1964: Oh, My Mangled Head!

A Mad Tea-Party in Swahili (1940)In his book Alice in Many Tongues (1964), Warren Weaver spends the last chapter using a curious method to evaluate various translations of Alice in Wonderland. He takes the same passage from each translation—a portion of the Mad Tea-Party—and asks a fluent speaker in each language to “re-translate” it back into English so he can compare them.

In the section, Alice has just arrived at the tea-party and discovered the March Hare, the Hatter, and the sleepy Dormouse.

The Hatter shook his head mournfully…. “We quarreled last March–just before HE went mad, you know–” (pointing with his tea spoon at the March Hare,) “–it was at the great concert given by the Queen of Hearts, and I had to sing

‘Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you’re at!’

You know the song, perhaps?”

“I’ve heard something like it,” said Alice.

“It goes on, you know,” the Hatter continued, “in this way:–

‘Up above the world you fly,
Like a tea-tray in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle–'”

Here the Dormouse shook itself, and began singing in its sleep “Twinkle, twinkle, twinkle, twinkle–” and went on so long that they had to pinch it to make it stop.

The song, of course, is a mixed-up version of the English lullaby “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

Translators have three options when faced with this kind of parody, Weaver concludes. The first is to invent a parody of a similar well-known children’s verse in the translation language. (This is the superior method in his opinion.) The second is to translate the song as is—perhaps because the translator does not recognize that the parody is a parody—leaving the reader with just a strange song about a bat and tea-trays. The third method is to substitute an unrelated bit of nonsense verse for the original.

A number of translations employ the first method:

The Danish version mimics a children’s song:

Fly, oh fly, my owl,
Fairest of all fowl!
Up to the clouds, fly away
Like tea-things in a bag.
Fly, oh fly

The French version “is a confused (and it seems to me not very clever) modification of a rhyme apparently well known to French children a century ago”:

Ah, I will tell you my sister,
What causes my pain.
It is that I had some candied almonds,
And that I ate them.

The German translation parodies  “0 Tannenbaum, 0 Tanenbaum”

0 parrot, 0 parrot,
How green are your feathers!
You are green not only in peace time,
But even when it snows pots and pans.
0 parrot 0 parrot

The Hebrew translation draws from the Havdalah prayer (recited at the end of the sabbath), the Passover Haggadah, and others:

He who divides between holy and profane
All who are hungry may come and eat
In everything, with everything, of everything, all:
Celery, to break in half, lettuce, and beans.

The Hungarian version parodies this old song:

Oh, how high, how high, is this country inn?
Is there a brown-haired marriageable girl in it?
If there is no brown-haired marriageable girl in it
The country inn might as well collapse.

It goes like this:

Oh, how high, how high, is this country inn?
Is there in it, is there in it, tea with rum to sell?
If there is no tea with rum to be sold in it
The country inn might as well collapse.

The “especially clever and sensitive” Russian versiona translation by the young Vladimir Nabokov—parodies a children’s song that contains the line “I have been at the little fountain, drinking vodka”:

Mushroom, mushroom, where hast thou been?
On the lawn, drinking the rain.
I drank one drop,
And I drank two drops,
And it became damp in my head.

Translations employing the second method (simply translating the Hatter’s poem about a bat and a tea-tray) go like this:


T’ingkêr, t’ingkêr, little bat,
Tell me nicely what you want.
Flying in the sky so high.
Like a tea-tray float-a-float,
T’ingkêr, t’ingkêr


Little twinkling bat,
Who on earth are you?
Flying so high up in the sky
Like a heavenly tea tray,
Shining and twinkling.


Tremble, tremble, little bat.
I would like to know where you’re at.
You can fly very high.
Tremble, tremble, little bat.


Twi— twinkle, bat, lost in the blue sea,
Your flight is weakened in a swaying, .
Fluctuation, a wavering of a bowl.
Twi— twin— twinkle


Bat, bat, how do you shine?
Tell me what you are doing.
Like a teapot, like firewood,
You fly in the sky.
Bat, bat, how do you shine?
Tell me, what are you doing?
Bat, bat, tell me,
What are you doing?

Those versions that chose the third method of translationsubstituting a bit of nonsense verse with apparently no parody—go as follows:


You who spread out your wings to the sky,
Oh, my mangled head!
You address yourself to me, sliced:
I will add the bread with you!


Prop open your eyes, prop open your eyes.
You, my little bat.
Isn’t it strange, isn’t it strange,
That your spirit is so brave.
You are flying high, you are flying high,
Way above the universe,
Just like weightless steam out of the teapot.


Little rose, little rose so red,
With thee we have nothing to dread.,
Little rose, why do you fly,
Like a teacup high in the sky:
Twinkle, twinkle—

The Dormouse becomes a woodchuck in German and Polish, a lemur in Swahili, a marmot in Hungarian, a Mole in Spanish, and “Hazel Mouse” in Swedish. In Swahili, the March Hare is a Tortoise.

Undoubtedly, many of these translations have been supplanted since 1964. The illustration is from the 1940 Swahili translation.

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