The Art of Literary Translation. Alice in Wonderland: A Case Study – Part 2

Part II

In Part I of this blog, I considered various aspects of the translation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass. One of the aspects I considered was the difficulty posed for translators by the proliferation of English cultural references scattered throughout Carroll’s work. The idiosyncrasies of the Victorian era were approached differently by the three translators studied. To draw upon one example among many, there are references in Carroll’s work to shillings and pence, which are translated by two translators, Bué and Papy, as ‘francs et centimes’ but by Parisot, the third translator under consideration, as ‘shillings and pence’. Do the choices made by the translators regarding the translation of English cultural references (and their decision as to whether to retain the Anglicisms or whether to ‘Gallicise’ such cultural markers) imply the different translators had different readerships in mind?

The oldest French version considered for the purpose of my study was Henri Bué’s translation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (only the first of Carroll’s two Alice novels was translated by Bué) was published in 1869, just a few years after the publication of the original work in 1865. Bué’s version of the novel is particularly interesting because he was the only translator who was a contemporary of Carroll, and it is believed he corresponded with Carroll, via the publisher, regarding the author’s preferred translation of his novel. On the whole, Bué adapts the cultural references to Victorian England implicitly situating his work in France. He generally substitutes references to English culture for references to French culture, and it is to be assumed when reading his text that Alice is a little French girl whose mother tongue is also French, living in a world in which money is counted in francs rather than shillings. Thus, Alice’s world becomes more accessible to young French readers. Was Bué therefore more concerned with translating for a young readership, while translators such as Parisot (a twentieth-century translator) who frequently retain references to English culture and language had a more sophisticated readership in mind?

Further unanswerable questions pose themselves. Can it also be assumed, for example, that Bué’s choices regarding the translation of the work are the most ‘correct’, as they have the approval of the original author, or was Bué constrained in his creativity and ingenuity as translator by the perhaps misguided preferences of Carroll, who had only a limited command of the French language?

Not only do translators disagree about how to translate the idiosyncrasies of Carroll’s work, but they also differ regarding their translation of elements such as proper names and also pronouns. A particular difficulty of the translation from a Germanic into a Romance language is the problem posed by the second person pronoun. English of course no longer makes the distinction between the formal, informal, plural and singular forms of the pronoun ‘you’ whereas French does retain this distinction. Therefore, each time one character speaks to another, the translator must bring his own interpretation of their relationship to the text: he must decide what the relationship is between the characters, whether they would be likely to address each other using the formal ‘vous’ form or the more familiar ‘tu’ form. The translator is obliged to read between the lines and make an additional interpretation of the work in order to translate it into French. The three translators I considered adopt different solutions regarding the translation of English syntax. Thus, it may be said that the different readerships of the various translations have a slightly different conception of the characters in the novel, depending on each translator’s syntactical choices.

For example, there is a divergence between the translations of Papy and Parisot of the conversation in Through the Looking-Glass between the Queen and Alice. In English, the text reads: ‘Speak in French.’ Papy renders the phrase using the ‘tu’ form of the second person pronoun. Such a choice may be interpreted by having been motivated by Papy’s impression that, as a monarch is speaking to her subject, who is moreover a child, the use of the informal second person pronoun is apt, and testifies to the natural and obvious hierarchy between the two. Yet in Parisot’s version of the same conversation, the Queen uses the ‘vous’ form when addressing Alice. The use of ‘vous’ here seems to suggest a relation of formality (and equality) which does not, from the point of the French language, normally exist between a child and an adult, even if they do not know each other well; children and animals are almost always addressed by adults with the ‘tu’ form. Perhaps Parisot was aiming to reproduce the stiff formality of Victorian society through his translation of the work’s syntax, but it is not certain that such a nuanced allusion would be picked up on by his readership, if indeed such an allusion is even intended. Thus, the reader forms a different idea of the relationship between Carroll’s characters depending upon the translation he chooses to read.

Alice in Wonderland therefore stands as a symbol par excellence for the difficulty of literary translation, for the art inherent in this endeavour, and for the ultimate failure of machine translations to replace the job of talented and painstaking human translators. In the third and final part of this blog, I shall consider the translation of the proper names, poetry, and word play found in Alice in Wonderland. 

Rebecca Loxton

The Art of Literary Translation. Alice in Wonderland: A Case Study

Part I

For my undergraduate dissertation, I chose to carry out a comparative study of the different French translations of Lewis Carroll’s deliciously bizarre and beautifully complex Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass. It turned out to be an illuminating investigation: not only did I learn about the multitude of challenges facing those rendering a literary work in a foreign language, but I also deepened my understanding of the idea that translation is more an art than a science.

I expected to find perhaps one or two translations into French of Carroll’s work: maybe one from the nineteenth century and another more modern one from a translator who also fancied trying his hand at rendering Carroll’s intricate prose in the language of Molière, convinced he could do better than his predecessor. I was therefore surprised to find that Carroll’s work had been translated into French (and all the languages of the world, it seemed) numerous times since its publication in the mid-nineteenth century up to the present day.

Instead of carrying out an exhaustive comparison of the different translation, I thus had to restrict myself to only a small selection of the many translations available. The work’s having been translated so many times shows the difficulty of literary (and indeed any type of) translation. There is no wrong or right way to translate a text and translators often disagree among themselves about which word or phrase best translates another. For a work such as that by Carroll, the problem faced by translators is intensified: as anyone who has read the text will know, Alice in Wonderland (as the two novels are collectively referred to) is littered with word play, puns, rhymes, neologisms and other demonstrations of Carroll’s gift for and delight in the idiosyncrasies of the English language.

Due to the particular difficulty of this novel for translators, I decided there was no better text to choose in order to deepen my understanding of the practice of literary translation. I therefore set about comparing the translations of a selection of word games, puns and other linguistic aspects in the novel in one nineteenth century and two twentieth century translations of the text.

I discovered that word games and rhymes were not the only obstacles the translators had to tackle: a product of its time, Alice in Wonderland is also full of references to Victorian England, to practices and traditions which belong to a particular historic and social milieu and which would not be obvious to French readers without a detailed understanding of upper-middle-class Victorian England. Translators diverged in their approach to this: some provided a footnote explaining these particular cultural references, others simply translated the terms into French providing no explanation. Is translation therefore a question of one’s target readership? Perhaps the translators who provided explanatory footnotes were aiming their book at a French readership with little knowledge of English, while those who omitted any helpful explanation imagined their readership having a detailed knowledge of English culture. Or perhaps such choices merely reflect each individual translator’s conception of translation theory. After all, translation is about accurately rendering words in a foreign language rather than about providing a didactic introduction to a foreign culture.

Moreover, Carroll’s work contains several references to the English and French languages, such as when Alice makes references to words in her French grammar book. However, in the French translation Alice is of course technically speaking French so the references to her learning French (and several other similar references are to be found throughout the work) no longer make really make sense. For adults, this is not too much of a problem: they are aware the text is a translation and that the original Alice is a little English girl. Yet the duality inherent in Carroll’s text is that the book can be read and enjoyed by adults and children alike. For very young children reading the translated text, it may be confusing that Alice is apparently French yet also makes reference to learning French as a foreign language at school. One translator I studied retained the reference to the French language; another substituted it for a reference to English, and a third omitted the reference altogether. Do translators have the right to omit details of the original text? The study of a novel such as Alice in Wonderland raises such questions. The second part of this blog which explore such issues further.

Rebecca Loxton

Immerse yourself in a foreign language without leaving home

As a language learner, you’re constantly told that the best way to accumulate new vocabulary and acquire the ability to speak as if you were a native is to spend an extended period of time in the country of your target language. But what if you don’t have the ways or means to fund a long stay abroad? You might be a skint student hoping to pick up a new language while reading for your degree, or maybe you’re attempting to squeeze in the mastering of a foreign tongue around your London based 9-5. While we at LanguageNow have all spent at least a year living in the country of the languages we’ve learnt to speak, we’ve undertaken the majority of our language-learning in the UK; so here are five top tips for surrounding yourself as much as possible in a foreign language without needing to dig out your passport.

1) Watch films in the foreign language

It might sound a rather obvious hint, but you’d be surprised how beneficial consistent exposure to the sound of the foreign tongue can be to your acquisition of the language. It doesn’t matter what stage you’re at in the language-learning process: whether you’re a near-beginner or you’re nudging fluency, exposure to the sounds of words, different accents, dialects and registers and variations in vocabulary is invaluable to the acquisition and maintenance of foreign-language knowledge. If you’re at the ab initio stage and can barely tell where one word begins and another ends, listening to the language will quickly remedy this. If you’d almost consider yourself bilingual, watching films will anchor the language in your brain. If you’re yet to able to understand the majority of what you hear, resist the temptation to add subtitles in either your native or the target language; your brain will concentrate on reading rather than listening to the language, and you’ll lose the full benefit of being exposed to the sounds of the language.

2) Listen to the radio constantly

Again, listening to live streaming of foreign radio in order to improve one’s command of a language is no doubt a fairly obvious tip, but to maximize the language-acquisition benefits, I’d recommend constantly having the radio on. Don’t just set aside an hour or so a day to listen to it attentively (although this is very useful too!), but keep the stream of chatter on in the background while you’re tidying the house, making notes or cooking. Even though you’re not actively listening, the language will still seep into your brain. Since adopting this method, I’ve found I’ve been able to retain the level of foreign-language ability I acquired while living abroad, and have since been complimented by native speakers on my accent. A tried and tested method!

3) Devour literature

Language and literature go hand-in-hand: a country’s language is so intricately tied to its literature that reading as many works in the target language as possible mean you will develop a deeper understanding not only of the language but also of the country and culture in which that language is used, in turn enriching your appreciation of the language. If your knowledge of the foreign language is suitably advanced, this is a great way to increase your vocabulary and your understanding of grammatical structures. Don’t worry if you don’t understand every word; so long as you understand enough for the text to be enjoyable, keep reading. You can always come back up and look up any words you don’t know when you’ve finished a book or chapter, but I always find that looking up words as you go disrupts the flow of the text and makes the process a rather painstaking one.

Even if your language-learning isn’t yet at a very advanced level, you can still enjoy the language’s literature. Reading children’s literature or books aimed at young adults is a great way to improve your grasp of the language. As you near the end of Le Petit Prince or Pinocchio, you’ll not only feel that sense of satisfaction at having enjoyed a book in the original language but also the sense of having read a key part of the country’s literary canon.

4) Read the national press

A lot less daunting than a literary tome, reading magazines or newspapers in the target language is of course a very effective way for increasing your command of the language you’re trying to learn. As you’ll be reading articles of only a few paragraphs or pages without the same inricacies of plot formation and character depth as a literary text, I would advise circling words you don’t understand and looking them as you go along, as it won’t be so disruptive to your enjoyment of the text in this case. Remember to also note down the word or phrase you’ve just found in the dictionary, so that you can come back and learn the words at your leisure. Furthermore, the very act of writing down the translation of the word will help to lodge the vocabulary in your mind. When reading the national press, don’t force yourself to trawl through columns of texts about the country’s political system or the national banking crisis if that’s not what interests you. The more interested you are in the text you’re reading, the more likely you’ll be to read to the end of the article and the more pleasurable the activity will be.

5) Surf Internet forums

With the Internet, a near-infinite amount of material is now at the fingertips of language-learners. There are forums on the Internet dedicated to all kinds of discussion in all the languages of the world, and surfing these forums are a great way to develop your language skills. If you’re only just beginning to learn the language, or you’re not too confident in your abilities, you can just sit back and read the discussions taking place, immersing yourself in the colloquial dialogue of everyday life. If you’re keen to practise your written skills in an informal setting (rather than merely passively absorbing the langue), join in the discussion. This cyber contact with native speakers will mean your command of the language rapidly improves.

Rebecca Loxton