When Alice's White Rabbit becomes a White Kangaroo

As an adult, I read Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and marveled at the use of puns, inversions, and other types of wordplay such as the following dialogue:

"Why did you call him tortoise, if he wasn't one?" Alice asked.
"We call him Tortoise because he taught us," said the Mock Turtle angrily. "Really, you are very dull." (Chapter IX)


"That's the reason they're called lessons," the Gryphon remarked: "because they lessen from day to day." (Chapter IX)
While I found Carroll's writing to be witty, as a translator, I wondered how on earth Carroll's classic could have been translated into other languages, and, according to Wikipedia, the work has been translated into 125 languages. For instance, the play on "Tortoise" and "taught us" would be completely lost in French or Spanish, as would the play on "lesson" and "lessen." An exceptional pun or rhyme might be dealt with neatly with a footnote, but so much of the novel consists of these clever linguistic maneuvers that would seem to only work in English.

I recently did a Google search to find out how translators may have handled this particularly tricky work. In 1999, Sílvia Mas interviewed translator Salvador Oliva in An Interview With Salvador Oliva: Translating Alice in Wonderland into Catalan. In the interview, Oliva states that

Sometimes the content itself is not so important because it is not referential language. Therefore, it can always be replaced. The fundamental aspect for me is the rhyme. not referential language. Therefore, it can always be replaced...the translator has to alter the meaning. It is unavoidable.
Essentially Oliva creates new puns that keep the tone and basic suggestion of the original text, even if the “translation” is not literal.

Vladimir Nabokov, perhaps best known for his infamous work Lolita, produced a Russian translation of Carroll's classic. Leigh Kimmel writes that

while most of the earlier translators of Alice in Wonderland had simply given up on trying to preserve the humor of the puns and had simply translated the words as they were, Nabokov instead tried to find pairs of near-homophones in Russian which would be equally humorous for the Russian reader.
In Exploring Translation and Multilingual Text Production: Beyond Content (Erich Steiner and Colin Yallop, 2001) discuss (pp. 232-238) Nancy Sheppard's translation of Carroll's work into the Australian aboriginal language Pitjantjatjara. Not only does Sheppard have to deal with all the wordplay, but also a very English context that is decidedly out of place in the central Australian desert. Hence the concept of Alice in Wonderland has been translated as "Alitji in the Dreamtime." Instead of seeing a white rabbit, Alitji sees a white kangaroo. The dormouse becomes a koala. Furthermore, l ike Oliva and Nabokov, Sheppard creates new puns that are intended to suggest the spirit of the original puns to readers even if the actual content has been changed.

Translators are, by nature, given the task of rendering the meaning, tone, and spirit of a source text in one language faithfully into a target text in a second language. Often this does not pose a problem and can be accomplished by skilled professionals. However, sometimes in more creative texts, such as poetry or in documents involving the use of wordplay exclusive to the source language, a choice must be made, and either the literal meaning or the spirit must be sacrificed. This represents a gray, murky area in the dynamic field of translation and also underscores the need for qualified human translators to carry out such translations. Indeed, as faulty as "computerized" translations (such as those offered by Babelfish) of straightforward documents might be, it would, at this point, seem nearly impossible for such a work as Alice to be translated effectively by such software.

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)

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