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.
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.