- Alice in a World of Wonderlands: The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece ed. by Jon A. Lindseth, Alan Tannenbaum
‘This book is about language, as is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland itself … [W]e believe it to be the most extensive analysis ever undertaken examining one English language novel in so many other languages.’ Jon A. Lindseth opens his introduction to Volume One (‘Essays’) with this bold claim: but, outside some Borgesian parallel universe, it is unlikely to be challenged. [End Page 464]
This weighty set (nearly 9 kg) is the result of an exhibition put on at the Grolier Club last year to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Alice’s first publication, and it is an extraordinary achievement. The first volume consists of a foreword (by David Crystal), an introduction (quoted above), eight ‘preliminary essays’, a welter of essays on the different translations (arranged by language, dialect, etc.), three ‘additional essays’ (including Byron Sewell’s entertaining jeu d’esprit on a fictional language, ‘Zumorigénflit: a parody of this project’), seventeen appendices, a number of excellent illustrations (many in colour), and the usual technical apparatus. Volume Two, perhaps the oddest, consists largely of ‘back-translations’ (also arranged alphabetically by language) of a section of Chapter VII (part of the account of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, running from the verse beginning ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little bat’ up to the attempt to push the Dormouse into the teapot). Volume Three, ‘Checklists’, does very much what it says.
The essays in Volume One are scholarly and thought-provoking, and they can be enjoyed without deep knowledge of the languages concerned; at the same time, they do not patronize those readers who do know a little more of their subjects. As with all good bibliographies, too, they shine light on subjects far beyond their declared scope. They are likely to provide years of pleasure for the owners of this book.
Volume Two is not going to be of universal interest—it will be a brave and obsessive Carrollian who reads it in its entirety, but doubtless there are several thousand of those, and they will have weeks of fun. A brief glimpse can only hint at the delights, but it raises some interesting questions. Why does the (rare) Xhosa translation omit Chapter VII entirely? (Perhaps traditionalist Xhosa ancestor worship, complete with an underground-dwelling deity, would have resonated awkwardly with the madness of the tea-party? Or was the Mad Hatter just too daunting for Messrs Mzazi and Potgieter?) Why do both Portuguese (Portugal) translations describe the treacle-well, while the Portuguese (Brazil) ones refer to a ‘well of sweets’ (1933; this version, incidentally, precedes any issued in Portugal) and (in 1997) ‘molasses’? Aren’t some readers from the Low Countries likely to be upset by the failure to consider Flemish as a language distinct from Dutch, even though Belgians are treated to a West Walloon back-translation, and the inhabitants of the Netherlands are offered a Frisian one? But these are the most trivial of cavils. More lamentable is the lack of the original foreign-language texts from which the back-translations were derived; but, as Lindseth says in Appendix 16 (‘Material not Covered in this Book’), ‘the obstacles were too great … each back-translator would have had to enter the text by hand … [and] the creation of that new document would also have necessitated recruiting a second editor for every language in order to proof those texts’. He also points out that the volume might have doubled in size, an awe-inspiring thought.
Volume Three ‘is intended as a handy reference and does not include a standard bibliographical description of each book. Those needing more detail will find it in other sources.’ This is a pity, but reflects the fact that the present undertaking is, necessarily, a work in progress. However, the...