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Alice in Wonderland and a childhood spent playing with words

“No wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise.” — The Mock Turtle

A long time ago, when reading Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 150 years old this year, I’d stick on this scene. Appropriate to the nonsense fever-dream quality of Dodson’s seminal work, I’d almost always confuse the animal in this exchange where Alice tries to reconcile Mock Turtle’s cheeky pun for “purpose.” Growing up in a half-Mexican household, stories and books were sometimes English, sometimes Spanish, sometimes both. Sometimes Alice was Alicia, and a porpoise a delfin — a dolphin, as it appears in the book’s Spanish translation, and a play on the word fin, or end.

Dodson’s (pen name: Lewis Carroll) tale about an insouciant young girl’s coming-of-age through one long, bizarre daydream uses a great deal of word play to build its beloved world of batty logic. Dormouse’s long, sad tale. A raven and a writing desk. Lessons that lessened in length a little each day. Wonderland’s all-ages (even if a little aged today) humour in puns and riddles partially explains its lasting popularity. Since its 1865 publication the book has consistently been in print, its coined words such as chortle and portmanteau settling into the topsoil of common vernacular and main characters into the DNA of Western pop culture.

Another longevity factor, and one that’s curiouser to me, is the book’s enduring allure to translators. Alice in Wonderland remains one of the most widely translated English novels in history, with more than 170 adaptations of the story in existence today, despite (or because of) the challenges the book’s word games pose.

As one of the many commemorations for Alice’s sesquicentennial, Oak Knoll Press in Delaware recently released a three-volume book dedicated to the history of Wonderland in translation. An exhibition and two-day October conference in New York are also planned.

Forget porpoise puns: imagine rewriting the Mad Hatter’s “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Bat” for a readership whose nursery rhyme repertoire doesn’t include the star-themed original, or whose colloquial lexicon didn’t account for the term “mad as a hatter” — an 18th century England archaism — in the first place. Indeed, the phrase “loco como un sombrerero” doesn’t have quite the same ring, and likely only exists because of the book itself.

“The Alice challenge seems to be one that people like because it’s really fun,” Michael Everson, a typography scholar who’d contributed to the anthology, told Smithsonian Magazine earlier this year. “Wracking your brains to resurrect a pun that works in your language even though it shouldn’t.”

I am by no means a translator, but I earnestly believe Everson’s “Alice challenge” is as true for a professional as it is for any reader who’s grown up with more than one language and consistently found themselves spilling the grammar, idioms and metaphors of one into the other. What might have been a nightmare for an early-kindergarten reading class was in fact a topsy-turvy (if also slightly dorky) game unto itself. Why not roll your r’s while speaking English, or place adjectives after their nouns? Over the years, though, through sifting Spanglish into two languages and imposing stricter rules on both — like Alice, we all grow up sometime — I’ve since eroded my Spanish dull.

So when I think of Dodgson’s book these days, I stick on Humpty Dumpty’s encounter with Alice instead. “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less,” he tells her before her encounter with the porpoise. (Or dolphin, depending on who’s reading.)

Chantal Braganza is a writer and editor living in Toronto