Thu | Jan 18, 2018

Annie Paul | Aal a wi mad: not lost in translation

Published:Wednesday | July 20, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Annie Paul
A scene from the animated Disney film, 'Alice in Wonderland'.

"Ina da direkshan de," di Pus se, a wiev roun im rait paa, "wahn Hat-Man liv: an ina da direkshan de," a wiev di ada paa, "wahn Maach-Hier liv. Luk fi eni wan a dem yu waahn luk fa: di tuu a dem mad."

"Bot mi no waahn go mongks mad piipl," Alis ansa.

"Oo, yu kyaahn elp dat," di Pus se: "Aal a wi mad ya so. Mi mad. Yu mad."

"Ou yu nuo mi mad?" Alis aks.

"Yu mos mad," di Pus se, "ar yu wudn kom ya."

"In that direction," the Cat said, waving its right paw around, "lives a Hatter: and in that direction," waving the other paw, "lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they're both mad."

"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.

"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."

"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.

"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."

I was delighted to find out from a post on Facebook that one of my all-time favourite books, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, has been translated into Jamaican, aka Patwa. The whimsical tale, written by an English mathematician for a young girl he knew named Alice, seems tailor-made for a language like Patwa, which has more than its share of whimsy and topsy-turvy humour.

What I mean by that is amply captured in this tweet by @FaeEllington to her colleague, Dionne Jackson-Miller, during an episode of her TV show, 'All Angles', about a month ago:

"Monkey mus know which part im a go put im tail before im ahda trousiz." Fi wi langwiz. Proverb.

I no longer remember the context in which Fae offered this proverb, but any which way you look at it, that is an ROTFL (rolling on the floor laughing) observation of sly wit and derision. What our Trini friends (Welcome, Prime Minister Rowley!) might call 'picong', a form of jesting insult they have refined to an art form in the twin-island republic.




I suspect that the All Angles discussion was about language, perhaps the prime minister's recent suggestion that Spanish be adopted as a second language in Jamaica, which generated a counter-discussion about the role and status of Jamaican Patwa in the life of the nation. The contradictory status of Jamaica's mother tongue is best illustrated by Germaine Bryan's response to Fae's tweet about the monkey who aspired to trousers: "But Auntie Fae, you same one woulda done any of yuh students if them guh pan good good tv and talk patwa lol."

Anyhow, back to Alis Advencha ina Wandalan, which positions the text of the famous story translated into Patwa alongside its English original on each page, making it easy to learn by comparing the two. It's something Carolyn Cooper has been doing for a couple of decades in her newspaper column, using the same Cassidy orthography which, at first glance, appears ferociously complicated on the page, but yields up the spoken language easily enough once you get the hang of it.

A friend who is an interpreter by profession complained that the translation was far too literal, not really capturing the way people speak in Patwa. 'Ina da direkshun de'??? Really? What about 'ova desso' and 'ova yasso'? she asked, insisting that the syntax wasn't accurate. To be fair to the translator, one Tamirand Nnena De Lisser, Lewis Carroll didn't say as he might have for simplicity's sake, "over there" and "over here", for which "ova desso" and "ova yasso" would have been the perfect translation. He said "in that direction" rather than "over there", and keeping in mind that the two texts are supposed to be looked at side by side, "Ina da direkshun de" was, I think, a more complete translation, even though people here might not actually speak quite like that.

I disagreed completely with another friend who said: "The whimsical subtleties of 19th-century British children's literature is hardly translatable into any other language." A gifted and skilful translator is perfectly capable of translating whimsy along with grammatical sense into another language, be it Patwa, Malayalam or Chinese. Most of us have read Don Quixote, not in the original Spanish but in English, yet was the Man of la Mancha lost in translation? A resounding no.

This is not to say that there aren't traces and fragments of texts that elude easy translation from one language to the next. Some things remain fully accessible only in their original language, but 90-95 per cent is close enough for me. Another book de Lisser has translated into Patwa is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a story the world fell in love with, though not all of us read it in the original French. Both Alis ina Wandaland and Di Likl Prins are available on Amazon. I've ordered my copy of the former already.

- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice ( Email feedback to or tweet @anniepaul.