Alice in translation

In October 1866 Lewis Carroll told his publisher Macmillan that his friends in Oxford “seem to think that the book [Alice’s adventures in Wonderland] is untranslatable”.  History has proved his friends very wrong, as a new three volume acquisition by the Library, Alice in a world of wonderlands : translations of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece, edited by Jon A. Lindseth (S950.b.201.3527-3529), makes clear.

– Waddleton.c.1.395

The first volume of this substantial reference work, compiled to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Alice’s publication, is a book of essays, including a contribution about Alice translations in each of 144 languages, together with reproductions of more than 100 book covers and other illustrations.  In the second volume each language contributor looks at the first edition in his or her language, together where possible with a more recent edition, and makes a “back-translation” into English, so the reader can compare the way in which each version deals with Carroll’s nonsense language and homophones. The passage selected for study is an 8 page extract from chapter 7, starting with the “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat” poem and ending with the Dormouse being stuffed into the teapot.

Volume three is a listing of the more than 9,000 translations and adaptations in which Alice has appeared, divided by language.  The Spanish listing is by far the largest, occupying 170 pages.  Then comes German with 71 pages, Italian with 58, French with 56 and Russian with 40.


Le avventure d’Alice nel paese delle meraviglie (Sc.3.71)

The Library’s collection of Alice translations has until recently been fairly limited.  The richness of our holdings should never be underestimated though, and slightly surprisingly we have first editions of the original French and German translations, Aventures d’Alice au pays des merveilles (Syn.7.86.89) and Alice’s Abenteuer im Wunderland (Lib.7.86.18), both published in 1869, four years after the original English version.  We also have the first Italian edition, Le avventure d’Alice nel paese delle meraviglie (Sc.3.71), dating from 1872, and the first Esperanto edition, La aventuroj de Alicio en Mirlando (Syn.7.91.1), from 1910.  Our earliest Russian translation, Ania v stranie chudes (S727.c.92.144), dates from 1923. The translator is the 24 year old Vladimir Nabokov, writing as V. Sirin, a pseudonym adopted to avoid confusion with his father. The sirin is a Russian folkloric creature, with body of a bird and the head of a woman – the word is derived from the Greek siren.



These very early translations tend to reproduce the original illustrations by John Tenniel.  The Esperanto edition, however, uses illustrations by Brinsley Le Fanu, and Nabokov’s Russian translation has pictures by Sergei Zalshupin (1898-1931), an émigré artist and book illustrator who lived in Paris.  Our later 20th century translations tend to have been acquired for their illustrative content.  There is a 1949 French version (Waddleton.a.4.390) in the Waddleton Collection, with illustrations by Adrienne Ségur, an important French children’s book illustrator, and a 1989 German translation (Waddleton.c.1.395) with pictures by Frans Haacken, a collaborator with Bertolt Brecht from 1949 when he designed dustjackets for Brecht’s works and posters for the Berliner Ensemble.  In 2010 we acquired a striking large format French translation with illustrations by Rébecca Dautremer (S950.a.201.863).

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– Illustrations by Rébecca Dautremer (S950.a.201.863)

In the last few years our collection of Alice translations has expanded significantly due to the legal deposit copies we have received from Evertype Publishing, based in Portlaoise in Ireland.  Evertype’s list specialises in “Wonderland and Carrolliana”, and the publisher has been issuing translations in a wide variety of languages and dialects; the website currently lists more than 60 versions. Romance languages covered include Neapolitan, Western Lombard, Aromanian, Ladino, Walloon, Borain Picard and Jèrriais.  There are also editions in Germanic languages such as Yiddish, Palatine German, Icelandic, Viennese German, Mennonite Low German, Swedish and Plattdeutsch.  Our copies are gradually being added to the catalogue and given a permanent classmark, but the Evertype list does of course present challenges to the cataloguer who is unfamiliar with all these languages.

David Lowe

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