Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Alice in Wonderland in Konkani

(While I have co-translated Alice into Konkani, this article is not about my translation. This post is adapted from my essay published in Alice in a World of Wonderlands Vol I, published by Oak Knoll Press, USA, in 2015)

The mid-nineteenth century in India witnessed the growth of written children’s literature in English and Indian languages. Most of these early publications comprised Bible stories, textbooks, or translations of Western classics. One such translation was of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into Konkani by Suresh Kakodkar in 1970 and was titled अेलीस आनी ताचो अप्रूप संवसार [Elis and her Topsy Turvy World].

Lacking a script of its own, Konkani is written in five different scripts: Devanagari, Kannada, Malayalam, Arabic, and Romi/Roman. Konkani speakers use several dialects influenced by different languages, including Marathi, Portuguese, Kannada, and Malayalam, and the religion they belong to, including Hinduism, Islam, or Christianity. As a result, the Konkani literary language is still relatively undeveloped. 

Alice in Wonderland is a book that is enjoyed both by adults and children, as evidenced by the Alice Fan Clubs that thrive in several countries. When my son was five years old, his favourite bedtime reading was Carroll’s Alice. However, when I read a few Indian translations, I was intrigued to see that the translators had carried out their task within a didactic framework, and attempted to remove several subversive elements in Alice to make the translated text “suitable” for “Indian” children.

Carroll’s belief that childhood is burdened with schoolwork, as expressed in Alice’s fears— “‘but then – always to have lessons to learn! Oh, I shouldn’t like that!’”—did not meet with the translator’s approval, and he deleted this statement. Carroll’s satirical remark about the importance given to “book-learning,” as when Alice looks for “a book of rules for shutting people up like telescopes,” was also left out. Similarly, when her adventures land her in a tight spot in the Rabbit’s house, Alice wishes for a moment that she had not gone down the rabbit hole, but then retracts, saying, “‘and yet . . . it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life! I do wonder what can have happened to me! . . . There ought to be a book written about me, that there ought!’” This sentiment was not translated either, denying the child reader an opportunity to imagine, to desire adventure, to even envision the possibility of being in one.

Kakodkar’s Alice is a passive girl to whom things happen, while Carroll’s Alice learns to think for herself and to anticipate events. She drinks from the bottle at the Rabbit’s house, saying to herself, “‘I know something interesting is sure to happen . . . So I’ll just see what this bottle does’”; but in Kakodkar’s translation, Alice drinks automatically without concerning herself about possible consequences. “She examined it closely. Neither ‘Eat me’ nor ‘Drink me’ was written on it. She uncapped it and held the bottle to her lips” (my back translation). The child that Kakodkar writes for is expected to be rather prim and proper, studious and polite to elders, unlike the young Crab, who snaps, “‘Hold your tongue, Ma! . . . You’re enough to try the patience of an oyster!’”—this outburst was not translated either.

In the chapter “Pig and Pepper,” the Duchess sings a lullaby which begins, “‘Speak roughly to your little boy, And beat him when he sneezes.’” But in India, the male child is valued greatly, and therefore, instead of translating this lullaby, Kakodkar chose to use a different song which praises the child’s beauty rather than talks of inflicting violence.

Alice is a culture-specific text and has references to English sea-side towns, English history, local food, poetry, etc. Since Konkani has not been extensively used as a medium of instruction in schools, its vocabulary has not expanded to include objects, concepts, and ideas that are not part of Konkani culture. For instance, Kakodkar calls the footmen “sepoys,” a term used to refer to Indian soldiers of junior rank serving in the British Army. In Carroll’s book, the conversation between the Rabbit and his gardener and other servants makes use of different speech forms arising from the class status of the speaker. Kakodkar either left out large parts of this conversation or used indirect speech to report it. A possible reason for this is that dialects in Konkani vary depending on the religion or geographical location of the speaker. Equating religion or location with class would be unfair and politically incorrect.

While Carroll concludes each chapter by hinting at the events to follow, thereby exciting the child’s curiosity and desire to read further, Kakodkar consistently left out this last bit of every chapter. Each chapter in the translation concludes with a particular event, and the reader has no idea of what is to follow and may not want to read on. It is as if the child’s imagination is being repressed instead of being stimulated, in line with the educational system of the time.

However, Kakodkar’s attempt to partially domesticate the story reflects the importance given to family, and the religious harmony that was strongly prevalent in the 1960s and ’70s. In the Konkani translation, the Mouse becomes Hundir Mama, or “Uncle Mouse,” and the Mad Hatter is named Topey Mama, or “The Uncle with the Hat.”

A children’s book reflects its writer’s and society’s construct of childhood, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is thus transformed in this translation to match adult notions of what childhood should be.

(The images are taken from the original illustrations of John Tenniel)

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