The Art of Literary Translation. Alice in Wonderland: A Case Study – Part 3

Part III

In the third and final part of this blog about the various translations of Alice in Wonderland, I am going to consider the literary translation of Carrollian word games from English into French. Carroll’s two novels, very frequently referred to collectively as Alice in Wonderland, are filled with word games and word play. Throughout the work, Carroll plays with the English language. This linguistic virtuosity which makes Alice in Wonderland such a delight to read in English obviously poses obstacles for even the most able of translators, who is forced to chose whether to translate the word games literally, thus retaining the sense but losing the poetry or rhyme of the original, or whether to, for example, search for a homophony between two words in French which can replace the English pun or play on words and which aptly replaces the humour found in Carroll’s original. The translator therefore becomes an inventor, a creator; he is translating the work, but he is also at the same time re-writing it, putting his own stamp onto the novels through the creation of new puns, of inventive word play in French to replace, if not rival, those found in the original. A successful translation therefore depends upon the ingeniousness of the translation, and upon his ability to mould his own language.

To illustrate this point, let us take some examples from Carroll’s work. The following three examples represent just a fraction of the word play found in Alice in Wonderland. These three examples are typical: the first is a chain of interlinked word games which plays upon a misunderstanding between characters; the second is the parody of a English proverb, and the third is a pun.  The first example is that of the Mouse’s tale, in which Alice assumes the Mouse is talking about his ‘tail’ rather than his ‘tale’, his life story. The poem also assumes the shape of a tail to add to this word play. A further interlinked word game plays on the homophony between ‘not’ and ‘knot’, when Alice assumes the Mouse means he has a knot in his tail.  As in this case (as indeed is often the case with Carroll), the word games are interdependent and link to one another, and the translator’s task thus becomes all the more difficult. So how did the different translators studied translate the interlinked word game and the calligram which is the culmination of the two puns, the visual pun of the poem reflecting the verbal pun of the chapter’s title, ‘The Mouse’s Tale’. Unfortunately but perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the three translators studied was able to find an equivalent for the simply yet elegant and effective pun of Carroll’s, which emphasises the ambiguity of human discourse. There does not seem to be an equivalent homophony in the French language which would suitably render this pun while retaining all the virtuosity of the original. Papy translates ‘tail’ and ‘knot’ directly into French,

but does emphasise the misunderstanding between Alice and the Mouse, using a misunderstanding between the length of the Mouse’s tail and the length of his story. Thus, Papy retains the Carrollian interrogation of the ability of language as a communicative tool, but his translation suffers from a lack of elegant word play as found in the original. Bué, too, retains the implicit commentary on the ambiguity of language, as in his translation he mentions the ‘veracité’ of his story which Alice interprets as meaning ‘vers à citer’. Like Papy, he is unable to find a suitable equivalent for the Carrollian puns of not/knot and tale/tail, and in his translation the Mouse simply comments on the length of story, with Alice then remarking also on the similar length of his tale.

To take a further example of a pun, there is the word play on horse/hoarse in Through the Looking-Glass. In this case, the specific word which is used in the pun has no real bearing on the story: this time it is not interlinked with other word play or calligrams, and does not have any link with the title of a chapter or the attributes of a character, for example. Thus, translators can be a bit more free in their translation and replace the pun with an equivalent pun in French, rather than trying to stick doggedly to the actual meaning of the words as they are somewhat forced to do in the case of the Mouse’s tale. Thus, Papy retains the word ‘hoarse’ in French (‘rauque’) and couples it with ‘roc’, a word which means ‘rock’ rather than ‘horse’ but no matter: the pun is rendered aptly and no additional meaning is lost. In his translation of the pun, Parisot even adds something to the text: he replaces the pun on hoarse/horse with ‘chemin de faire/chemin de fer’, a quip about a railway and distance travelled. Not only does he create an equivalent pun but as, when the ‘hoarse/horse’ pun is mentioned in the original text, the characters are indeed in a train, Parisot succeeds in adding a further layer of meaning to his translation and linking his pun to the wider context of the story in a way Carroll himself did not, in this case, do.

Such examples therefore testify to the fact that translation is not an exact science: it is an art form, which requires creativity, originality and a love of language. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the translations of Alice in Wonderland. 

Rebecca Loxton

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

New LanguageNow website is live!

We are very pleased to announce the launch of our new website!

We will continue to update content, and several language variants will be available over the coming months. We want to make sure that as many people as possible can have access to our fantastic translation services.

We will be rolling out more updates in the autumn coupled with some great interactive services for both our clients and our linguists.

We hope you like the site, and as always, any comments are welcome.

Thank you for reading!

The LanguageNow Team

Learning a New Language in Five Steps

Learning a new language can be a challenging yet rewarding experience. If you’re considering on taking up a new language, you might want to consider a few aspects to help you along the way. Here are five steps to picking up some new lingo.

1. Immerse yourself.

When you’ve decided what language you’d like to learn, then immersing yourself in that language can help. Listen to as much of your new language as you can, whether it’s films, television, radio, podcasts, speech based apps or music. It doesn’t matter if you know very little at this stage. Listen to the pronunciation – how are words pronounced? Listen to music and podcasts whilst you’re going to sleep. You may not think it will help but honestly you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll pick up.

2. Learn key words and phrases.

Learning key words and phrases, such as greetings is a simple but effective way to learn a new language as a beginner. Learn popular sayings and words you may need if you were to ever visit the country of your language. Key words and phrases are a basic starting point for any language learner and from here you can begin to learn other words and phrases with similar meanings or on a similar topic.

3. Tackle the present tense.

After you’ve learnt a few basics in your new language, learning words or phrases in the present tense is a good learning structure for a beginner. Learning in the present tense is a great way to communicate with others. Once you’ve figured out the present tense language, you can start to move on to learning past and future tenses.

4. Practice makes perfect.

Once you’ve learnt some basics and vocabulary, practicing your newfound skills is important if you want to progress with your learning. Try speaking your new language as much as you can and get others involved. If you don’t have anyone with whom you can test out your new speaking skills, consider interactive learning. There are many online programs that offer language speaking and can help you test your progress: check out free language level tests, or online games to get started. If you’re really committed, consider visiting the country of your new language in order to test out your skills with locals. Or, if traveling isn’t in your foreseeable future, find a pen pal in your country of focus to practice your language with a local.

5. Extending your learning.

If you’ve started to learn a new language by yourself, you might want to consider how you can progress with your learning. One way to do this is by classes or online courses. There are many different types of classes and courses you can attend and both offer different benefits depending on your lifestyle and circumstances. In addition, there are many online platforms and apps to help you extend and progress further with your learning. Many are also free to use and flexible, offering you a perfect opportunity to further your knowledge and skills.

Written by Zoe Wells

Zoe Wells

A dedicated freelance writer from the UK with a passion for exploring new things. Zoe loves content creation, reading classic literature and learning new languages. She is currently writing for Language Trainers Online, which provides tailor-made Skype language classes for individuals and businesses worldwide.