Humpty Dumpty in Czarytorium

Alice in Wonderland, which is considered a classic of children’s literature, is not much in demand in Poland, compared to other countries. The first Polish translation was published relatively late, in 1910 – French and German came out  in 1869 – perhaps due to the complicated historical situation of Poland in the nineteenth century. Moreover, the situation during the post-War era was itself so absurd that there was little demand for nonsense literature. From 1955 till 1986 only three new translations appeared, while since 1986 till 2015 seven translators took up the challenge of translating Carroll’s books. As befits an exceptional work, the history of its translations is also fantastic. The identity of “Adela S,” Alice’s first translator, remains an enigma, although there have already been scientific hypotheses about her. [1] Moreover, for years there was no confirmed information that any copy of the first Polish Alice translation had survived. Today we know that there are at least four.

It is said “each generation should try to get its own translation of this multifaceted book – in new settings and new sensitivity”.[ 2] The question arises how readers received the new twelfth [3] re-rendering, Perypetie Alicji na Czarytorium (Wasowscy, 2015, ISBN 978-83-3934972-1-8) as translated by Grzegorz Wasowski, a music journalist and satirist who works in radio and television. He also runs the Wasowscy Publishing House, where he carries about his father’s legacy.

To understand the phenomenon of translating Alice, we need to mention Jerzy Wasowski, Grzegorz’s father. Jerzy Wasowski and his friend Jeremi Przybora were the founders of the absolutely unique Elderly Gentlemen’s Cabaret [4] . In the years 1958 through 1966, the cabaret was presented on censored Polish television, and  was a sensation.  Przybora wrote great lyrics, full of exquisite humor, lyricism and metaphors, and the music was composed by Jerzy Wasowski. In those hopeless times, the two gentlemen embodied a world that had gone forever. Dressed in black morning coats, formal striped trousers, light vests with a carnation in the buttonhole, a cane and  a top hat, they stood out from the everyday grayness. They invited leading Polish artists to their imaginary parlor, and together they created an amazing atmosphere. They had a specific sense of humor  was liked  by people of all social classes. Against the backdrop of the prevailing propaganda, their program  was distinguished by irony, allusions, and absurdist, sophisticated and elegant humor. To this day, there are phrases from their songs in Polish popular culture.

Grzegorz Wasowski does not create music like his father, but growing up in an artistic environment, he experienced  the influence of his father’s  sense of humor.  He likes burlesque, abstract, absurd and surreal humor, which is probably why he’s a great fan of Alice and is lucky to have all fourteen Polish translations, including the rarest ones. However, he disliked Carroll’s parodies of the poems by Polish translators, with the exception of those done by Antoni Marianowicz. In his opinion, the poems were unmusical, devoid of melody and rhythm. Wasowski also believed that his translation would be more suitable for contemporary readers.

Although not a professional translator, he studied all the Polish Alice versions and the original text before deciding to retranslate Alice in Wonderland himself.  Wasowski appears to be a kind of Humpty Dumpty among the translators: He rules not only the word, but almost the entire Polish text of Alice in Wonderland. It must be admitted that his version definitely stands out from others,  and it evokes extreme reactions among fans of Alice and literary critics or scientists.

The Alice books seem to be equally popular among children and scientists, especially linguists. Every new translation is widely discussed (or veru occasionally not). Wasowski was the first who broke with the traditional title of the book and chapters scheme. The Polish title Alicja w Krainie Czarów or sometimes Przygody Alicji w Krainie Czarów has become a canonical title in Polish literature. Over the years, the word “Wonderland” –Kraina Czarów– has settled into Polish culture. Unlike the previous translators, Wasowski titled his version Perypetie Alicji na Czarytorium. The author justified his decision in the following way: the word perypetie – peripeteia [5]- better reflects the nature of Alice’s actions. Not only does she experience adventures, but she also has to overcome some obstacles. The portmanteau word Czarytorium consists of the Polish word czary ( wonders, magic)  and terytorium  (territory).  According to Wasowski, the word “land” describes a vast open space, while a “rabbit hole”  implies an enclosed area. It must be said that he warned readers by proclaiming it an “unfaithful translation”.

The book was published on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland. This elegant edition includes 167 black-and-white and 71 color vintage illustrations by 21 different illustrators. In addition, there is also an afterword with the author’s explanations about his work on the Polish text and his fascination with “Jabberwocky”. Wasowski also included an essay “Nonsens pełen sensu –‘Jabberwocky’” by Ewa Rajewska, and the poem translated by twelve Polish translators. As a person who appreciates wordplay and puns, Wasowski was aware of how difficult it is to convey a thought in a different language. Therefore, the main purpose of his Alice translation was to convey the idea of Carroll’s text and avoid word-for-word translation. He declared that he was trying  to render the so-called spirit of English and the  multi-genre humor contained in the original version, with the help of the richness of the Polish language.

As the translator, Wasowski considered himself a craftsman rather than a co-author. Literary scholars reviewed  the new translation to verify Wasowski’s claim [6]. Carroll’s language in Alice is characterized by simplicity, concision and homogeneity. As for the simplicity of the style, not only critics, but also the common reader who had read other Alice translations, would notice a significant difference. For example – in Chapter VII,  “A Mad Tea-Party”, the verb “said” occurs  nearly sixty times. In a translation recommended for adults, Maciej Słomczyński used only six Polish equivalents of the verb. Antoni Marianowicz, the most popular translator among children, used only thirteen Polish verbs. A similar number of Polish verbs was used by Magdalena Machay in her translation. (Her book is additionally provided with notes and footnotes so that it can be used in class.) Is G. K. Chesterton’s famous warning still valid?  “Poor, poor, little Alice! …She has not only caught and made lessons; she has been forced to inflict lessons on others” [7]

Unlike all the above-mentioned translators, Wasowski proceeded in his own way. In his version of Chapter VII, he used as many as forty-one Polish equivalents of the English word “said”, including those that have fallen out of everyday use or are considered to be pseudo-elegant. In his afterword, he admits that using only one equivalent of the verb seemed too boring to him. In addition, Wasowski replaced the standard Carroll words with his own inventions;  he created a lot of portmanteau words. Sometimes they are funny, and my favorite is dżemarańcza  for  “orange marmolade.” [8] However, most of these portmanteau words can focus the child’s attention on a new word itself  rather than on the plot of the story.

A superficial analysis shows that Wasowski’s text also does not meet the condition of brevity /concision. Sometimes he adds words that slightly change the meaning of Carroll’s sentence. Moreover, the extra activities of some characters may seem funny, but they distract the  reader’s attention from Carroll’s main ideas. The titles of the famous “A Mad Tea-Party” chapter in Polish translations usually reflects its English equivalent. Wasowski made participants of the party sneeze all the time, so his chapter title “A bzik!” ( more or less, “Achoo!” ) make sense. However, this is not the case in Carroll’s text and makes the story too wordy and lengthy. Another problem is Alice’s language. She is a well-bred girl from an affluent family, so a reader can expect her to use language appropriate to her social class. In her case, mixing sentimental vocabulary with youth slang contradicts the principle of text coherence.

One more example of Humpty Dumpty’s rule can be found in the Mouse’s story. Wasowski created a totally new scene. Carroll’s Mouse introduced its story with the announcement: ”This is the driest thing I know.” and continued with  well-known history facts; English children were familiar with William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hasting in 1066. Most Polish translators used the same English historical example of the “driest thing.” There are two exceptions – Adela S. used the similar characters and events know in Polish history.

In the second instance, Wasowski acted totally differently. He found Carroll’s version as dull as dishwater  and proposed his own amusing version. [9] He combined three real historical characters who lived over a timespan of four hundred years and a famous battle familiar to Polish school children. The Mouse in the Polish translation tells the story about Władysław Jagiełło, who was  king of Poland from 1362 to 1434, sculptor Wit Stwosz (1448-555) and historical scene painter Jan Matejko, (1838-1893). In Wasowski’s translation, they are three friends who make Matejko’s dream come true. Matejko longs to paint a large painting of a battle. Stwosz helps to hire film extras. One of the largest battles in the history of medieval Europe starts, and Matejko keeps painting it. In fact, Matejko’s famous painting is presented in school history books. It depicts the Battle of Grunwald and the victory of the allied Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania over the Teutonic Order in 1410.

Besides mixing the time, Wasowski introduced a lot of puns into the Polish Mouse story, which are impossible to render in English. The beginning of the Mouse story is exemplary:

 Silence all round please! ‘William the Conqueror, whose cause was favoured by the people…

The Polish version by Wasowski begins like this:

Proszę wszystkich o spokój, jeśli łaska! A zatem Jagiełło …”

„Ty – Giełło?” – zdumiała się Kaczka.

„Nie, ja – Mysz”

„To kto Giełło?”



“Nie, polski. Król Jagiełło Władysław. …”

However, to give the meaning in English, it would be necessary to change spelling of Polish King’s name slightly. To render the joke /pun we have to change „Ja…” – into ”I…”.

I am asking everyone to be calm, if you please!

“So Igiełło…”

“You – giełło?”

“No, I – Mouse!”

“Who’s Giełło?”

“King” (Polish word Król has a double meaning: “king” and “a big rabbit.”)

“The Angora?”

“No, Polish, Władysław Jagiełło , the king. …”

Additionally, the Polish dialogue is longer because Wasowski made the Duck keep interrupting the Mouse with irritating remarks. At the end, all animals rushed in together and tied its beak to prevent it from speaking. Contrary to the humor of Carroll’s version, Wasowski’s scene is amusing due to his puns and the anachronistic impossibility of the scene (the three friends’ lifespans did not overlap, and it is ridiculous to consider painting a battle as it happens).

A Polish reader may enjoy this scene but it has nothing in common with Carroll’s text. If the reader is familiar with other translations of Alice, he or she may have the impression that Wasowski placed too much emphasis on the potential of the Polish language, which does not quite correspond to the literary principles of translation. Unlike Carroll’s world, which is dominated by the mystery of human linguistic functioning, Wasowski’s world is dominated by comic elements. However, he stipulated that it was an unfaithful translation. After the previous eleven translations, which often provoked heated, lively discussions, Wasowski proposed a translation that surprised the reader of previous Alices. Some fans see some imperfections, but think the translation is great; they are delighted with the constant play on words, they are sure that a similar phenomenon will not happen soon.

Perhaps the very ending of Perypetie Alicji na Czarytorium symbolically distinguishes his translation from others. Wasowski added a sentence not found in Carroll’s text that changes the final scene: The older sister imagines an adult Alice telling children about her adventures. From these dreams, Big Sister is awakened by the Cheshire Cat’s voice saying, “It cannot be otherwise. We have to be near her,” and she sees its grin.

Wasowski was one of the winners of the prestigious Literatura na Świecie (World Literature) award in 2015. The text of Perypetie Alicji na Czarytorium will probably be analyzed by scholars and other future translators. Whether this version will be read by children is unknown, but any Alice collector will find it essential. (…)


  1. Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska, “Adela S. (Silberstein)?”,Teksty Drugie, April 2019, pp.180–197.

2. Prof. Tadeusz Sławek, “Lewis Carroll, Alicja w Krainie Czarów, w tłumaczeniu E. Tabakowskiej,” Experyment (, June 13, 2013.

3. Przygody Alinki w krainie cudów (Adela S.), 1910; Ala w krainie czarów (M. Morawska, A. Lange), 1927; Alicja w Krainie Czarów (A. Marianowicz), 1955; Przygody Alicji w Krainie Czarów (M. Słomczyński), 1972; Alicja w Krainie Czarów (R. Stiller), 1986; Alicja w Krainie Czarów ( J. Kozak), 1997; Przygody Alicji w Krainie Czarów (M. Machay), 2010; Alicja w Krainie Czarów (K. Dworak), 2010; Alicja w Krainie Czarów (B. Kaniewska), 2010; Alicja w Krainie Czarów (E. Tabakowska), 2012; Alicja w Krainie Czarów (T. Misiak), 2013; and a new one has been addend since: Alicja w Krainie Czarów ( J. Drewnowski), 2020.


5. A sudden or unexpected reversal of circumstances or situation, especially in a literary work.

6. Beata Piecychna, University of Białystok, “On the Hermeneutic Ontology of Language in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Its Latest Polish Retranslation,” Cross-roads: A Journal of English Studies 18 (March 2017).

7. G. K. Chesterton, “The 100th Birthday of Nonsense,” The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 24, 1932.

8. (Orange marmalade has a slightly bitter taste and is not popular in Poland. Orange trees do not grow here; we are a country of apples and strawberries.) For me, the neologism dżemarańcza (“jamorange”) from the words for jam (dżem) and orange (pomarańcza) has a sweet taste and the sunny heat of orange orchards, and at the same time a melody of jazz and Latin dances.

9. Perypetie Alicji, p.163.

“Originally published in the Knight Letter, the magazine of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, Volume III, Issue 10, Number 110, Spring 2023″