Saturday 17 October 2015

The Secret Victorianist at the Grolier Club: Alice in a World of Wonderlands, The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece

Last weekend I went to an exhibition that is a testament to the far-reaching power of the human imagination and to the importance of collaborative scholarship.

The exhibition
Alice in a World of Wonderlands marks 150 years since the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by investigating the translations into 176 different languages that have emerged since the work’s publication and are the subject of a new book that shares the exhibition’s name.

Finnish translation (1952)
Finding and cataloguing these translations, and their editions, was a labour of love and involved a lot of detective work, with over 250 unpaid volunteers tracking down texts all over the world.

Christina Rossetti's signed copy of the first (German) translation of Alice (1869)
German was the first language other than English in which Alice first came to life (in 1869).  French, Swedish, Italian, Danish and Dutch soon followed in the nineteenth century, some with Carroll’s knowledge and consent, others without.

Catalan translation (1927)
But it is in the twentieth century that we see a proliferation of Alices (not that the central character always has this name). From Breton to Urdu, Esperanto to Pitjantjatjara, Hebrew to Malay, many readers have been taken down the rabbit hole. The question is – what do they find there?

Vladamir Nabokov's (Russian) translation (1923)
Alice in a World of Wonderlands, edited by Jon A. Lindseth and Alan Tannenbaum, for instance, contains 251 back translations into English to see how different translators approached the task of rendering one of Carroll’s poems:

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you're at!
Up above the world you fly,
Like a tea tray in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you're at!

Romanian translation (1991)
Native English speakers recognise this as a parody of the children’s nursery rhyme ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’, but translated literally into another tongue this context will be lost. This speaks directly to the translation debate of domestication vs. foreignisation. In other words, is it the role of the translator to educate the reader about the culture in which it was produced (here Victorian Britain) or to make the writer’s intention more immediately apparent by using shorthands with which he or she is familiar from their own culture.

Marathi translation (1982)
The translator of a version in Marathi for example (one of 12 Indian languages included in the catalogue) was one of those who decided to play with a rhyme familiar to his readers. He writes:

‘When I transformed Alice into Jaai I taught her not only customs and traditions of this land, but also the popular songs of this soil known to all.’

Poster for a Japanese stage play (1998)
Seeing the exhibition in person, one of the most obvious things to be struck by is the incredible range of visual responses to the text and John Tenniel’s illustrations. Cover illustrations range from the saccharine to the surreal, with the influence of Disney’s 1951 animated feature film clear. Alice seems to hold particular visual appeal in Japan, as posters for Alice-inspired stage plays are also on display here – maybe not surprising given the natural co-option of Alice into Lolita fashion.

Alphagram translation (2012)
This interactive map allows you to explore the myriad wonderlands inspired by one story told in Oxford on a sunny day, but if you’re in New York City, I’d definitely recommend checking out the exhibition in person. I already reviewed the Morgan Library & Museum’s retrospective into the novel’s origins, but it is at the Grolier Club that the legend of Alice seems to be very much alive.

Hebrew translation (1923)
The exhibition Alice in a World of Wonderlands, The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece is running until November 21 at the Grolier Club. Entrance is free.

Bosnian translation (2008)
Do you know of any other nineteenth-century exhibitions in NYC you think the Secret Victorianist should visit? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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