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Hans Christian Andersen in English. A Feasibility Study I
The intention in the following is to examine certain problems associated with the translation of H. C. Andersen into any language, but more particularly those surrounding translation into English. Consideration will be given to three quite disparate areas, with emphasis on one more than on the other two. In fact, the paper could quite well be entitled: H. C. Andersen - the myth, the style and the cultural gap.
Few books can have been written on H. C. Andersen that do not quote the first paragraph of Mit Livs Eventyr , beginning with the clear statement that: "Mit Liv er et smukt Eventyr, saa rigt og lyksaligt", and ending with the equally unambiguous: "Mit Livs Historie vil sige Verden hvad den siger mig: der er en kjærlig Gud, der fører Alt til det Bedste". Outside the tales themselves, this is surely the most famous passage in all Andersen. The text is from 1855 and is basically a repetition of what Andersen had written in Mit eget Eventyr uden Digtning in 1847 at the age, then, of 42. If we look back to the early Levnedsbogen from c. 1832, the suggestion that his life had been a fairy tale is absent, though the idea of a divine providence guiding and looking after him is quite unmistakable. At the age of 27, he was after all not quite prepared to sum up his life; the more surprising, perhaps, that he should have been prepared to do so only some ten or twelve years later.
In writing as he did in Mit eget Eventyr uden Digtning and Mit Livs Eventyr , Andersen was in fact laying the foundation of a myth , a myth generally acknowledged as deriving ultimately from Oehlenschläger's Romantic philosophy as formulated in Aladdin , and one which either fashioned Andersen's own life, or which, by hindsight, he saw as having fashioned it. It is not detracting from him to argue that he was, or became, an adept at selling himself, and one of the means by which he chose to do so was by creating the mythical figure which he so clearly sets about presenting in his major autobiographies.
In his book Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries , the distinguished ethnographer and historian of religions, Mircea Eliade, argues that even in an increasingly secular world, modern man cannot survive without creating myths, although he may not be aware of doing so, and he goes on to talk of "a very general human tendency; namely, to hold up one life-history as a paradigm and turn a historical personage into an archetype". 1 l The specific example he names in this respect is Goethe: "highly conscious of a mission to lead a life that would be examplary for the rest of humanity", 2 but he could equally well have taken H. C. Andersen, even if Andersen sought to have a different archetypal significance. Andersen was surely not, like Goethe, seeking to lead a life that would be "exemplary for the rest of humanity", but he was without doubt seeking to project himself as no less than a fairy tale figure in the flesh, and his other argument that one has to go through "saa gruelig meget ondt" before things finally come right, not only sums up the central theme of many of his own stories, but it is itself one of the archetypal myths, the conflict between good and evil and the final triumph of good. Indeed, one can go further and even see Andersen's autobiography - "Dichtung und Wahrheit" as it is - as a long novel, not all that far from what one today would call a documentary novel. Let me again quote Mircea Eliade on the novel, still in the light of the myth:
Let us ... recall the fact that the mythical archetypes survive to some degree in the great modern novels. The difficulties and trials that the novelist's hero has to pass through are prefigured in the adventures of the mythic heroes. It has been possible also to show how the mythic themes of the primordial waters, of the isles of Paradise, of the quest of the Holy Grail, of heroic and mystical initiation, etc., still dominate modern European literature ... As for the literature of the bookstalls, its mythological character is obvious. Every popular novel has to present the exemplary struggle between Good and Evil, the hero and the villain (modern incarnation of the Demon), and repeat one of those universal motives of folklore, the persecuted young woman, salvation by love, the unknown protector, etc. 3
It is remarkable how much of this can be applied to Andersen, either Andersen the person, or Andersen the writer. Danny Kaye showed many years ago only too clearly how his life can be turned into a "bookstall novel". More the pity, we might say - but then, one has to ask the question of the extent to which Andersen himself was responsible for this. He did seek to create a myth, and it was a myth that could be exploited, and it is a myth that has been exploited. However, to a very great extent, it is the myth of the children's writer, of the poet surrounded by children (he certainly had his reservations about sculptures depicting him in this situation, but, as we shall see, he was largely responsible for creating it, and he could then scarcely stop it even if he had so desired). And it is the sentimental tale of the poor boy who ended by becoming the friend and constant guest of aristocrats and princes - whereby the romantics can see their romantic notions vindicated and the curious their desire to have an insight into the ways of the great and mighty satisfied. Of course, the criticism is likely to be made to this myth thesis that the story is true. So it is, but, although Andersen was perhaps the extreme example of this kind of career, there were others who came from lowly circumstances and rose to considerable if not quite such dizzying heights - but where is the myth surrounding them? If we take another parallel, there are countless modern "myths" - footballers, pop stars, film stars, singers - whose more or less true selves have been turned into a myth, and the myth is then accepted as reality. In the nineteenth century popular idols were of a different kind, and writers were among those around whom myths of this kind were created. As is well known, Andersen relished this, and he went to great lengths to perpetuate the legend. Let me give you a single example from the many, the scene he paints on his visit to Mary Howitt's home in Clapton, when she, together with Andersen paid a visit to an elderly lady in, accordingly to Mary Howitt's autobiography, Highgate:
Endelig naaede vi da til den gamle Frøken, der nok var literair; midt paa Græsplainen foran Huset legede en Mængde Børn, det saae ud som en heel Skole eller Pensionsanstalt, de dandsede rundt om en stor Bøg midt paa Marken og havde Alle Krandse af Bøg eller Epheu om Hovedet. De sang og sprang. Man kaldte dem hen til mig, sagde dem, at jeg var den Hans Christian Andersen , der havde skrevet Eventyrene, som de kjendte, og de trængte dem Alle omkring mig og rakte mig Haanden; sprang og sang saa igjen paa den grønne Mark. 4
The account continues in slightly less lively fashion, telling of how Andersen then met other (unnamed) writers, in whom he appears not to be particularly interested, and how he finally was so overcome by heat that he had to retire to a room on his own. This is the archetypal situation - a delighted Andersen surrounded by and feted by children , the Andersen of the nursery.
Perhaps, one day, a study will be made of the perpetuation of the Andersen myth post -Andersen. At some stage he must surely have been taken over by the image makers, who have sought to exploit the self-created idyl and extend it to incorporate Denmark (the Danish spirit) within it. Certainly for the past forty years he has been projected as the essence of Danishness. And it must be admitted that the industry has been a huge success, as the tourist trade and the well-worn path to the Little Mermaid will no doubt testify.
The sum total of Andersen's creation of the Andersen myth and the subsequent exploitation of it by others is that Andersen is now irrevocably the writer of fairy tales in the popular mind - I really want to say the writer of children 's fairy tales, because, despite the literary fairy tales of the nineteenth century, the fairy tale is still in Britain thought of almost exclusively as a genre for children. The tradition of the "Kunstmärchen" which made the fairy tale an accepted adult art form in nineteenth-century Germany, was never really part of the British literary scene, even if Oscar Wilde did play around with it. In Britain, the fairy tale was, and has remained, for children. The Danes are inclined to have a rather different perspective. Thanks to the close links with German Romanticism, the "kunsteventyr" is accepted as an adult literary genre, thus providing a firmer foundation for Andersen's acceptance as a "serious" writer. The combination of the myth and the general status of the fairy tale provide part of the reason for his not being seen as such in Britain. Andersen and his later myth-makers have boxed him in. He is, and remains, as one English "study" of Andersen has it: "The Mermaid Man". He is the originator of the ugly duckling, the fir tree, the staunch tin soldier and a few more - but it is difficult in England to find anyone who has read "Dyndkongens Datter", "Vinden fortæller om Valdemar Daae og hans Døttre", "Det gamle Egetræes sidste Drøm", or others of the late, less immediately accessible stories. More the pity, for if this barrier could be broken through, a different perception of Andersen might be created.
As readers of Elias Bredsdorff's H. C. Andersen og England will discover, Andersen's reputation in England was not originally centred on the stories. Improvisatoren appeared in Mary Howitt's translation (from German) in 1844-45, followed, in the same year, by Kun en Spillemand and O.T. They were given a generally favourable reception, though one could scarcely talk of uncritically enthusiastic reviews, and some of the objections raised were more significant for Andersen's subsequent reputation than could possibly have been realised at the time. The Spectator , for instance, having adopted a generally positive line on Kun en Spillemand , adds: "The laxity of its moral tone is ... not quite as well fitted to English readers". The same periodical is also critical of O.T. , which it rather curiously sees as continuing the tradition of Fredrika Bremer in painting "Northern traits of behaviour and housekeeping". The Examiner follows a similar pattern, emphasising the pictures of domestic life in Denmark contained in O.T. , and seeing Andersen's novels in general as: "less romances than expositions of feeling, developments of character, and delineations of manner, customs, and localities". This, too, corrresponds to what The Spectator says, as it rather condescendingly puts Andersen in his place: "The source of interest, too, is false, or rather absurd; adopted by second-rate geniuses in an early stage of a nation's literature ...". What lies behind both these comments, and others of a similar nature, is an accusation of parochialism combined with "second-rate genius". That remains the view of Andersen's novels for many years to come, and words such as "commonplace", "extravagant", "dull", "wearisome" and even "trash" are used of him, though The Times does point out somewhere or other that there are many interesting passages "descriptive of Danish scenery, manners, and superstitions" scattered about in Andersen's novels. 5 Put in slightly different terms, these reviews are not very far from what might be said of Andersen's novels today: he was not a great novelist. But what also lies behind all reviews of Andersen in the 1840s is the acceptance of him as a writer for adults, whether good or bad.
That changed in 1846, with the publication of the first tales. Andersen's own title of Eventyr , whether fortalte for Børn or not, was transformed and given a series of far more sentimental, sugary titles which put him firmly in the category of Victorian children's writing: Wonderful Stories for Children , A Danish Story Book, Danish Fairy Tales and Legends, Tales for the Young - all these titles were hung on to Andersen's stories within a period af about eighteen month. What has come since is often little better: Fairy Tales from Andersen and Grimm. Retold in words chiefly of one syllable , or The Best Stories of Hans Andersen. Translated from the Italian . One might well ask why the original divergence of titles arose. One of the reasons seems to be the very translation of the Danish word "eventyr" - by the English "fairy tale", which has a totally different resonance. ODS gives the following definition: "fortælling om mærkelige eller vidunderlige begivenheder; (kortere) mere fantasifuld fortælling, hvis emne ligger uden for det dagligdags eller virkelige". This can clearly be applied to Andersen's work. But what does the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary say of "fairy tales"?: "A tale about fairies"! And how does it define "fairies"? As: "The inhabitants of fairy-land collectively" and "One of a class of supernatural beings of diminutive size, popularly supposed to have magical powers, and to meddle for good or evil in the affairs of man". There are few creatures in Andersen's stories corresponding to this description, but the stories have inevitably been incorporated in England into this broad genre. And it is the wrong place for them! It seems that the myth Andersen created about himself, and which was perpetuated by others, has, in England at least, locked him affectionately but firmly in the nursery.
At a meeting held in London some ten years ago to discuss the problems faced by foreign - in this case: Finnish - authors seeking to establish themselves in Britain, the Director of London University's School of Slavonic and East European Studies, Professor Michael Branch, discussed the position sought by foreign authors and that actually attained by most of them. His view was that a very small number of them see their work established as what he called "adopted literature". By this he was thinking of the non-native writer who has become so familiar to and accepted by the reading public that no one any longer really thinks of him or her as being "foreign". Professor Branch found only one Finn in this category in Britain - ironically enough in this present context, that Finn, Tove Jansson, is also a children's writer, like Andersen with clear but often unrecognised adult overtones - and her work is likewise the domain of the child reader, even if the Moomintroll books are never referred to as fairy tales. Few British readers are aware of the existence of novels and short stories by Tove Jansson aimed solely at an adult audience. In other words, Tove Jansson, like H. C. Andersen has achieved the status of "adopted" author - but also like Andersen, she has become adopted solely as a children's writer. No myth appears to have been established in the case of Tove Jansson, but the reading public has created its own image of her surrealist fantasies, and the fact that this image is only partially valid seems to have no effect. There it is, and there it remains - and the same applies to Andersen. Adopted - yes, to the extent that a very large percentage of his readers are only dimly aware that he is not English, and fewer still have any idea that he is a Dane, but there is very little interest in his serious literary qualities.
A writer of children's books, particularly one who was a potential best-seller, and particularly at a time when there were no copyright restrictions, was in the nineteenth century subject to completely different rules from what would apply to any author today. In particular, of course, he was subject to what we might term moral revision. As indicated above, even Andersen's novels were criticised for "moral laxity", and that "laxity" was felt to be far greater in the tales which, when all was said and done, were intended for much more impressionable minds. Victorian moral values were now forced upon this poor author who himself had been forced into the nursery, and anything likely to raise the slightest childish eyebrow or to embarrass the parent whom Andersen envisaged as looking over the infant shoulder was swiftly removed. Both Elias Bredsdorff and Viggo Hjørnager Pedersen have pointed to the effects of Victorian sensitivity on English versions of the tales, and Dr. Bredsdorff in particular has listed many of the most glaring examples of changes effect. Both have also underlined the fact that the Victorians took quite literally the phrase "told for children", working on the assumption that they knew what was suitable for children, and adapting Andersen accordingly. However, the English Victorians were not the only 19th century group to be sensitive to what they saw as the dubious moral implications in Andersen's tales, as is evident even in some early Danish reviews of his work. A review in the Danish periodical Dannora of the first volume is every bit as morally disapproving as any of the English Victorians:
Om endog Anmelderen Intet har imod gode Eventyr for Voxne, kan han dog ikke Andet, end finde denne Digtart aldeles uhensigtsmæssig, naar det gjælder Læsning for Børn ... Den, der vil give Børn Noget at læse, bør dog vel, i det mindste lønligen, have et høiere Formaal dermed, end blot at more dem. 6
The reviewer goes on to complain that there is no moral enlightenment to be had in "Fyrtøiet", "Lille Claus og Store Claus", or "Prindsessen paa Ærten":
I det mindste vil vist ingen paastaae, at Barnets Takt for Sømmelighed skærpes, naar det læser om en Prindsesse, der sovende rider paa en Hunds Ryg, hen til en Soldat, som kysser hende, hvorefter hun selv, lysvaagen, fortæller denne smukke Tildragelse, som - "en underlig Drøm".
- after which he goes on to a moral condemnation of the implications he detects in "Lille Claus og Store Claus", and takes umbrage at the indelicacy of "Prindsessen paa Ærten".
The Victorians, of course, removed offending passages, or twisted them until they became vehicles for their own ideology. It has, nevertheless, been one thing to doctor Andersen in translation, but quite another to doctor him in the original, and to a large extent Denmark has happily been able to retain the genuine texts, even in children's editions. (Though nowadays there are exceptions to this rule!) The possible moral implications are less likely to concern a twentieth-century parent - but in many respects the damage has been done, and cannot now easily be undone. The garbled translations exist, and they have continued to be used either for financial reasons or from petty convenience.
The problem of translating Andersen is, of course, far more complex than keeping an eye on possible moral implications, and the question remains as to why the job was originally done so badly - and why, in many instances, it still is. Notoriously, if incorrectly, uninterested in style, children could be presented with tales in which all stylistic pretension had been eschewed. And in any case, many of the translators knew no Danish and had to make do with earlier German versions (the quality of which might also have been in doubt). This is how Bo Grønbech (in a book containing a frontispiece spelling the author's name Anderson!) comments on this:
Some (English) translators used the German text, others tried their best with the original Danish, but their command of the language was not sufficient. They committed a variety of blunders and converted Andersen's elegant Danish into a clumsy English. Later translators did little better. Some attempted to convert Andersen's consciously negligent narrative style into something more formally correct; others expanded the short precise sentences with explanatory additions ... Few translators, apparently understood the subtle refinement of Andersen's style.
The tendency towards childishness dominated and was responsible for the general literary fate of Andersen's works. The interest in his novels soon died in England and America, while the fairy tales lived on but, regrettably, only as reading matter for children. 7
Grønbech goes on to argue that Andersen has stayed in the nursery and been translated accordingly, with spurious translations being reprinted as adaptations for young people or "stories retold for ...". And he then comments:
The consequence of this has been that the enormous reading public in the Anglo-Saxon countries does not know Andersen's fairy tales; instead, readers have been supplied with a number of children's stories composed by hack writers who have stolen what they wanted from the Danish author. That the tales when they left Andersen's hand had been distinctive literary masterpieces is something that the reader has no chance of finding out. 8
Caroline Peachy's English version (based on a German translation) is not only well established as a "classic" English version, but it is, among cognoscenti, renowned as one of the very worst. Mary Howitt, another of Andersen's early enthusiasts, knew little Danish, either, and her translations bear ample witness to this. When, in 1954, I was asked to revise the Howitt version of Mit Livs Eventyr , I altered so much that the publishers quickly abandoned the project and asked me to do a completely fresh version. Which has not prevented the Howitt version from being republished since! However, the fact that many of the early translations were done by people whose knowledge of Danish was limited scarcely offers a sufficient explanation. Perhaps Erling Nielsen, in his commentary on the second collection of Eventyr fortalte for Børn (1835) provides a clue to the real reason. He recapitulates and quotes from the review which Dansk Litteratur-Tidende , 6.1.1836, published of this volume and Christian Molbech's Julegave for Børn, 1835. In the reviewer's eyes the Molbech publication has both linguistically and morally "et ikke ubetydeligt Fortrin". Erling Nielsen's comment is as follows:
Anmelderen går ud fra, at børnene selv skal stave sig gennem hæfterne. (Samme fejltagelse gør P. L. Møller sig også skyldig i, når han polemisk mod Dannora-kritikken skriver, at eventyrene bl.a. har den nytte, at barnet lærer at læse, ja, at hans lillebror ligefrem kan opmuntre faderen ved at læse "Prindsessen paa Ærten" for ham). Andersens tanke, at den voksne skal fortælle/læse eventyrene højt for børnene er ikke faldet ham ind. Men selve fordømmelsen af fortællemåden er et bevis på, hvor revolutionerende ny Andersens stil forekom samtiden. 9
If the Danish public, even the professional judges of literature at the time, did not realise what Andersen was trying to do, how much more unlikely it was that translators and foreign reviewers would recognise the novelty of his approach. Consequently, there has been a distinct and quite consistent tendency among serious translators into English to turn Andersen's orally inspired prose into formal literary style. He has been translated on premises which simply did not apply, but which were those of English literary tradition. If we look at three of the most famous English books for children (all of them later than Andersen, but like his stories written with an eye to the grown-ups, too), we shall see that they are written in literary prose and are not first and foremost intended for reading aloud - even if one of them is admirably suited to this. The works I am thinking of are Lewis Caroll's Alice in Wonderland (1865), Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908) and A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh (1926-28). In all of them I think it fair to say a modified literary style is retained for the narrative, and that it is only the dialogue which diverges from this. The same is not true of Andersen's stories, but it is largely this principle on which they have been translated. So, as the revolutionary novelty of Andersen's approach went unnoticed in the Britain of the 19th century, he was translated on the wrong premise - and ended in the nursery. That more recent translators have approached him in a different and more enlightened manner has resulted in far better translations, but the image had already been created, and it has proved difficult to change it.
The point could be made here, of course, that although there are now good translations of Andersen, they are not always easy to come by, and there is a tendency for them to go out of print. Here I think especially of Reginald Spink's excellent version in the Everyman Library, sadly no longer available. Random visits to bookshops regularly fail to produce the good versions, though the distinctively bad translations are easy enough to come by. The same applies to libraries, where Andersen stands side by side with Enid Blyton - and, on the strength of some of the versions, that is not so terribly surprising! The inevitable conclusion is that even the "good" translations have failed to put Andersen among "serious" authors in England.
Grønbech makes two significant comments on Andersen's style in the quotations above. It is, he says, "distinctive" and it is "consciously negligent". These two form a difficult combination for any translator - most of whom will be wary of producing a "consciously negligent" version in case it is thought of simply as "negligent". And as for the distinctiveness - it tends to be swallowed up and regurgitated as a rather more "literary" style.
This is not the place to embark on a detailed discussion of Andersen's style and the problems it raises for the translator. It is, however, perhaps worth emphasising the extent to which Andersen has created his own range of favourite expressions which, in the manner of some symbolists, have gradually assumed a life and depth of their own quite distinct from their normal usage. One could well call them linguistic Leitmotifs , a technique sometimes adopted in a single work by other authors, but seldom, if ever, running so consistently through the varied works of many decades. They are often quite ordinary words, but, subjected to the constant use to which Andersen puts them, they are no longer ordinary - and they can certainly not repeatedly be translated by the same everyday word in other languages.
One Anker Jensen published a book in 1929 entitled Studier over H. C. Andersens Sprog , in which he lists a large number of the words and expressions which Andersen most commonly used. This is what he has to say of "dejlig":
Hvorhen vi end vender os i Eventyrenes Verden, møder vi dette Adjektiv, der kaster et gyldent Solstrejf over den hele Natur. Vi ser: deilige Blomster/deilige Roser; ja, om Fandens Mælkebøtter: hvor forunderlig deilig Vor Herre har skabt den! ... den er nu saa uendelig deilig for Alle (Der er Forskjel); de deiligste grønne og blaae Vindruer; et deiligt Grønsvær; den deilige Have ... med de mange Blomster; et deiligt Foraar med Blomster og Grønt. Og hvem husker ikke den straalende Begyndelse: Der var saa deiligt ude paa Landet. 10
Anker Jensen then goes on to list many other words, of which perhaps "nydelig" and "velsignet" stand out, closely followed by "Inderlighed", "kjær" (det kjære Holsteinborg; den kjære Stad Oldenborg; den kjære Ingemann; det kjære Hjem), "genial", "ædel", "hjærtelig", "elskværdig". These are all words which are or can be immediately associated with Andersen, who in certain cases has clearly stretched their normal usage and endowed them with a meaning superior to that normally ascribed to them, putting himself in the class of linguistic innovators of whom the earlier Adam Oehlenschläger and the later Johannes V. Jensen are the other outstanding examples. Like them, Andersen has in fact not only created his own style, he has created his own language. In his case, however, it is the insignificant words which often grow above their status or which are endowed with an unaccustomed lyrical intensity. Although he was scarcely thinking of Andersen when he wrote his eulogy of the Danish language, Søren Kierkegaard was unwittingly describing a language with many of the characteristics of what Andersen was writing:
... et Modersmaal, der ikke puster og lyder anstrænget, naar det staaer for det Uudsigelige, men sysler dermed i Spøg og i Alvor indtil det er udsagt; et Sprog, der ikke finder langt borte, hvad der ligger nær, eller søger dybt nede, hvad der er lige ved Haanden, fordi det i lykkeligt Forhold til Gjenstanden gaaer ud og ind som en Alf, og bringer den for Dagen som et Barn den lykkelige Bemærkning, uden ret at vide af det; ... et Sprog, der ... har en yndig, en tækkelig, en livsalig Forkjærlighed for Mellemtanken og Bibegrebet og Tillægsordet, og Stemningens Smaasnakken, og Overgangens Nynnen, og Bøiningens Inderlighed og den dulgte Velværens forborgne Frodighed ... 11
How can this possibly be recaptured in foreign versions? How does one translate "velsignet" or "inderlig"? And how can a translator possibly hope to expand or transform the language in the way that Andersen with his intuitive understanding of the potential of Danish clearly has done? Scarcely anyone has been foolhardy enough even to attempt this, and Andersen's quite consistent and conscious use of specific words is not emulated in even the best versions.
It is one of the great paradoxes that a writer who was a stylistic genius, one of Denmark's outstanding innovators, should have been treated in such a cavalier fashion by his early translators and their later derivatives, and be virtually neglected as a distinctive creative writer deserving of international attention. That he has his countless readers cannot be denied - but those very readers scarcely know what they are missing!
Finally, it is worth considering briefly what might be termed the cultural problems associated with the translation of Andersen. It was suggested at the outset that the myth-making industry had consorted to present Andersen as the epitome of Danishness. To some extent this is true, not only by dint of his linguistic skill, but in the ethos and the closeness in many ways to the Danish reality of his day. Whatever else his stories are, many are intimately connected with nineteenth-century Denmark, often, more specifically, nineteenth-century Copenhagen. In keeping with his Romantic-Realist contemporaries, Andersen was keen to set many of his stories against a realistic background, and they are thus filled with concepts and landmarks which were immediately familiar to the readers of his day - and which will often be equally well-known to Danish readers today, though this is by no means certain. Leif Ludwig Albertsen, for instance, has suggested that depositing the famous pea in the Kunstkammer was, in fact, a way of hiding it, as the Kunstkammer was no longer open to the public when Andersen wrote his story. It had actually been closed since 1821.
Ingen interesserede sig mere for kongens gamle raritetskabinet, og de illustrationer er misvisende, der viser en nysgerrig mængde betragte den lille ært. Ingen interesserer sig for den eller for, om den er der endnu. 12
One assumes that readers in 1835 were aware of this and that at least some of them would appreciate the irony. But there are probably few readers today, even in Denmark, who understand it. They will scarcely miss it, though it could be argued that that little bit of extra knowledge does add a little to the story. The same story contains what I think is a similar instance of an ironical remark not being understood. For what is the true significance of the twenty edderdunsdyner on which the princess is to lie? The English translation is almost inevitably "eiderdown", which philologically speaking is correct. But how different the image is to an English reader, who will see decorative squat English eiderdowns made of quilted kapok, to that occurring to a Danish reader. But does even the modern Danish reader really understand the subtlety? Andersen specifically says edderduns dyner - in other words the most expensive that money can buy. A dyne made of real eiderdown these days - supposing you can find one - will cost about 15.000 kroner. Just think of luxury and immeasurable comfort Andersen is here suggesting - and think how rarely that suggestion is now appreciated. Perhaps the child - and even the parents looking over his shoulder - absorb all this without question. Perhaps the questions only occur to literary historians - and translators.
But on a slightly different level, it must be asked what the translator of today is to do with "Lykkens Kalosker" with its references to Østergade, Frederiks Hospital, Højbroplads and Nytorv, not to mention the fun surrounding the Justitsraad's effort to make his way to Torvegade in Christianshavn and the total lack of understanding in this connection that he meets from the medieval ferryman. Then there are the specific mention of Ørsted and the oblique references to Kierkegaard - and what is one to make of the Holbergian reference in "BedemandsStiil". These are all either landmarks or figures or concepts immediately identifiable by a nineteenth-century Danish reader, part of the everyday surroundings in Copenhagen then, as are the topographical references now, even if Frederiks Hospital has changed its name. There is no way of transferring them to a translation and making it equally accessible; perhaps they must merely be seen as a little exotic addition to the story. The familiarity of the surroundings is perhaps not of central importance, for this is an "eventyr" - but nevertheless, the associations arising from it are inevitably lost.
Or how is one to tackle the much more important reference in "Fyrtøiet" to Rundetårn? Perhaps it is possible to produce renderings of a sort, but any version is bound to have lost either the significance or the feel of the original. "Eyes like round towers" is a way out, leaving the exact kind of round towers to the childish imagination - but the precision and the presupposed familiarity are no longer there. "Like the Round Tower in Copenhagen" is an attempt to keep the precise topography - but it is only successful in theory. Even the description of the children's home (which Andersen explicitly says reflects his own childhood home) in "Sneedronningen" is very much the description of a Danish house and garden - though here it is clear that the foreign imagination will implant a different picture on it.
We return to the question implied in the original title. Can Andersen be translated? Of course he can, but he loses an enormous amount in the process: in particular the style and the subtlety of readily understood allusion. And despite all this, he is read, still, in garbled form, bereft of much of his linguistic charm, left only with the universality of his appeal. But that has been sufficient to put him among the few most widely read authors in the world. Perhaps there is something in the myth after all.