Their history is a long tale (but not sad, unlike the Mouse’s). It went something like this:
Weaver, a collector, wrote to Chao, a translator, "Please find me Alice in Chinese." Chao located three that escaped young readers' dirty li'l fingers. One to Parrish, who cherished everything Dodgson, such as Alice in Afrikaans, Esperanto, and Thai. Behold his trove in Firestone. Aren't you curious, how a teary tale twists in Chinese; is he who "taught us" still called "tortoise"? Let's find out how A-li-si has delighted kids "reeling" Chinese.
To fully explain how some of the earliest Chinese editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland found their way to Rare Books and Special Collections of the Princeton University Library, this post will begin by introducing a few people, whose professional backgrounds seem unrelated to children’s literature. Besides having been born in the same decade, these three figures likely shared an appreciation for whimsical humor and childish innocence, as well as an interest in playing with languages, qualities that would make the best candidates for “grown-up” admirers of the Wonderland created by Lewis Carroll. Warren Weaver (1894-1978) was a mathematician, a pioneer in machine translation, and former director of the Division of Natural Sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation. He authored Alice in Many Tongues, “an unprecedented documentation of the publishing history of Carroll’s novel and its translations into…forty-seven languages” (O’Sullivan 29). Yuen Ren Chao (赵元任, 1892-1982) was the founder of modern linguistics in China and a distinguished professor of Oriental Languages and Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Chao published the first Chinese translation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1922. Hu Shi (胡适, 1891-1962) was a philosopher, an influential figure in China’s New Culture Movement, and for a time China’s ambassador to the United States. A close friend of Chao’s, Hu also added to Princeton’s collection of Lewis Carroll’s works.
Early Chinese editions of Alice can be found in both the Morris L. Parrish Collection and the Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton. The Dodgson section of the Parrish Collection contains nearly one thousand items of works written by Lewis Carroll, adaptations and parodies inspired by him, and books about him. Five of the Chinese copies were gifts from Warren Weaver, who related in his Alice in Many Tongues how he procured some of them. Weaver enlisted the help of Yuen Ren Chao, the first Chinese translator of Alice. Already teaching at Berkeley at the time, Chao managed to collect from China “three complete sets of all five of the editions then in existence” (Weaver 62). Weaver gave one set to Morris Longstreth Parrish, Class of 1888, whose fine collection of Victorian novelists was eventually bequeathed to Princeton. There is a discrepancy between Weaver’s description and the actual holding, however, because only the first, second, third, and fifth earliest editions, dating from 1922 to 1931, are currently to be found in the Parrish Collection.
Cover and colophon of the first Chinese edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published by the Commercial Press in Shanghai.
A later edition gifted by Hu Shi, the translator’s close friend, to Princeton in 1958.
Princeton received a 1939 edition as a gift from Hu Shi, who was among the closest friends of the translator’s family. (At Chao’s private wedding ceremony held in 1921, Hu was one of only two guests invited and the couple’s chief witness.) Hu was briefly Curator of the Gest Library at Princeton, 1950-1952, and in 1958, gave Princeton his own copy of Alice, inscribing on the title page that the book be presented to “the Gest Oriental Library.” Then, perhaps as an afterthought, he inserted a name card with different instructions to give it to “the Lewis Carroll Collection of Princeton University.”
Translator’s Words and the Ill Fate of the Looking Glass
In the preface he wrote for the first Chinese edition of Alice, Chao acknowledged the challenge of translating the book. As he rightly observed, Alice was neither new nor obscure by the time he decided to give it a try–the book had been out for more than fifty years and entertained multiple generations of children in English-speaking countries. The reason why no Chinese version existed, he figured, was the formidable challenge posed by word play and nonsense in Carroll’s writing (Chao 10). In fact, the only “Chinese version” that Chao was aware of was done, albeit verbally, by Sir Reginald Fleming Johnston (1874-1938), tutor to Puyi (溥仪), the last Emperor of China. The Scot had told the story of Alice in Chinese to the lonely teenage boy in the Forbidden City. Chao decided that his translation project with Alice, carried out in the midst of Chinese language reform movement, would be an opportune experimentation with written vernacular Chinese, which was replacing Classical Chinese (10-11).
After the wild success of his Chinese edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chao went on to translate Through the Looking Glass. However, his second Alice project was ill-timed. In what came to be known as the Shanghai Incident in 1932, Japanese carrier aircraft bombed Shanghai and destroyed the headquarters of the Commercial Press, Chao’s publisher. Princeton’s copy of the first edition was accompanied by a postcard sent by the translator from Beijing to a friend in Shanghai on February 2, 1932, only five days into the Shanghai Incident. Chao mentioned his almost-completed work with Carroll’s second Alice book in a somber tone, “I have corrected half of the proofs of my translation of Through the Looking Glass. I think the whole thing has been burned up along with everything else at the Paoshan [now spelled as Baoshan] Road office of the Commercial Press.” Chao would not be able to reproduce his work and publish a Chinese translation of Looking Glass until 1968, when he was in his seventies.
The First Chinese Edition of Alice, 1922
Chinese like to compare the task of translation to a graceful dance performed while wearing shackles, meaning the translator has to be artful within the constraints of the original text. The “constraints” in Carroll’s Wonderland are more than those of average texts. Weaver methodically classified the principal problems involved in translating Alice into five areas: the verses, the puns, the use of specially manufactured words or nonsense words, the jokes which involve logic, and the otherwise unclassifiable Carroll twists of meaning with underlying humor (81-82). In Chao’s trailblazing Chinese translation, we witness how Alice encompasses both general challenges and unique Carrollian tests for a foreign language and how the translator meets them head-on through a creative and imaginative employment of the Chinese language.
The most famous pun in Alice is perhaps the Mouse’s long and sad tale (tail). Chao did an ingenious job of making a pun, if not exactly the same one, here in the Chinese text. Chinese words for “tale” (故事, or gu shi) and “tail” (尾巴, or wei ba) are not related in any way. Chao found a clever solution by playing with the word “sad” instead, which he translated into “wei qu” (委屈) (37), although its more precise meaning is “feel wronged”, “sense of grievance,” etc. Thanks to the exceedingly rich reservoir of homophones in the Chinese language (a source of confusion for Chinese children learning to speak their native tongue), Chao was able to match “wei qu” (委屈) with “wei qu” (尾曲), a made-up combination that literally means “a tail in a curved shape.” Voila! In the Chinese version, when the Mouse describes its tale as “wei qu” (sad), Alice can see that its tail is indeed “wei qu” (curved). What the Chinese-speaking Alice keeps on puzzling about is why the Mouse calls its tale/tail “bitter” (苦)–a twist introduced by the Chinese translator. Alice must be thinking of “bitter” as a flavor, but “bitter” can also mean “suffering,” which is close to “sad,” thus preserving the meaning in the original English version.
The earliest Chinese editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from the 1920s and 1930s are valuable primary sources to support in-depth inquiries in translation studies, the development of nascent written vernacular Chinese, and the international influence of Lewis Carroll on children’s literature. Comparisons between Chinese and English versions, as well as among multiple Chinese editions will yield interesting discoveries for those who appreciate nuances of language and cultural differences.
Chao, Yuen Ren, trans. Alisi man you qi jing ji. By Lewis Carroll. 1st ed. Shanghai: Shang wu yin shu guan, 1922.
O’Sullivan, Emer. “Warren Weaver’s Alice in Many Tongues: A Critical Appraisal.” Alice in a World of Wonderlands : The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece. Eds. Jon A. Lindseth and Alan Tannenbaum. First ed. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press in cooperation with the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, 2015. 29-41.
Weaver, Warren. Alice in Many Tongues. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.
Wainwright, Alexander D. A Catalogue of the Morris L. Parrish Collection of Victorian Novelists in the Princeton University Library: Draft. Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Library, 2001.