Alice in a World of Wonderlands — Part I: The Project

As some of you may know from experience, one of the most difficult challenges of a long-term work (like a PhD, or writing a book, for example) is the lack of immediate achievement. When you are a translator, as I once was, you easily see yourself achieve goals as you can quantify the texts that you have translated in a day, a week, or a month. Sure, when you work on a PhD, you can also quantify what you do (how many words you have written, how many paragraphs you have stricken out and how many pages you dread to hand in to your supervisor) but it is less satisfying as you almost never get to hold an end product until the very last day. In the meantime, it is difficult to feel any sense of accomplishment.

I believe that, deep down, it is the reason why PhD candidates tend to bite more than they can chew. We always end up contributing to projects that divert us from our research, not because we feel like procrastinating, but because we need to see that we have actually done something. It is not only for the networking advantages of wider projects, nor for the sake of the “publish or perish” so-called rule. In my case, it is simply so I can hold in my hands some physical evidence that I have worked at all.

I first got involved in what then went by the code name of “Alice in Translations” through the Lewis Carroll Society (Oh, the things I owe those people!) at the beginning of 2011. Mark Richards, who was chairman of the LCS at the time, relayed an e-mail about a project on the translations of Alice worldwide. The general editor of the project, Jon Lindseth, was looking for people who would be willing to lend a hand with the research part. At the time, I had only started to work on my own research and I was eager to interact with people who were more experienced and more knowledgeable.

I was not disappointed. Jon Lindseth referred me to Pr. Nières-Chevrel, the living encyclopaedia of Alice in French, with whom I was to work on the checklist of the French Translations, then with Pr. Collière-Whiteside, whose work is equally impressive, and who listed the French translations outside France, Belgium and Switzerland. My job was (1) to track down the French editions from 1986 and (2) to translate Pr. Nières-Chevrel’s essay to English. I have to say that I have always suspected that she did me a favour there, as she is perfectly able to write in English herself.

Occasionally, I would serve as an interface between Jon Lindseth and contributors whose mother tongue was French but who did not work on the French translations, such as the Walloon and Breton languages. I simply had to translate e-mails from English to French and vice-versa. Later, I also edited some of the essays, which was challenging yet rewarding. All these activities made it possible for me to put to good use what I had learnt during my master’s degree, from translation to proofreading.

Working on this project was a wonderful experience. I was in contact with ridiculously interesting people, who confirmed my supervisor’s aphorism according to which “Great people are always kind; only the mediocre feel the need to be mean.” I was graced with the privilege of only interacting with the former sort all along. Some of them sent me documents to which I would never have had access otherwise. Some of them sent me feedback on my own work. I was surprised to witness such support and benevolence from and to everyone involved. It has been great, and I am almost sad it is over.

The reason why I am happy it is over, on the other hand, is that I can hold the very palpable (not to mention quite heavy) three-volume outcome of this project. The sense of accomplishment when I opened the cardboard box was priceless. Of course, in such circumstances, it is impossible for me to promise that I have learnt a lesson: I will keep biting more than I can chew. It feels too good to quit.

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