Cultural Differences and Japanese Translations of 'Keiserens nye Klæder'

I would like to begin with a personal experience I had when I first visited Denmark in 1975 and stayed in Copenhagen for about half a year. Though it seemed a trifling incident, it gave me quite a shock. As I had found a room not so far from Amalienborg Palace and the world
famous statue of the little mermaid, in the weekend I would usually take a walk and enjoy strolling around these sightseeing spots.

At noon, on the main street in the old city of Copenhagen, I often came across the procession of royal guards marching through the street, and on the square in front of the palace I sometimes found myself among tourists viewing the wellknown ceremonial changing of the royal guards. Of course quite a few tourists from Japan were among them.

One day when I was enjoying the ceremony like a typical tourist, I happened to overhear someone saying in Japanese: "I really feel as if I'm in a fairyland. Yes, this must have been the place where that naked king appeared from the palace, and the procession must have started here and marched through the street with a big audience." As soon as I heared this, I wondered whether many Japanese people might have long believed that the scene of that famous tale was the old city of Copenhagen in Denmark.

At the same time, I was sure that the people of Denmark could not possibly think that the tale was supposed to be set in the old Danish capital. For Denmark has long been a kingdom, reigned by kings. And, as everybody knows, the title of the tale is "Keiserens nye Klæder" ("The Emperor's New Clothes"), and the main character of the tale is not a "king" but an "emperor". After I went back to Japan, I asked a number of people where they supposed that the famous tale by H. C. Andersen was set, and I found that many of them really believed it to be in the capital of Denmark.

What led these people to such a misunderstanding? When H. C. Andersen was first introduced to Japan more than a century ago, Denmark, like the whole of Europe, was a faraway and exotic place to virtually all Japanese - just as Japan must have been a very distant and foreign country to the Danes. And at that time it was not strange for the average Japanese, especially for children, to think that "king" and "emperor" were virtually the same thing.

The first Japanese translation of "The Emperor's New Clothes" was made in 1889, fourteen years after Andersen's death. The tale was translated by Masaki Kōno and published under a title meaning "The King's New Clothes - A Satirical Anecdote".

Actually, nine months before this translation, a magazine called Jogaku Zasshi had printed a tale entitled "The Strange New Clothes". The Jogaku Zasshi, literally a "Magazine for Young Schoolgirls", was intended for girls belonging to a rather high class. But this was a recast version of the story by H. C. Andersen, and not a faithful translation. The story was somewhat altered from the original tale with the purpose of giving decent young schoolgirls lessons in moral education. Taking these facts into consideration, Kōno's translation, "The King's New Clothes - A Satirical Anecdote", can be regarded as the first Japanese translation of the tale.

Actually this translation was not made directly from the original Danish text but was a retranslation from a French version by David Soldi. Before the twentieth century, it would have been almost impossible to find a proper translator for H. C. Andersen's original Danish. As to the Japanese translation as well as the translator, there are several somewhat complicated problems. On this matter, Professor Yōichi Nagashima, of the University of Copenhagen, wrote a paper, "De første H. C. Andersenoversættelser i Japan" ("The Early Translations of H. C. Andersen in Japan"), in Anderseniana, 1981. And, comparing the French and Japanese translations with the Danish text, he made a lucid explanation of these problems. But it is not important here to compare the French and Japanese with the original Danish. What is important is how the Japanese people read and understood the first Japanese version of Andersen's tale - in other words, how the tale was read by people whose social and cultural context was then quite different from that of Denmark.

The first thing to be noticed is that the word "kejser", or "emperor" in English, is normally kōtei in Japanese. However, the word is rendered by Kōno as ōsama, which is always translated as "konge", or "king" in English. At the time, only people who were properly educated and had a certain knowledge of world history would have been clear about the differences between the two words,ōsama and kōtei, conventionally used for "king" and "emperor". Thus the translator would possibly not have thought the distinction was worth worrying about.

H. C. Andersen's "Keiserens nye Klæder" begins as follows:

For mange Aar siden levede en Keiser, som holdt saa uhyre meget af smukke, nye Klæder, at han gav alle sine Penge ud for ret at blive pyntet. Han brød sig ikke om sine Soldater, brød sig ei om Comedie eller om at kjøre i Skoven, uden alene for at vise sine nye Klæder. Han havde en Kjole for hver Time paa Dagen, og ligesom man siger om en Konge, han er i Raadet, saa sagde man altid her: "Keiseren er i Klædeskabet!" [Original 1837 text has: "i Garderoben".]

Kōno's version begins as follows:

As this comparison shows, in H. C. Andersen's text, "kejser" and "konge" are used for different kinds of persons. And it goes without saying that the tale is set in some city in some empire outside of Denmark. It is absolutely impossible for it to be set in the kingdom of Denmark. But in the Japanese version, as you see, only ōsama, the word for "king'', is used - three times in all. This fact shows that the distinction between "king" and "emperor" has vanished. Therefore it was not unnatural for normal Japanese readers, especially young ones, to come to regard the main character of this tale as a king who, they assumed, once lived in an old capital of Denmark. In Japan, H. C. Andersen has long been regarded mainly as a writer of fairy tales for children; and the country where he was born, Denmark, might be said to have given an image of a fairyland to Japanese children.

After the first translation of "The Emperor's New Clothes", many of H. C. Andersen's fairy tales and stories were translated one after another; and it was not long before his name was known to every Japanese. Besides, his novels, such as The Improvisatore (Improvisatoren) and Only a Fiddler (Kun en Spillemand) were also translated via German or English into Japanese. Notable among them is the 1902 translation of The Improvisatore by Ōgai Mori, a writer of the first rank in the history of modern Japanese literature, which has been highly praised for its elegant and fluent command of the Japanese language.

Since the first translation, "Keiserens nye Klæder" has been translated many times, mainly via English or German but later on directly from Danish. Translations are so many that we can hardly confirm the exact number. In addition, there have been more than forty different picture books of the tale. Many of these have a simplified text for children and in many cases the stories are arranged from or merely based on H. C. Andersen's original text. And the most interesting thing is that many of these books are entitled "Hadaka no Ōsama", which means "The Naked King". Today all translations from the original text have the title of "The Emperor's New Clothes", but a lot of people who have read these picture books in their childhood believe that this famous tale has a Danish title meaning "The Naked King".

When was this title, "The Naked King", first applied to the tale? It is hard to tell, but in the late 1910s the title had already become established among the Japanese reading public. What caused them to refer to "The Emperor's New Clothes" as "The Naked King"? The first translation of the tale by Kōno certainly had an influence on this.

As I pointed out before, in Japan, the differences between "emperor" and "king" were little known, especially among children. Therefore, if anyone had said that kōtei was more suitable than ōsama, his objection would probably have been greeted with indifference.

There is another interesting problem. Why has the tale come to be called "The Naked King"? H. C. Andersen's original title has no adjective meaning "naked". This discrepancy brings up the question of whether, in that procession, the emperor was supposed to have been walking naked.

When we read the Danish version of "The Emperor's New Clothes", we usually see a wellknown illustration by Vilhelm Pedersen that shows the emperor walking under a rich canopy in the procession with his underclothes on. Most Danes will think of Pedersen's illustration when they read this tale, and consequently the emperor is not naked. The illustrations by Vilhelm Pedersen were printed after H. C. Andersen himself approved them for his tales. Evidently they both had almost the same image of the emperor, with his underwear on. H. C. Andersen wrote that the swindlers asked the emperor before the mirror to "tage Deres Klæder af", or "take your clothes off"; and "Keiseren lagde alle sine Klæder", or "the Emperor put down all his clothes". But neither the author nor the illustrator would ever have imagined that the emperor was naked without any underwear. However, in the first Japanese translation, the sentence " Keiseren lagde alle sine Klæder" was translated into something that means "the king soon became completely naked". And the child who is looking at the emperor in the procession says, "Men han har jo ikke Noget paa" in the Danish text, while in Kōno's version this sentence is translated like this: "Look! The king is quite naked. He is quite naked. He has no clothes on!"

What should be pointed out here is not a matter of poor or wrong translation. Much more important is that, when a literary work is translated into another language, the translation is inevitably influenced by the cultural, social and historical context of the target language.

Here is an interesting example. A Danish author, Karl Larsen, published a book entitled H. C. Andersen i Tekst og Billeder in 1925. On the first page, he wrote of an experience he had when he visited Japan in 1912. While staying in the old city of Kyoto, he happened to find a small and cheap picture book. The book had the title, "Kasumi no Koromo", which means "Clothes Made of Mist". Of course he did not understand Japanese, but, skimming through the pages, he found some illustrations and came to believe that the booklet was a Japanese version of H. C. Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes". He was right: it was a version of the tale retold for children. If he had asked Japanese people who the central figure of the illustrations was supposed to be, most of them would surely have answered that he was the king of some European kingdom. As is seen in the illustration, the king who is walking in the procession is almost naked, while the "emperor" in the illustration by Vilhelm Pedersen is covered from his neck to his knees. As I have mentioned before, the title "The Naked King", had already become established in the late 1910's. As well as the title, the image of the naked king has also become popular since then in many illustrations of the tale, especially in picture books for children. It suggests that the Japanese cultural, social and historical context caused the reading public to see the image of a naked king as very natural to the story.

The way of reading literary works changes with the times. Every age has its own way of reading. How do Danes read H. C. Andersen's "Keiserens nye Klæder" in present-day Denmark? That is to say, how do they read the tale in its present cultural and social context? It would be a very difficult task for foreigners, especially for the Japanese with a culture quite different from that of Denmark, to get to know the context sufficiently. But one illustration may show us vividly a phase of the cultural and social changes of the times in Denmark. In 1991 the world
famous illustrator Ib Spang Olsen drew a series of illustrations of H. C. Andersen's tales, and two of them are for "The Emperor's New Clothes". One is of the emperor standing before a mirror, and the other is of the emperor walking in the procession. In both pictures the emperor is quite naked. The differences between the illustrations by Vilhelm Pedersen and Ib Spang Olsen evidence some remarkable changes of social customs in Denmark.

During the latter half of this century, several editions of the complete fairy tales and stories by H. C. Andersen have been published in Japan. And we can now read all of his fairy tales and stories in several editions which are faithfully translated into Japanese directly from the original Danish texts. Very properly, every translation of "The Emperor's New Clothes" in these editions has the original title, not "The Naked King".

However, the title "The Naked King" has long been so familiar in Japan that even today when people refer to or talk about the tale, most of them call it "The Naked King" instead of "The Emperor's New Clothes". In 1957 a young writer, Takeshi Kaikō, won the Akutagawa Prize, which is given to the most promising writer of the year, for a novel entitled Hadaka no Ōsama (The Naked King). He is now regarded as one of the most important writers of postwar Japan.

The novel is a story about a man who teaches children painting at his own small private school and a boy who is suffering from autism. The boy's disorder has its cause in his family circumstances. His father is the president of a big company which has a large trade in painting goods. He pays little attention to the boy's mental condition. Meanwhile, his motherinlaw is anxious about the boy's condition but she seems to have some problems of her own. The teacher makes every effort to liberate the boy by encouraging him to draw freely. One day he hits the idea of having his pupils draw illustrations based on H. C. Andersen's fairy tales and exchanging them with illustrations drawn by children in Denmark. His idea is that the comparison of pictures by children of the two countries will reveal some interesting and unconventional ways of understanding H. C. Andersen's works. After sending letters to the Danish Ministry of Education, he receives a positive letter from an agent. But a couple of weeks later, he finds that the boy's father has also made the same proposal and got a letter from Denmark to the effect that the agent wants both of them to make some adjustments. The father is planning a nationwide educational campaign to make schoolchildren draw pictures with the covert purpose of getting a big business opportunity for himself.

One day the teacher tells the boy the story of "The Emperor's New Clothes", but his version is deliberately improvised and generalized, because he fears that the original story will cause the boy to be prejudiced and lead him to draw pictures after conventional picture books for children. He changes the story into a kind of fable, making use of only the framework of the tale without using either word, "emperor" or "king". He just wants to make the boy understand the essential meaning of this tale, that is, the vanity and absurdity of power. A few days later the boy brings a picture to his teacher. The picture shows a Japanese feudal lord walking along a road lined with pine trees. The lord is wearing his hair in a topknot, striding by a moat, naked but for a loincloth.

The judges of the contest highly value such pictures that imitate illustrations in picture books for children, and they reject the boy's picture as ridiculous and absurd. But the teacher feels satisfied, believing that he has succeeded in making the boy understand the true meaning of the story, liberating the boy's frustration and criticizing the commercialism prevailing even in the world of education.

In Japan, as I said earlier, H. C. Andersen has long tended to be considered mainly as a writer of fairy tales for children. The novel The Naked King by Kaikō is regarded as one of the masterpieces of Japanese modern literature. Within this novel, H. C. Andersen's story "The Emperor's New Clothes" is regarded not merely as a fairy tale but as a masterpiece of serious literature. In this sense, this novel gives an example of an admirable Japanese way of interpreting the original tale.

In appreciating literary works, each country as well as each age has its own way of reading. By taking the first Japanese translation of "The Emperor's New Clothes", I have tried to consider some problems caused by the differences of cultural, social and historical circumstances between Denmark and Japan. No translation of literary works can avoid making some kind of misinterpretation or misunderstanding, especially when it is concerned with the differences of social habits or standards. However, considering these problems, we can get to the essential meaning of a literary work.


H. C. Andersen, "Keiserens nye Klæder", H. C. Andersens Eventyr. Ny kritisk udgave med kommentar ved Hans Brix og Anker Jensen, 1. Bind, Gyldendalske Boghandel, København, 1919.

Takeshi Kaikō, Hadaka no Osama. Kadokawa-shoten, Tokyo, 1960.

Karl Larsen, H. C. Andersen i Tekst og Billeder. Forlagt af J. D. Qvist & Komp. Ejnar Levison, København, 1925.

Yōichi Nagashima, "De første H. C. Andersen-oversættelser i Japan". Anderseniana, 3. rk., 1981, pp. 255-74.

Nihon Jidō Bungakukai (The Society of Children's Literature in Japan), ed. Andersen Kenkyu¤ (A Collection of H. C. Andersen Studies). Komine-shoten, Tokyo, 1969. Masaki Kōno's translation of "Kejserens nye Klæder" is now included in this book.

H. C. Andersens Eventyr og Historier. Japanese edition in 4 vols. Translated by Yu¤ichi Ōtsuka and illustrated by Ib Spang Olsen. Fukuinkan-shoten, Tokyo, 1992. (Olsen's illustration referred to above is on page 118 in the first volume of this edition.)

Bibliographic information about the text:

Masuda, Keisuke: "Cultural Differences and Japanese Translations of "Keiserens nye Klæder"" , In: Johan de Mylius, Aage Jørgensen and Viggo Hjørnager Pedersen (ed.): Hans Christian Andersen. A Poet in Time. Papers from the Second International Hans Christian Andersen Conference 29 July to 2 August 1996. The Hans Christian Andersen Center, Odense University, Odense University Press. 576 pages, Odense, Denmark 1999.