Andersen in English. A Feasibility Study II

In his Litterær oversættelse1 Leif Ludwig Albertsen makes the distinction between langue ("et bagvedliggende system") and parole, the individual stylistic divergence, which, he says, "gør litteratur til litteratur", using Andersen's "Prindsessen paa Ærten" as an illustration. My intention here is to investigate a small number of representative English translations in the light of Albertsen's ideas, and to take up a single point to which he only makes oblique reference. The versions are by Reginald Spink,2 Patricia Conroy and Sven Rossel,3 Paul Leyssac,4 L. W. Kingsland,5 Erik Christian Haugaard6 and an anonymous translation which in fact is by Caroline Peachey.7 Albertsen comments:

Charmen ved dette eventyr er for den moderne dansker tildels betinget af rene langue-træk fra det 19. århundrede ... Som kunsttekst udnytter eventyret dels nogle langue-træk strukturelt, dels afviger det ved visse parole-træk fra dansk normalprosa.8

Discussing the structure of the text, he first points to a variation in length between the different paragraphs. In his view Andersen deliberately includes two very short paragraphs - 5 and 6 - in order to create effective pauses, and then the final sixword Para.10 to sum up. Spink, Leyssac and Kingsland observe this, but others do not: Conroy/Rossel include the original's Para.5 ("Der skulde nu Prindsessen ligge om Natten.") as the final sentence in their own Para.4. The original Para.6 ("Om Morgenen spurgte de hende, hvorledes hun havde sovet.") becomes their Para.5. Haugaard incorporates these two short sentences into the adjacent paragraphs, as does Anon. If the story is read aloud this is insignificant, but in a printed text it changes the tone and suggests a move away from the spoken to the written language.

Albertsen next looks at two key words in the first paragraph: "Prindsesse" and "rigtig". He notes that "Prindsesse" is generally emphasised by its position, arguing that: "Først således kommer prinsessen ret i centrum". Spink follows the original, even keeping its inversion: "Princesses there were in plenty, but whether they were real princesses or not, he could never really make out". Conroy/Rossel are freer: "There are plenty of princesses, but whether they were really princesses he couldn't quite find out". Then, instead of ending the paragraph on the word "princess", they suggest the intensity of the prince's desire: "for he wanted a true princess so much". Haugaard goes further, replacing "Prindsesse" at the end of the first sentence with "a real one", then like Conroy/Rossel, starting his third sentence with: "There were plenty of princesses". He ends his paragraph with a word order akin to the original: "... he had set his heart on marrying a real princess". Kingsland's solution is similar. Anon., in formal literary tone, capitalises Princess, but otherwise keeps close to the original word order. The final sentence, however, is both expanded and fails to end on "princess": "... because he wished so much to have a real Princess for his wife". Leyssac keeps close to the original, his principal alteration being the rendering of "Prindsesser var der nok af". He takes the rather informal "There were any number of Princesses", which prevents him from inverting - but maintains the flavour of the original.

Whether Anon. is justified in adding "for his wife", or Haugaard in introducing the word "marrying" at this point, is debatable. Para.9 says that the prince took the princess as his wife, but in this first paragraph Andersen is less specific with his: "Han vilde ha sig en Prindsesse" and "Han vilde saa gjerne have en virkelig Prindsesse". In each case Haugaard and Anon. either introduce the word "marry" or add the concept of "wife". So, too, do Spink and Kingsland in the introductory sentence - though the end of the paragraph is close to Andersen with: "... he did so want a real princess"/"he wanted so much to have a real princess". Conroy/Rossel choose, in the first sentence: "He wanted to find himself a princess", and in the second: "... for he wanted a true princess so much", toning down the original slightly. Again Leyssac is bolder with "he wanted to get himself a Princess" and "he did so want to find". Marriage may be implicit in Andersen's text, but there is a certain ambiguity that is interpreted away in the translations.

As for "rigtig", it is twice typographically emphasised in the original text, and once used in a colloquial sense in the phrase: "noget som ikke var saa rigtigt". The epithet attached to the princess in the original is, at first, "rigtig", changing at the end of the paragraph - significantly, in Albertsen's view - to "virkelig", which is then echoed in the corresponding position at the end of the third paragraph. In Para.8, the princess is first "en rigtig Prindsesse" and then, in parallel with paragraphs 1 and 3, "en virkelig Prindsesse". In Para.9 she is once more "rigtig", and Para.10 echoes all this humorously with "en rigtig Historie". Spink ignores the distinction, using "real" throughout. Conroy/ Rossel follow the original, rendering "rigtig" each time with "real", and "virkelig" with "true" until the very end, when the potential "true story" has the wrong ring to it in English and has to be rendered as "a real story" - thus saving the English, but losing the pattern of the original. Leyssac has the same problem. He starts with "real", and finishes his first paragraph with "true". He ends with "a real story", but again choses a different route in the middle of Para.1 with "there always seemed to be a catch somewhere", as elsewhere recreating Andersen's informality, but renouncing the balance or progression of the original. Kingsland, having ignored the distinction between the two original adjectives, ends with the dubious translation: "And that's a true story!"

Haugaard calls for a longer quotation:

Prindsesser vare der nok af, men om det var rigtige Prindsesser, kunde han ikke ganske komme efter, altid var der Noget, som ikke var saa rigtigt.

is rendered as:

There were plenty of princesses but not one of them was quite to his taste. Something was always the matter: they just weren't real princesses.

After this, "virkelig" becomes "real", whether it refers to the princess or the story.

Anon. also adopts an independent pattern:

Princesses there were in plenty; but whether they were real Princesses it was impossible for him to decide, for now one thing, now another, seemed to him not quite right about the ladies.

Then Andersen's concluding: "See, det var en rigtig Historie!", becomes: "Was this not a lady of real delicacy?"

Thus the English versions all miss a significant feature in Andersen's structuring of his tale. Which is not to say that they do not read well.

In considering the significance of word order, the sentence: "Saa ømskindet kunde der Ingen være uden en virkelig Prindsesse" must stand out. Albertsen sees the first half expressing a universal truth, suddenly being transformed with the addition of the ironical "uden en virkelig Prindsesse". Only Conroy/Rossel emulate this, with "Nobody could have such delicate skin except a true princess". Leyssac retains the metaphor but puts in the princess too early: "No one but a real Princess could have such a tender skin as that." Spink, Haugaard and Kingsland ignore both the metaphor and the effect of the original, starting with the princess: "Only a real princess could be so tender as that"/"Only a real princess could be so sensitive!"/"No one but a real princess could be so sensitive." Anon. expands the sentence to: "None but a real Princess could have had such a delicate sense of feeling." Conroy/Rossel and Leyssac are the only ones to retain the concept of "skin" - though it is clearly an integral part of the original.

The translator faces another challenge with Andersen's repeated use in the first paragraph of the strengthener saa in "ikke ... saa rigtigt", "saa bedrøvet", "saa gjerne". Spink renders these respectively with: "not quite right", "so very sad" and "did so want", - i.e. two different renderings for the same word within a single paragraph. Conroy/Rossel with: "wasn't quite right", "very sad", "for he wanted ..." disregard Andersen's repetitions. Leyssac follows a similar course, as does Kingsland. Haugaard moves further away with: "not quite right", "something was always the matter" and "he had set his heart on ...". They all work well enough, but are far from the original, further, for once than Anon.'s "not quite right", "quite cast down" and "he wished so much to have".

A further example of Andersen's deliberate use of repetition is the adjective/adverb "forskrækkeligt", first appearing in Para.2, referring to the dreadful weather: "ganske forskrækkeligt", and repeated in the princess's description of her condition after her night's rest: "Det er ganske forskrækkeligt". She has already used a related expression in her answer to the question of how she has slept: "Ganske forskrækkeligt". This is surely an example of what Albertsen refers to as "rene langue-træk fra det 19. århundrede", the affected nature of the princess's language suggesting she is "en lille dum gås". Spink produces in the first instance: "it was frightful!", just echoing the slight affectation, though omitting the strengthener "ganske". However, his princess says she has slept "dreadfully", adding, after informing the queen she is black and blue all over: "It's really dreadful". One wonders why Andersen's consistent and deliberate use of "forskrækkeligt" was not maintained here: Spink's "frightful" would have served the purpose admirably. Conroy/Rossel provide a parallel, though different, solution. Their storm is "just awful!" However, they, too, change course and resort to "just dreadfully" and "It's simply dreadful" in the princess's speech. Kingsland also produces three different renderings, of which one - "it was really quite frightening" - has the air of a mistranslation. Leyssac partly follows Andersen with "simply awful", though his princess has slept "dreadfully badly", thus breaking the original progression. Haugaard only renders the strengthener once, in the reply "Oh, just wretchedly" to the question of how the princess has slept. Anon. takes liberties with "besides, it was as dark as pitch"/"Oh, very badly indeed"/"It has hurt me so much", totally ignoring Andersen's clear parallels and affectations and either adding something not in the original text, or resorting to colourless substitutes.

The evident reluctance of translators to follow the Andersen pattern suggests that they did not dare do so. Andersen's "forskrækkeligt" is undeniably a little affected, and it may well be that a barrier has been reached here beyond which even first-rate translators are not prepared to go. Whereas the author can take any liberty he likes, the translator must be more careful and avoid the accusation of resorting to an awkward rendering. These translators do precisely that.

One general point made by Albertsen is that "Prindsessen paa Ærten" is so tightly structured that it verges on poetry, after which he goes on just to indicate some of the highly subjective elements which go to make a poem a poem:

Spørgsmålet om, i hvor høj grad alle mennesker eller mennesker inden for en speciel gruppe reagerer følelsesmæssigt ens over for visse vokaler, er endnu uafklaret; rigtigst er nok indtil videre den resignative erkendelse, at jo mere lyrisk koncentrerede vers er, desto vanskeligere lader de sig oversætte.9

In view of this, it will now be of interest to consider the extent to which the different translators have sought to maintain at least something of the rhythm, if not the sound, of the original.

Andersen's first two paragraphs are characterised by a series of short, almost staccato, observations, with the stress mainly towards the end of the phrase. They are often divided by commas, occasionally by semicolons. Then comes Para.3, with longer and more rhythmical sentences to suggest the emotional content. Para.4 returns to the shorter units, and Paras.5 and 6 maintain this laconic informative approach. Para.7, like Para.3, centres on the princess, who uses less staccato sentences. The more lyrical content of the next two paragraphs, reflecting the union of the prince and the princess, leads to slower, flowing phrases, followed by the abrupt final: "See, det var en rigtig Historie!"

Spink observes Andersen's sentence structure throughout, though he does change the punctuation and link some of the original's paratactical sentences by means of an "and". And in Para.4, where the queen's actions are listed under a single subject "hun", he breaks it down into several balanced sentences. Leyssac, too, keeps close to the original, though he, too, changes commas to full stops and makes use of dashes. Conroy/Rossel maintain the staccato rhythm of the parataxis, but, as English is not always comfortable with it, make more obvious breaks. Thus, there is a full stop after the first "prince" and after "noget i Vejen", and again after "komme efter", and so the process continues throughout the story. Otherwise, they observe the original sentence structure, again with the exception of the list in Para.4. Kingsland follows a similar principle. Not so Haugaard. His first sentence is completely remodelled: "Once upon a time there was a prince who wanted to marry a princess, but she would have to be a real one". His version then continues in the same way, at times resorting to subjective interpretation rather than translation. It runs reasonably well, but it is simply not Andersen. Anon.'s version scarcely allows of this kind of analysis, having moved from the superficially unsophisticated nature of Andersen's language to a much more formal (but not always successful) style. It omits significant phrases and adds its own substitutions, ultimately producing an adaptation rather than a translation.

In one sense all these translators are reacting to the general problem of harmonising the sentence structure of the Danish with an acceptable English pattern. Danish expresses itself well in simplex sentences, whether they stand separately or are linked paratactically. English is far less happy with this, and time after time the English translator will be tempted to fuse a series of simplex sentences into a longer complex structure. In many cases this works well and may even be felt necessary. It is doubtful, however, whether Andersen is really suited to this treatment. He is not writing flowing, literary prose; his work is to be read aloud, and the liveliness of his story is inextricably bound up with the oral element, the implicit gesticulation, the tacit triumphant smile and the raised eyebrows at the end, the almost tangible presence of the storyteller himself. Spink, Leyssac, Kingsland and Conroy/Rossel go far towards maintaining this, whereas Haugard and Anon. follow a different tradition.

There may be an element of over-interpretation in Albertsen's analysis of "Prindsessen paa Ærten", though his view must be accepted in broad outline. This leads to the conclusion that even the best translations produce an appreciably blander version than Andersen's original. The idiosyncratic nature of Andersen's prose together with the subtlety of his structure and his concentrated, pregnant phraseology leads to a greater gulf between the original and foreign translations than one would normally countenance. It appears to be one of the ironies of literary translation that the most outstanding and creative stylists are those who suffer most from being transplanted. Paying due regard to this, and taking into consideration the appallingly bad translations which commonly circulate in children's editions, it says a good deal for the particular qualities of Andersen's work that it should, among foreign connoisseurs, nevertheless have been able to assert itself as it has, and that even the blander versions confronting non-Danes cannot completely hide the ingenuity and inventiveness of the original.


1. Leif Ludwig Albertsen, Litterær oversættelse, Berlingske Forlag, Copenhagen, 1972. tilbage

2. Hans Andersen, Fairy Tales and Stories, tr. Reginald Spink, J. M. Dent & Sons, London, 1960. tilbage

3. Tales and Stories by Hans Christian Andersen, tr. Patricia L. Conroy and Sven H. Rossel, University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, 1980. tilbage

4. It's Perfectly True, and Other Stories, tr. Paul Leyssac, Macmillan, London, 1937. tilbage

5. Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales, tr. L. W. Kingsland. Oxford University Press, London, 1961. tilbage

6. Hans Christian Andersen, The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, tr. Erik Christian Haugaard, Doubleday, New York, 1974. tilbage

7. Fairy Tales and Legends by Hans Andersen, ill. Rex Whistler, The Bodley Head, London, 1978. tilbage

8. Albertsen, op. cit., p. 18. tilbage

9. Albertsen, op. cit., p. 24. tilbage

Bibliografisk information om teksten:

Jones, W. Glyn: "Andersen in English. A Feasibility Study II", pp. 210-16 i Johan de Mylius, Aage Jørgensen & Viggo Hjørnager Pedersen (red.): Andersen og Verden. Indlæg fra den første internationale H. C. Andersen-konference, 25.-31. august 1991. Udgivet af H. C. Andersen-Centret, Odense Universitet. Odense Universitetsforlag, Odense 1993.