‘Alice's Adventures in Wonderland’ – The Translating Challenge - Part 1

August 18th, 2015

In the 150-year history of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it’s been translated into all major languages, including many minor ones.

‘Alice's Adventures in Wonderland’ – The Translating Challenge - Part 1 | One Hour Translation

In the 150-year history of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it’s been translated into all major languages, including many minor ones – even some which were invented or are now extinct. For the sheer number of linguistic variations only a few other children’s books and some religious texts can rival Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. One such children’s book is The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint- Exupéry a French writer.
A Lewis Carroll Masterpiece

Alice was penned in 1865 by Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) who was an English scholar, and this book’s delight in cultural parodies and wordplay makes it a translator’s nightmare. So-much-so that it’s a wonder any translations of Alice exist at all!

Puns and Cultural References

For example: how would one write about the Mouse’s tale and not lose the obvious and all-important pun on ‘tail’? Some languages don’t even use puns, like the Aboriginal tongue Pitjantjatjara. And what does one do when an idiom is taken literally by a character? For instance, the Caterpillar tells Alice to explain herself. Alice replies: ‘I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir, because I’m not myself, you see.’

This Victorian novel creates other problems with its cultural references. Our British contemporaries would know that mercury exposure made the Hatter mad, but in other parts of the world hat-makers didn’t use mercury. And why would one translate a parody of a well-known British poem for Arabic readers who haven’t seen the original?

‘Alice in a World of Wonderlands’

Alice in a World of Wonderlands’ is a massive new work, devoting three volumes to the exploration of these and other questions. The books are published by Oak Knoll Press and include essays by 251 writers, all analysing this much-loved children’s book in 174 languages. These are scholarly essays, but they’re peppered with anecdotes highlighting the peculiarities of culture and language as they relate to Lewis Carroll’s book.

Alice Exhibition

An exhibition on Alice translations is opening in September in New York City at the Grolier Club, and this project began as a catalogue to accompany the exhibition. Jon Lindseth is the general editor and he said of the exhibition: ‘It’s gotten bigger by a long shot’. Lindseth has his own extensive collection of Alice books and this was the inspiration for this huge undertaking. He believes that this could be the most extensive analysis ever completed of an English-language novel in so many different languages.

Michael Everson is a language and typography scholar and he believes the inherent difficulty of this novel is part of its appeal. He added that people seem to enjoy the Alice challenge because it’s actually a lot of fun: struggling to find a pun that works in your language, even though it really shouldn’t, and so on.

Gujarati is a western Indian tongue, and a Gujarati translator was able to capture the tail/tale pun for Gujarati readers. When someone is talking incessantly it’s conveyed with the phrase poonchadoo nathee dekhatun; meaning ‘no end in sight’ – this allowed the translator to play on the word for ‘tail’ - poonchadee, with poonchadoo.

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