Among the things in Alice in Wonderland which are the delight of children and the despair of translators are the word-plays and the verse parodies.... Lewis Carroll plays liberally with the multiple meanings of various English words, and particularly with sets of homophones whose meanings are so far apart that his bringing their meanings together has a most humorous effect. An excellent example of this is the Mock Turtle's story about the lessons of the sea-school growing less each day and thus being called "lessons" because they lessen each week. Because most of these things are quite specific to the English language, a translator is forced to make a conscious decision as to how to treat these things. While most of the earlier translators of Alice in Wonderland had simply given up on trying to preserve the humor of the puns and had simply translated the words as they were, Nabokov instead tried to find pairs of near-homophones in Russian which would be equally humorous for the Russian reader.
Also, Alice in Wonderland is a work full of verse parodies which are the despair of the translator. In these, Lewis Carroll would parody the didactic verse which was so common in Victorian pedagogy, distorting the moralistic little verses which were meant to teach the children so that instead they mocked the very institutions which their models praised. This sort of thing is the delight of children, who positively love to see adults and their institutions being ridiculed. But they are a nightmare for the dedicated translator. To simply translate the texts of the verse parodies as they are would be to lose half their humor, since the originals which they mock would be unknown to the readers of the target language. Nabokov instead decided to find pieces of Russian verse which schoolchildren in Russian schools were expected to learn and recite, then make parodies on them. These poems, however, were for the most part poems by Pushkin and Lermontov, which were more in the Romantic tradition and thus not completely a parallel to the didactic poems of Alice's Victorian English childhood. But even with that limitation, Nabokov managed to turn out the most hilarious parodies guaranteed to amuse any Russian child bored to tears at having been forced to memorize the originals.
Nabokov also sought to "translate" the situation of the novel into one familiar to the Russian child. Thus he renamed Alice "Anya", which is a common Russian girl's name, rather than simply transliterating it into the essentially foriegn Alisa. He also transformed other characters so that they would better fit into a Russian milleu. For instance, he made the French mouse, which in the English original had come to England with William the Conquorer, into a forgotten companion of Napoleon's invasion force who had been left in Russia by mistake. All this he did in an effort to make it easier for the intended reader, who would almost certainly be a Russian child, to identify with the main character and her situation in a way that would not have been nearly so easy if she were left an English girl in an essentially English situation.
In another article — on "N.'s Russified Lewis Carroll" — the same critic [Simon Karlinsky] is much too kind to my Anya in Wonderland (1924). How much better I could have done it fifteen years later! The only good bits are the poems and the word-play.... Incidentally, I had not (and still have not) seen any other Russian versions of the book (as Mr. Karlinsky suggests I may have had) so that my sharing with (fellow Alice translator) Poliksena Solovyov the same model for one of the parodies is a coincidence.
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