Both fiction and our own lives take unexpected turns. Little Alice tumbled down a rabbit hole into a wonderland of adventures, and it was Vladimir Nabokov's quirky Russian translation of her travels that launched his American literary career.
Even though Nabokov was just 24 when his Аня в стране чудес (Alice in Wonderland) was published, it would be hailed as a masterpiece. In 1964, Warren Weaver, author of Alice in Many Tongues: The Translations of Alice in Wonderland, called Nabokov’s text the “best translation of the book into any language.”
In 1941, the work helped him secure a professorship at Wellesley College.
Calling to mind the strange nature of fortune, Nabokov wrote in 1970: "I recall with pleasure that one of the accidents that prompted Wellesley College to engage me as lecturer in the early forties was the presence of my rare Anya in the Wellesley collection of Lewis Carroll editions."
Perhaps best known for his novel Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov was raised in an aristocratic family that fled the Soviet Union for Europe after the Russian Revolution. He learned English, French, and Russian from an early age, and attended Trinity College in Cambridge.
Nabokov’s upbringing in a family of distinguished heritage – full of generals, professors, ministers, and politicians – motivated him to seek success in his own right. In his early writing, he used the pseudonym “Vladimir Sirin” to distance himself from his family’s legacy.
Nabokov moved to Berlin when he was 23 and rather inexperienced. Although he published poetry as a young man, it was not comparable to the work of giants like Gorky, Mayakovsky, Pasternak, and Tsvetaeva, who dominated the literary scene.
The émigré press Gamaiun commissioned Nabokov's Russian translation of Alice in Wonderland in the summer of 1922, allegedly sent him a $5 advance, and published the text in 1923. Nabokov faced challenges of absurd and lyrical writing – parodies, gibberish, twisted poems, and puns – but his wordplay in idiosyncratic Russian (he learned English before his parents’ native tongue) may have been part of what gave the text so much of its charm.
Nabokov embarked on a “domesticated translation” – the kind where settings and language are familiarized for ease of interpretation, rather than a “foreignized translation” that preserves the original culture of a text. In this spirit, whereas Alice emerged into Wonderland at one turn in the road, Anya would step out from a divergent path.
While Nabokov's Russified work was birthed in Europe, some of his Soviet contemporaries took the opposite tack and produced cultural "cloning" that was dishonest. Writers would poach themes, even whole texts, from Western creators. The children's author and poet Korney Chukovsky, for example, published a translation-clone of The Adventures of Dr. Dolittle using his own name, as if he were the author. He changed the doctor's name to Aybolit (in Russian the name means "ouch! it hurts," not quite as lazy as "do little").
For his part, Nabokov would have called himself “co-creator.” He maintained that he had not seen another Russian translation of Alice in Wonderland, yet chose to make fundamental changes to the place and culture of his Anya's adventures. In this way, his translation became an in-between text, which is exactly where Anya found herself: in between worlds.
Nabokov's Anya drops down not from the banks of an English river, but rather a grassy slope somewhere in Russia. As she returns to her senses in a Russified Wonderland, she seeks to recall something of what she had known before. While Alice refers to a poem about a hardworking bee by Isaac Watts, Anya muddles a Pushkin poem (“God’s Little Bird,” from "The Gypsies").
Крокодилушка не знает
Ни заботы, ни труда.
Золотит его чешуйки
Милых рыбок ждет он в гости,
На брюшке среди камышей:
Лапки врозь, дугою хвостик,
И улыбка до ушей…
The little crocodile knows
Neither work nor any worry.
Gilding scutes and scales,
The water quickly flowing.
He awaits a dear fish guest
On his belly in the reeds:
His legs apart, tail arched,
Smile across his face quite free.
Nabokov’s story ties Anya to Russia in other ways: the lingo of Rabbit’s servants comes laden with the dialect of nineteenth-century “peasant speech.” Anya, however, is ever the barishnya (young lady), with the elevated speech of a girl from an educated family.
From the muzzle of Mouse, the reader hears of the Olgovichi family – descendants of the princes of Chernigov – and Kievan Prince Vladimir Monomakh, rather than William the Conqueror and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The shrewd Cheshire cat becomes the Maslenichny Kot, named after the Russian holiday week of Maslenitsa (Shrovetide), which precedes the Russian Orthodox Great Lent. There is a phrase in Russian that lends more to his name: “ne vse kotu maslenitsa,” or “it’s not always maslenitsa for the cat,” also translated as “every day is not Sunday.” No wonder the Maslenichny Kot comes prancing with such a wide smile.
Nabokov helps his publishers preserve, too, some visual wit. In a scene in Carroll’s version where a Mouse tells her tale to Alice, who misinterprets the “tail,” the printers twist the poem into a curl like what cascades from the rodent’s behind. Nabokov saves the linguistic effect with a twist of his own: Mouse’s story is simple (prost), but Anya understands it’s a tail (khvost).
In a dark room,
Left alone with the mouse,
the cunning cur announced:
“Off we go to pass judgment!
I feel bored today:
How will I occupy myself?
So get on with it: it is
You I will blame!”
“Without a jury,”
Exclaimed the mouse,
“Without a judge!
Who, then, will weigh
“Of the judge
And the jury
Will stand in,”
“And it is you
I will put
Nabokov's Russification is so thorough that all names – not only Anya's – are leeched of their English character. Even the units of measurement, length and monetary, are Russian.
Despite its Russian sensibilities, Nabokov’s translation never appeared in the Soviet Union under his family name. The text only came to light as his own in Russia when Raduga Publishers released it in 1992. Those who read Nabokov's works were most likely the children of other Russian émigrés.
In 1970, expert on Slavic languages and literature and scholar Simon Karlinsky compared Nabokov’s Anya to a 1940 translation by Soviet writer Aleksandr Olenich-Gnenenko, and deemed it unfortunate that his “awkward, mishappen Alisa seems fated to remain the standard Alice in Russian, while Nabokov's warm and witty Anya stays in exile on foreign bookshelves. Were she allowed to return to the country of her spiritual origin, Anya could easily supersede the ungainly incumbent.”
Of course, the merits of the piece are not evidenced solely in its distribution, nor do they rest only on the shoulders of a literary giant.
The illustrations, by Sergei Aleksandrovich Zalshupin, have a flair of their own:
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