believe my job as a translator is to preserve all the dimensions of a book, not just one of them. When I find complexity, my job is to keep complexity, or more accurately to reconstruct it. And some of the most complex books I’ve reconstructed have been children’s picture books.

He goes on to give examples from his own experience, including an extended discussion of a passage from Brazilian (Roger Mello’s picture-book João by a Thread), but I really like that Sendak example. If you render it as if it were “for several weeks,” you’ve failed the test.

I checked a couple of Russian versions: Maria Blinkina-Melnik has “неделю за неделей” (‘week after week’) and Timur Maisak has the slightly more marked “от недели к неделе” (‘from week to week’). I don’t know if there’s a good way to produce an equivalent to “in and out of weeks” that would be similarly enstranged, but I wish they’d tried harder.


  1. It’s such a strange expression. I wonder if it popped into Sendak’s head, and he put it down precisely because he himself didn’t quite know what it meant.

    (Which doesn’t excuse the translators. Especially the Russian ones.)

  2. Kornei Chukovsky would have done something brilliant with it.

  3. Trond Engen says

    It’s good. but it’s also exactly the same image as the older week in (and) week out, which corresponds closely to Norwegian uke inn (og) uke ut and (with a different noun) German tagein tagaus. I wonder if Sendak’s form could be a calque from a language that expresses the idea differently.

  4. Jen in Edinburgh says

    ‘In and out of weeks’ is good, but I actually prefer ‘almost over a year’.

  5. Yes, that’s excellent as well. He was really amazing.

  6. Trond Engen says

    Now that you say it, it’s how he uses prepositions in the whole sentence.

    through night and day,
    and in and out of weeks,
    almost over a year.

    It’s as if he’s sailing his boat on the very structure of time.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    That should pass easily into German, something like

    Durch Tag und Nacht,
    Die Wochen rein und raus,
    Fast über ein Jahr drüber.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    The difficulty for the translator is that, at least as used there, “in and out of weeks” is from the point of view of the semantics of ordinary English, nonsense. And thus perhaps poetry. So a translation that is not nonsense-or-perhaps-poetry in the target language has failed. I checked the google books corpus for “in and out of [days/months/years]” and found nothing other than false-positive hits from bad OCR’ing except this bit of poetry:

    Tall years, take me.
    Lead me in
    and out of months, weeks and days
    of my childhood, my youth.”

    This from a memoir (of being young during WW2 in occupied Poland and having adventures which were picaresque and exciting until they got her sent to Auschwitz) by Lilka Trzcinska-Croydon titled “The Labyrinth of Dangerous Hours,” which title I suppose also exhibits Sendak’s ploy of muddling up time and space for poetic effect.

    Note that as a matter of basic English syntax/semantics the “Lead me” set-up makes the “in and out of” grammatically acceptable rather than nonsense/poetry.

  9. The difficulty for the translator is that, at least as used there, “in and out of weeks” is from the point of view of the semantics of ordinary English, nonsense.

    Which is to say, it’s a (good) children’s book. It is the business of anyone who deals with such books, as writer or translator, to be able to produce inspired nonsense.

  10. How are Chukovsky’s translations of Whitman?

    (Russian speakers loved to translate Chukovsky into Hebrew, so there was plenty of him when I was a kid. They were kinda old kids’ books then, but that’s what I read.)

  11. The public library here in Columbia has the original scenery, painted with trees and monsters on both sides, from the stage production of Where the Wild Things Are. Sendak was adamant that the sets should go somewhere that kids could interact with and touch and enjoy them.

    I think it’s also interesting how his illustrations evolved as he worked. The first bunch of wild things Max meets are highly variable in their sizes and body plans, but by the start of the wild rumpus, he is drawing them all as bipedal creatures of uniform height and girth. (Some of my not-very-clear thoughts about this issue are located here.) Also, I don’t know whether this was an intentional allusion, but Max’s trick of frightening the wild things by staring them down always made me think of The Jungle Book. Bagheera tells Mowgli that no animal, not even he himself, can look a human steadily in the face. Even of a youth like Mowgli, the animals are too afraid.

  12. How are Chukovsky’s translations of Whitman?

    They look (sound) good to me.

  13. has “неделю за неделей” (‘week after week’) and Timur Maisak has the slightly more marked “от недели к неделе”

    I have no idea what the English original means (:(() but the Russian language does have in-out construction: изо дня в день, [из недели в неделю,] из года в год.

  14. Dutch version as published:

    En hij wegzeilde door nacht en dag.
    Week uit, week in,
    Bijna een jaar lang
    Tot waar de maximonsters wonen.

    “Wild things” becomes “maximonsters.” The phrases in question are standard Dutch idioms, no wordplay like “in and out of weeks.” But “he sailed away” becomes “hij wegzeilde” (“he awaysailed”). Sometimes if you can’t translate the wordplay in the exact phrase, you can do it in an adjacent one.

  15. cuchuflete says

    Sometimes the unheralded translator does damned fine work. I raised my sons bi-lingual, and the search for Spanish children’s books in pre-internet days meant taking a chance on whatever the local indy bookseller had on hand. Thus I came home with Harry y el Terrible Quiensabequé.

    Many years later, one of my boys asked about the English title. Books in Print informed us that it was Harry and the Terrible Whatzit. I gave thanks to both author and translator for jobs well done.

  16. “Almost over a year” sounds like something a real kid might say, unlike “in and out of weeks”. (Not a criticism of either phrase. )

  17. The phrase we’re discussing repeats itself in Max’s voyage home after he leaves the Wild Rumpus:

    but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye

    and sailed back over a year
    and in and out of weeks
    and through a day

    and into the night of his very own room
    where he found his supper waiting for him

    and it was still hot.

    This makes it clear that the entire adventure takes 15 or 20 minutes.

    It seems to me that an attempt to translate these phrases with words that convey a literal meaning concerning the passage of time, such as “week after week,” is a mistake. The transitions here are clear: Max, who has been sent to bed without supper, is in an uncontrollable rage; after five minutes or so, the rage becomes a fantasy of power and destruction; more minutes pass, and he is able to bring his emotions back under a degree of control; after a few more minutes he becomes calm, and returns to his ordinary family life. There are no nights, days, weeks or years in any literal or even imaginary sense and it’s just wrong to try to translate the text as if there are. What Max is experiencing is a suspension of ordinary time and that’s what the phrases convey.

    I have to say that I don’t see why there’s a difficulty of translation here. I would think that any translator who can manage “in and out of rooms” should be able to manage “in and out of weeks.” What am I missing?

  18. David Marjanović says

    That should pass easily into German, something like

    Not bad… not bad at all.

  19. Aru Hito says

    If anyone knows Japanese, I wonder if this sounds too prosaic:

    (His boat sailed) / through night and day / and in and out of weeks /
    and almost for a year

    (彼のボートは)/ 昼も夜も
    (航行して)/ 数週間に入っていても数週間を出ていても / そしてほぼ1年間にわたった

    “In and out of weeks” :


  20. Giacomo Ponzetto says


    I have to say that I don’t see why there’s a difficulty of translation here. I would think that any translator who can manage “in and out of rooms” should be able to manage “in and out of weeks.” What am I missing?

    That may be true so long as you’re translating from English into another Germanic language. If you’re translating into a Romance language, however, you cannot lean on propositions to craft a phrase with Sendak’s quality of inspired nonsense, estranged yet intelligible. It’s just not the way the language works: Italians don’t run up and downs the stairs; we ascend and descend the stairs running.

    You could go all in and use verbs of travel that usually take space rather than time as the object, but then you sound quite literary and archaic. I tried it and inadvertently fell into hendecasyllables:

    e in barca attraversò la notte e il giorno
    percorse settimane e settimane
    e quasi valicato un anno giunse
    dove vivono le furie scatenate

    I’m sure a good translator would be capable of avoiding regular metre, but I’m more skeptical Sendak’s estrangement can be translated into Italian while also matching the simplicity of his four lines — throughout them almost is the only word that is not monosyllabic!

    The first Italian translator of Where the Wild Things Are was a poet, Antonio Porta, and he chose to go for simplicity over estrangement. It seems a respectable choice.

    Still, I dare take issue with the enduring title Il Paese dei mostri selvaggi. That back-translates to The Land of Savage Beasts with Max’s mom calling him a savage. Is that quite the same as Sendak’s original? Max’s mom calls him “WILD THING!” and his room turns into “where the wild things are.” In my mom’s Italian, that’s certainly “FURIA SCATENATA!” and “dove vivono le furie scatenate.” I suppose she has always had a propensity for literary archaisms.

    On a related note of the opposite sign, I was shocked to discover that the text of Richard Scarry’s books is not originally in rhyming verse like the Italian translation I grew up with.

  21. That should pass easily into German, something like

    Unfortunately that’s not what the translator did. The official German text is

    Und plötzlich war da ein Meer mit einem Schiff, nur
    für Max, und er segelte davon, Tag und Nacht
    und wochenlang fast ein ganzes Jahr bis zu dem
    Ort, wo die wilden Kerle wohnen.

  22. David Marjanović says

    and inadvertently fell into hendecasyllables

    …as one does…

  23. Question for Russian speakers: would “в одну неделю и из другой” have anything like the desired effect?

  24. David Marjanović says

    (It works beautifully on me, not that that matters. Gives a sense of blurry meandering or quantum teleportation.)

  25. i think the flipping of “week in, week out” is the main thing happening in the phrase – and so beautifully! i hear a little bit of a yiddish* modernist poetics in the fluid slides between time & space there (not unlike “breyshesdik” [in-the-beginning-ly], which avrom sutskever used a number of times to describe physical actions, and maybe coined).

    and to Brett’s point, sendak said that the wild things were in part modeled on his aunts and uncles: the large, loud, chaotic (and loving) older people present at family gatherings. i think the consolidation towards a uniform size/shape is part of his tightening up that reference point (which to me is about the common kid experience of preferring those elders to ones own parents, transformed into a form that imagines them more focused on the kid than they generally are).

    * which has “vokh oys, vokh ayn”, with the meaning amplified/shifted a bit by “vokhedik” [of-the-week] meaning “worldly / secular” (in contrast to “shabesdik” [of-the-day-of-rest-and-prayer] “hallowed / set apart”).

  26. Giacomo Ponzetto-

    I do understand that English in unusual in its heavy use of verb-preposition combinations. But I don’t understand the translation problem presented in this specific case. I say this without sarcasm; I don’t speak Italian and perhaps I am missing something.

    I’m far too ignorant to comment on the style of your translation. But i do think I can say that when you write “e quasi valicato un anno” – and spent almost a year – you’re missing the key to the passage: that it does not purport to be an accurate description of the passage of time, and any translation that allows the reader to calculate the time Max is at sea fails to grasp that the story is a child’s angry fantasy in which real-world time-keeping has no place. On this point, if a translation makes sense, then it is wrong.

    So what can we do, given the difference in languages, to translate what Sendak is up to?

    We are told that Max is sailing. He is sailing, first, through night and day. That’s idiomatic English and shouldn’t be hard to translate. But then we learn that he is sailing in and out of things (“weeks”) that aren’t things you can sail into and out of. How do we deal with this?

    Well, sailors – including Italian ones – do sail into and out of other things. Harbors, for example. And it shouldn’t be hard to describe what an Italian sailor does with harbors – maybe one of the following:

    Ha navigato dentro e fuori dai porti
    Entrava e usciva dai porti
    Entrò ed uscì dai porti

    If one or more of these would work for “He sailed in and out of harbors,” why not for weeks, i.e. one or more of:
    Ha navigato dentro e fuori dai settimane
    Entrava e usciva dai settimane
    Entrò ed uscì dai settimane

    I would prefer the last of these, if it’s permissible, because it has the fewest syllables.

    So let me try again. Sendak tells us:

    He sailed off through night and day
    and in and out of weeks
    and almost over a year
    to where the wild things are.

    “He sailed off” presumably is “È salpato” or “Salpò.”
    “Through night and day” is perhaps “attraverso la notte e il giorno,” or just “per la notte e il giorno.”
    Again, shorter would be better.

    Next, “and in and out of weeks,” which would be one of the options above.

    And then, “and almost over a year,” which is intentionally a childish phrasing, but perhaps could be rendered “e quasi più di un anno.”

    And lastly, “to where the wild things are,” which is straightforward, isn’t it? “dove sono le cose selvagge.”

    So a more or less literal translation, undoubtedly with some infelicitous word choices but preserving the oddness of the English, might be:

    Salpò per la notte e il giorno,
    ed entrò ed uscì dai settimane
    e quasi più di un anno
    dove sono le cose selvagge.

    I found the Antonio Porto translation (which calls the wild things “Monstri Selvaggi”) – here
    and it appears that Porto didn’t try to capture the slightly off-kilter, not-entirely-sensical feel of the original. “In and out of weeks” becomes “per mese e mese” – by month and month. You can tell me if that’s idiomatic or a little odd. (I presume weeks become months because the word settimane is a bit clumsy.)

    But for the final temporal phrase, “almost over a year,” Porto has, “un anno o poco più” – a year or a little bit more – which to me is just wrong. The text’s specification of time is not merely vague but self-contradictory. “A year or a little bit more” is an estimate, while Sendak’s phrase – “almost over a year” – is an error, except in the fantasy world that we have entered and are beginning to explore. Remember, we will soon learn that in real time Max’s fantasy is so brief that his dinner does not have time to cool. We can’t overstate how important this fact is – this is the story of a child’s blinding rage, which cools more quickly than his dinner does.

    I don’t believe that Italian is so bereft of inventive possibility that it can’t capture Sendak’s intent. I’ve presumptuously tried to do so here, and no doubt I’ve failed, but I do think that a sympathetic translator should be able to manage it.

  27. The Hebrew translation was done by Uriel Ofek.

    When Max leaves, the passage reads,

    וְהוּא הִפְלִיג בָּהּ לַמֶרְחַקִּים וְשָׁט דֶּרֶךְ לַיְלָה וְיוֹם
    אֶל תּוֹךְ שָׁבוּעוֹת וָחֳדָשִׁים
    וְעַל פְּנֵי שָׁנָה וְיוֹתֵר

    …and he voyaged in it far away and sailed through night and day
    into weeks and months
    and on top of a year and more…

    and when he returns, it reads,

    וְהִפְלִיג עַל פְּנֵי שָׁנָה וְיוֹתֵר
    לְאֹרֶךְ שָׁבוּעוֹת וָחֳדָשִׁים
    וְדֶרָךְ יוֹם בָּהִיר

    …and he voyaged on top of a year and more
    along weeks and months
    and through a bright day…

    It’s really nice. All the prepositions are slightly off, but the reader gets the gist of them.

    (‘Over’ would usually be a better translation of עַל פְּנֵי ‘on the face of’, as in Genesis 1:2, and what you’d use in ‘sailing over the sea’, but in this context English ‘over’ would read as a standard preposition meaning ‘lasting longer than’. I translated לְאֹרֶךְ as ‘along’, but it also means ‘the length of’, emphasizing duration. ‘Night and day’ also ambiguously reads ‘a night and a day’.)

    Ofek was a very prolific children’s writer and translator, and the author of academic works on children’s literature, active in the 1960s and 1970s, I think. He did not have the sensibility of a poet (like many older translators into Hebrew), but as this shows, he was conscientious and precise. It’s fine, but even as a kid, I remember his writing felt just a little like it came out of a lab, even if a very good lab.

  28. I think Sendak grew up bilingual in English and Yiddish, and he might have known other languages as well. I wonder whether he ever considered translating any of his books himself. (I don’t think he ever did any such translations though.)

  29. דֶרָךְ s.b. דֶרֶךְ.

  30. would “в одну неделю и из другой” have anything like the desired effect?

    Good idea. I would make it “за неделей в неделю”. The common expressions are “неделю за неделей” and “из недели в неделю”, so there is a mangled common expression and a sense of in and out. Maybe even “за неделями в неделю”.

  31. I like it!

  32. Giacomo Ponzetto says


    I don’t believe that Italian is so bereft of inventive possibility that it can’t capture Sendak’s intent.

    I cannot presume to know Sendak’s intent, and you and I seem to read both English and Italian rather differently. Perhaps that’s why I see the Romance blanket as shorter than you do.

    Nonetheless, the evidence is fully in favor of my pessimism until someone produces a Romance translation (I’ll take Catalan, French, Portuguese or Spanish; my Romanian is non-existent) that works on all accounts.

    What you’re suggesting is word-for-word translation. That hardly ever works and it definitely doesn’t work for me here. Let’s go in order.

    1. He sailed off through night and day. As you say: “That’s idiomatic English and shouldn’t be hard to translate.” Unfortunately, the latter doesn’t follow from the former. The English idiom treats time as space and sends Sendak off doing the same more generally and non-idiomatically. No such idiom is immediately available in Italian. You could say, very briefly and idiomatically,

    navigò notte e giorno.

    However, I think you can say that identically in English too (“he sailed night and day”) and it misses Sendak’s point, doesn’t it? There’s no way you can read into it any equating of time and space.

    If you insist on having your proposition, you get to the matter-of-fact

    navigò per una notte e un giorno

    which is a total disaster, and again seems identically available in English (“he sailed for a night and a day”).

    Again, I remain convinced the problem is that you’re trying to bludgeon your way into replicating the original English with Romance propositions that cannot do the same job. That problem is sharper, if I may, when you suggest translating “He sailed off” with “Salpò.” The dictionary will support this choice, of course, but salpare only denotes the very act of departure. It cannot then be followed by an ever-lengthening series of time periods through which the sailing happens. You wouldn’t be saying that Max spent night, day, weeks, a year at sea, but rather that he took that long just to leave his mooring.

    2. and in and out of weeks. This is the starting point of the whole thread, and I admit I have little in the way of objective argument. Subjectively, I find the literal translation does not convey at all the same feeling as Sendak’s original. You can say:

    e entrò e uscì dalle settimane

    (settimana is a feminine noun and requires agreement of the article). That does mean that he was constantly getting in and out of weeks, as one might more idiomatically out of hospital or out of jail. What it does miss for me is any sense of nonsensical inspiration bordering on poetry. YMMV, of course.

    3. and almost over a year. Here we read English differently, and probably I’m wrong as a non-native speaker. Yet to me Sendak is again playing with the fact that twice out of three times English idiomatically allows treating time as space. You find “almost over a year” a childish error. I find it a playful, perhaps childlike, poetic exploration of how far you can stretch the analogy of time and space. “He sailed almost over a year” is estranged but “he sailed almost over the Dogger Bank” seems perfectly idiomatic to me, and I take that as the point. A point that is, of course, totally lost when you translate literally

    e quasi più di un anno

    We’re back to square one: “navigò notte e giorno … e quasi più di un anno” translates Sendak literally but means “he sailed night and day … and almost more than a year,” which seems dull and flat to me once the original propositions are gone.

    Here we also read Italian differently, and I do think I can say my native reading is right and yours is wrong: “e quasi valicato un anno” does not mean “and spent almost a year” because valicare is a verb of motion that takes space and not time as its object. It’s roughly equivalent to English cross and takes as its typical objects a mountain range or an ocean. That’s why it works for me as analogous to the original. Just as you can have sailed almost over the Dogger Bank, you can have almost crossed the ocean. And you can have almost crossed the year mark, but can you have almost crossed the year? Even as a back-translation, “having almost crossed the year” without the final mark that makes it idiomatic seems (to me) to get close enough to Sendak’s childlike playing with what language lets you or doesn’t let you get away with in terms of treating time as space.

    4. to where the wild things are. You cannot translate this literally. But that’s beside the point.

  33. “On top of a year”: Aha, Ofek read “over a year” with its other possible meaning.

  34. David Marjanović says

    “He sailed almost over a year” is estranged but “he sailed almost over the Dogger Bank” seems perfectly idiomatic to me, and I take that as the point.

    Interesting idea. I took for granted that it’s “almost more than a year”, which is a very unidiomatic self-contradiction* that fits the combination of poetry, childishness, fantasy and all that.

    “Thing”, BTW, is never applied to “living things” even in German.

    * Theoretically it could mean “exactly a year”, but that wouldn’t make it any more idiomatic.

  35. Trond Engen says

    Sendak must have liked it for its vagueness — or unspecific multivalency. “Almost across a year” “Almost crossing a year” “Almost passing above a year”. They’re all possible and adds to the mystery.

  36. @Rodger: Now I think about it, “upon” is the word I should have used.

  37. PlasticPaddy says

    Trapassare can be used of both place and time but presumably would not fit here either.

  38. @Martin
    I think it still approximates it right there as well. After all the normal phrase is week in, week out. Not week out, week in. Perhaps less elegant than may be desirable, but it doesn’t render it plain.

  39. It occurred to me to wonder how Peter Schickele* handled this line in the 1973 film adaptation, especially since Sendak was involved with the production. However, it turns out that Schickele does not do much with, “…and in and out of weeks…”; it is actually one of the least emotive lines in his delivery—getting notably less emphasis than the following, “… and almost over a year…,” for example.

    * Schickele both narrated the English-language version of the film and wrote the music. I imagine it was his primarily his skill in the latter department that got him the job.

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