Reading in a World of Wonderlands

Have you really read "Alice in Wonderland" until you've read it in Esperanto? Rebecca L. Walkowitz finds out in her review of "Alice in a World of Wonders."

Reading in a World of Wonderlands

Alice in a World of Wonderlands by Alan Tannenbaum and Jon A. Lindseth. Oak Knoll Press. 2656 pages.

HOW DO WE READ a whole novel? This may seem like an obvious question, but the answer is no longer clear. Surely, we need to complete all of the chapters. And also look at the illustrations, if any. Sophisticated readers may also ponder the table of contents, the title page, the cover, and the notes or acknowledgments. Readers may have something to say about the formatting of the book, such as its typography and the arrangement of that typography on the page, and about its medium, whether it appears in paper, cloth, ebook, or audio. For readers of contemporary fiction, my question is complicated yet again by a raft of novels that appear to be versions or parts of novels. We find ourselves asking, how many novels is the whole novel? I’m thinking here of Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, and J. M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, which seem to be translations, adaptations, or partial versions of the work. The most dramatic case is Smith’s How to Be Both, whose editions sometimes lead with one half of the novel, and sometimes with the other. If we’ve read only one of those editions, have we read the whole novel? Or, as the title intimates, do we need to read both? And of course, if we open the door to the order of the book, we might also have to consider all of those other books: the translations, adaptations, and multiple formats in which the work circulates in the world.

How, then, do we read a whole novel? We don’t read a whole novel, and we never have. To acknowledge this condition is not simply to give up on reading better or more. Instead, anyone interested in a novel’s most capacious, most worldly existence has to read differently. We have to learn about how and where a novel has been produced, adapted, and read. We have to consider how the meaning of the novel changes as it brushes up against, and sometimes enters into, many different literary fields. In this great age of translation, one way we read better is to read comparatively.

When we read comparatively, we are actually reading across time as well as across space and language. And we now have a very unusual opportunity to do so. To honor the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, first published in 1865, a group of 250 translators, scholars, and literary historians banded together to produce Alice in a World of Wonderlands: The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece. This three-volume, 2,656-page compendium, heroically edited by Jon A. Lindseth and Alan Tannenbaum, has all the trappings of rigorous scholarship — Three heavy volumes! Lists and charts! An entire volume devoted to bibliography! — but it also contains many unexpected and quirky delights. Since this is a book about the work of Lewis Carroll (né Charles Dodgson), inventor of the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, and a host of other seriously absurd and absurdly serious characters, it is only right that the learned enterprise has a bit of playfulness around every corner. There are numerous essays about the book’s history of publication, adaptation, and translation into 174 languages (serious). But those languages include not only alphabetic idioms such as Korean, French, Hindi, Yiddish, Cockney, Ladino, and Brazilian Sign Language — to name a few — but also non-alphabetic idioms such as Shorthand, Cipher, and QR BarCode (absurd). We learn that Alice in Wonderland has been translated into eight “invented languages” such as Esperanto, Volapük, and Alphagram. Nobody speaks these languages, at least not in their everyday life, but that hasn’t kept translators from wanting to create La Aventuroj de Alicio en Mirlando (Esperanto), Ventürs jiela Lälid in Sunalan (Volapük), and Aceil in addelnnorW (Alphagram). There are also numerous translations in archaic languages, including three “Middles” (Middle Breton, Middle English, and Middle Irish) and two “Olds” (Old English and Old Norse). Why render Alice in a language nobody speaks? Translation confers value and longevity: the languages live because Alice lives in them.

The greatest share of pages in the World of Wonderlands is devoted to hundreds of “back-translations” of an eight-page section of Alice, taken from the novel’s seventh chapter, “A Mad Tea-Party.” In case you aren’t familiar with the concept of the back-translation, let me be clear. The editors convinced a very large number of colleagues, scholars, and amateur translators based all over the world, to translate part of a foreign-language edition of Carroll’s English-language text into brand new English-language text. Since these colleagues have all translated the same part of the novel-in-translation, what we see before us are more than 200 copies of the “Tea-Party” story — all in English, all in a row! These are not the English-language pages composed by Carroll, mind you. These are the English-language pages that came into being after Carroll’s novel was translated twice, once from English and once back into English from some other language. Sometimes, the translator and the back-translator are the same person, because some foreign-language editions have appeared for the first time very recently; but often they are not. So we are looking at several layers and intervals of collaboration, such as this one: Lewis Carroll’s pages, published in 1865, were first translated into Korean by Nag-won Han in 1959; pages from the second edition of that translation, from 1960, have been subsequently back-translated into English by Kang-hoon Lee and Heidi Terlinden for the 2015 publication of World of Wonderlands. The 2015 back-translation thus reflects the literary sensibilities and linguistic norms of three centuries: the 19th, the 20th, and 21st. Reading the back-translated Alice, we are encountering an object whose collaborators, as it were, are separated by 150 years.

Back-translations are a peculiar but instructive genre, neither an original version of the work nor a translation into a foreign language. They never sound fluent, nor are they meant to, since they record what is in effect a negotiation between two languages. Unlike translations, which often aim to sound like they are original to the new language, back-translations aim to capture what happened to the work when it traveled from its source to one of its targets. The idea is to communicate to English-language readers who don’t read Spanish, for example, what was done to Alice, or what could be done, when the English-language story encountered the resources of the Spanish idiom. Back-translations should be understood therefore as a record of gain as well as loss. We can see approximation, how the Spanish translator rendered the sounds or functions of the English version. But we can also see innovation, how that translator drew out aspects of the original, or introduced new permutations to what is from the beginning a very playful text. Scholars often use back-translations to compare across interpretations of a work (a translation being a kind of interpretation) and to learn how the work was received in different places over time. It is tempting to use back-translations to judge whether a translator or a foreign language “got” the original. But if we accept that translations are works in their own right, with their own audiences and contexts and influences, we can use back-translations to learn something about how the text has been significant to others. We can use them to notice that there are other readers and other literary histories to which the work belongs. In this sense, back-translations are an important tool of the worldly classroom. They allow students to see how a text has functioned in many different languages and for many different audiences, and they also allow them to see just how many ways the text can exist even in one language.

Sadly, the compendium’s back-translations do not include QR BarCode and a few other non-alphabetic or non-written languages. But there are many, many intriguing examples to consider side-by-side. These include back-translations from different languages and also back-translations from the same language. When possible, each translator (or translator pair) has rendered the first foreign-language edition and also one of the later editions, so that we can observe how translation strategies have changed over time and how different translators have approached their challenge. In the case of the Korean translation, there is one back-translation from the 1960 edition and another from 2005. The translator’s essay by Kang-hoo Lee, which is collected in the compendium’s first volume, describes the cultural significance of the first Alice translation, published only a few years after the end of the Korean War. He notes that the Korean Alice was one of a small number of books selected for a new series on “Boys and Girls World Literature.” Comparing the 1960 and 2005 editions, Lee observes that the later translation reflects greater interest in the novel’s puns and logic games, which he attributes to new attitudes about “cultural changes” in Korean society. For the 2005 translators, he avers, Carroll’s nonsense world sheds light on real-life absurdities.

Alice in Wonderland is just the sort of book you’d think no one would try to translate, which is part of what makes its history and this compendium so extraordinary. The original eight-page text is full of British idioms and jokes about British idioms. It opens with a parody — one might call it a translation — of the well-known English nursery rhyme that begins, “Twinkle, twinkle, little star!” In Alice, the Mad Hatter intones, “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! / How I wonder what you’re at!” He then asks Alice, “You know the song, perhaps?” This is a devious assignment for a translation project, since the humor of the exchange depends on the Hatter’s alteration of the original. Indeed, English readers operating well outside of England may miss the joke as often as non-English readers do. The eight-page section includes many Anglophone puns, references to the customs of “tea-time,” and an extended conversation about words that begin with the letter M. At the back of the compendium’s second volume, nifty charts invite us to compare the most idiosyncratic phrases and passages as they appear in the various translations. So we can readily see, for example, that Carroll’s “bat” is sometimes a “pussycat” (Belarusian), a “golden bee” (Bulgarian), a “flittermouse” (Cornish), an “owl” (Danish), and a “goat” (Yiddish).

As the proliferation of animals suggests, these are the same English pages and also not the same English pages. They retain the trace, as literary critics say, of the translation process. In the movement from bat to flittermouse and goat, we see the various analogies that translators have adopted to bring a text from one language and time into another. Some translators have tried to retain the function of the exchange between the Hatter and Alice (the tweaking of a well-known popular rhyme) while others have emphasized the vocabulary (the bat). These differences tell us something about how translators understand their task, whether they seek to domesticate the text for new readers (by switching to local animals, for example) or whether they seek to preserve the text’s foreignness (by hewing closely to the diction and references of the original). We can see this choice in the names of the characters, too: Alice becomes Eva in the first Czech edition, because Eva’s commonness in Czech matches the commonness of Alice in English; in Blissymbols, a constructed language with no phonology, Alice is called Curious-Girl. These translations emphasize function. However, the Old English edition has it both ways: Alice becomes Æthelgyth because the target name preserves the sound of the source, whereas the Hatter hosts a “Mad Beer-Party.” Translator Peter S. Baker reasons, there was no tea in Anglo-Saxon England.

Reading the back-translations alongside the translators’ essays, which fill the compendium’s first volume, we learn how, why, and under what conditions Alice was translated at a given time and place. We learn, too, that translation is not only about languages. It’s also about locations. We see this the moment we open any one of the volumes. The endpapers — in this case, the pages pasted along the inside of the front binding — feature a map of the world dotted with foreign-language editions of Alice. However, the map’s legend does not present “national editions,” in any strict sense of the term. Instead, languages operate at the scale of the city and the county. We have “Old English–Winchester,” “Italian–Turin,” and “Brazilian Sign Language–Rio de Janeiro.” All of the languages have locations, but they often share those locations with several other languages or versions of language: in Jerusalem, we find Hebrew, Ladino, and Yiddish.

By presenting the foreign editions in this way, Wonderlands offers not only a rare collection of knowledge but also a sophisticated and very timely approach to that knowledge. No longer the singular and natural voice of the nation-state — one territory, one idiom — languages in these volumes are heterogeneous things: at once fluid, syncretic, unique, practical, and organic. Nine different dialects of Scots, each pinned to a region, island, or town, appear right alongside “Korean–Seoul,” “Neopolitan–Naples,” “Appalachian dialect of American English–Fayette County, WV,” and “Old Norse–Reykholt.” Dialects are ways of speaking, but they are treated in these volumes as ways of writing, too. Different alphabets and orthographic systems create variations within what appears to be a single language.

World of Wonderlands observes and annotates these variations. The editors count separately English editions rendered in Braille, Shorthand, and Deseret (a 19th-century alphabet “devised by the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith”). In his introductory essay, Jon A. Lindseth explains that languages change over time and that even their proper names are hard to pin down. For the editors, this has been more than an academic concern. Lindseth reports that one scholar resigned from the project over a disagreement about how the Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, and Montenegrin editions would be identified.

The editors are upending our expectations about the nature of translation as well as language. Translation here includes foreign-language adaptations, abridgments, retellings “in the manner of Alice,” and even illustrations. The editors give us an opportunity to learn about the vast range of ways that the Alice story has been localized for audiences of different backgrounds and literacies. Readers of the volumes may wish to compare the visual representations of Alice presented by the foreign-edition book covers, which accompany each of the back-translations; the first volume reproduces a generous selection in full color.

Alice in a World of Wonderlands narrates a history of translations while also helping to change that history. The translation into Ladino, a language spoken by Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 and in the subsequent centuries mingled with many languages of the Ottoman Empire, is listed as forthcoming. It has been published as a back-translation in these volumes before being published as a translation. The same is true for the back-translations in Ewondo, Fijian, Maori, Old English, and about 30 additional languages. The production of the compendium of back-translations seems to have occasioned the production of original translations. I’ve called books that are published in the original and translation simultaneously “born translated,” but these pages are really born back-translated. We have a chance to imagine and speculate what they are like — what they will be like — in a foreign language by viewing them through the multilingual English we have before us. Soon, we will have a chance to read Alice in those languages. This is an aesthetic opportunity. But it is also a political opportunity, insofar as the compendium editors are encouraging publication in minor languages and readers’ encounter with those languages, while also tracking and interpreting translation’s pasts. The editors may be celebrating a work that began in the world’s most dominant language, but their project highlights and values the semi-autonomous labors of writers and translators in languages that many English readers don’t consider or don’t know.

Alice in a World of Wonderlands owes its conception to Warren Weaver’s pioneering study from 1964, Alice in Many Tongues, which involved back-translations of the same “Tea-Party” section of Carroll’s novel. Lindseth and his team acknowledge this debt on many occasions, but they have transformed and also departed from Weaver’s model. We now know about many more editions published both in earlier periods and in our own. Weaver identified 336 foreign-language editions in 47 languages. Fifty years later, Lindseth and Tannenbaum have identified 7,609 extant or forthcoming editions across 174 languages. Part of the difference has to do with the internet and its search engines, which have helped the editors to track down numerous editions. In addition, the present editors recognize a much larger number of writing systems: a greater number of editions now “count” as translations. But it is not simply a matter of counting differently. Since 1964, there has been a substantial surge in the production of Alice translations, stimulated by anticolonial movements, new nationalisms, and new audiences for English-language literature.

The recent volume approaches its subject matter differently, too. Whereas Weaver judged the quality of translations, using the back-translations to assess how well each language expressed the Carroll text, the present editors describe much more neutrally the variety of translation practices, histories, and outcomes. This shift from evaluation to description reflects substantial changes in the field of translation studies over the past half-century. Lindseth and his colleagues show that translation histories are bound up with geopolitical histories. Contributors discuss the importance of cultural and political agents — institutions, individuals, publishing companies, technologies, and governments — that bring translations into the world. Some translations have served the project of nation-building, language preservation, and education, while others have served Christian missions and colonialism. The history of languages is fraught with violence, conflict, and necessity — and not only wonder. Relating the history of Alice’s translations turns out to involve relating a great deal more than the mechanical substitution of one language for another.

Can we read the whole Alice in Wonderland in these 2,656 pages, or even the whole eight pages of the “Tea-Party” segment? To help us consider this question, the editors have included an appendix entitled, “Material Not Covered in this Book.” Most importantly, that material includes the foreign-language texts from which the back-translations have been taken. We don’t get to see those. It’s too bad, since readers would benefit from assessing for themselves what the back-translators have done to the original foreign-language editions. But, as Lindseth points out regretfully, this would have doubled the size of the second volume and would have required the services of a copyeditor in every language. We would also benefit from an encounter with our own relative fluency: readers would be able to read some versions well, some adequately, a few intermittently, and some not at all. Different readers would be able to read different parts. In the absence of those pages, the appendix reminds us that no reader can comprehend the whole.

In a less serious approach to the question of exhaustive reading, the editors include a back-translation and translator’s essay from the Zumorigénflit edition, which does not exist. This is pure parody, and — like “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat” — it assumes some knowledge about and commitment to the normal procedures of literary circulation and scholarship. References to the parody appear throughout the compendium. There is even a place for Zumorigénflit on the world map of Alice translations that opens each volume. (It seems to be located somewhere near Uzbekistan.) The parody is meant to be a send-up of the enthusiast’s desire to render Alice into any language, no matter how small, and to include that translation in this anniversary collection. It is also a send-up of anthropological expertise, in which the one who claims to know is revealed, like the Mad Hatter, to be foolish, because he is less knowing than he thinks, and arrogant, because he is disposed to use his knowledge condescendingly.

We can understand the spoof translation as a witty extension of the editors’ capaciousness toward invented languages and alphabets. If we don’t need language speakers in order to have a language, surely we don’t need a language in order to have a history of a language. This is the topsy-turvy world of Lewis Carroll, after all, in which the most absurd propositions can seem logical if you look at them in the right way. However, the Zumorigénflit parody strikes an odd note. Its humor depends on proliferating diacriticals (those marks that appear on or over letters, which are very uncommon in English but much more common in Eastern European and Central Asian languages) and sounds that are “funny” to an English reader. The implied “curiosity” of this made-up language unfortunately activates rather than satirizes the idea that some languages — and not just what humorists do with those languages — are themselves absurd. The main reason to read comparatively is to deflate this sensibility, in which we feel we know which languages seem foreign and which really are.

Alice in a World of Wonderlands should be celebrated twofold: for the immense knowledge it collects and for the important questions it asks about that knowledge. What better way to honor the long history and influence of Alice in Wonderland, one of most amusing, most idiosyncratic English novels of the 19th century, than by showing that it has also been one of the most amusing, most idiosyncratic, and most popular Japanese, Spanish, German, and Chinese novels of the past 150 years? Major literary works that have seemed to be signal accomplishments of one literary tradition have in fact been — or are now, at this very moment becoming — signal works in many traditions. The ongoing emergence of the work changes what the work has been. It is not simply a matter of diffusion, then, in which a novel from one place influences the literary traditions of other places. Instead, Alice in a World of Wonderlands documents the rich and varied collaborations that revitalize the literary work, extending its history well into the future.


Rebecca L. Walkowitz is the author of Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature (2015).

LARB Contributor

Rebecca L. Walkowitz is professor and director of Graduate Studies in the English Department and an affiliate faculty member in the Comparative Literature Program at Rutgers University. She is past president of the Modernist Studies Association. She writes and teaches courses about modernism, 20th-century British and Anglophone fiction, the contemporary novel, translation, world literature, and transnational approaches to literary history.

She is the author of Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism Beyond the Nation (2006) and Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature (2015). She is also the editor or coeditor of eight books, including Immigrant Fictions: Contemporary Literature in an Age of Globalization (2007), Bad Modernisms(2006, with Douglas Mao), and The Turn to Ethics (with Marjorie Garber and Beatrice Hanssen, 2000).


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