Today marks 151 years since Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published, so I thought I’d share with you a shortened (ish) version of what I wrote about during my Masters degree in Translation Studies, where I researched how on earth you would go about translating a fantasy, nonsense story, like Alice, into French.
In 1865 when Alice was published, most children’s stories were didactic and moralistic (“children should be seen and not heard!”), so you can imagine a child’s delight upon reading about a girl who stood up to authority figures and called them out when they weren’t making sense.
Translations of the story spread fast, and the first translation of the book into French was done only 4 years later. Since then, many other French translations have spawned, all with very different results. After all, it is not just the language that needs to be translated – there is a whole bunch of other things to consider, such as…
What makes Alice in Wonderland so unique, apart from the bonkers storyline, is the fact that the target audience for the story has changed over time. Lewis Carroll originally wrote the story to entertain children, but nowadays the story is considered too complex or even inappropriate for young children to read.
Having your target audience in mind is of the utmost importance when doing any translation. Is the book supposed to be read by children, or do you want to it be more of a study aid for young adults? Perhaps it’s supposed to be read aloud? All of these will affect the choices you make when translating.
It is for this reason that there are so many French translations of Alice. The first French translation by Henri Bué in 1869 was quite faithful to Carroll’s, and, as it was translated only a few years after the original publication, the target demographic hadn’t changed that much (except for their cultural differences – see below).
More modern translations have taken different approaches. Jacques Papy, who also translated classics such as Treasure Island and Winnie-the-Pooh, offered a fresh alternative to Bué’s translation, in his 1961 translation. Elen Riot’s 2000 version simplified the language and brought it back to a child audience, whereas Jean-Pierre Berman’s 1992 translation is translated quite literally and has additional notes explaining the history and background of the story – perhaps for use in a school.
These translators have different audiences in mind, and therefore have translated the poems and puns quite differently.
Alice is set in Victorian England, which means that there are quite a few British cultural references in the story. All of these references need to be put into the new language, but the translator needs to choose whether to make it obvious that Alice is British, make her nationality more ambiguous, or make her French.
The March Hare and Mad Hatter are derived from British similes: to be as “mad as a March hare” and “mad as a hatter.” These have been translated literally as le Lièvre de mars and le Chapelier fou in every French version, but of course, these are not linked to any idiom in French, so the French versions have already suffered translation loss, which is what happens when meaning is lost from words during the translation process.
Even the Cheshire cat refers to a place in England, as well as another idiom (believe it or not, “to grin like a Cheshire cat” predates Alice by about 100 years). Although the first translation by Bué turned the Cheshire Cat into le grimaçon, all subsequent translations have translated it literally as le chat du Cheshire, and this is also the name that appears in the French versions of the Disney and Tim Burton films.
English language and history are also alluded to: when Alice is chasing after a mouse, she wonders “perhaps it doesn’t understand English […] I daresay it’s a French mouse, come over with William the Conqueror.” That same mouse later treats the reader to a brief history of the Battle of Hastings to dry everyone off after the flood, because it is “the driest thing I know.” Ironically, talking about British history in a book for non-British children probably makes it even more “dry” for the new audience!
Finally, there are many words specific to Victorian English life, including custard, mock turtle soup, shillings, nursery nurses, and “tea time.” These are harder to translate than you might think: un thé in 19th Century France implied a gathering of adults, whereas a goûter would be more suitable for a children’s tea party. Meanwhile, custard seemingly doesn’t exist in France at all: it tends to be translated as crème or crème anglaise instead.
It can be difficult to strike a balance in translation when all this comes into play – people like reading about fantastical lands and other cultures, but go too far and the reader may feel alienated, and won’t engage with the characters as much as the readers did in the original language.
The poems, puns and non-sequiturs are the most memorable parts of Alice in Wonderland – but when a joke relies on a play on words, how on earth do you change it into another language? And if you have to change the words of a poem so that it rhymes in another language, is it even the same poem?
Once you’ve identified your target audience, it should guide you towards the strategies you take for these challenges. Take, for example, the following passage, containing fish puns aplenty:
‘I can tell you more than that, if you like,’ said the Gryphon. ‘Do you know why it’s called a whiting?’
‘I never thought about it,’ said Alice. ‘Why?’
‘It does the boots and shoes.’ the Gryphon replied very solemnly.
Alice was thoroughly puzzled. ‘Does the boots and shoes!’ she repeated in a wondering tone.
‘Why, what are your shoes done with?’ said the Gryphon. ‘I mean, what makes them so shiny?’
Alice looked down at them, and considered a little before she gave her answer. ‘They’re done with blacking, I believe.’
‘Boots and shoes under the sea,’ the Gryphon went on in a deep voice, ‘are done with a whiting. Now you know.’
‘And what are they made of?’ Alice asked in a tone of great curiosity.
‘Soles and eels, of course,’ the Gryphon replied rather impatiently: ‘any shrimp could have told you that.’
While Jean-Pierre Berman translated the jokes in Alice more or less literally, and added footnotes explaining that this is a play on words in English, Elen Riot made up her own jokes with a similar theme so that they work in French (in this paragraph, she replaces “whiting” with “pollock” (lieu noir), so that she merely has to switch the colours to make the joke work).
Jacques Papy, meanwhile, doesn’t make a pun out of the “whiting” but does write that the shoes are made using garfish (known in French as sea needles) and hammerhead sharks, to replace the “soles and eels” part.
Henri Bué, on the other hand, took the secret third route – cutting out and omitting passages that he decided were too impossible to translate.
Another cool-but-challenging issue is “the mouse’s tail” – a poem that is a tale about a mouse’s tail written in the shape of a tail and with the structure of a tail rhyme – a quadruple pun!
Image source: The Annotated Alice, by Martin Gardner.
Once again, everyone takes different approaches to this: Jacques Papy follows the rhyming pattern and the correct shape of the tail (which is important because when the poem is interrupted, Alice says “you had got to the fifth bend, I think?”).
Fureur dit à une Souris
Qu’il avait trouvée au logis:
« Allons devant le tribunal : je te poursuis devant la loi.
Je n’accepte pas de refus,
Je tiens que ce procès m’est dû,
Or il se trouve qu’aujourd’hui moi je n’ai rien à faire ; et toi ? »
Bué and Riot change the rhyming couplets, with Riot’s using short, sharp syllables like the English version.
Canichon dit à la Souris,
Qu’il rencontra dans le logis :
« Je crois le moment fort propice de te faire aller en justice.
Je ne doute pas de succès
Que doit avoir notre procès.
Vite, allons, commençons l’affaire. Ce matin je n’ai rien à faire. »
Furie dit à Souris
Quand chez lui il la vit :
« Estons tous deux en cour je vous fais un procès.
Là, Là, pas de regrets ;
Nous aurons un procès
Car oui oui ce matin je n’ai rien je m’ennuie. »
Berman, once again, translates his poems very literally, without making it rhyme.
Fury dit à une souris,
Qu’il rencontra dans la maison :
« Allons tous au tribunal : je vais vous poursuivre.
Venez, je n’accepte pas de refus,
Il nous faut un procès,
Car vraiment ce matin je n’ai rien à faire. »
These are only a few examples of how challenging it is to translate a fantasy book, especially one written over 150 years ago stuffed with made-up words, wit and poems – it’s almost impossible to take everything into account. It’s clear that there is never just one way to translate something, and, especially when it comes to literature, the actual linguistic exchange is only a small part of translation.
I hope you found this interesting! Have you ever read a fantasy/children’s book in another language? Which translator’s strategy do you prefer? I’d love to hear from you if you have any questions or thoughts.