Language focus | 07.05.2010

Translations can influence entire cultures

Translations have always had a great influence on the lives of people all over the world, these days probably more than ever before. People come in contact with translations on a daily basis, often unconsciously, e.g. in the form of manuals, commercials and books. Translations do not only enable people from different countries to communicate, get an insight into different cultures or do business abroad. The historical study of translation in particular has shown that translations can be responsible for significant changes in cultures and societies at a particular point in time.

This is especially true when it comes to the translation of literature. Translations can change the taste and preferences of different groups of people and even influence prevailing ideologies in societies at a specific time in history. The literary genre of fairy tales is a very good example of this. These days, the most famous and best known fairy tales are Grimm’s fairy tales (Kinder- und Hausmärchen [KHM]). Fairy tales can be described as entertaining and fanciful, and almost all over the world, the fairy tale is seen as some of the most important stories written for children.

It can be said that the Brothers Grimm’s KHM have gained worldwide and continued popularity due to the various translations. Today, their tales are available in about 160 languages. This achievement can be attributed to their first translation into English, the German Popular Stories, published in 1823, at a time when fairy tales were not regarded as appropriate reading for children in England. Before the 19th century, English children’s literature was subject to strict constraints, it was highly didactic and moral, because children were supposed to learn about the facts of life and study math and history rather than finding amusement in fairy tales.

This ideology began to change with the emergence of Romanticism in Europe. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s collection of fairy tales found approval amongst littérateurs in Great Britain and also developed an increased interest in British fairy tales. Amongst the Grimm’s followers was London solicitor Edgar Taylor, who would produce the first English translation of the KHM. He was an active supporter of fairy tales in general and had a personal interest in improving children’s reading. Given the prevalent ideas and strict rules of educators at that time, this was not an easy endeavour.

In order to make the translation acceptable in the target country England, Taylor had to adhere to the prevailing ideology of children’s upbringing in nineteenth century England. This becomes clear when comparing the original KHM (Taylor used the editions of 1812 and 1819 as source text) and his translation. In particular, three topics were to be treated with special care, namely that of religion and superstition, sexuality and violence. Taylor did not translate those tales with a religious content, e. g. “Marienkind” (“Mary’s Child”). In other cases, his translation strategies include alterations of religious contents, for instance in “The Fisherman and his Wife” (“Von dem Fischer und siine Fru”). In Taylor’s version, the Fisherman’s wife doesn’t wish to become “the dear God”, but “the lord of the sun and moon”.

Also sexuality was a topic to be avoided in Taylor’s translation. In KHM 1, “Der Froschkönig oder der eiserne Heinrich” (“The Frog King or Iron Henry”), the princess and the frog “fell asleep together happily”, after she threw the frog against the wall, which led to the prince’s disenchantment. Taylor’s princess is not only much nicer than her German counterpart and also obedient to her father; she also marries her prince, of course with the consent of her father. The sleeping part was omitted completely.

The most significant characteristic of the Grimm’s’ early KHM is arguably that of violence. Criticised even in their own academic circle, it can be understood why parents might be reluctant to read some of the early tales to their children. A very good example of this is “Snow- Drop”, today commonly known as “Snow White” (“Sneewittchen”, later “Schneewitchen”). Not only demands Snow-Drop’s wicked stepmother the murder of the child, she also believes she eats Snow-Drop’s lungs and liver (and clearly enjoys it). With children readers in mind, Taylor omitted these cruel parts of the story, e.g. in his translation the evil queen does not ask her servant to kill the princess.

In view of the translation’s success, it can be argued that Taylor’s translation strategies clearly paid off. German Popular Stories were so popular that it led to a second edition and even reprinting. Of course, the tales have changed since then, different versions have been published, whether in Germany, England or other countries. In retrospect, however, it cannot only be argued that thanks to Taylor’s efforts children were finally allowed to read fanciful and entertaining literature again, it can also be said that Taylor’s translation led to the creation of a new genre, namely that of the classic English fairy tale as we know and love it today.


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