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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.