Celebrating Alice 150: The Colloquium “Alice in Many Wonderlands” October 7-8 at the Grolier Club

October 7th and 8th, Minjie Chen and I attended a colloquium exploring  Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland legacy as a classic of world literature.   After John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Alice is the second most frequently translated work of English literature.  Alice is by no means the only classic of children’s literature to have travelled so far beyond its culture and country–there is the parallel case of Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter, which has also been translated into a surprising number of languages.

Still, this very Victorian fantasy for children seems a peculiar candidate for the honor.  Carroll’s wordplay ought to be enough to put off any translator in his or her right mind.  One hundred and fifty years after Alice’s publication, so much of the book’s contents are rooted in a particular time and place that children have begun to have some difficulty entering into its world.  And how can the concepts of childhood and gender roles or the topsy-turvy relationships between Alice and Wonderland’s stroppy and peculiar residents be presented intelligibly but amusingly to  readers outside of the Anglo-American world?  Apparently the challenges are not obstacles to the translator who sees Alice as the profession’s Mount Everest. The fact that Wonderland is there means that linguists with a little George Mallory in their souls can’t resist trying to make the ascent.


George Collingridge, Alice in One Dear Land (1922). Cotsen 22814.


Andrea Immel

The audience waiting in the Grolier Club’s auditorium was brought to order by member Jon Lindseth, organizer of the two-day colloquium, master mind, and general editor behind  Alice in a World of Wonderlands: Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece a massive 3-volume bibiography documenting and analyzing the 174 translations of this fantasy, many commissioned for the book.  Before introducing the first speaker, Lindseth thanked all the people present who had contributed in some way to this remarkable project, which would not have been possible without the dedication, energy, and generosity of an amazing number of volunteers around the world.

Emer O’Sullivan, a specialist in German- and English-language children’s literature and translation studies at Leuphana University, delivered the keynote address, “Alice in Many Tongues 50 Years On.”  She provided invaluable context for the day’s proceedings which revisited the 1964 study of  Alice in translation by Warren Weaver, Alice in Many Tongues.  A mathematician by training, a science administrator by profession, and collector by avocation, Weaver was a pioneer of machine translation.  O’Sullivan cogently explained how translation studies has moved away from the paradigm of equivalence, or sense for sense translation, towards one that negotiates the complexities of two literary systems embedded in wider cultures.  Hence the centrality of  back translation to the Alice in Many Wonderlands project.  Back translation is the process by which a native speaker of the target language turns the translation back into the original’s language, then annotates the difficult phrases and tricky concepts that pose challenges.  The annotations allow a reader without competence in a particular target language–Slovenian, Turkish, Japanese, Swahili–to appreciate the solutions the translator devised to problems throughout the text that highlight the differences in world views those languages reflect.    PR4611.A73W4frontcover (2)


Warren Weaver in his library from the dust jacket of Alice in Many Tongues. ExParrish PR4611.A73 W4.

Juan Gabriel Lopez Guix, senior lecturer at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, spoke about translations of Alice into the six languages of Spain.  His discussion of the Catalan translation was highlighted by the analysis of its illustrations by the well-known artist Lola Anglada.  The architecture of her Wonderland was in the traditional style of the region, not, as is so often the case, a reworking of Tenniel.  Lopez Guix also regaled the audience with a wonderful account of  the chapter about the perfect horse with an Eton education invented and slyly interpolated by the translator into the work.  It has subsequently been accepted by many Spanish-speaking lovers of Alice as pure Carroll.


Alicia outgrowing a Catalan farmhouse by illustrator Lola Anglada. From the second edition of Alicia en terra de meravelles (Barcelona: Edicions Mentora, 1930). Cotsen 40594.


Alicia, the Duchess, the baby, and the cook in a Catalan kitchen with vegetables much in evidence. Alicia en terra de meravelles (1930). Cotsen 40594.

Endangered languages was the thread connecting the day’s final two presentations, which  I (Andrea) found unexpectedly moving for the pride both speakers communicated about the expressiveness of Scots and Hawaiian.  Derrick McClure, emeritus professor Aberdeen University and MBE for service to Scottish culture, began by noting that the demise of the ten Scots dialects has been confidently predicted for at least two hundred years and yet people still speak and write in them.  He read excerpts from translations of Alice into Shetland, one of the dialects of Insular Scots, Northern which is centered around Aberdeen, and West Central or the Scots spoken in Glasgow.  Keao NeSmith, professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and one of the two hundred remaining native speakers of Hawaiian, began with a welcome in his language.   He agreed to translate Alice in Wonderland (which he had never read before taking on the project) in order to increase the books for pleasure reading available to the growing number of people learning Hawaiian as a legacy language.  NeSmith has gone on to translate Through the Looking Glass and Tolkien’s Hobbit–and in the future, Harry Potter.   Hearing the sound of Scots and Hawaiian made this session especially memorable, even I could not understand what was being said.



Down the rabbit hole! Antje Vogel, Alice im Wunderland (Munster: F. Coppenrath, c.1984) Cotsen 1129.


Minjie Chen

Zongxin Feng, Russell Kaschula, and Sumanyu Satpathy, three scholars from China, South Africa, and India respectively, talked about the tribulations of Alice publications in varying socio-economical and political contexts. Their presentations detailed the challenges of enabling young readers whose native languages are not English to appreciate Alice’s adventure in Wonderland.

From Feng’s presentation, we learned that Alice in Wonderland was first translated into Chinese by Yuen Ren Chao (赵元任), a China-born and US-educated linguist, in 1922. (As an interesting connection, one of Chao’s daughters is Lensey Namioka, a mathematics major and a successful children’s writer in the United States.) Thanks to Chao’s pioneering work, Alice became a well-known story to Chinese readers and, until the establishment of the Communist regime in 1949, was also the source of inspiration for derivative children’s stories and plays, as well as allegorical writings and political satires for the general audience. During the first three or four decades of the People’s Republic of China, however, Alice was among the numerous Western publications that were censored. Reprints and new translations of Alice did not flourish until the 1980s.


阿麗斯的奇夢 = Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (abridged) / Lewis Carroll ; translated and retold by Xu Yingchang (徐應昶). (Shanghai: Shang wu yin shu guan, 1933) Cotsen 68440.


阿麗思的夢 [Alice’s Dream] / by Yu Zheguang. (Shanghai: Shanghai mu ou ju she chu ban she, 1935?) Cotsen 90246.


愛麗思夢遊奇境記 = Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland / Lewis Carroll ; abridged by Fan Quan (范泉). 5th ed. (Shanghai: Yong xiang yin shu guan, February 1949) Cotsen 75170.

The richness of linguistic diversity in Africa and India poses the first challenge for making Alice accessible to children in those areas. (2,000 languages are estimated to be spoken in Sub-Saharan Africa and 22 languages are officially recognized in India.) Kaschula addressed the question of why we should desire Alice in more language editions: being able to enjoy a literary text in one’s native language has a huge benefit for literacy acquisition. His and Satpathy’s presentations examined Alice in nine African languages and eleven Indian languages, focusing on how translators grappled with the often-times irreconcilable tension between fidelity and a friendly text to young readers. As Satpathy pointed out, particularly thorny cases were with names of food, dress, flora, and fauna specific to Victorian England, in addition to puns, parodies, and songs.

African translators’ localization efforts resulted in many creative solutions, replacing foreign food, animals, birds, and objects with indigenous ones in Africa. “Tea-tray” became “winnowing basket”; “treacle” turned into “honey.” Most fascinatingly, Kaschula explained that in the African context, the phrase “murder the time” (from the chapter “A Mad Tea-Party”) does not make sense. Time is conceptualized as being circular (as it is seasonal) as opposed to being linear and one-directional the way it is perceived in Western cultures. It is not something that can be killed. In respect to African storytelling tradition, some translations have also adopted the present tense for the book.


The White Rabbit in African dress late for his very important date from a translation into Swahili by St. Lo de Malet entitled Elisi Katika Nchi Ya Ajabu (London: Sheldon Press, 1966) Cotsen 33665.

Indian translators took no less liberty when it came to rendering the Alice story more intimate to local children. “Hat” became “topi”; through a rather convoluted or mysterious process, “wine” became “rice pudding.” Well, transformations are such a normal occurrence that Alice learns to embrace them by the time she finishes a bottle that is not marked “poison.” Therefore, we should not be surprised by these name swaps. Indeed, Alice herself transforms as she travels across culture. In illustrations of some African and Indian editions, she is depicted as either a delightful black girl or one dressed in a bright sari.


Elisi Katika Nchi Ya Ajabu. Cotsen 33665.


The conference closed with a linguistic feast offered by Michael Everson. He runs Evertype, a publishing company which has produced Alice in seemingly a myriad of languages and alphabets. Some of the more unusual examples are:

  • Alice in a font friendly to dyslexic readers, featuring rotund “bottoms” of each alphabet;
  • Alice in a font that simulates the difficult decoding experience of dyslexia, with the purpose of fostering empathy between non-dyslexic and dyslexic readers;
  • Alice in the International Phonetic Alphabet, an alphabetic system of phonetic notation frequently used by foreign-language learners.
  • Mr. Everson ended his presentation by reading aloud the scene of Alice’s encounter with the hookah-smoking Caterpillar in multiple languages and accents: Irish, Icelandic, Middle English, Old English, Latin, Ladino, Ulster Scots, Scouse, and Appalachian English. I (Minjie) had no idea what he was reading most of the time, but with the rise and fall of his dynamic voice, I seemed to understand everything.

The conference closed a round table discussion among the day’s speakers.   The proceedings closed with a festive dinner for several hundred people at the Cosmopolitan Club, where Michael F. Suarez, S. J., the director of Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, spoke after dinner on the subject of “Alice the Book: A World-wide Phenomenon.”

Cheers to everyone who participated in this marvellous two-day tribute to Alice and her devoted and ingenious translators.


The Anthony Groves-Raines tailpiece for one of the pamphlets of Alice parodies that Guinness produced as holiday keepsakes, Alice Aforethought: Guinness Carrolls for 1938. Cotsen 9049.

On the Road with the Cotsen Library: or, Some Independent Bookstores Are Alive and Well

My father used to talk about taking a “busman’s holiday” –that is, doing pretty much the same thing on vacation that he did at work (and no, he wasn’t a busman himself, but rather someone who worked in an office).  A great phrase, as I hope you’ll agree!

With that in mind, have you ever wondered what a bibliophile or a librarian who is interested in children’s books does while on vacation?  Well, some of us like to look at bookstores and libraries (along with doing other things too, I hasten to add!).

Thus, the recent ALA Annual Conference and Rare Books & Manuscripts “Preconference” in San Francisco and Oakland, respectively, provided a jumping-off point for later sight-seeing — and, in the process, happening upon some amazing small bookshops, run by real book-lovers, by pure serendipity.  (For all the great aspects of having the world of books accessible via online shopping, nothing quite compares to just stumbling upon a bookstore or catching a glimpse of an attractive book cover or dust-jacket you’ve never seen before, does it?)

First, there was Village Books, in Ukiah, California, about 100 miles North of San Francisco.  We spotted this small shop across the street from our lunchtime retreat from 100+ degree heat.  As soon as we entered, I knew we’d found a great bookstore!  Even the check-out counter was covered with books, as you can see:


Village Books, Ukiah, California

That introductory “prologue” was certainly borne out by another look around:



Books from floor-to-ceiling, convenient reading spaces throughout… a bibliophile’s delight… mostly used books, but some new ones too.

Of particular interest to me were the sections with children’s (and young adult) books, packed almost to the rafters:







And especially eye-catching was a dedicated children’s reading area, clearly meant to welcome young readers into a comfortable setting and encourage them to sit and read books of all sorts:





But this is a bookstore after all, not a library, so what did we buy?


Upper cover of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, with color-printed paper onlay (Harper & Bros., 1911) author’s collection

To name just a few, some nice French-language children’s books (for a YA reader learning French), a vintage copy of Lord of the Flies (bought by an adult for aforementioned YA reader, since Lord of the Flies seems to have fallen off the assigned list of books for middle schoolers), and a very nicely illustrated 1911 edition of Tom Brown’s School Days, with artwork by Louis Rhead, and a paper onlay on the upper cover that reminds us reminded me just how much work went into late 19th- and early 20th-century publisher’s bindings.

Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) is one of those “children’s classics,” hugely-influential and once widely read, but seldom read by child readers any more.  (Actually, a surprising number of “children’s classics” fall into the category of well-known but not much read now.)  It’s a landmark example of a “school story,” fiction focusing on children or adolescents within a school context (usually a boarding school), a genre especially popular in England from the mid- to late-1700s through the mid-1940s.  Some other prominent examples include: Sarah Fielding’s The Governess (1749) and Kipling’s Stalky & Co. (1899).

Think school stories are utterly passé?  Well, think again… J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels drew heavily on the genre — Hogwarts, focal point of the action, is, after all, a school, and most of the main characters are students or masters there — and many critics have discussed how Rowling both made use of and extended the school story genre.  Like Tom Brown, Harry Potter comes somewhat timidly to a new school, has to learn the ropes, and undergoes various trials and bullying in the course of making moral choices, learning about himself, and growing up.


As that venerable and learned poet…says


Poor old Benjy!

Although Tom Brown is set in Thomas Arnold’s reform-oriented Rugby School of the 1840s, the story details quite a bit of unruly hijinks by the boys, as well as a lot of fighting and some harrowing bullying — all of which no doubt fascinated boy readers, at whom the book seems clearly aimed. Rhead’s full-page illustrations in  this edition compellingly depicted many of these events, and in addition, he provided small historiated letters at the beginning of chapters, which I particularly like. A real window onto another era.










But time to move on… How about continuing our bibliographic travelogue and moving from Northern California to Seattle … and from school stories to Wonderland?

Again, serendipity plays a major role in the story — sometimes you find bookstores where you would least expect to find them, as was the case for us in Seattle.  Seattle’s Pike Place Market is famous: the usual tourist souvenirs, fresh fruit and veggies, and lots and lots of fresh fish, including “flying fish,” tossed around by energetic fishmongers! (This fish-tossing is so renowned that it serves as the subject of a movie titled “FISH!,” which is about improving customer service, workplace morale, and motivating workers. If you don’t believe me, do a quick online search!)








A fun place to visit — but hardly a place you’d expect to find a bookstore…  But tucked away in a downstairs corridor, around the corner from a cookie shop, a coffee bar, and a take-out food place, we happened to see a brightly-colored bookstore wedged into a space not much more than ten or fifteen feet wide: Lamplight Books.


A glimpse inside the shop…


Lamplight Books, Seattle Market.








Cover of Through the Looking-Glass (Dodge & Co., 1909?) author’s collection


Sightseeing again took a back-seat to book-browsing, as we went through the hidden garden gate or down the rabbit hole into another magical world of books…

Among the books we discovered was a hard-cover second printing of one of Durrell’s Alexandra Quartet novels, well-read but still with its original dust-jacket — and still cheaper than a new paperback edition elsewhere — and an even more well-read 1909 edition of Through the Looking Glass by American publisher Dodge & Co., which interested me for several reasons.

First, the illustrations by Bessie Pease Guttmann present Alice as a dark-haired girl — quite unlike Tenniel’s depiction, but much like Carroll’s own artwork in his original Alice manuscript edition — with the Queen of Hearts as the blondie — and one looking very much like Tenniel’s chess piece depiction in Looking Glass, not a playing card or Queen Victoria parody a la Alice in Wonderland.









But even more arresting were the unique markings and colorings in this copy of the book, presumably made by a child-reader. As we see on the pictorial endpapers, printed in a blue-outlined pattern, an apparently quite young reader has “embellished” things!  (I’d say she/he was young, based on the roughness of the coloring.)


Blue-printed patterned endpapers colored by child reader.

And this embellishment continues throughout the book, whose blue-printed outline borders were apparently irresistible to the reader.  Sometimes, the child embellisher fully colored the illustrations on an entire page, and sometimes he/she has focused in only on details apparently of particular interest to him or her, as we can see in the instances below:


Instances of selective coloring by child reader

This is pattern of varied “levels” of markings in children’s books is something I’ve observed before and discussed here on the Cotsen blog.  Was the reader of this book simply focusing on things of particular interest to her/him, or responding to the story and somehow trying to foreground characters and aspects discussed on particular pages by coloring them in there — in effect providing a reader’s commentary of sorts?  Of course, there’s no way to be sure. But since identifying agency by child-readers and making sense of reader-response is certainly a topic of considerable interest to those analyzing child readership today, I wonder if patterns of marking like those found in this book might conceivably shed some light on these areas of inquiry?

This copy of Through the Looking Glass also manifests evidence of another possible  sort of reader “appetite” on quite a number of pages, as we can see on the example below:







It’s a little hard to tell what these are? Bite-marks?  If so, made by a child?  By several different children?  By the family dog?  Or just marks of rough handling?  They certainly look like bite marks to me!  And if so, what might this suggest to us about the reader(s) of this book or child readers, in general?  Along with the markings, this definitely suggests that this copy of Through the Looking Glass did indeed “find its reader” who extensively handled and “interacted with” the book in several ways, even if we can’t be sure that he/she necessarily read the text on the pages.

I think the signs of book use here also underscore an important aspect of children’s use of books; it’s frequently unpredictable — often spontaneous and unplanned — and thus it can be hard to “interpret” what this “evidence” means, as well as dangerous to read too much into this by adults who are coming along later and trying to investigate child reading.  Child readers leave a lot of clues, but how can we be sure that we’re “reading” them accurately from our adult critical vantage-point?  There’s always an element of speculation in this critical approach, isn’t there?

Apart from an opportunity to think about children’s marks in books and talk about a couple of interesting editions of children’s “classics,” I guess the broader “moral” of my story here is really to highlight that independent bookstores — and great ones too! — can still be found out there, sometimes when and where you least expect them.  There’s real pleasure to be had in browsing them with no particular book or aim in sight, especially if you’re a book-lover. Sometimes you find amazing things that you had no idea you were looking for! There can be real serendipitous pleasure in simple serendipity…