Hey mon: ‘Go the F— to Sleep’ gets a Jamaican patois translation

(Courtesy of Akashic Books)
(Courtesy of Akashic Books)

No matter what the country or the language, parents all over the world — loving, frustrated, exhausted parents — know what Adam Mansbach means. Since 2011, his comically obscene picture book has sold more than 1.5 million copies in dozens of languages from Afrikaans to Japanese to Nynorsk.And later this year, his little book will venture into new territory with a Jamaican patois translation: “Go de R–s to Sleep.”

“It’s been fascinating to see the ways ‘GTFTS’ translates, both literally and in a cultural sense,” Mansbach said. “You learn a lot about a place, a people, when you start to investigate the way they curse and their take on parenthood and parental frustration. And as someone with a lot of Jamaican and West Indian friends, I’ve gotta say that English takes on some dazzling new hues in those parts of the world. Once you’ve been cursed out by a Jamaican woman, your life will never be the same.”

This latest version of Mansbach’s phenomenal bestseller will be officially released on June 3, giving the publisher, Brooklyn-based Akashic Books, time to ship copies to the Caribbean.

Co-translator Kwame Dawes found that the text resonated with his Jamaican childhood. “The spirit of the book does not seem odd in the context of Jamaican or Caribbean child-rearing ethos,” he says. “There are so many folk songs that sweetly threaten babies who won’t sleep in our tradition. So it is actually quite perfectly suited for Jamaican humor. Indeed, it may be a little mild.”

Patoo a-fly from over de tree dem,

An a-dilly an dally an a-leap.

A piece a fire a-burn inna mi heart, babes.

Me naah lie, shut de r— up an sleep.

Dawes loves the book’s “absurdist disconnect” between the sweet elements of the lullaby and the reality of a parent’s frustration. “This is just plain funny,” he says. “It’s beautiful.”

In a translators’ note, Dawes and his co-translator Kellie Magnus note that while American parents see this book as a comically shocking expression of what they might think but would never say, Jamaican parents are more forthright with their children: “They do not so much fantasize about what to tell the dyamn pickney dem, they just tell the child what they think.” Dawes and Magnus predict that Jamaican children “will be put to bed with this book being read to them, because their parents will read it to them, happily. And no one will be the worse for it.”

Lion an baby lion a snore,

Wrap up inna one sof-sof heap.

How de rass yuh can do every kind of foolishness

But yuh cyaan r— lie down an sleep?

The greatest challenge for Dawes and Magnus was how to translate the lullaby’s all-purpose profanity. “It is an urban Americanized swear word, even if it has probably been used in Jamaica for as long as it has in the U.S.,” they explained. “Perhaps one of the most versatile swear words in Jamaica is r—, and it comes the closest in terms of versatility and easy application.”

Mansbach, who has a 5-year-old daughter, is excited to travel to Jamaica to launch the book at the Calabash festival in late May.

Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books, says “GTFTS” is by far the company’s biggest commercial hit. He’s already looking forward to a Yiddish translation.

Oy vey!

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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