TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. März 2010

Sektion 3.3. Globalization, Transnational Literatures, and Cross-Cultural Understanding
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Atilla Silkü (Ege University, Izmir, Turkey)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Can Wordplay go beyond Borders?

Alev Balcı (Dokuz Eylül University, Izmir, Turkey) [BIO]




This paper is a part of my M.A. thesis in which I have studied the role of wordplay in literary translation (Balcı, 2005). The study focuses comparatively on processes undertaken by various translators while translating wordplay from English into Turkish. The source material for this study is the famous literary work Alice in Wonderland, since it is full of wordplay which is expertly used by its author, Lewis Carroll. The corpus covers eighteen different full translations of the selected work in the span of 70 years between 1932 and the 2000s. The purpose of this study is to display the difficulties in translating of wordplay, which result from its unique structure (having two or more meanings simultaneously) and to observe the attitude of the translators towards a text full of wordplay and their awareness of this literary form throughout different periods in the Turkish literary corpus (system). Here I would like to focus on the culture-specific wordplay rather than the linguistic ones, and on the cultural aspects which are strongly marked in the translation of Alice in Wonderland into Turkish, with examples of various idioms and names forming culture-specific wordplay. My investigation will emphasize the diversity in cultural expressions.

In his renowned work Alice in Wonderland Carroll plays with language throughout the book, which has many witty word plays that provide ingenious insights into the very nature of language, showing how language enables the creation of wordplay and why it is difficult to translate it into other languages (Weissbrod, 1996; 219).

Wordplay is a literary form in which a portrayal of a word or a phrase has several meanings, all of which can be applied. This can be achieved by the same sound with a different spelling or the same spelling with a different meaning, and that prompts readers to consciously acknowledge the differences and the similarities of the word or words. One and the same sentence can have totally different meanings. This wordplay brings an amusing yet ambiguous curve to the context of the story. Different understandings of wordplay depend on a person, time, culture, sex, background, and worldview. Cleverness and humor are components of the writing of wordplay, in which different meanings of a word make sense and are understood or at least considered. It is in the human nature to try to use humor or irony when communicating with other people, and if both parties belong to a same domain of human knowledge and experience, that will have a humorous effect on the addressee. If the receiver understands a wordplay, both s/he and the wordplayer will enjoy it; however if they do not share that same empirical background, the wordplayer may also derive different kind of pleasure from it, thinking that s/he is superior (Alexieva, 1997; 139). Therefore, wordplay can also be cruel or unpleasant as well as a source of humor. Lewis Carroll is very fond of wordplays and uses them aiming at good effects in Alice’s Adventures (

What about the function of wordplay? Wordplay obviously functions within a context and contexts are verbal or situational. When the context is verbal, wordplay is expected to be grammatically and syntactically well-formed. Also, the established language components may function contextually – as collocations, proverbs, titles, basically the phrases which are used together. On the other hand, in situational contexts wordplay functions usually in dialogue-situations and in multimedia-texts, where the visual image in punning advertisements, cartoons, or comic strips activates a secondary meaning of the accompanying verbal text. Besides these functions, wordplay can also contribute to the thematic coherence of the text, produce humor, force the addressee to pay a greater attention to it, make words more persuasive, deceive a socially conditioned reflex against sexual and other taboo themes, etc. (Delabastita, 1996; 129-130).

There are different approaches to that what should be taken as wordplay within a text. Some argue that only wordplays that are obvious and identifiable to all readers (and not too subtle to elude most) should be considered as wordplay. Many wordplays spring to the eye or the ear irresistibly, not leaving a shadow of doubt as to their intentional nature and textual relevance (Delabastita, 1997: 6). Other wordplays may have some ambiguities and verbal echoes that are too subtle for most readers to notice. Even some people who possess the most finely tuned verbal sensitivity and the most fertile associative ingenuity may miss such punning. Therefore, the criteria used to determine whether something is wordplay or not, or where the threshold is, changes according to different approaches. The traditional wordplay criticism has tended to ignore this issue by focusing on the safe cases where the wordplay is clearly signaled, and plain to be seen. On the other hand, there is the post-structuralist view that talks about a maze where anything can be considered wordplay. Post-structuralists tend to pay attention to every single word and take it to the extreme end, suspecting all the words and phrases to be wordplay. However, it is obvious that not every word in every text is empirically a multiple wordplay, or certainly not to the same extent, or in the same way, as those wordplays that do stand out clearly to a wide circle of text users (Delabastita, 1997; 6).

In this study, I will use the traditional view on wordplay,  because my focus is more on the perspective of translation studies than on that of linguistics. Evaluating all wordplays to an extreme extent would be a deliberate linguistic analysis in original language.

Wordplay Translation

Many critics consider as a genuine translation of the wordplay only that which is wordplay-to-wordplay rendition, and not what is translated by some other technique. What they miss is that wordplay-to-wordplay renderings involve noticeable translation shifts, which could be the wordplay’s formal structure, its linguistic make up, its meaning content, even its immediate contextual settings. Translators who choose an adequate translation tend to see it as a dilemma: whether they should give up the wordplay or provide a more or less free adaptation. According to Delabastita, it is a paradox that the only way to be faithful to the source text is to be unfaithful to it. He adds further that: “While it is of course true that many wordplays cannot be transposed without substantial modifications and will accordingly bring the source-oriented translator face to face with the dilemma between ‘loss’ and ‘adaptation’ of the wordplay, this is by no means always the case” (Delabastita, 1996; 135).

According to Delabastita, there are three possibilities where wordplay translation has potential to be recreated in other languages such as:

  1. between historically related languages, especially wordplay based on sound similarity, for example, between Dutch and English.
  2. Since it is rooted in extralingual reality, wordplay based on polysemy can be reduplicated with little loss even between historically unrelated languages.
  3. Interlingual borrowings common to both the target language and source language. In this case, it does not matter which type of wordplay it is, for example those European languages that borrow Latin prefixes or suffixes. These are usually used as brand names or international marketing strategy (Delabastita, 1996; 135-136).

The Difficulties in Translating Wordplays

The nature of linguistic symbols is arbitrary; therefore, it is possible to make ‘contrived’ mistakes that are plays on words. Because it is arbitrary, a word or words similar in form and sound may represent very different meanings. Nevertheless, at the same time, this arbitrariness of linguistic symbols that enables a wordplay sets a very serious obstacle for the translator in translating it into another language, especially when that language is not one that is related to the source language. Then, the translator will have to choose different and dissimilar words instead of similar ones (Weissbrod, 1996; 219).

On the other hand, it is obvious that in different countries people have different domains of experience and knowledge. In one domain a word may mean something completely different from what it does in another domain; what determines the wordplay's comic effect will depend on how closely those two domains are connected or can relate to each other (Alexieva, 1997; 138).

Wordplays are obviously a problem for translators!

Two words or phrases that mean different things but sound the same in one language generally do not sound the same in another language. Pusch argues that wordplay seldom translates adequately, and a surplus of 'untranslatable' wordplay, accompanied by copious translator's notes, defeats the aim of readability. He accepts that wordplay adds taste to the text or discourse, and one takes pleasure in reading it because it triggers unexpected connections between concepts, sounds and words in the reader, creating a sense of specialized perception and 'knowledge', even a sense of connivance with the author. Nevertheless, he thinks that the translation of wordplay is risky and in places tedious, because different languages organize their concepts, sounds and words differently (Pusch in von Flotow, 1997; 52).

However, these do not mean that it is impossible to translate wordplays. There are some literary tactics which are suggested by Weissbrod such as:

Using one of these tactics or different possibilities, an imaginative translator can often replace an untranslatable wordplay with another wordplay that conveys a similar feeling ( when there is not such a similarity found in both languages, which is often the case. If giving up a wordplay does not merely dispense with an element of aesthetic beauty or rhetorical persuasion, but actually detracts from the very semantic cohesion or narrative logic of the complete phrase or passage, then it may reasonably be assumed that for many translators this is going to be a serious factor to be given some priority (de Vries & Verheij, 1997; 90).

The domains could raise other difficulties as different cultures have different domains of worldview, knowledge, perception, and experience. What is familiar to one culture may not be familiar to another culture. Alexieva refers to this as the degree of embeddedness in the culture. If an example from Alice in Wonderland were to be taken, the best example would be the lines from the famous rhymes transformed into Alice's context:

Twinkle twinkle little bat!
How I wonder what you are at!
Up above the world you fly,
Like a tea-tray in the sky. (Carroll, 1993: 74)

In the Turkish domain, the translating of the song literally would not recall anything, let alone its changed version. However, any child from the British culture would recognize the song and its similarity to the original one, which is:

Twinkle twinkle, little star!
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky. (Jane Taylor)

The humorous effect of Carroll's poem derives from the clash between all the above-mentioned domains, i.e. the domain of celestial bodies that illuminate the sky and hence, the domain of things that deserve our attention, on the one hand, and the domain of ugly and unpleasant things (bats), on the other, mediated in a strange and baffling way by the TEA-PARTY domain (the tea-tray). Insufficient awareness of all this on the part of some translators of Alice in Wonderland may explain why their renditions of the little poem are sorely inadequate. Most of them have chosen to use the following popular Turkish children's song about the little frog:

Küçük kurbağa, küçük kurbağa
Kuyruğun nerede?
Kuyruğum yok, kuyruğum yok,
Yüzerim derede.

(Literally: Little frog, little frog / your tail is where? / no tail I have, no tail I have / I swim in the stream.).
They mostly transformed it into küçük yarasa (little bat), actually without any indication of the same domain or any connection to what was said in the text. For example, one version runs as:

Küçük Yarasa, küçük Yarasa uçarsın nereye?
Gökyüzüne gökyüzüne
kanat vurup uçarsın hep
Işığın yok, ışığın yok...(Andaç, 1983; 70)

(Literally: Little Bat, Little Bat, you fly where?/ To the sky to the sky, beating wings you fly all the time/ Light you don't have, Light you don't have... )

Clearly, there is no mention of 'tea', 'tea-party' or 'tea-tray' in the adaptation of this little poem. Therefore, the startling effect is lost, and neither the domain of the source text nor the domain of anything in the translation is rendered.

It is more important for a translator to study the internal structuring of a domain and more specifically, the prominence of the contrasted components, than to be solely preoccupied with the meanings of isolated words. And if the inner structure of domains is what matters, the translator may even consider restoring to a substitution of a whole domain (Alexieva, 1997; 149).

Alongside of these domains, there are so many other elements in a source text that would defamiliarize the target reader, because of different cultural and historical backgrounds. The more the cultures differ from each other, the bigger is the gap between them. What is the basis of such a cultural difference? There is the assumption that every telling is a retelling, and every writing is a rewriting. Everything that is told or written refers back to some previous telling or writing, all the way to myths and legends in the literary or political history of certain culture. They all bear traces of the preceding works or narrations, which are especially significant in oral literature. Therefore, all written or oral texts are the units accumulated together with what a specific author or a teller puts in them. According to Tymoczko, they all have a metonymic characteristic. She defines metonymy as “a figure of speech in which an attribute or an aspect of an entity substitutes for the entity or in which a part substitutes for the whole” (Tymoczko, 1999; 42).

For example, references to significant places or key historical events or kinship patterns can serve to locate a literary work within a larger context of time, space, and social structure, thus evoking those larger cultural contexts. In this regard, such cultural elements within a literary work are metonymic evocations of the culture as a whole, including its material culture, history, economy, law, customs, values, and so on. Metonymic structures within literary texts are, therefore, densely woven, referring to various aspects of the literary system and to other cultural systems alike (Tymoczko, 1999; 45).

As for translation, it is beyond rewriting or retelling of something, but more like creating a new story while rewriting the text. Tymoczko deals with the question of how a translator is to translate such works which are unfamiliar and foreign to the target reader. The more remote the source culture and literature is, the more radically new the story will be for the receiving audience (Tymoczko, 1999; 42). So, the poem given above is an example of how some parts of a source text belong to the traditional literature and how the author rewrites them. From that point, it is clear that this already rewritten poem is either to be recreated or literally translated; in both cases the translation will be metonymic, i.e. partial but never total or complete, capturing every aspect of the source text (Tymoczko, 1999; 54-55, also Catford and Venuti ibid).

Loss of Wordplays in Translation

I would like to briefly mention this issue. Gottlieb lists three reasons why there may be a loss in wordplay translation:

The first one concerns the language-specific constraints that indicate the presence of 'untranslatable' elements in the original, which fail to have linguistic counterparts in the target language. The wordplays especially formed through a homophony could be a good example for the language-specific constraints. Homophony is considered as too language-specific to be retained in translation, and some languages may even offer more cases of homophony than others (Gottlieb, 1997; 217). An example from Alice in Wonderland is Tail and tale. Now there are two totally different sounding words (masal- kuyruk) to be rendered in one. In this case, the wordplay is lost.

The second point that Gottlieb mentions is about the media-specific constraints. That is related to the type of language transfer which is used, here the children's literature. Alice in Wonderland has usually been translated for children while the translator has to consider the language-level children might use and the conventions in children's literature. The target reader is limiting the words or the solutions the translator may choose or use as the reader will not pay attention to the substituting elements such as inserted explanations or compensatory replacements; thus, the wordplay may go unnoticed. 

The last constraint that Gottlieb lists is about human competence. He agrees that the human factor is crucial in any artistic endeavor as well as in the forming of wordplay. There are limits to the performance of the translator. He does not mean to judge personally anyone, but he means to highlight the scope of more or less dubious man-made decisions. Usually, it depends on the creativity of the translator as well as on her/his competence how much of certain wordplay could be rendered into the target language. Sometimes even very small replacements with a little creative effort may awake the same effect as the original wordplay on the target group which usually consists of children who have a simple but an imaginative understanding of the world (Gottlieb, 1997; 218-221).   

Concerning the source and the target text under the study, it is not only the linguistic dissimilarities (such as structural differences in Turkish and English) that set an obstacle, but there are also differences in the domains and metonymies of the two cultures. The book is full of culture-specific elements such as idioms, historic names, poems, references to a specific system in the country. There are many metonymies referring to British history, literature and myths.



Going back to the initial question, I would say that it is possible for wordplay to go beyond borders – but just like an expatriate who is able to live in a foreign culture. S/he goes beyond the borders, but leaves a part of her/him behind in the hometown. This person may well adopt another culture, but s/he would still bear some foreignness, and the degree of adoption would depend on various factors, such as her/his relationship with its receptive culture (target culture), and specific characteristics of that person. To my opinion, the translation of wordplay is very similar to that. Wordplay changes its form in one way or another, and the degree of change varies; it depends on the characteristics of that person/wordplay and the context/the target culture it is transferred into.


Selected Bibliography

Bibliography of the selected corpus:*



* The book titles are given as they are on the book covers

3.3. Globalization, Transnational Literatures, and Cross-Cultural Understanding

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups| Groupes de sections

TRANS   Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  17 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Alev Balcı: Can Wordplay go beyond Borders? - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

Webmeister: Gerald Mach     last change: 2010-03-17