‘Alice's Adventures in Wonderland’ – The Translating Challenge - Part 2

August 18th, 2015
‘Alice's Adventures in Wonderland’ – The Translating Challenge - Part 2 | One Hour Translation

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.

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Michael Everson – Alice in Blissymbols

Michael Everson is the owner of the publishing house Evertype, specialising in esoterical. He has published 50 editions of Alice under this banner; including an extinct Germanic language, one in Gothic, and one in Nyctographic, which is an alphabet that Carroll invented. Currently, Everson himself is translating Alice in Blissymbols: this is a visual language, adapted for people who are unable to speak. Everson said that he’s using visual puns wherever possible in the translation because there’s no phonology. Everson’s approach illustrates something that’s common to all successful translations of Alice.

Testing Translators’ Skills

Emer O’Sullivan is an expert on children’s literature in translation, working at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, in Germany. O’Sullivan says that you have to be extremely creative to be able to successfully translate Alice in Wonderland. He said that the translations where there’s no creativity are quite hilarious!

A really good test of a translator’s skills is the Mad Tea-Party scene with its parodied verses, linguistic jokes and puns. Some translators simply leave out parts of scenes; while the Xhosa translator dispensed with the entire chapter for South African readers. The scene has been back-translated from each language in the second volume of Alice in a World of Wonderlands (meaning it’s been re-translated into English); with copious footnotes. The translation results show how different translators will approach the same problem.

Differences in Translation

In the Swahili translation, the dormouse is a bush baby and the Hatter wears a fez. In the 1910 edition, Alice is not offered tea by the Hatter: this is probably because in Japan at that time it was inappropriate for men to serve drinks or food to women. Some of the other translations have been altered to the point that readers might wonder if any of the original Alice remains.

O’Sullivan says that there are so many things in Alice in Wonderland that can be identified as being Carrollian. One wonders how many of these would have to be fulfilled for the reader to say ‘This is Alice in Wonderland?’ Perhaps it’s just a question of degree, because all translations are adaptations.

Three volumes of Alice in a World of Wonderlands does sound pretty extensive, but they’re still no match for the on-going popularity of Lewis Carroll. Still, today, we’re seeing new translations of Alice. It was only a few months ago that an emoji version appeared online, and Everson says he’s just completed typesetting a Western Lombard translation: Western Lombard is a dialect spoken in Italy. He wonders if, already, the Alice in a World of Wonderlands project might be out of date!