Nonsense Verse


Our Daily Correspondent

West Frisian Alice.

“A language is not complete if there are no translations of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Alice in Wonderland,” the translator Tiny Mulder wrote in 1962. Would that it were so easy! The Grolier Club’s current exhibition is called “Alice in a World of Wonderlands,” and its subject is Alice in Wonderland in translation, on the occasion of the book’s 150th anniversary. Like all the Grolier’s shows, it is free to the public. And at 140 translations—and a bevy of very different Alices—it’s well worth a visit. 

There are Braille editions and Frisian editions and Pakistani editions. We see Alice’s adventures rendered in Farsi, in Uyghur, in Hebrew, and in Jèrriais, a Norman language spoken in some of the Channel Islands. Naturally, Carroll’s own Nyctographic language (invented for Alice) is represented, too. 

All this is impressive enough, and speaks to the … well, the universality of Charles Dodgson’s book. Nonsense is a common language, and every world can imagine itself frighteningly upended. But as interesting as the show’s scope are the substantial challenges of translation, especially since a nonsense world requires a kind of straight man—a sense world—to function as the opposition. The young mathematician placed Alice in a world that was a stark contrast to the rigors and rules of Victorian England. What happens when you take that Englishness away?

Says a Bengali translator, “The gaps between English and the Indian vernacular are not merely linguistic and cultural. Tailoring the text to fit the requirements of Bengali-speaking region entails a mammoth effort to overcome many differences.” 

Of the 1982 Marathi edition, Jaai’s Wonderful Story, the translator explains that “when I transformed Alice into Jaai I taught her not only customs and traditions of this land, but also the popular songs and traditions known to all.” Meanwhile, one Slovenian scholar tells us that readers in her region “have been slow to accept the literary genre of nonsense. Comedy and satire have been more welcome in Slovenian literary history but not nonsense, which has only recently been fully accepted.”

Perhaps it explains the seriousness—even panic—in the faces of some of these Alices. (Then again, that’s visible on the face of Alice Liddell, too.) Nonsense is not an easy export.


Slovakian Alice.

Georgian Alice.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.