Traduttore, Traditore - Andersen Translated into French

Marc Auchet

(summary for pages 243-53)

In his famous work, The Uses of Enchantment, dedicated to the psychoanalytical study of tales, Bruno Bettelheim firmly insists that they should be told or read out loud, otherwise they do not generate the cathartic effect they are supposed to produce on the young minds they are addressed to.

Andersen himself wrote his stories as much to be published as to be read in front of limited audiences in the well-off families who showed him hospitality in Denmark or abroad. In his youth he would have loved to act in the theatre, and, whenever given the opportunity at his numerous story-telling sessions, he gave free rein to his acting talents.

Since then, a whole tradition of excellent acting, represented among others by Erik Mørk, has established itself in Denmark, and, through remarkable interpretations, has enabled many Danes to become acquainted with or to (re)discover Andersen's tales.

In order to convey the illusion of orality, Andersen was able to create an original style which produced a 'revolution' in its time. Its influence is still reflected in the present writings of some Scandinavian authors.

Few translators have been able to reproduce in their own languages the intricacies of Andersen's tone, typical as it was. The Contes were translated a long time ago in France, but were often taken from German versions, which themselves were not always reliable. Soldi's translations (1856) are amongst the most accurate and have often been used since then. Those of Gregoire and Moland (1873, 1875, 1880) were a great success - some of them are still reprinted today - but they took considerable liberties with the original text. The only unabridged version of the Contes is that of La Chesnais, of which the first part appeared in 1937. A new edition came out recently (1988). La Chesnais often follows the Danish text too closely, so much so that his translation lacks the stylistic qualities that one is entitled to expect. At present, the French book market is still without a complete version of the Contes that would allow the reader to fully appreciate the subtleties of the author's style. Nevertheless a large publishing house is currently preparing a new translation for 1992, and this may bring about a reassessment of that judgement.

The tyrannical tradition of the so-called "academic" style, combined with an often limited knowledge of Danish, largely explains the imperfections of French translations. Andersen is not easy to render in other languages, but the French translator often feels at a disadvantage in relation to his German counterparts. Whereas the Germans are able to reproduce almost verbatim many idiomatic expressions and a large number of puns, because their language possesses the exact equivalents, the French translator is sometimes obliged to leave out such subtleties altogether, as they simply cannot be translated.