31 August 2009

Translations of Wordplay in Alice

Maria Cristina Schleder de Borba

Two Brazilian Portuguese translations of Wordplay in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland


VERY DEBATABLE ISSUE WITH REGARD TO the translation of Carroll's Alice in Wonderland is the translatability of the several instances of wordplay which this work embodies and, thus, of the actual pos-sibility of rendering in the target-text the comic effect which is conveyed by wordplay in the source-text. This paper aims to present examples which seem to suggest a connection between the choices made by different translators in rendering wordplay and humour and their target audiences. In this sense, it brings out yet another relevant matter about the translation of Alice in Wonderland: the debate about its ambivalent target audience and the different solutions these translators present to the troublesome task of translating wordplay and humour.

The corpus for this investigation consists of two Brazilian-Portuguese translations of Wonderland: one by Uchoa Leite published in 1980 and designed for adults, and the other by Nicolau Sevcenko which carne out in 1994, aimed at children. It is beyond the scope of the present paper to be judgmental about these translations. The goal here is simply to try to portray the existing relationship between the translation of wordplay and humour and intended audience. Also, as it is to be expected, due to pressures of time and space not all instances of wordplay from Carroll's text will be discussed here. My aim is to present those instances in which the divergences between the two translators' choices are best characteristic of their intentions in reference to audience.

Two Different Renderings of Wordplay

One of the first examples of wordplay occurs, in Carroll's text, in chapter IV. The title of the chapter itself is a play on words: The Rabbit Sends in a Little Bill. In this chapter Alice is trapped inside the White Rabbit's house. She cannot leave it because once again she has changed size and is so big that her arms and feet are stuck in the chimney and through the window. Her size obviously threatens the White Rabbit who charges little Bill, the lizard, with the task of sending her away. In fact, Bill is not the only creature that the White Rabbit manages to gather around himself in his attempt to expel Alice from his home. Also, all the creatures involved in this passage with the exception of Alice are smaller in size than the Rabbit (a lizard, two guina pigs, some birds) and are authoritatively ordered about by him as if they were servants. One cannot forget that what has made Alice enter the White Rabbit's house, in the first place, was the fact that he mistakenly took her for his maid, Mary Ann. As the chapter develops, however, the Rabbit's authority is challenged, little by little, and a climax is achieved through Alice's safe escape.

The play on words is quite obvious for an English speaking audience since the lizard's name Bill is a homophone and a homograph of the common noun bill, a notice. Besides the overlap of meanings matches the situation in terms of power relations: the White Rabbit cannot face Alice for she is bigger, he sends her a bill, Bill, the lizard who is smaller than the Rabbit and therefore less powerful and easier to be ordered about.

It is well acknowledged that both homophony and homography are very rarely translatable in one-to-one terms from one linguistic system into another. However, it is interesting to notice the way through which the irony and criticism of power relations as conveyed through the source play on words have been rendered in the two Brazilian-Portuguese texts under consideration. In the translation designed for adults, Uchoa Leite has named the chapter O coelho envia um emissário (gloss: The Rabbit sends a messenger in) whereas in the children aimed text Sevcenko has entitled his chapter O Coelho em Apuros (The Rabbit (is) in Trouble). In both translations the play and original comic effect achieved by the juxtaposition Bill-bill is lost but if one looks at transitivity, it remains clear that one of the textual functions of the play on words, that of a critique on power relations is, somehow, kept by Uchoa Leite in his adult targeted text. Observe the differences in clause structure between Carroll's, Leite's and Sevcenko's text and the different meanings derived from the two different translations:


The Rabbit sends in a Little Bill
The Rabbit acts, he sends another creature to face Alice. This crea- ture is sinal!: Little Bill. This creature is supposed to deliver a notice/bill.

A material process takes place.


O coelho envia um emissário (gloss: The Rabbit sends a messenger in) The Rabbit acts, he sends another creature to face Alice. This creature is supposed to deliver a notice for it is an emissário (a messenger).

A material process takes place.


O Coelho em Apuros (gloss: The Rabbit (is) in Trouble)
The Rabbit does not act. He is in a bad situation, for one reason or another. His relationships with the other characters are not hindered. The Rabbit is the only character mentioned in the title

A relational process takes place

This is one of several examples illustrating the point that while Leite's text generally tends to preserve elements of irony and social criticism even when the actual rendering of the play on words is not possible, Sevcenko's text usually minimizes those elements and tends to concentrate on the story line.

Another example of wordplay involving a proper name occurs in chapter V, Advice from a Caterpillar. In this passage Alice is confused and worries about her real identity. She does not know who she is and cannot properly remember things which were part of her world before entering Wonderland. The Caterpillar, then, suggests that she repeats the poem You are Old, Father William meaning Robert Southey's didactic poem The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them. What Alice actually says out loud is a mock parody of Southey's poem where old age is not praised but portrayed as stupid and silly. In Carroll's text the name of the old man is kept as it was in Southey's original. This is meaningful for it indicates that such a name is not marked or foregrounded, that it functions as a label, in the same way that proper names function in everyday communication. If we look at the Brazilian-Portuguese translations of Carroll's parody, we will observe that Leite, in his adult targeted text, has rendered it as Joaquim while Sevcenko, in his children's text, has translated it as João.

It happens, thus, that the most common equivalent of the proper name William is, in Brazilian-Portuguese, neither Joaquim nor João but Guilherme. The fact that neither of the translators have employed it in their versions is significant.


`You are old, fa- ther William', the young man cried...


`You are old, father William', the young man said...


Você está velho, Pai Joaquim — disse o rapaz — (gloss: `You are old', father Joaquim, the lad said)


Você está velho, Pai João — disse o rapaz — (gloss: `You are old, father João', the lad said)

Not considering at this stage questions of sound patterns which are certainly at stake whenever the translation of poetry is involved, it is my suggestion that in Leite's text the above mentioned shift, namely the creation of allusive wordplay, has been motivated by compensation both in kind and place (for a detailed description of the mechanism of compensation and its different types, see Hatim and Mason 1997:115) whereas in Sevcenko's text it has been motivated by an attempt to make the text more natural and idiomatic.

It is my suggestion that Leite has spotted the opportunity to make up for the loss inflicted upon his text by the impossibility of evoking, in Brazilian-Portuguese, the association established by a previous wordplay involving a name in English: Bill, the lizard / bill, a notice. This fact becomes quite clear if one consider that the name Joaquim revisits a Brazilian cultural frame which conveys the traits of silliness and stupidity portrayed in the source text, as it will be unfolded next.

A common element within humour discourse is the tendency to make fun of minority social groups. It is a well established fact that within the domain of humour special attention has to be given to the role played by the underdog. Chiaro (1992), among others, refers to the common fact that members of minority social groups become subjects of derogatory jokes, that the mere mentioning of them is enough to set the scene for laughter. The role of the underdog is usually played by women, homosexuals, the crippled or by groups of a different ethnic background. Sometimes members of certain political parties take on this part. The fact is that different cultures pick on different groups, at different times, as underdogs: in Britain it is the Irish, in the U.S.A., the Polish, in Italy, the carabinieri, in France, the Belgium, in Brazil, it is the Portuguese.

Considering the above mentioned, Leite's choice for rendering William as Joaquim, a name of Portuguese origin which abounds in Portuguese jokes in Brazil and which stresses the points that Carroll's parody conveys, his text indeed indicates a concern with the achievement of textual equivalence.

Sevcenko's choice for the name João implies other considerations. João is a very common Brazilian name and, because it is so common, its informational content is very little; it is not a name normally prone to foregrounding. Unlike Leite, Sevcenko does not profit from the opportunity to compensate for a previous loss. Instead, he seems to have opted for an unmarked Brazilian proper name in an attempt to simplify and domesticate his text. However, wordplay in Wonderland far expands jokes around proper names. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of such device in this story is the one involving the homophones tail, the hindermost part of an animal and tale, a story. This occurs in chapter III, A Caucus Race anda Long Tale. The passage centres around the Mouse's misery and Alice's curiosity about the reasons why he is so afraid of both cats and dogs. The Mouse, then, proposes to tell his tale, his story which he describes as both long and sad.

Alice, however, misjudges his comments and takes them in reference to his tail, part of his body. The result is a confused exchange which happens mainly as a result of collocation in English for Alice can perfectly understand the way in which the Mouse's tail can be long. She cannot, however, see it as being sad. It happens that the most common equivalents of the items tale, story, and tail, part of an animal's body are, respectively, in Brazilian-Portuguese, história/enredo and rabo. The problem that both translators had to face is that the different collocational patterns of the items involved, essencial for the wordplay, is brought out by the fact that tail/tale are homophones in English whereas história/ enredo and rabo are not in Brazilian-Portuguese.

Adriana's version for the Carroll manuscript.

Both translators have tried to cope with the problem by inserting into their texts items which would bridge the phonological gap between história/enredo and rabo. Leite, in his adult targeted text, introduces a paronymic idiom de cabo a rabo (gloss: from beginning to end) to refer to tale, while Sevcenko, in his children's text, enhances the passage through 1. Comparison, Minha história é como um rabisco longo e triste (gloss: My tale is like a long and sad line), 2. Paronymy, rabisco (line)/ rabicho (informal for tail) and 3. An explanation associating the inserted paronymic pair:... comentou Alice, entendendo mal o que o Rato havia dito (gloss: ...said Alice, not really understanding what the Mouse had said).


"Mine is a long and sad tale!" said the Mouse turning to Alice and sighing. "It's a long tail, certainly," said Alice, looking down at the Mouse's tail; but why do you call it sad?"


Todo o enredo de cabo a rabo? Ele é triste e comprido — disse o Rato, voltando-se para Alice e suspirando. Que é comprido não tem dúvida — observou Alice olhando com espanto para o rabo do Rato — mas por que dizer que é triste?
(gloss: — The whole tale from beginning to end? It's long and sad said the Mouse turning to Alice and sighing. — It is, indeed, very long — said Alice looking with surprise at the Mouse's tail — but why saying it is sad?)


Minha história é como um rabicho longo e triste — disse o Rato suspirando. É de fato, um rabicho muito longo — comentou Alice, entendendo mal o que o Rato havia dito e olhando surpresa para o rabicho dele. — Mas por que você diz que é triste?
(gloss: My tale is like a long and sad line — said the Mouse sighing. — Indeed, it is a very long tail — said Alice not really understanding what the Mouse had said and looking with surprise at his tail. — But why do you call it sad?)

The fact is that though both Leite and Sevcenko have employed compensation as a technical procedure in their attempts to render or, at least, to suggest the homophony present in the source play on words, the outcome of their translations in what regards humour is, certainly, different. Sevcenko's text, although syntactic more complex, introduces an explanation which diminishes its comic impact since it renders flat that which should be picked up by the reader. Contrariwise, Leite's text, manages to maintain the path open to the reader's understanding.

The same chapter, A Caucus Race and a Long Tail, forwards another interesting example of wordplay, only now homonymy is the device employed. In this passage the Mouse assembles Alice and a series of other creatures to listen to a tale which he characterizes as the driest thing I know. The situation is a curious one since both Alice and the creatures are all very wet for they had been swimming in the pool of Alice's tears. As a result they are cold and uncomfortable and want to dry off as soon as possible.


"Sit down, all of you, and listen to me! I'll soon make you dry enough!" ... "This is the dryest thing I know."


— Sentem-se todos e escutem-me! Logo os farei secar rapidamente!... — Esta é a história mais árida que conheço.
(gloss: — Sit down, all of you, and listen to me! I'll soon make you dry!... — This is the most arid story I know.)


— Sentem-se todos e me escutem! Sei como fazer todo mundo secar rapidamente! Esta é a história mais secante que conheço!
(gloss: Sit down, all of you, and listen to me! I know how to make everyone dry very soon! This is the dryest story I know.)

In English the play on words is quite obvious since the Mouse intends to dry his fellow partners, to evaporate water from them, by telling a dry, dull, uninteresting story. As expected, the rendering of the homonymous pair as such is not possible in Brazilian- Portuguese. Leite, in his adult targeted text, has opted for the pair secar (v. to dry)/ árida (adj. arid). His choice seems to have been motivated, once again, by a question of collocation in Brazilian-Portuguese for even though seco(a) (adj. dry) and árido(a) (adj. arid) are commonly considered as synonyms, their collocational patterns is quite different. A person or piece of land can be said to be seca or árida, a story can only be árida. It is relevant to mention that the adjective árido(a), when used in reference to a story or a piece of writing, characterizes formal register.

Sevcenko, by his turn, has managed to convey the source play on words through the use of a paronym: secante (adj. 1. that which has the ability or capacity to dry; 2. boring or dull fact or person). Because the adjective secante in Brazilian-Portuguese shares phonological, graphological and semantic traits with secar (v. to dry) and collocates with história (n. story), his choice seems a very adequate one. From the perspective of the present analysis, however which aims to establish a relationship between wordplay and audience design, the most relevant point is the difference in register presented by the choices of the different translators. For whereas Leite opts for sophistication and an academic type of language through his use of árida, Sevcenko decides for a more colloquial, everyday language through his secante.

Perhaps one of the richest chapters of Wonderland in reference to wordplay is chapter IX, The Mock Turtle Story. It is in this chapter that the Ghyphon takes Alice to talk to the Mock Turtle and to listen to his story about his school days. The whole passage is an evident satire on Victorian education. Irony and social criticism abounds through several different instances and types of play on words. Among the several examples of paronymy to be found in this passage, one seems particularly relevant to my purposes here.

It involves, in the source-text, the lexical items turtle, tortoise and taught us. Those items are used in reference to a school teacher. Once again there is a lot at stake both in the analysis of the source-text as in its two different renderings. Turtles and tortoises are very similar animais. They are reptiles which are often times difficult for children and even for adults to differentiate. In English even their names are similar. The past tense of the verb to teach, taught, plus the personal referent us doses the paronymic circle in English.

In Brazilian-Portuguese the situation is quite different: a turtle is a tartaruga and a tortoise is a cágado. The veros which are most commonly used to describe classroom activity are ensinar (to teach) and aprender (to learn). No paronymic relationship exists between those items in terms of sound or spelling. Lets us then look at the way the two translators have dealt with the question.


.. The master was an old turtle — we used to call him Tortoise". — Why did you call him Tortoise if he wasn't one?" Alice asked. "We called him Tortoise because he taught us.


A professora era uma velha Tartaruga... e nós a chamávamos de Tortoruga... Mas por que Tortoruga, se ela era uma Tartaruga? Perguntou Alice. Nós a chamávamos de Tortoruga porque aprender com ela era uma tortura.
(gloss: The teacher was an old turtle... we used to call her Tort-urtle... — But why Torturtle if
she was a Turtle? Alice asked.
— We called her Torturtle because learning with her was a torture.)


A professora era uma velha tartaruga; nós costumávamos chamá-la de Tetrarruga... Mas por que Tetrarruga? Perguntou Alice. É um nome tão esquisito que eu nunca vi! Nós a chamávamos de Tertrarruga porque, sendo uma tartaruga velha tinha quatro ru- gas no pescoço...
(gloss: The teacher was an old turtle; we used to call her Tetra-wrinkles... — But why Tetra-wrinkles? Alice asked. — It's such a strange name, I've never seen anything like it! — We called her Tetrawrinkles because being an old turtle she had four wrinkles around her neck...

Leite has chosen to create a portmanteau word: Tortoruga. Such item rescues the source similarity between turtle and tortoise. It is constructed upon and embodies the meaning of two words: tartaruga (n. turtle) and tortura (n. torture). Sevcenko has also created a (n. turtle) and tortura (n. torture). Sevcenko has also created a portmanteau word in his text: tetrarruga, a combination of the Greek prefix tetra- with the noun ruga (n. winkle) Sevcenko has also expanded his text so as to accommodate the explanation of the meaning of the newly created word. This expansion occurs through Alice's surprise at the novelty of the teacher's name.

Even if one considers the fact that many young Brazilian children may miss the meaning of the Greek prefix tetra- in Sevcenko's text, still it is quite clear that his choice for a more moderate stance towards didacticism, revealed through his association of wisdom with old age, is more typical of children's texts. Leite's choice, on the other hand, much more critical of the schooling system, associates learning with torture. This sharper, more ironical position, I suggest, is tunned with the way adults perceive humour, that is as a catalyst of society's flaws.


It has been the aim of this short paper to discuss those instances of translation of wordplay from Alice in Wonderland into two Brazilian-Portuguese versions which may indicate a link between the options of the translators and their intended audiences. From the examples discussed it seems suggestive that in the adult targeted text elements such as: power relations as conveyed through transitivity, concern with textual equivalence mainly realized through mechanisms of compensation and through a more formal register are used in the rendering of a critical, sharp and ironic view of Alice's experiences in wonderland. The translation of wordplay in the version aimed at children, on the other hand, tends to be more reader-friendly since it forwards explanations and comparisons. Also, in this last version one can easily spot a domesticating flayour since its language is simpler, more idiomatic, and its register usually informal. Such aspects seem to work in favour of a pedagogical posture. The convergence of those observations from two different translations are indicative that humour as conveyed through wordplay in Carroll's Wonderland is quite complex for it operates in, at least, two levels: it is both a form of enjoyment and of criticism, a source of naïve pleasure and of bitter realizations.

CARROLL, Lewis. 1995. Alice 's Adventures in Wonderland. London: Macmillan.
CHIARO, Delia. 1992. The Language of Jokes. London: Routledge. HATIM, Basil & MASON. 1997.
The Translator as Communicator. London: Routledge.
LEITE, Sebastião Uchoa. 1980. Aventuras de Alice no País das Maravilhas / Através do Espelho e o que Alice encontrou lá. São Paulo: Summus.
SEVCENKO, Nicolau. 1995. Alice no País das Maravilhas. São Paulo: Scipione.

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ILLUSTRATIONS: Collages by Adriana Peliano over Lewis Carroll's illustrations to "Alice's Adventures Under Ground".

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“Always in search of curious objects, broken toys, bits of things and traces of stories, Adriana Peliano stitches together desires, monsters and fairy tales. Her collages and metamorphic assemblages are magical and multiple inventories, where logic is reinvented with new meanings and narratives, creating language games and dream labyrinths. Everything is transformed to tell new stories that dislocate our way of seeing, inviting the marvellous to visit our world.” “Sempre em busca de objetos curiosos, restos de brinquedos, cacos de mundos e rastros de estórias, Adriana Peliano costura desejos, monstros e contos de fadas. Suas colagens, metamofoses e assemblagens despertam inventários mágicos e múltiplos, onde a lógica do cotidiano é reinventada em novos sentidos e narrativas, criando jogos de linguagem e labirintos de sonhos. Tudo se transforma para contar novas estórias, abrindo portas para o maravilhoso.”