August 01, 2010

Bwana Paka Mcheshi, the Swahili Cheshire Cat

I was saddened to learn of the death of Martin Gardner, whose annotated edition of Alice in Wonderland was one of the best reads of my childhood. Well, as sad as you are when someone dies who is 95 years old and has had a good life and a painless death. That kind of sad like when a great old battleship gets decommissioned, the flag lowered for the last time, the sailors saluting, the final watch secured.

In fact, besides being a lover of maths, science, philosophy and Lewis Carroll, Martin Gardner was one of the great old battleships of the skeptical movement, consecrated to debunking pseudoscience and superstition. His columns for The Skeptical Inquirer (which you can read online in our Digital Library) were one of the pillars of the magazine, and he finished his last one just ten days before he died. It will appear in the September/October issue, which should also be the first issue in print version to arrive at Central Library. We decided to start up a subscription in May, which turns out to have been the month Martin Gardner died. No evidence for paranormal suggestion being involved, I hasten to add.

Proud to be a liberrian

The tributes to Martin Gardner which his friends posted on their blogs after his death, like Richard Dawkins's "Rest in peace good old man", were followed by comment after comment about how important his books had been in people’s lives. The word libraryjumped out at me from a few of them, in contexts like "I first encountered one of his books at my library and it blew my mind".

I first encountered Martin Gardner as a child when I was given his book The Annotated Alice for my birthday. Just as well I didn’t get it from the library because I would never have wanted to return it. It's an oversize book with big wide margins where the notes are written (so superior to footnotes!). My sister and I were thrilled to discover an annotation which credited the father of her friend Andrea Burkenroad for explaining a particular Carrollian pun. “Thanks to Martin Burkenroad, of Panama” it read. Dr. Burkenroad (a biologist who had been studying Panamanian shrimp, possibly observing their quadrilles) was a mysterious and exciting figure to us already, as Andrea had told us he had once drunk rattlesnake poison to illustrate a scientific point. You can see why he would have been a friend of Martin Gardner's.

The Annotated Alice gives "The Jabberwocky" in French (“Le glaive vorpal fait pat-a-pan!”) and German (“O Freuden-Tag! O Halloo-Schlag!”), and now, to honour the memory of Martin Gardner, I’m going to let you see Alice in Wonderland in Swahili. Elisi katika nchi ya ajabu was published in 1940 by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and is now part of the Burstein collection of Alice in Wonderland books on the Internet Archive.

It's illustrated with the original Tenniel drawings with marvellously random transpositions of some characters to Africa. Alice is a little African girl in a sarong instead of a pinafore; the White Rabbit is still a white rabbit (in a caftan, although later he gets his waistcoat back); the Caterpillar is still a caterpillar; but have a look at Baba Wilyam (pg. 46)! And in one of my favourite chapters, Pig and Pepper, the Ugly Duchess is the same but her cook has turned into an African houseboy, still holding the pilipili shaker (that's pepper). The Cheshire Cat, unchanged except for his fantastic new name, Bwana Paka Mcheshi, lies grinning at his feet.

I was intrigued by the treatment of the Tea Party. The Mad Hatter still sells hats, although they are fezzes, but the March Hare has become a tortoise, and the Dormouse seems to be -- quick check of an online Swahili dictionary -- a lemur? Okay, I got that -- a lemur being nocturnal, it would be sleepy during the day. But what does a tortoise have to do with a March hare?

Funny you should ask. You know about "Mad as a March Hare", right? How hares leap about with great abandon in March when their mating season starts? Well, Edward St Lo de Malet, the author of this translation, whom I think I've identified as the 8th Baronet Malet, Colonel in the Irish Hussars who had been posted before the war to Palestine, must have set those missionaries to work observing the mating behaviour of all the local animal types to come up with a species which could convey this special elan. And they found him one!

From the deadpan pages on the African tortoise on the Honolulu Zoo website:

Able to run and burrow quite well. Get excited just before it rains, running around (…)

Copulate during the rainy season (February-March) for about one week."

Apparently they are also very noisy. The zoo doesn't mention it but lots of websites about travel in Africa warn about people being kept awake by amorous tortoises. This caused some confusion on one site when someone thought "tortoises" was poor English for "tourists".

Here is the book (if it hasn't embedded right for your computer, click here). Enjoy!

Alice in Wonderland is one of the most translated books ever (the Bible is the most). Did you know that Vladimir Nabokov translated it into Russian in the 1920s when he was living in the Russian √©migr√© community in Berlin, trying to make a living from writing rather than tennis lessons? They say he did a good job, especially considering he did it for the money, and probably in a hurry. Rather than a cheese cat, he made the Cheshire cat a Butter cat, using the name of a Russian holiday, Butter Day, where everyone gets to eat pancakes, with butter I presume. There's a Russian proverb which says "A cat can't have Butter Day every day"-- meaning, you can't have fun every day, eventually you have to go to work.

Unless of course you're a tortoise.

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:30


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