Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches

 

14. Comparative children’s literature

 

Emer O’Sullivan

 

Contact and transfer studies: Alice in Germany

 

This chapter is to be concluded with a brief example of a subject of comparative contact and transfer studies, the translation and reception of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The French translations have been analysed by Meres 1988, the Finnish by Oittinen 1997.

Antonie Zimmermann, a German teacher living in England at the time, produced the first German translation of Alice in Wonderland, published in 1869. Since then over thirty different German translations have been issued (not counting abridged versions and translations into other media). How can Carroll’s novel be successfully translated into German or, for that matter, into any other language? Word play on the highest level, poems, parodies; the English language not only provides the context for much of the humour, it is frequently its very object. Alice in Wonderland is full of explicit and implicit references to historical or cultural figures, regional and social accents and names, many of which are figures from English nursery rhymes or personifications of sayings - the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Cheshire Cat, the Queen of Hearts and her court - all of which challenge the talent of any translator.

In the initial stages of its reception at least, this was a book which, with its dream-like quality, its perverted logic, its incomprehensibility, was totally unlike anything produced by German authors for children. Was this book suitable for children, was it acceptable for German children? Each translation can be read as the translator’s answer to the questions, influenced by predominant concepts of childhood and attitudes towards what constituted children’s literature in Germany at the time of that particular translation.

The translations range from those which infantilise the novel to others which offer an exclusively adult reading of it. Five main approaches towards the translation of Lewis Carroll’s novel can be identified: the fairy-tale approach; the explanatory approach; the moralising approach; the literary approach; and an approach which is both literary and accessible to children.

The fairy-tale mood is frequently introduced in paratexts about the author Lewis Carroll who, according to the translator Karl Kostlin in 1949, told the Liddell sisters the story of Alice’s adventures in his room ‘an den langen Winterabenden [during the long winter evenings]’. In Franz Sester’s 1949 translation the point of the ‘dry story’ is missed entirely as it is replaced by the story of Little Red Riding Hood. An obvious adaptation of Alice in Wonderland to the fairy-tale model can be seen in R. G. L. Barrett’s 1922 translation. In it, the ‘Mad Tea Party’ is transformed into a German coffee circle with figures which look as if they have just emerged from the German fairy-tale forest. Instead of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare we find a cobbler, ‘Meister Pechfaden’, and the ‘Osterhase’, the Easter Bunny.

Many German translations try to turn Alice in Wonderland into a comprehensible book; they try to explain away the inexplicable. In them, language as a means of meaningful communication is no longer questioned or undermined: the disturbing, grotesque, threatening dimension of Lewis Carroll’s book is eliminated. An extreme example of extensive explanation occurs in Franz Sester’s translation in the passage in which the Mock Turtle is first mentioned. He is introduced as follows in the original:

 

Then the Queen left off, quite out of breath, and said to Alice, ‘Have you seen the Mock Turtle yet?’

‘No,’ said Alice. ‘I don’t even know what a Mock Turtle is.’

‘It’s the thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from,’ said the Queen.

‘I never saw one, or heard of one.’

‘Come on, then,’ said the Queen, ‘and he shall tell you his history.’

 

Franz Sester obviously found this somewhat unsatisfactory. What were his young readers supposed to think a Mock Turtle was? He therefore added, directly after the Queen tells Alice to follow her, a lengthy passage which has no equivalent in the English original, in which we find Alice culturally adapted as a well-behaved German schoolgirl. In the course of the explanation of what a Mock Turtle is, the reader is introduced to Alice’s English teacher and Alice’s aunt and is given a recipe for Mock Turtle soup.

A watershed in the history of the German reception of Alice in Wonderland occurred in 1963, when both Alice books were translated by Christian Enzensberger. Thanks to this intelligent and creative translation almost a hundred years after publication of the original, German readers could finally get an inkling of the complexity and brilliance of Carroll’s original. To underline the apparently universal applicability of Carroll’s vision, Enzensberger, while recognising the specifically English origin of the books, elected not to literally translate references to England, preferring instead to substitute Napoleon for William the Conqueror, Goethe for Shakespeare and so on. On the other hand, instead of parodying German poems he gives a literal rendering of Carroll’s, in other words, perfect German parodies of English poems. Only a reader familiar with the originals (Isaacs Watt’s ‘Against Idleness and Mischief’, for instance) can fully get the point. Enzensberger elects to retain the temporal distance between the novel of 1865 and readers of the 1960s and produces a text which has a distinct nineteenth-century feel to it. With its odd archaic turns of phrase in German and its opaque references, this translation is that of the classical text which Alice in Wonderland has become, complete with the patina lent by time and acclaim. It is a translation for adults, for intellectuals even, which, in contrast to Lewis Carroll’s original, loses sight of the child reader. Enzensberger’s ‘literary’ translation revealed to German speakers the complexity and quality of a book hitherto dumbed down by most of the translations which, with a clear child reader in mind (and one who couldn’t cope with a challenge), held no attraction for the adult reader. This changed in the 1980s, thanks partly to Enzensberger and partly due to changes in German children’s literature, which, for various reasons, was becoming more open to hitherto unknown or unaccepted forms of humour and nonsense.

A small number of translations published in the late 1980s and early 1990s aim to be enjoyed and understood by children but are not prepared to compromise the quality and the spirit of the original. They achieve this goal through creative use of language and by neutralising (but not falsifying) the historical and, in some cases, the cultural context. The language is contemporary but not faddish, Carroll’s parodies are replaced by parodies of well-known German poems. One of the most successful of these translations is by Siv Bublitz. A sample of her work is her translation of ‘How Doth the Little Crocodile’. It is a parody of Goethe’s famous poem ‘Der Fischer [The Fisherman], dynamic and cheeky in its diction but which nonetheless manages to retain Carroll’s smiling and murderous crocodile:

 

Das Wasser rauscht, das Wasser tost,

ein Krokodil sitzt drin,

sieht nach dem kleinen Fischerboot

und grinst so vor sich hin.

Dann schnappt es zu, das geht ruck, zuck,

da ist der Fischer weg;

das Krokodil hat Magendruck,

das Boot, es hat ein Leck.

 

[The waters sweep, the waters swell,

A crocodile therein

Looks at the little fishing boat

And to himself does grin

Then jaws snap shut all in a flash

O fisherman, adieu!

The crocodile has tummy ache

The boat is leaking, too.]

(Carroll 1993: 23)

 

The translations which are both literary and accessible can also be read with enjoyment by adults, thus reproducing perhaps most faithfully the dual address of the original.

A comparative study of the German translations of Alice in Wonderland reveals that books with the title Alice im Wunderland cannot, for the most part, be equated with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Most Germans today know Alice in Wonderland mainly thanks to Walt Disney. Compared to its reception in England and in other countries, Lewis Carroll’s book simply wasn’t a success in Germany, for which the poor quality of many of the thirty-one translations issued in the course of 130 years is partially responsible. The translations themselves are clear indicators of how translators and publishers felt such an excitingly innovative but also puzzling book should be presented to young German readers.

 

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Further reading

O’Sullivan, E. (2001) ‘Alice in Different Wonderlands: Varying Approaches in the German Translations of an English Children’s Classic’, in Meek, M. (ed.) Children’s Literature and National Identity, London: Trentham, 23-32.

- (forthcoming) Comparative Children’s Literature, London and New York: Routledge.