Lewis Carroll’s "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland". Language games and the problem of their translation

Essay, 2019

7 Pages, Grade: 1,3



Language games in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the problem of their translation

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one of the great pioneering figures of nonsense fantasy and undoubtedly a classic of Victorian children’s and youth literature. To this day, the story fascinates not only young people, but also adult readers. One reason for the long-lasting success is the complexity of Alice, which allows viewing the plot from various perspectives, such as political, philosophical and even logical or physical perspectives. Therefore, it is not surprising that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland after first being published in 1865, has never been out of print (cf. “What’s so wonderful about Alice?”) Another reason for this success of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the language used and its humorous effect. The novel is embedded with both obvious and hidden wordplays, neologisms, syllogisms, well-known poems, nursery rhymes of the time and the assumption that word meanings can be chosen arbitrarily (cf. Sutherland 1970, 13). However, the large number of language games making the story so attractive and entertaining also creates issues and difficulties. It is plausible that children today have difficulties understanding the references to Victorian England in the puns and jokes Carroll uses in his Alice books. A second difficulty arises for translators, who try to bring Alice’s story closer to those who do not have the opportunity to read the original English text, as the translation of (children’s) – literature contains ‘text-specific’ challenges to the translator’ (Tabbert 2002, 303). Despite these difficulties involved, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been successfully translated many times, into languages including Afrikaans, Swahili and Japanese (cf. Rickard 1975, 45). Among them are 37 German translations (Platthaus 2012).

This essay aims not to analyze and compare all these German-translations, but to examine the basic tendencies regarding the translatability of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its problems are to be worked out. In the following, therefore, the problem areas of the translation such as proper names, chapter headings, puns and parodies of poems of the translation are to be identified. These problem areas will be characterized by meaningful examples from the original text and then compared directly to the first German translation – Alice’s Abenteuer im Wunderland translated by Antonie Zimmermann1. Thus, on the one hand, the difficulties of the translation itself will be addressed, on the other hand, the possibilities of adequate translations will be demonstrated. The essay then concludes with a brief critical examination of the translatability of the language games in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The first examples of figures that are difficult to translate are Dodo, Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter and March Hare, all of which appear in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and are references to English comparison constructions. The name Dodo comes from the comparison as dead as a dodo and is thus the representation of the extinction of an animal species (cf. Nord 2003, 190). Cheshire Cat comes from the comparative construction example “to grin like a Cheshire Cat”, which in turn seems to be an allusion to a particular brand of cheese from Cheshire, England, which had a picture of a grinning cat on the package (cf. Nord 2003, 190). Mad Hatter and March Hare allude to idiomatic expressions “as mad as a hatter” and “as mad as a March Hare”. The former – “as mad as a hatter” – is linked to the hat-making industry and mercury poisoning. In the 18th and 19th century hatters used mercury nitrate, a toxic substance, and were intoxicated by it and therefore often suffered from physical and mental ailments such as tremors, speech problems and hallucinations (cf. Nix 2015). The latter comes from the misconception that male hares fell into a kind of intoxication during the mating season, in March, and became particularly fierce (cf. Nord 2003, 190). All of these figures play a significant role in the plot of Caroll’s Alice novels, so the choice of an adequate translation is of significant importance and therefore difficult. Since the proper names represent allusions to idioms or nursery rhymes that are not familiar in German-speaking countries, no loss-free transmission into German will probably succeed here. The following focuses on Antonie Zimmermann’s German translation. Although there is no equivalent comparative construction to as dead as a dodo in German, it can be assumed that this particular animal is known to be extinct in the target culture (cf. Nord 2003, 190). Therefore, Zimmermann stays with the proper name Dodo. The only possible German comparison, which comes reasonably close to the allusion to the grinning cat on the cheese packaging, is the "Honigkuchenpferd"2 which is not possible because of the original illustrations showing a cat. For translating Cheshire Cat, all known German translations used the translation “Grinse- Katze” which is a word by word translation meaning "grinning cat". The allusion to the Cheshire cat cheese package is lost here, as it does not occur in the target language German and therefore would only create confusion. Also for the Mad Hatter a literal translation is used. In the first German translation, the Mad Hatter is only translated to “Hutmacher” which means just hatter. In later versions the adjective “verrückt” (eng. mad) was added to emphasize the connection to the Hatter’s craziness. The translation of March Hare was a lot more successful. For that, Zimmermann chose the translation “Faselhase”. “Hase” is the German word for rabbit and “faseln” is a verb often translated to English verbs such as “drivel”, “ramble” or “babble”. Here, at least, the interpretation is permissible, that the rabbit is crazy and therefore talks nonsense constantly.

In addition to problematic proper names, there are headlines that also cause considerable difficulties in translation. Two of them, A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale and The Rabbit Sends in a Little Bill, contain puns and expressions, which are very difficult to translate. Caucus-race represents such an expression. Literally, caucus means ‘a meeting of a small group of people in a political party or organization who have a lot of influence or who have similar interests’ (Cambridge Dictionary 2014). The transferred meaning in the context of the action can be described as a crazy race in which participants run in circles, each of them wins and receives a prize (cf. Nord 2003a, 189). Long Tale is a pun, taking advantage of the same sound of the words tale (story) and tail (‘a part of an animal’s body sticking out from the base of the back’ (Cambridge Dictionary 2014)) to create ambiguity. Turning to the term Little Bill, one realizes, that this again is a pun. At the same time, pronunciation and typeface are used to create ambiguity. The term stands for the proper name of the lizard Bill and also for the noun bill and its contextually relevant meaning – in this case ‘bill’ stands for a paper sign giving information about something; synonyms could be message or announcement. The term Caucus-Race and the two puns are not to be transferred without loss into the German language. In addition, chapter headings pose a particular difficulty, since they should actually summarize the content of the subsequent episode of action of the chapter and thus allow, despite all possible creativity, only limited artistic freedom in the translation. This is also evident in Zimmermann’s translation. She does not preserve the puns Caucus-Race or Long Tale. Caucus-Race is translated to “Caucus-Rennen” a word by word translation that loses the underlying political meaning and the term Long Tale is omitted altogether. This also happens when translating the expression Bill within the chapter title, whereby instead of a translation from the original a distant translation is chosen for the headings. Zimmermann’s chapter headings therefore are “Caucus-Rennen und was daraus wird” (Eng. A Caucus-Race and how it goes on/ and what happens after)3 and “Die Wohnung des Kaninchens” (The rabbit’s home/apartment). The name of the lizard is mentioned in the chapter itself and has been changed to "Wabbel" (Engl. wobbly) at the request of Lewis Carroll himself (cf. Sochorek 2009). The analysis of the problematic proper names and chapter headings shows that Carroll did not leave anything to chance when writing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but planned every detail. The analysis of the translations makes it clear what difficulties arise for the foreign-language transmission and that the translation is of different overall quality. Sometimes better, but sometimes worse solutions were offered. Another problem area of the translation, the parodies of well-known poems, will show whether this preliminary image of the translations is confirmed. For this purpose, an example is considered in more detail below.

The main function of the parodies of well-known poems and children's songs in Alice, is the amusement of younger readers. As a second function of these parodies, the criticism of social conventions, including moral and educational ideas of Victorian England, could be mentioned. Alice has no morality and can not be misused by adults as an instrument of moral guidance and education (cf. “The moral in the ‘Alice’ books”). Carroll replaced the often monotonous original poems by ‘a mixture of fun and shockingly brutal amoralism’ (Rickard 1975, 52). An example is the poem Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat. This poem parodies “The Star” which was written 1806 by Jane and Ann Taylor (cf. Rhymes for the Nursery. By the authors of “Original Poems” 1824, 10) and can be found in Chapter VII, A Mad Tea Party. It reads as follows:


1 Zimmermann's translation is a version of the year 1869, which at that time received much praise - even from

Carroll himself, who was fluent in German (cf. Platthaus 2012).

2 A Honigkuchenpferd is a gingerbread cookie shaped like a horse, usually for children, which traditionally resembles a cartoon-like smiling horse head. The word itself is only used as part of the idiom “wie ein Honigkuchenpferd grinsen” which means to smile very much – sometimes with a connotation of smiling exaggerated and even a little bit dumb.

3 The offered German translation can not be translated word by word into English, so I tried to translate the chapter heading so that it becomes clear what is meant.

Excerpt out of 7 pages


Lewis Carroll’s "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland". Language games and the problem of their translation
University of Iceland  (Faculty of Humanities)
Transformations of Classical Children’s Books
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Alice in Wonderland, adaptations, transformations, children's classics, children's literatur
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2019, Lewis Carroll’s "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland". Language games and the problem of their translation, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/489032


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