This story about how Lewis Carroll came to Russian readers raises questions about translation – and the absolute dependence of the monolingual reader on the translator to capture not just the basic meaning of a text, but all the other subtextual and metatextual and whatnottextual stuff which gives a work its soul.
If ever there was a book where wordplay and unsettling weirdness matter, it is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But how can we ever know that any of the various Russian translators replicated exactly the essence of the English original? It seems almost impossible that they could.
Likewise, when we read Russian or other international authors in translation, are we seeing only a pale reflection of the original literary world? I suspect so, but how can we ever know?
Beckett wrote in French because he claimed it was easier to write ‘without style’. The trilingual Nabokov described the transition from one language to another as the slow journey at night from one village to another with only a candle for illumination.
Charlemagne claimed that “To have another language is to possess a second soul”. I can order dinner and ask where the train station is in French, German, Spanish and, at a push, Italian. But alas, I only have the one soul. I can’t help thinking there are whole other lives to be led if only you stick with the languages past A-Level.