H. C. Andersen's Fairy Tales in Translation: Prepositions and 'Small Words'

It has become a commonplace to criticize the English translations of Hans Christian Andersen, and, in general, English translations of so many other major writers. In this paper, without refraining completely from passing judgment on how 'good' translations are, I shall concentrate on examining a limited aspect of the problem: the difficulty for translators of rendering Danish particles and semantically vague adverbials without any exact equivalent in English. These words are of high frequency in the tales, as well as in Andersen's other writings, and constitute one of the oral features of his language.

This is part of a somewhat larger project: to describe, on the basis of the corpora in the CD-ROM Magnus, typical features of Andersen's language in so far as it poses problems for translation into English.2

Some of the other investigations involved in this project may be mentioned in passing: One study looked at emotionally loaded adjectives (Hjørnager Pedersen 1993), while another examined the syntax of a number of mini contexts, selected so as to be representative of Andersen's entire production of tales. The idea was to see how well the English translations matched the Danish originals, and to demonstrate that the syntax was more complicated in the later tales than in the earlier ones. In fact, this did not prove to be the case: fairly complex as well as fairly simple passages are found throughout Andersen's production. What was interesting, however, was that the syntax of the translations did not exhibit the same degree of variation as the originals: translations of both syntactically very simple and highly complex tales tended to be fairly similar. (See Hjørnager Pedersen & Appel 1995.)

Another interesting area is the study of nouns. At the moment I am trying to assess the proportion of abstract and concrete nouns in the tales, in the whole corpus, and in the Danish as opposed to the English texts. Not surprisingly, it seems that abstract words are more common in the novels than in the tales. More interesting is the tendency for abstract words which are not in the Danish to crop up in the translations. However, the fact that concrete nouns used figuratively are very common in all versions would seem to suggest that a simple distinction between abstract and concrete is insufficient as a basis for a satisfactory description of the nominal aspects of Andersen's language.

Let us return to our 'small words', under which heading I include prepositions. In the following discussion, then, we shall look at translation strategies for rendering some of the seemingly less important parts of Andersen's lexis - 'small words' like prepositions and certain adverbials - which nevertheless are a characteristic feature of idiomatic Danish, and whose presence, indeed abundance, are an important aspect of Andersen's style.

The problem of rendering these elements is two-fold: on the one hand they add to the rhythm and semantic modulation of the text, so that their absence in translation is easily perceived as a loss; on the other, they cannot always be reproduced by one of their nearest equivalents, since they would simply not be there - or at least not as often - in an original English text. Some must nearly always be left out, others can be translated or compensated for up to a point. One should at one and the same time be on guard against surtraduction - overtranslation (cf. Hjørnager Pedersen 1987: 87) and against neglecting the semantic and prosodic features involved.

This is not the place to go into the intricacies of equivalence, which I have dealt with elsewhere.3 Suffice it to say that in the case of closely related languages like English and Danish, formal and dynamic equivalence may often - but alas, not always - be the same; or in the words of Carne Ross, it is often possible to transpose rather than translate, i.e. to translate word by word without any resulting awkwardness (Arrowsmith & Shattuck 1961:3, see also Hjørnager Pedersen 1987:103). However, this very fact may easily lead reasonably competent translators astray: because Danish and English often match word by word, translation word by word is attempted also in cases where it is inappropriate, as in the case of idioms. Prepositional phrases, too, are often copied uncritically, as will be demonstrated below.

Part I: Where Things Are: Adverbial Particles and Prepositions

As one would expect, prepositions and adverbials of place and direction appear fairly frequently in the Danish corpus. The figures below (from the tales, not from the whole corpus) provide an indication of frequency:

Adverbs and prepositions + combinations in Andersen/Magnus

ud 1587 op 1257
ud i 202 op i 161
ud på 117 op på 125
ude 200 oppe 199
ude i 52 oppe i 47
ude på 33 oppe på 31
ud over 90 op over 23

ind 952 ned 765
ind i 509 ned i 157
ind under 20 ned under 10
ind på 46 ned på 71
inde 184 nede 133
inde under 2 nede under 8
inde på 6 nede på 14

hen 695 henne 29
henad 5 henne på 2
hen ad 35 henne i 18
hen på 24 henne under 1
hen over 25

The proportion between the directing and the locating prepositions (e.g. op/oppe) seems striking, but is quite compatible with the figures found in Dansk Frekvensordbog (Bergenholz 1992) covering the 5000 most frequent words in Danish usage:

ud is nr. 36 ude is nr. 252
op is nr. 44 oppe is nr. 498
ind is nr. 62 inde is nr. 299
ned is nr. 90, nede is nr. 506
hen is nr. 156 henne is nr. 1285

Knud Sørensen does not address this group of words in Danish and English Contrasted (Sørensen 1991), but in his article, "Cognate, but sui generis" (in Sørensen 1988) he makes some observations which seem relevant for the theoretical handling of the situation. In this article Sørensen argues that in the case of two closely related languages it is easiest to learn the features that are identical first, and then turn to those which are distinctly different. The real stumbling block, which only advanced students overcome, is the situation where the rules of usage coincide partially and differ partially. Here, Sørensen states, if L2 has more options than L1 to express a given content, the student will tend to use a 'foreign-looking' option whether translating from or into L1, rather than a usual and more familiar 'native-looking' option. If that is true, one should expect to find a substantial amount of Danisms among the prepositions in translations, which is indeed the case, cf. below, and Hjørnager Pedersen (1988:120-31).

The frequency of the English prepositions corresponding to the above in Hersholt's version of the tales is as follows:

in 7536
out 1456
up 1310
down 996

This, in itself, naturally cannot be indicative of anything, since the systems of prepositions in the two languages do not coincide, and since the corpora are not exactly alike.4 If a translation critic suspects that the English translator has been carried away by the Danish prepositional usage, he can ask Magnus to give the number of probable 'suspects':

up in 112
up into 29
up over 10
up on 36

out in 96
out into 81
out over 33
out on 42

down in 80
down into 54
down under 1110
down over 1212

in under 21
in over 31
in on 109

Studying these examples, one immediately discovers a wealth of almost certain Danisms, although in many cases it is difficult to say conclusively whether a certain usage is in fact due to Danish influence or not. Apart from that, the figures should be reduced by deducting all combinations where the two words do not really belong together (wake up in the morning, come out in a month etc.).5

Below are some examples from Hersholt's translation. The numbers in front of the titles refer to the official "H.C.A. eventyrkode".

3 x 'up in Jutland', e.g. We are again up in Jutland (99 "The Bishop of Börglum"); an old village schoolmaster up in Jutland (10 Galoshes of Fortune).6
3 x 'up in the North' (plus 'up nearer North', 'up towards North' and just 'up North').
1 x 'up in Denmark' - sentence opening, 109 "The Old Church Bell": Up in Denmark, on one of the green islands + 1 x 'up in Norway'.

Up in. At least 25 cases are correct English, and up to 12 are possibly correct. The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary is also in doubt about some verbs like 'wrap (up) in something' and 'fold (up) in something'. Apart from that, it is difficult to judge translations where 'up' is modified by 'high', e.g.: He was high up in Switzerland (10 "The Galoshes of Fortune") though 'the country of Hjorring, high up near Skagen in Jutland' (83 "The Marsh King's Daughter"), definitely seems odd, whereas 'high up in the air' and 'high up in the trees' seem acceptable. However, there are some clear Danisms:

27 "The Snow Queen", 3rd story: Up in the narrow garret there is a little dancer, ...
85 "The Stone of the Wise Men" 4: One could step out onto the leaves and up in the cup of the flowers was a beautiful, brilliant round hall.
10 "A String of Pearls": to be up in the sixties, that is also a wonderful age! (meaning well into one's sixties; 'oppe i' is idiomatic Danish here)
A doubtful example is the following:
60 "Heartache": She delivered her certificates and took Puggie up in her arms.

Out in gives 12 times 'out in the country', three of them in opening position:
11 "The Daisy": Out in the country, close by the side of the road, there stood a country house.
25 "The Ugly Duckling": It was so beautiful out in the country.
ibidem: It was indeed lovely out there in the country.
71 "Clumsy Hans": Out in the country there was an old mansion.
102 "What the Old Man Does, is Always " : You have been out in the country, of course.
119 "The Will-O'-the-Wisps " : Out in the country stands an old manor house.
16 "The Dryad": the heavy wagon that brought it to Paris from many miles out in the country.

Other examples (sentence openings):
26 "The Fir Tree": Out in the woods stood such a little pretty fir tree
78 "Soup from a Sausage Peg": Out in the world one does not come across cheese parings
120 "The Windmill": Out in the world thoughts come.

Up on is likewise found three times in the opening position; other examples sometimes seem acceptable, sometimes less so:

3 "The Princess and the Pea": Up on top of all this the Princess was to spend the night.
71 "Little Claus and Big Claus": Up on the shed Little Claus sighed to see all the good food disappearing.
8 "The Little Mermaid": Up on deck the sailors were dancing.
12 "The Tin Soldier": He immediately set them up on the table.
13 "The Wild Swans": He lifted her up on his horse.
109 "The Bell": I'll climb up on those rocks.
55 "The Old Tombstone": (The youngest child ) climbed up on a chair.

Most of these are possible in English, but sometimes a little odd, and their frequency in the material is possibly influenced by Danish.

Down in gives a dozen Danisms in combinations with water:
25 "The Ugly Duckling": how he likes to swim or dive down in the water.
41 "The Neighbouring Families": yes, and those lovely flowers down in the water!
83 "The Marsh King's Daughter": She dived down in the water to pluck the swamp flower.
127 "The Toad": The sun could never mirror itself down in the water.

Part Conclusion
It seems fair to conclude at this point that combinations of adverbials of place or direction with prepositions in the Andersen translation is unusually high for English texts, and that at least some of the examples would not occur in spontaneous English.

Part II: How Things Are: The Small Words

Danish abounds in small adverbial modifiers with no exact equivalent in English. Of the items on the list below, many can, in fact, be translated by one or several English adverbials, or their loss may be compensated for in various other ways. Frequently, however, the idiomatic English solution is not to have them at all - which still entails a loss in comparison with the original.

Again, it has proved difficult to find suitable discussions of these items. Thus Diderichsen (1962) hardly mentions them in his modern Danish Grammar - but here they are:

In the Danish original:
nu 1895
da 1713
dog* 890
jo 670
nok 651

ganske* 517
slet 253
vel 217
rigtignok* 156
mon* 50
vistnok* 21
bitte* 19 (only in 'lille bitte')
grumme* 18
vel nok 6 (1)

Only the words with * have no homonyms, so manual accounting for words like , nu, da etc. will obviously take some effort. The following discussion looks at only three words: two without any natural equivalent in English, jo and nok, and one where the problem is homonymity, .

is distributed fairly evenly, mathematically, between early and late tales, with some few tales without jo, and two with clearly record numbers: 2 "Little Claus and Big Claus" (1835) has 21 x jo in 11 pages, and 125 "The Porter's Son" (1866) has 18 x jo in 16 pages. Below follow five of each with translations from Dulcken:

"Little Claus and Big Claus":

det er jo kun den ene Hest, der er din
for only the one horse is yours.

der er jo en deilig Seng
that is a capital bed

han vidste jo, at den stakkels Mand ikke kunne taale at se Degne
for he knew the husband could not bear the sight of a clerk

lille Claus kunde jo ikke slippe ud
for Little Claus could not get out

det er jo en hel Omvei
there's a long way to go round

Little Claus uses jo very often, also to initiate speeches; but generally there is no statistical evidence indicating that the small words serve as markers of class, although I suspect this to be the case. What they do definitely convey is a sense of the Danish hygge, as when the old count says that 'her glide [gammel tid og ny tid] jo godt i hinanden' (cf. below). It is, indeed, an important aspect of the Danish small words to create a world of Gemütlichkeit and warmth, which is decidedly more important than pride, pomp or circumstance.

"The Porter's Son":

Klæder maae vi jo ogsaa give ham!
And we'd have to give him clothes, too;

Han er jo lyksalig ved et par kogte Kartofler!
he is happy with a couple of boiled potatoes;

det var jo ikke Noget at troe paa
You couldn't believe in that sort of thing

"Gammel Tid og ny Tid" sagde Greven "her glide de jo ogsaa godt i hinanden"
"Old times and modern times," said the Count. "They meet here with loving embraces!"

han vidste jo at bevege sig og udtrykke sig med et Kjendskab
Why, he knew how to carry himself and to speak with knowledge and refinement.

Out of 50 examples, 22 do not translate Danish nok, 14 paraphrase, 3 use well and 2 very well, 3 probably, 2 easily, and 4 adverbials are represented with 1 item each: still, indeed, hardly, most likely. Translations are from Dulcken. Examples:


1 "The Tinder Box": "Hende gad jeg nok se," - tænkte Soldaten.
"Where can one get to see her?" - asked the soldier.

4 "Little Ida": Jeg veed nok, I skal paa Bal i Nat!
I know you're going to the Ball tonight.

7 "The Travelling Companion": Men Johannes mærkede nok, at den Fremmede var meget klogere end han,
But John saw that the stranger was much more clever than him-self.

5 "Thumbelina": "Nu faae vi nok snart Besøg," - sagde Markmusen.
"Now we shall soon have a visitor," said the Field Mouse.

12 "The Tin Soldier": Havde Tinsoldaten raabt: her er jeg! saa havde de nok fundet ham, ...
if the Soldier had cried out "Here I am!" they would have found him;

32 "The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep": Han var ogsaa af Porcelain og sagde at han var Bedstefader til den lille Hyrdinde, men det kunde han nok ikke bevise,
He was also of porcelain, and he declared himself to be the grandfather of the little Shepherdess; but he could not prove his relationship.


3 "The Princess and the Pea": "Ja, det skal vi nok faae at vide!" - tænkte den gamle Dronning
"Yes, we'll soon find that out," thought the old Queen.
(soon does not really translate nok; but it does give emphasis.)

5 "Thumbelina": "Bliv Du i din varme Seng, jeg skal nok pleie dig."
   "Stay in your warm bed, and I will nurse you."
(There are a couple of examples of this type: 2 parallel main clauses have been linked with and, the whole construction corresponding to a conditional clause + a main clause.)

20 "The Swineherd": Nu var det jo rigtignok noget kækt af ham, at han turde sige til Keiserens Datter: "vil du ha' mig?" men det turde han nok, ...
   Now, it was certainly somewhat bold of him to say to the Em-peror's daughter, "Will you have me?" But he did venture it, ...
(nok rendered by verbal construction with 'do' for emphasis.)

33 "Holger Danske": Jeg har tit tænkt, det var nok gamle Holger Danske selv, der var svømmet ned fra Kronborg og hjalp os i Farens Stund.
   I have often thought he might have been old Holger Danske himself, who had swum down from the Kronenburg, and aided us in the hour of danger.
(Here nok expresses near certainty, the English translation a higher degree of uncertainty.)

36 "The Darning Needle": "De er nok en Diamant?" - "Ja, jeg er saadant noget!"
   "I suppose you are a diamond?" she observed. "Why, yes, something of that kind."
(Again uncertainty, although here the match is better than in the preceeding example.)

28 "The Elder-Tree Mother": "naar man faaer to svingende Kopper Hyldetee til Livs, saa kommmer man nok til de varme Lande"
   "When one drinks two cups of hot elder tea, one very often gets into the hot countries."
(Simply a mistranslation?)

23 "The Nightingale": Du himmelske lille Fugl, jeg kjender Dig nok!
   You heavenly little bird! I know you well.
(The translation is not exact, but idiomatic; it will not disturb English readers.)

very well
40 "The Shadow": Men De selv hører jo ikke til det Almindelige, og jeg, det veed De nok, har fra Barndommen traadt i Deres Fodspoer.
   But you yourself don't belong to common folks; and I have, as you very well know, trodden in your footsteps from my childhood upwards.

23 "The Galoshes of Fortune": Det er nok, - tænkte han - et Kunstkabinet, hvor de have glemt at tage Skildtet ind!"
   "That is, probably a museum of art," thought he, "where they have forgotten to take down the sign."

42 "The Old House": Man kunde nok see at de [andre Huuse] vilde ikke have noget at gjøre med det gamle Huus.
   One could easily see that they would have nothing to do with the old house.

4 "Little Ida": ... men lille Ida vidste nok, hvad hun vidste.
   ... but still little Ida knew what she knew.

10 "The Emperor's New Clothes": troede han nok, at han ikke behøvede at være bange for sig selv, men han ville dog sende nogen først for at see, hvorledes det stod sig.
   He believed, indeed, that he had nothing to fear for himself, but yet he preferred first to send some one else to see how matters stood.

In scanning Hans Christian Andersen, one notices that in his early tales is used mostly to mean 'then' and 'as as', whereas in his late tales is used much less, and then most often in the meaning 'so'. Could this be an indication that, from his early emphasis on the conversational tone, Andersen subsequently turned to emphasising the lyrical tone? Cf. the following examples from 1 "Fyrtøiet" and from 136 "Dryaden". The translations are from Dulcken.

"The Tinder Box":

Saa mødte han en gammel Hex paa Landevejen.
And on the way he met with an old witch.

Hvad skal jeg saa nede i Træet?
What am I to do down in the tree?

Saa ser du tre Døre, du kan lukke dem op ...
Then you will see three doors, these you can open ...

"The Dryad":
Hun følte sig saa lykkelig i det skjønne Frankrig
She felt so happy in the beautiful France

Frankrig var saa udstrakt og herlig, men
France was so great and so glorious, but

... en lille Pige, saa pjaltet, saa fattig, men deilig at se paa
... a little ragged, poor girl, but a pretty one to look at

Toner saa bløde og stærke som Dommedags-Basunen
tones that were at once rich and strong, like the trumpet of the Last Judgement

det vidunderlige Nye, og dog saa Kjendte
the marvellous new things, that seemed yet so familiar

Husene stode saa høje, saa nær paa
the houses stood there, so lofty, so close!

hun troede at fornemme en Luftning derfra, saa ren og mild
she thought she felt a clear pure stream of air which went from them

Der lød et Suk, saa smerteligt dybt.
A deep, painful sigh was heard

The first type is often changed or left out, whereas the second is easy to translate - though it is perhaps also easy to exaggerate the use of it. Constructions like "so great and so glorious", though possible, seem rarer in English than in Danish; however, as yet there is not sufficient statistical evidence to back up this assertion.


A tentative conclusion would seem to be that it is normally possible to render the shade of meaning that is found in the Danish 'small words', but that doing so contributes to making the language of the translation look non-standard. Often the best immediate solution is to leave out these words. But the cumulative effect of such omissions, combined with simplification of syntax and verbatim copying of prepositional phrases that are idiomatic in Danish, but not in English, is to make the English look strange and definitely of poorer quality than the Danish original.


1. I owe this term to Dr. Svetlana Klimenko, who has also helped me with the compilation of the data on which this article is based. back

2. The texts available on the CD-ROM Magnus are: Andersen's Tales in English, tr. Hersholt + six Danish texts: Erik Dal's ed. of the Eventyr og Historier (with Billedbog uden Billeder), Fodreise, Skyggebilleder, Improvisatoren, O.T., Kun en Spillemand. Dulcken's translation of a fair selection of the tales is now available in machine-readable form. It is being processed for inclusion in the Magnus corpus. back

3. Equivalence - cf. Hjørnager Pedersen 1988:15-29. back

4. Dal's edition comprises 172 titles, Hersholt's 168, whereas there are 136 titles in the Dulcken corpus. back

5. The first column above shows the total figures; from down under, these have been supplemented with a second column showing the reduced figures. back

6. Actually, the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary in meaning number 2(c) for up recognizes the usage: They are up in London; she lives up in the Lake District, they moved up north and so on, just as in Danish. There is no warning against using this construction at the beginning of a sentence, but no such examples either.back


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Diderichsen, P. Elementær Dansk Grammatik. Copenhagen 1962.
Hjørnager Pedersen, V. Oversættelsesteori. Copenhagen 1987.
Hjørnager Pedersen, V. Essays on Translation. Copenhagen 1988.
Hjørnager Pedersen, V. "A Wonderful Story of a True Soldier and a Real Princess. Problems in Connection with the Rendition of Hans Andersen's Vocabulary in English." In: de Mylius, J., Aa. Jørgensen & V. Hjørnager Pedersen (eds.). Andersen og Verden. Odense 1993. Pp. 197-209.
Hjørnager Pedersen, V. & Vibeke Appel. "Syntaksen i H. C. Andersens Eventyr - i originalen og i engelsk oversættelse." In: Florentsen, P. (ed.). Oversættelse af Litteratur. DAO 6. Copenhagen 1995. Pp. 127-45.
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Bibliographic information about the text:

Pedersen, Viggo Hjørnager: "H. C. Andersen's Fairy Tales in Translation: Prepositions and 'Small Words'" , 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.