Looking for the truth

Truth is a funny thing. It is of paramount importance, yet in many cases, it remains elusive. It demands nothing less than pure and total objectivity, yet it is often tormented by the circumstances until it becomes subjective. It is perception, yet it doesn’t care about being perceived at all. It just is

It doesn’t matter if you believe in facts, I often say; they do not need your approval to exist. And it is true. But when enough people repeat the same fabrication often enough, it somehow occupies the space where truth should be. We all know that; we all have firsthand experience of it, from small inaccuracies to fake news. 

I was expecting to come across things that would not be entirely true when I first started researching the French translations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. After all, the human mind is fallible, and so is every human production. For example, I knew that I would be faced with the many myths that surround Lewis Carroll — the small ones as well as the big ones. What I was not expecting was how much wrongness I’d uncover in other aspects of my research. 

To give you some context, I’m analysing some specific aspects of the text and how they have been translated in the long history of Alice in France. The book was first translated to French in 1869, then there was a bit of a gap until the beginning of the 20th century, with a sudden interest for Carroll in the Interwar period and a real obsession that started some time in the 1960s and has never really dried out. 

All this means I also need to look at the French translators of Alice — who they were, how they worked, what else they translated, why they translated Carroll when they did, who their publishers were, etc. Some of these translators were easier to research than others because they had already been the focus of other people’s work, or because they had done some other things in their careers that had made them famous. Some others though were much more difficult to investigate because they seemed to have translated just the one book and then disappeared in a cloud of mystery.

One translator in particular caught my attention because apart from a couple of laconic entries in reference books, he seemed to have never existed at all. Yet I owned his translation of Alice, and it was a good one at that; it had something special about it that I cannot quite pinpoint to this day. The problem was that when it came to his life and possibly other works, zilch, nada, nothing.

Now the one thing there is to know about me is that I am incredibly tenacious. I may not be the smartest person in the room, I only understand 30% of any given Star Wars plotline, and I cannot bake a cake to save my life, but I am resolute. It’s not so much a moral grace as it is a manifestation of the fact that I cannot let go of anything, but if people ask, just tell them that I enjoy pursuing my curiosity in any direction it may take me (it’s ok, people do know it’s code for “obsessive”). 

The information I had found in reference books was this : 

  • His birth and death dates
  • His birth place
  • That he had translated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (very helpful)
  • That he was an artist
  • That he might have been a pastellist

And that was it. What did not help, on top of that, was that there was another man with the same name, and who was infinitely more famous. 

But as I was saying, I am tenacious. So I looked everywhere. I wrote about a hundred emails, spent weeks perusing every death record to be found in the archives of Paris one by one (my luck was that most French cities have digitised their records up to the 1940s), contacted the publishing house that had published his Alice (they had nothing at all), followed good and bad leads, and more often than not, straight-up went on a limb and followed my guts. I bargained with civil and military archivists, insisted, cajoled, and begged. 

After months of this, I finally found myself standing over the translator’s grave in one of the lesser-known Parisian cemeteries. My journey had come to its natural end, and I had learnt everything that could possibly be learnt about him. It was a bittersweet feeling because I was elated to know that I’d be able to write his life story and in a way to give him the recognition he deserved; yet, his story, like many stories, ended there and then, under the heavy granite of a tombstone on the edge of an oddly quiet graveyard surrounded by a tentacular city. 

And then it hit me. Nothing that had been written about him, whether it be in reference books or in other dissertations, the assumptions that had been made in talks and papers, the consensus of our tiny academic community, everything — it was all wrong. Sure, there wasn’t much material, to begin with, so I’m not talking about a revolutionary discovery that is going to change the way we look at the universe, but still. 

What was I supposed to do with that? Was I supposed to write to academics who were my seniors, who were twice over smarter than I ever will be and exponentially more accomplished, that they had made a couple of small mistakes? Was I supposed to tell the authors of the reference books that they were in fact wrong (I mean, even the birth and death dates were very incorrect)? What does one do when one stumbles upon the truth when the space for that truth is already occupied by something else? 

I was lucky. My two advisors value academic integrity, and they also value good research. So they offered me to publish a new edition of that translation (the copyright is long expired), one that I would edit myself, and more importantly, one that would come with a biography of the translator. 

I am terrified. I am also beyond excited. There is going to be a book out there, one that I will have written; one in which I’ve poured my heart and soul. There is going to be a book about the translator I’ve come to admire, whose life story grabbed my imagination and will finally be told. But more importantly, there will be some truth out there, carving out a little nest for itself from the space that was once occupied exclusively by inaccuracies.

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