Alice in Wonderland is one of the most adapted books ever. That means that by studying one of its many translations you could learn to read almost any written language. It also means that by studying its illustrations, you are in touch with artists across the globe, and with the iconographies and visual imaginations of cultures around the world.
This, for instance, is an edition published for the Eastern African market in 1940:
Elisi katika nchi ya Ajabu is a Swahili translation and adaptation. It was a created by Ermyntrude Virginia St Lo de Malet (also known as Conan-Davies). Whether she also drew the illustrations, I do not know.
Saint Lo was a missionary and it is interesting to see that someone whose aim was to save souls for the Christian Church should translate such an irreverent, even positively anti-authoritarian book. (The translation was self-commissioned.)
The text makes an effort to transpose the setting of the story from England to Eastern Africa. And so do the images, sometimes less successfully, but sometimes also more so.
The images take the original Tenniel drawings as their basis. They are modified, however, to turn the Dormouse into a bush-baby, for instance, and the White Rabbit’s umbrella into a cane. Significantly also, they turn white Victorian Alice into a barefoot girl with braided hair, wearing a kanga: Alice/Elisi is now a Swahili girl.
This scene from Chapter IV offers a particularly interesting comparison:
Alice’s hand has been copied from Tenniel’s drawing and more heavily hatched in order to suggest a darker skin colour. But another thing has changed.
When there’s no longer any room for Alice’s arm inside the Rabbit’s nice little brick house, she sticks it out of the window. Then,
after waiting till she fancied she heard the Rabbit just under the window, she suddenly spread out her hand, and made a snatch in the air. She did not get hold of anything, but she heard a little shriek and a fall, and a crash of broken glass, from which she concluded that it was just possible it had fallen into a cucumber-frame, or something of the sort.
Tenniel, on reading the text, duly drew a cucumber-frame.
But the nice thing in this scene is Alice’s limited perspective: she just hears the crash and therefore concludes she has broken ‘something of the sort‘ of a cucumber-frame. Even if it sounded more like glass than anything else, this is an ideal spot for an illustrator to seize some extra freedom.
The illustrator of the Swahili edition indeed chose to make a complete cultural translation. Instead of a greenhouse for growing cucumber, they drew a cluster of ceramic pots. Equally breakable. And just as likely a thing that you might encounter at the corner of a house. Importantly also, since so much of Alice is about eating and drinking, the illustrator chose an object that is used for food: these pots are probably used by the Rabbit to transport and store foodstuffs or drinks.
Translating images from one culture to another can be just as challenging as translating words. In this scene, it seems to me that the image translator has done a fine job.
Now Elisi is a transcultural translation, aimed at making it easier for readers in Eastern Africa to relate to Carroll’s story. (See Byron Sewell’s Indigenous(-looking?) Australian illustrations for another example.)
But how about new illustrations set in North America, Europe, or urban Australia? How about the millions of different girls and boys living there, reading Alice for the first time? Almost all those translations depict pink (‘white’) Alices. It is very hard to find much variation in the way she looks, even in those editions which are not set in Victorian England but in contemporary locations, which in real life are filled with an abundant variety of children.
So let me use Black History Month to turn an endemic problem into a ‘news item’: who can help me find an African American Alice? An African French Alice? A Sri Lankan British Alice? …
I have used Lewis Carroll, Elisi katika nchi ya ajabu, trans. St Lo de Malet (London: Sheldon Press, 1967). There is a more recent translation by Dr Ida Hadjivayanis, Lector in Swahili at SOAS in London.
Regarding copyright and my reproducing the 1940 images here: since the illustrator is anonymous, I have counted 70 years from the year of first publication, but please comment if you have further information.