Translating “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland“
Lewis Carroll’s story about a girl who gets lost in a fantastic land of wonders on a hot summer’s afternoon is one of the most successful children’s books of all times. There are a number of translations into German, the most popular probably by Christian Enzensberger. One of the reasons for the book’s still continued attraction for young and old is probably its highly imaginative nature. This is not only conveyed by the plot but also by the language Carroll uses in the English original. To transport Carroll’s imaginative English into another language is probably the greatest challenge to a translator. I have chosen two translations, by Christian Enzensberger, dating back to the 1960s, and one by Günther Flemming, from 2002, to point out qualitative differences and to illustrate the main problems for the translator of Alice’s story. Generally four fields of difficulties for the translation of the book can be distinguished. The first one concerns the audience. Carroll wrote his book for children. However one can find many allusions to events and persons from Victorian England, where the book was written, knowledge of which could not even be presupposed in a child of the time. The story can therefore be understood on various levels. Concerning the translation it must be decided if all these levels have to be transported. Since today there is hardly anyone in modern Germany who can identify all the hints and allusions, it should also be considered whether these events could be replaced with more recent or at least more local events. Both Enzensberger and Flemming have decided against this approach. This can be considered a wise decision, because following this approach consequently would result in a whole new, modern Alice without much in common with its original. The book “Alles über Alice”, from which the Flemming translation is taken, works with comments that explain many of the backgrounds and allusions. These comments are also a translation from an English original (Carroll; Gardner. The Annotated Alice, 1990) Along the same lines, the translator has to consider whether expressions typical for a specific cultural background have to be transferred into the target language. In the first chapter, in a passage that will be discussed in more detail later, Alice is falling through a rabbit-hole and wonders how far she has come yet. As a British child she uses miles to talk about distance: “I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time […] (l)et me see: that would be four thousand miles […]” (Carroll. p.10). A German child might not be familiar with how much a mile is, but he or she might know that it is a very long distance. Flemming therefore uses a direct translation: “Wie viele Meilen ich wohl schon gefallen bin? […] das wäre dann viertausend Meilen tief […]“ (Flemming. p.13). Enzensberger solves the problem more creatively by first using the direct translation and then replacing it with a more understandable concept of distance: “Wie viele Meilen ich wohl schon gefallen bin? […] sechstausend Kilometer wären das […]” (Enzensberger. p.11) Much of the attractiveness of the book derives from the fact that the reader feels immediately drawn to Alice. It is very easy to identify with her, since her personality is very well defined. This is partly due to the language used by the narrator and the language she uses herself, especially in soliloquy. These two registers are very similar. This creates the feeling that the story is told to a receiver who is very much like Alice, rather than read in a book. Language is used very playfully, with long and “grand” (Carroll, p.10) words and run-on sentences. Basically the way a child speaks when it is discovering the possibilities of language. Another register-related problem concerns stylistic and imaginative elements of Carroll’s language, like word-plays, alliterations, sound-resemblances, or word-creations. These and the language...
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