June 27, 2021

Alice by Another Name, and Nabokov, Too

Alice by Another Name, and Nabokov, Too
Alice meets Anya | Illustration by Haley Bader

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.

The cover of the 1976 edition of Nabokov's
translation of Alice in Wonderland, published
by Dover Publications. Get your copy here.

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.

Anya meets the caterpillar | Illustrations by S. Zalshupin

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.

Some of Anya's new friends | Illustration by S. Zalshupin

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
Быстротечная вода.
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.

"The Mad Drink Tea" | Illustration by S. Zalshupin

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.

Anya sits, enraptured  | Illustration by S. Zalshupin

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).

The Mouse's tail  | From the 1976 edition of Nabokov's Alice in Wonderland

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
My defense?”
“Of the judge
And the jury
I myself
Will stand in,”
The cunning
Cur proclaimed.
“And it is you
I will put
To death!”

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:


You Might Also Like

Of Fish and Cockroaches
  • March 01, 2003

Of Fish and Cockroaches

Some ways to tell the difference between fish names and a discussion of fishy aphorisms and idioms.
Cultural Clones
  • May 01, 2009

Cultural Clones

Be it in films, literature, television, music or art, Russia has a long tradition of cloning western (and eastern) cultural icons and making them its own. We survey several of the more interesting and recent instances, from Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh, to The Wheel of Fortune and Big Brother.
Provence Pastoral
  • May 01, 2020

Provence Pastoral

On Vladimir Nabokov’s little known hiatus as a farm hand.
The Nabokov Code
  • July 01, 2007

The Nabokov Code

Vladimir Nabokov was a multi-faceted genius. Gifted in lepidoptery, chess, translation and criticism, he was also one of the best writers of the 20th century – in both Russian and English.
Chasing Nabokov
  • March 01, 2014

Chasing Nabokov

In which a scholar of the great Russian-American writer goes in search of Nabokov’s other family estate.
Nabokov: What to Read
  • April 22, 2014

Nabokov: What to Read

Today is Vladimir Nabokov's birthday, so we asked Russian Life contributor and Nabokov expert Diana Bruk where to start when reading the master. She offers with five annotated recommendations.
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

A Taste of Chekhov

A Taste of Chekhov

This compact volume is an introduction to the works of Chekhov the master storyteller, via nine stories spanning the last twenty years of his life.
Fearful Majesty

Fearful Majesty

This acclaimed biography of one of Russia’s most important and tyrannical rulers is not only a rich, readable biography, it is also surprisingly timely, revealing how many of the issues Russia faces today have their roots in Ivan’s reign.
The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

This exciting new trilogy by a Russian author – who has been compared to Orhan Pamuk and Umberto Eco – vividly recreates a lost world, yet its passions and characters are entirely relevant to the present day. Full of mystery, memorable characters, and non-stop adventure, The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas is a must read for lovers of historical fiction and international thrillers.  
Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

In this comprehensive, quixotic and addictive book, Edwin Trommelen explores all facets of the Russian obsession with vodka. Peering chiefly through the lenses of history and literature, Trommelen offers up an appropriately complex, rich and bittersweet portrait, based on great respect for Russian culture.
Russian Rules

Russian Rules

From the shores of the White Sea to Moscow and the Northern Caucasus, Russian Rules is a high-speed thriller based on actual events, terrifying possibilities, and some really stupid decisions.
Chekhov Bilingual

Chekhov Bilingual

Some of Chekhov's most beloved stories, with English and accented Russian on facing pages throughout. 
Marooned in Moscow

Marooned in Moscow

This gripping autobiography plays out against the backdrop of Russia's bloody Civil War, and was one of the first Western eyewitness accounts of life in post-revolutionary Russia. Marooned in Moscow provides a fascinating account of one woman's entry into war-torn Russia in early 1920, first-person impressions of many in the top Soviet leadership, and accounts of the author's increasingly dangerous work as a journalist and spy, to say nothing of her work on behalf of prisoners, her two arrests, and her eventual ten-month-long imprisonment, including in the infamous Lubyanka prison. It is a veritable encyclopedia of life in Russia in the early 1920s.
Turgenev Bilingual

Turgenev Bilingual

A sampling of Ivan Turgenev's masterful short stories, plays, novellas and novels. Bilingual, with English and accented Russian texts running side by side on adjoining pages.
Dostoyevsky Bilingual

Dostoyevsky Bilingual

Bilingual series of short, lesser known, but highly significant works that show the traditional view of Dostoyevsky as a dour, intense, philosophical writer to be unnecessarily one-sided. 

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602