Andrea Appleton at smithsonian.com reports on a new publication:
Middle Welsh and Manx, Lingwa de Planeta and Latgalian. In its 150-year history, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been translated into every major language and numerous minor ones, including many that are extinct or invented. Only some religious texts and a few other children’s books—including The Little Prince by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry—reportedly rival Alice for sheer number of linguistic variations.
But the real wonder is that any Alice translations exist at all. Penned in 1865 by English scholar Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, the book’s delight in wordplay and cultural parodies makes it a torment for translators.
How do you write about the Mouse’s tale without losing the all-important pun on “tail”? Some languages, like the Aboriginal tongue Pitjantjatjara, don’t even use puns. What about when a character takes an idiom literally? […]
A massive new work, Alice in a World of Wonderlands, devotes three volumes to exploring such questions. Published by Oak Knoll Press, the books include essays by 251 writers analyzing the beloved children’s book in 174 languages. The essays are scholarly but peppered with anecdotes illuminating the peculiarities of language and culture as they relate to Carroll’s book. […]
Language and typography scholar Michael Everson says the novel’s inherent difficulty is part of its appeal. “The Alice challenge seems to be one that people like because it’s really fun,” he says. “Wracking your brains to resurrect a pun that works in your language even though it shouldn’t, that sort of thing.” For instance, an early Gujarati translator managed to capture the tail/tale pun for readers of that western Indian tongue. When someone talks incessantly, it is often conveyed through the Gujarati phrase poonchadoo nathee dekhatun, which means “no end in sight”—allowing the translator to play on poonchadee, the word for “tail”, with poonchadoo.
I love the Gujarati example, and there are other goodies at the link (“In the Swahili edition, the Hatter wears a fez and the dormouse is a bush baby”). It’s amazing how clever people can be at coming up with corresponding wordplay. And I should note that the article doesn’t mention one of the more famous and successful versions, Nabokov’s Аня в Стране Чудес.