martha baker, column editor

Alice in the Hands of Her Translators: Emer O'Sullivan Looks at the German Alice Tradition

Jeff Garrett

(Editor's note: Emer O'Sullivan's Comparative Children's Literature, containing the chapter discussed here, has been published in English by Routledge in print, 2005 - ISBN 978-0415305518, and as an e-book, 2009. The German original, Kinderliterarische Komparastik, won the International Research Society for Children's Literature Award for Outstanding Research in 2001)


Emer O'Sullivan is an Irish children's book scholar living in Frankfurt where she is also on the faculty of the Institut für Jugendbuchforschung, a leading institution for children's literature research associated with the University of Frankfurt. As her special area of interest, O'Sullivan has long been occupied with the complex cultural history of Anglo-German relations as reflected in the medium of children's fiction. She has done this both as a careful observer, as with her book Friend and Foe, but also, one might say, through direct involvement. With Dietmar Rösler she is the author of a good half-dozen bilingual detective novels for children, published in the popular rororo rotfuchs series from Hamburg, in which two cross-cultural friends are pitted against the criminal underworld in stories full of zany, macaronic dialogue, e.g. It Could Be Worse, Oder? and Mensch, Be Careful!

Sooner or later, however, anyone who takes Anglo-German children's book relations seriously finds themselves standing before the curious history of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland as it has been interpreted in Germany. O'Sullivan has chosen her latest scholarly book in German, entitled Kinderliterarische Komparatistik (English roughly: Comparative Children's Literature Studies), as the arena in which to face off with this peculiar pièce de résistance. Her history of Alice translation in Germany occupies 85 pages in the heart of a 550-page work, a level of coverage that may seem adequate or even generous for the history of a single translated children's book until you stop to consider that there have been, by O'Sullivan's own count, 31 published translations of Alice in Wonderland in German since 1869, and that a recent treatment of the same topic covering France is a whopping 1280 pages long (Nières 1988). But O'Sullivan's Alice discussion is detailed and supported by an impressive scholarly apparatus, including a bibliographic appendix enumerating all published German translations of the two Alice novels, plus a selective list of translations of other Carrollian works (e.g. Michael Ende's 1988 adaptation of The Hunting of the Snark and the little-known lithographic illustrations Max Ernst made for Lewis Carroll's Wunderhorn, a collection of Carrolliana published by Manus in Stuttgart in 1970).

Not unlike other popular literary creations who have had separate destinies in each country—Baron von Münchhausen, Faust, and, of course, all of Shakespeare's figures—Lewis Carroll's Alice has been caught in the same crossfire that characterizes all serious German-English cultural exchange. This is not necessarily the case with bestsellers of children's literature, such as those of Enid Blyton, whose works have been sublimely popular in Germany although they have never been taken seriously by literary critics—"flying under their radar," as the phrase goes today.

Many German observers have attributed Alice's much more difficult acculturation to presumed inherent differences between German and English national cultures, an observation that fits comfortably with traditional nationalizing differentiations that see the English, among other things, as uniquely capable of creating and comprehending "nonsense" as a literary genre, and Germans as equally resistant to this kind of silliness. As one German reviewer put it in 1928: "It took a strange audacity to publish [this piece of] intentional nonsense and kitsch. The book is wholly inappropriate for children" (O'Sullivan 2000, 319).

As O'Sullivan points out, however, following Antonie Zimmermann's auspicious first translation of Alice into German in 1869, done in cooperation with the author himself, almost 100 years were to pass before another literarily ambitious effort would be published—that of Christian Enzensberger in 1963, which for its part, for all its other qualities, paid little heed to the needs of child readers/listeners. What characterized almost all German translations of this first century was the aggressive intervention on the part of translators to make Carroll more "acceptable" to German children. In other words, what many German children and adults have reacted to in Alice as received from the translators were liberties in translation rendering the product quite alien to the original. O'Sullivan presents a legion of examples from these translations. Cool English understatement is regularly transformed into overstatement, for example, passages such as "if you drink much from a bottle marked 'poison,' it is almost certain to disagree with you." These passages, preserved in Zimmermann's translation, have regularly been sacrificed by German translators who felt that German children would take the understatement literally, not react to it at all, or just be confused by such subtlety. Or we find German translators adding the grotesque and syrupy language of condescension so typical of pre-Alician children's literature in England and found in German children's books until well into the 1960s. This is betrayed by the characteristic use of supposedly endearing German diminutive forms such as "-chen" and "-lein."

O'Sullivan classifies these usually distorting tendencies of German translators into a number of categories: Märchenisierung (telling a story as if it were a fairy tale, since this is eo ipso the more child-appropriate genre); Verständlichmachung (unnecessary explication of the implicit); Moralisierung (moralizing, since children's literature must contribute to the betterment of a child [1]); Stiftung von Vertrautheit (use of intimacy-creating formulas, e.g. "And now, dear children, . . .", a strategy, incidentally, later used by Carroll himself in The Nursery "Alice", published in 1889); and finally Literarisierung (elevation of literary style, lifting the work beyond the comprehension of child readers, as if great literature must be opaque to children in order to lead them to a higher, namely adult, level of understanding). "Carroll's breadth, his fantastic, witty, playful, and ominous facets, are all reined in to make of [the book] a happy children's story with wordplay that is either pedantically explicated or muddled." (O'Sullivan 2000, 319) Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Alice, even as late as the 1970s, and despite dozens of translations, was little read or appreciated in Germany (O'Sullivan 2000, 363-64).

This is all quite bad news for those friends of Alice who might have hoped that the work could be read and appreciated by German children much as it has been by English children for well over 100 years. But there is good news, too, for as O'Sullivan documents, in the wake of Enzensberger's literary translation, a number of German translators began to match Carroll's wit with their own, rather than second-guessing what German children might or might not appreciate in this English work. Three translators whose work O'Sullivan singles out for detailed praise are Nanette von Cube, whose translation of Alice was first published in 1985, Barbara Teutsch (1985–86), and Siv Bublitz (1993). These translators have gone further than anyone before them in taking the principle of Carrollian humor, with which German children are familiar, and applying it to linguistic and literary material.

O'Sullivan takes, for example, the eight parodies of songs and poems in Alice in Wonderland and compares them with their German renderings. While most German translators simply translate the parodies literally, leaving a truly incomprehensible muddle in their wake, or capitulate altogether, leaving the parodies out as being untranslatable, Teutsch creates seven original parodies based on popular German texts, translating Carrollian text literally, and Bublitz does all eight (O'Sullivan 2000, 358). Also, let it not be said that Germans cannot pun if they want to. The very pun-intensive encounter with the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon in Chapter X of Alice in Wonderland (pp.100ff.) has given rise to some truly ingenious solutions in German. Here just one example: whereas in the original Alice we learn through the Gryphon's intricate explanation why a "whiting" is called so ("It does the boots and shoes," etc.), Bublitz achieves much the same type and level of humour by introducing a sand eel (Sandaal) from which sandals (Sandalen) are made (O'Sullivan 2000, 345).

All of this goes to confirm what we might have surmised anyway, namely that traditional German translators, convinced that they were seeking to bridge two incompatible worlds through their efforts—in other words, that their efforts were ultimately futile—succeeded mainly in confirming the validity of this prejudice through the failure of their translations to capture a German audience. Modern translators, by internalizing the spirit of the original work and applying (translating) that within a German cultural setting, have finally completed Alice's long journey from the mind of Lewis Carroll to the mind of—at last—appreciative young German readers.

And we have Emer O'Sullivan to thank for carefully recording the course of this long odyssey. A pity only that this successful journey across what has always been a fearsome linguistic and cultural border can be appreciated fully only by bilingual readers.



1. The moralizing tendencies of adults are, of course, a favorite target in Alice: Of the most ridiculous adult in the entire opus, namely the Duchess, Alice says in Chapter IX: "How fond she is of finding morals in things!" This makes moralizing on the part of her German translators all the more dubious.



Carroll, Lewis and Klaus Ensikat (illus.), Alice im Wunderland. Translated by Siv Bublitz. Reinbek: rotfuchs, 1993.

Carroll, Lewis, Martin Gardner (introduction and notes), and John Tenniel (illus.), The Annotated Alice: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-glass, Definitive ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2000.

Carroll, Lewis and Siggi Grunow (illus.), Alice im Wunderland. Translated by Nanette von Cube. Munich: Boer, 1985.

Carroll, Lewis and Arthur Rackham (illus.), Alice im Wunderland. Translated by Barbara Teutsch. Munich: Domino, 1985-86.

Carroll, Lewis and John Tenniel (illus.), Alice im Spiegelland. Translated by Barbara Teutsch. Hamburg: Dressler, 1990.

Nières, Isabelle, "Lewis Carroll en France (1870-1985): les ambivalences d'une réception littéraire," Thèse, Université de Picardie, 1988.

O'Sullivan, Emer, Friend and Foe: The Image of Germany and the Germans in British Children's Fiction from 1870 to the Present. Tübingen: G. Narr Verlag, 1990.

O'Sullivan, Emer, Kinderliterarische Komparatistik. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 2000.

O'Sullivan, Emer and Dietmar Rösler, It Could Be Worse—Oder? Eine deutsch-englische Geschichte. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1984.

O'Sullivan, Emer and Dietmar Rösler, Mensch, Be Careful! Eine deutsch-englische Geschichte. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 1993.


Jeffrey Garrett is bibliographer for Western languages and literatures at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. His article on father figures in the works of Christine Nöstlinger (co-authored with Charlotte Cubbage) will appear in the Spring 2001 issue of Bookbird.

Volume 5, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, 2001

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"Alice in the Hands of Her Translators: Emer O'Sullivan Looks at the German Alice Tradition" © Jeff Garrett, 2001.
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