Friday 14 October 2022

Curiouser and curiouser – Nicky Harman tells the marvellous story of 'Alice in Wonderland' and its Chinese translator


What do cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast have in common? They’re all comfort foods that Alice thinks of when she’s in Wonderland. I was very curious to find out how the first, and possibly greatest, translator of Alice into Chinese rendered them.

You may have noticed a common theme running through my blogs. I have mentioned Alice before, in connection with a student exercise inback-translation, and in my September 2022 blog, I wrote about the translation of Chinese food into English. What inspired me to write this particular post, apart from my fascination with the Alice books and their language games, was reading, How Jane Austen’s early Chinese translators were stumped by the oddities of 19th-century British cuisine’, a fascinating essay by Saihong Li and William Hope. Early-twentieth century Chinese translators had to deal with mince pies, brawn and Stilton cheese, and Li and Hope observe that, ‘The world was not as globalised as it is now and information not so accessible.’ I would add that the dictionaries the translators had access to were (as they still are), only as good as the people who compiled them, and some were quite bad. The translators of Jane Austen were definitely at sea when it came to mince pies. ‘Although early mince pies contained meat, they became sweeter and more fruit-based in the 18th century as sugar imports increased,’ Li and Hope note. However, Chinese translators (mis)-translated mince pies in different ways, including as steak, steamed buns, and meat pies. Oh dear me.

Time to turn to the very first translation of Alice in Wonderland, by Zhao Yuanren. Zhao was a remarkable character in many ways, quite apart from being a skilled translator. Wikipedia says he ‘went to the United States with a Boxer Indemnity Scholarship to study mathematics and physics at Cornell University, where he was a classmate and lifelong friend of Hu Shih, the leader of the New Culture Movement.’ He had a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University, he spoke English, German, French and Japanese, read ancient Greek and Latin, and was Bertrand Russell's interpreter when Russell visited China in 1920. He became a noted scholar of linguistics and dialect, and he also turned his attention to translation.

Zhao’s work on Alice, published in 1922 was ground-breaking because it was child-centred: he wrote in the newly-popular vernacular style and set out to appeal to child readers with imaginative word plays, recreated rhymes and songs, and mind-bending nonsense – exactly as Lewis Carroll himself had. And Chinese scholars, as well as Chinese children, loved it.

But what interested me was how he faced that other challenge of translating texts from other cultures, translating the untranslatable. I started with food that had (and still has) no equivalent in Chinese, went through the original and Zhao’s 1922 translation, and highlighted words like cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast (the flavours of the magical DRINK ME bottle that shrank Alice). It turns out Zhao played fast and loose, and produced a version which, back-translated, reads, [it tasted] ‘a little like cherry [pan]cake, a little like cake, a little like jackfruit, a little like ice cream, and a little like tahini.’ Unlike the translators who got mixed up over mince pies, I am quite sure that Zhao knew exactly what the English text meant – he had, after all, spent years in America – but he was determined to make his version of Alice appealing to Chinese children. Oddly enough, Zhao was quite cagy about how much he believed in creative re-writing. In his Foreword, he describes his method: first, translate a sentence and make it sound natural in the target language. Then go back and look at the original again, and make the translation as accurate as possible. Too much changing the original until it sounds like the foreign language is extremely dangerous! he says. (The fine balance between readability and accuracy is a standard discussion on translation courses nowadays, but it was revolutionary back then.)

Not that he followed his own advice necessarily. Let’s move on to a favourite rhyme from Alice, Old Father William. This has a word that even most English kids nowadays would be unfamiliar with, ‘suet’, and I was curious to see how Zhao coped with it: 

“You are old,” said the youth, “and your jaws are too weak 

For anything tougher than suet;

Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak— 

Pray, how did you manage to do it?”  





Which means, in my approximate translation: 

Master William, you’re so weak,

You should only drink gruel;

But you guzzle chicken, bones and all,

Doesn’t that give you bellyache? 

Hah! So very Chinese! I can just imagine my favourite Chinese landlady earnestly warning against bones, and pressing bowls of gruel on me. Alas, suet (solid beef fat) does not make an appearance in Zhao’s translation. 

There are other instances where Zhao swaps some Victorian food or drink for something that would be more familiar to his readers. When we read, ‘Maybe it’s always pepper that makes people hot-tempered,’ she went on, very much pleased at having found out a new kind of rule, ‘and vinegar that makes them sour—and camomile that makes them bitter…’ we find sour plum juice (酸梅) instead of vinegar and huang lian (Coptis Chinensis, a bitter medicinal herb) replacing camomile. 

Alice in Chinese is, as one would expect, full of verbal acrobatics and the modern-day translator can only sigh in admiration and wonder how much head-scratching they caused Zhao Yuanren. These are some of my favourite jokes:

The Gryphon, an intentionally obscure mythical beast, gets a Chinese name which is partly a transcription of ‘gryph’… ‘gu-lai’ (nonsense syllables meaning, literally, bone-edict) and part translation: ‘phon’ becomes ‘feng’, meaning phoenix. So a gryphon is a ‘gu-lai-feng’  

And the Mad Hatter, extemporising on ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’, recites to a bemused Alice, ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! How I wonder what you’re at!’ Zhao abandons the meaning of ‘twinkle’, presumably because Chinese children would not know the original nursery rhyme, and transcribes ‘twinkle’ as ‘ting-ger’. He then recreates the lines, managing to make them rhyme and scan as well as mean almost the same as the English:

汀格儿,汀格儿,小蝙蝠! 好好儿说来你何所欲!

Tīng gé er, tīng gé er, xiǎo biānfú! Hǎohǎo er shuō lái nǐ hé suǒ yù! 

Key: xiao bianfu = little bat; Hǎohǎo er shuō lái = tell me properly; nǐ hé suǒ yù = what you want




1) from left: Hutong life: Yang Buwei (Zhao's wife), Bertrand Russell, Zhao Yuanren, unknown, Dora Black (Russell), in Beijing

2) Russell and Zhao (and unknown man) in Beijing



For anyone wanting to know more about Alice in Wonderland in Chinese and its first translator, here are some links to explore:

Zhao Yuanren’s Wikipedia entry:

 Zhao Yuanren’s Child-oriented Translation’, an essay by Zhang Qun-xing, Foreign Languages School, Beijing Information Science & Technology University:

For an examination of Zhao’s translation of Jabberwocky and his invented characters, see this thread on Twitter:

For an account of Zhao Yuanren, his wife Yang Buwei, Bertrand Russell and Dora Black (later Russell) in China: Both Yang Buwei and Dora Black were remarkable women: Yang was a feminist and doctor and Dora Black (Russell) was a writer and campaigner for women’s rights and education.