Down the Rabbit Hole:
The Challenge of Translating a Novel Based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
If you’re on my website, you probably know at least something about my first novel, Heartshire High. And if you know just one thing about Heartshire, it’s that the book is loosely based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Writing a modern-day YA novel based on the classic was its own challenge, particularly because Alice doesn’t really have a cohesive plot. The story of Heartshire is unrelated to Alice, but it mirrors the characters, motifs, themes, and certain scenes and moments, as well as maintaining the general feeling of a girl lost in a strange, new world. For example, each character in Alice has a partner character in Heartshire: Alice is Celia (an anagram for “Alice”), the story’s heroine; the Queen of Hearts is Red, a feisty bully with flame-red hair; the white rabbit is Bunni, a platinum blonde who’s always running late, and so on. Finding a way to bring elements of Alice into each page of Heartshire while still making it a readable and suspenseful novel was a labor of love that absorbed most of my free time over the last couple years.
But over the last few months, I’ve faced a new set of challenges as I set out to translate Heartshire High into French. The first core question I had to answer was, what really is a translation? Should I stay as close to the English version of the book as possible? Or should I try to capture the same emotions and purpose of the English version in a way that would relate to French readers and their culture, even if doing so meant fundamentally changing the characters?
I am lucky in this case, because I am both the author and the translator, so I don’t need to worry about what the author wants or what she intended. But still, is it a translation if I’m changing parts of the story, or is it simply a new (but very similar) book? I fell down a proverbial rabbit hole reading differing opinions on the subject, but in the end I decided that I wanted to stay true to the main ideas of the story while making the changes necessary to make it relatable for French readers. I adjusted some references to daily American life so that they would convey the same feeling as before. For example, when it came to describing the town I changed analogies and descriptions to get my point across: a dimly lit gas station with off-brand food would mean nothing to a French reader, but a row of barren stores would convey the same run-down feel. While this small change altered the story slightly, it kept the feel better than the original would have.
Another point I struggled with was keeping the book relatable. While writing Heartshire High, one of my goals was to write a novel that teens could connect to to a greater extent as it had been written by another teen. I tried to include thoughts, emotions, and situations that high schoolers my age might encounter. However, when it came to translating, I felt stuck. French culture, expressions, and way of life is a completely different from what I had written in Heartshire. Would the French teenagers reading my story be unable to connect to the events and characteristics that I had constructed? Although the book does take place in the U.S. I still wondered if I should alter how my characters acted in order to make them more relatable and understandable by an international audience. For example, Celia’s relationship with her parents is strained, and the ways that she talks to and acts around her father would not “translate” the same way to a French reader; even though the words would say the same thing, a French reader would take away a very different interpretation about the characters and their personalities. And so, I decided that making the change would, in effect, change the book less than keeping it the same would. Decision made, I re-evaluated my characters, made a few adjustments to the plot, and started the process of translating. And then I remembered: Alice.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one of those rare books that resonates with people of all ages, across cultures, throughout generations. It is funny and serious, lighthearted and deep, childlike and insightful. Perhaps more than anything else, it draws on the very human reality of feeling lost within a culture where you are an outsider. But part of its ability to endure is the prevalence of jokes, poems, fun, riddles, nonsense, and word-play. I tried to bring this aspect of Alice into Heartshire High by adding wordsplay, puns, and other subtle Alice references to further my story. However, when these moments didn’t have an equivalent in French, would it be better to lose them, or adapt the story around that passage? Talk about a translation nightmare!
It turns out that there are at least 16 full versions of Alice in French, each telling the story in their own voice. This begs the question, is maintaining the spirit of the story enough when translating, or should one focus more on the story and the style? Is it really still the same book once it is translated as all translations involve some loss and modification of the story? Alice’s particular nuances of wordplay highlight this problem, and I’m not the first to discover its unique trickiness. (If you want to read a LOT about this topic, check out this paper as a starting place.)
But things were even worse than that! I wasn’t translating Alice -- I was translating a book based on references to Alice. I felt like I was taking on a matryoshka of translating, and I’ll admit that it seemed impossible. Even the characters’ names were stumping me! Some names were easily switched -- “Pilar”, who played the role of the Caterpillar, would be changed to “Camille” (which is close to the French word for caterpillar -- but others seem to have no reference at all. For example, the character of Tim relates to the word “time” from Alice, but trying to find a French man’s name connected to temps was close to impossible. Even when I had chosen the name Horace, which relates to time, I was soon reminded that in many cultures, especially French, he is remembered as a Roman poet and, therefore, the connection to time would not be understood by readers. Time also caused a problem with the greater scheme of the story. In the English version of Alice, Time is “killed”, but in the French version, Time is “lost”. In Heartshire High, this connection between the classic and the novel is crucial. How would I make a translation that still offered the same level of connection but didn’t change my story’s plot in a drastic way? How could I stay true to the plot while maintaining the subtleties of the plays on words that make the book (at least in my opinion) something special?
My head was spinning, so I decided to do what I always do in that situation: just start. I’ve had to re-do a lot of passages, and I’ve learned a lot along the way about my book, French culture, and translating in general. I am sure the translation is not perfect. I hope that after the next few years of studying literature, I look back on this translation and cringe, knowing what I could have done better. But right now, I’m extremely proud that now a French version of Heartshire exists, and I’m excited to begin sharing it with a French audience. First up will be my non-English-speaking French relatives, who’ve been so wanting to read it!
“So,” you might ask, “if you love this translation so much, where is it?” Aha! … It isn’t done. Everything is done except the poems, which have become the bane of my existence. I am not the first one to face the challenge of translating a poem. Because translating a poem really means writing a poem, which is at once completely new and also, theoretically, the same. And if that sounds unlikely if not impossible, I agree. I couldn’t decide if I should follow the plot of the English poems, focus on rhyming and structure, or if I should simply write entirely new poetry. In everything I’ve read about translating poetry, this has been the most helpful guidance. So I am trying to maintain the meaning of my original poems, and the references in both content and style to Lewis Carroll’s originals, and, you know, make them French.
But once the poems are finished, the French translation will be published and ready for purchase! Until then, if you hear a dull thudding reverberating over the Chicago skyline, that is an echo of my banging my head against my desk and wishing that, in French, I was a much better poet.
Update: You can now read the first chapter in French here.
I'm a high school senior who loves to read, write, read about writing, and write about reading. My first novel, Heartshire High, is out now!