Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Hans Christian Andersen and Translation

At the Nordic Translation Conference last month, our featured Danish author was Stig Dalager, who read from his novel Journey in Blue. This novel is about Hans Christian Andersen, who is, of course, most famous for his fairy tales. Mr. Dalager’s novel did not exactly make Andersen seem like the kind of man I’d want to be friends with, but I did enjoy learning about the person behind “The Little Mermaid” and other such works.

So I found it interesting to read about Andersen in today’s
Writer’s Almanac, especially because the information includes a brief discussion of translation, and how translation affected our pereception of his work.

Here is a long quote:

It's the birthday of the author of many of our best-known fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen, born in Odense, Denmark (1805). His mother was an uneducated washerwoman and his father was a shoemaker who died when Hans was 11 years old. He grew up in poverty.

At the age of 14, he moved to Copenhagen to start a career as a singer, dancer, and actor. He knocked on doors of famous producers and directors, introducing himself as a poet and a playwright. Finally, he landed a spot in the Royal Theatre singing school and later the Royal Theatre ballet. The director of the theater saw that Andersen was a talented child and paid for him to go to grammar school when he was 17. There he studied with 10- and 11-year-olds and made up for his lack of an education as a younger child. He had a beautiful soprano voice, but had to leave the Royal Theatre school after his voice began to change.

He was extremely neurotic. One of his fears was that he would be buried alive, and to reassure himself each night he would prop a note next to his bed that read, "I only appear to be dead."

Andersen finished his first novel, The Improvisatore, in 1835. He was waiting for it to be published and he desperately needed money for rent, so he quickly wrote and published a pamphlet containing four fairy tales. It was such a big success that he published a new collection of fairy tales every Christmas for the next few years. They were cheap paperback editions, and they grew to be extremely popular. He started off by retelling the stories he had heard from his parents as a child, but then he began making up his own. Between 1835 and 1872, he published 168 fairy tales, including "The Little Mermaid," "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Snow Queen," "Princess and the Pea," and "The Nightingale" and "The Ugly Duckling."

People often think of Andersen's fairy tales as light-hearted and optimistic, but he wrote many tragic tales with unhappy endings. The first English translations of the tales were done by a woman who deleted disturbing passages and made them more sentimental than Andersen intended. Many children today only know the fairy tales through cartoon movie spin-offs or simplified versions in children's picture books.


Sarah Alys said...

I listened to that on NPR in the car this morning because I happened to be on the road at the right time! What a small world it is. ^o^

I can undertand the instinct of, "The story would be so much better if only...", but I can't really understand or condone a translator acting upon that instinct. In my workplace I was once asked to "put jokes into this during translation to make it more funny," and I had to actually explain that that's not the duty of a translator (in fact it directly contradicts the duty of a translator). I'm still not sure that person understood me, but luckily at least one or two others in the room did.

Nicholas said...

Read all about it in:

Pedersen, Viggo Hjørnager. 2004. "Ugly Ducklings? Studies in the English Translations of Hans Christian Andersen's Tales & Stories". Odense: University of Southern Denmark Press.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thanks for your comments!
Yes, sometimes clients that we translators *should* take more liberties (usually to improve their texts) and sometimes they complain about it!
Nicholas, do you think that book you recommended is a good read?

Best wishes,