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On Translating H. C.

Andersen
Author(s): Diana Crone Frank and Jeffrey Frank
Source: Marvels & Tales, Vol. 20, No. 2, "Hidden, but not Forgotten": Hans Christian
Andersen's Legacy in the Twentieth Century (2006), pp. 155-165
Published by: Wayne State University Press
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Marvels & Tales

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Diana Crone Frank and Jeffrey Frank

On Translating H. C. Andersen

One day in the last stages of working on our translation of Hans Christian
Andersen's tales, we received an e-mail that was not meant for our eyes. It
began: "Insane doesn't even begin to describe these two." The message was sent

by our freelance copy editor, who lived in Florida, to Houghton Mifflin, our
publisher in Boston. It arrived after we had undone innumerable "corrections"

to our manuscript. The copy editor had lost patience with our insistence on
contractions, pronouns that didn't quite agree with antecedents, and usage that
she found too casual; the last straw was probably our insistence that every two-

syllable "whether" be changed back to the original one-syllable "if." We certainly didn't like being called insane, although we had probably employed that
very word in describing each other during the year and a half of our immersion

in Andersen. Our collaboration wasn't always pretty. It included a lot of door

slamming and announcements like "This is it! I've had it!" To be called insane
by somebody you haven't even met kind of rattles you. Yet looking through the

changes that we had resisted, we realized that perhaps we should take it as a


compliment. The language of Andersen's original Danish hadn't fared much
better when he first began to write his stories.

In 1830, when Andersen was twenty-five, he published a book of poems


to which he attached a fairy tale called "The Ghost" (" D0dningen ") - the first he

ever wrote. Almost soliciting the reader's opinion and encouragement, he intro-

duced the story by saying: "As a child it was my greatest joy to listen to fairy
tales ... I have here retold one of them, and if I see that it meets with approval,

I'll make more use of them, and one day deliver a series of Danish folktales."

Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2 (2006), pp. 155-165. Copyright 2007 by
Wayne State University Press, Detroit, MI 48201.

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DIANA CRONE FRANK AND JEFFREY FRANK


"Don't even think about it" was basically the message Andersen got from the

literary establishment. Christian Molbech, one of Denmark's most influential


critics, was a professor of literary history and the editor of a periodical in which

a scathing review of "The Ghost" was published. Molbech, a stickler for correct
Danish, had himself published a book of tales, and not surprisingly he criticized

Andersen for "hideous grammatical errors" and "sloppy punctuation" - both


charges no doubt justified. Andersen's story, he also opined (Molbech was the
sort who opines), had failed to catch the epic tone of proper folktales, and he
further complained that Andersen had embellished his story with "a motley bag
of fantastic frills in a tone that is too subjective and too droll."

Molbech and other critics objected to sentences such as "her legs beat time
like drumsticks." And they didn't approve of the sort of mixing anthropomor-

phism with curious simile that Andersen liked - for instance, "the gnats performed their quadrilles, and the frogs sat like damp fiddlers, croaking a merry
chorus."

Molbech advised Andersen not repeat the attempt - at least not in the
same way. And while it's probably true that Andersen had been a bit heavyhanded - to our taste he sometimes carried things too far - Molbech and other
critics detested precisely the features that would make Andersen Andersen.

With Molbech's condemnation not forgotten, the overly sensitive


Andersen waited five years before publishing his first collection of fairy tales. By

then he had gotten wiser about handling the critics. He simply pretended that

he was no longer writing for adults an called this little collection "Fairy
Tales, Told for Children." That, as most readers here know, contained "The
Tinderbox," "Little Claus and Big Claus," "The Princess on the Pea," and "Little

Ida's Flowers." Andersen started his new literary enterprise with a line that
reads: "A soldier came marching down the highway. One, two! One, two!" It
looks like pure defiance on Andersen's part.

This was, after all, Danish as it had never been written before. Rather,
Andersen had transformed spoken language into art. Although one of the few
reviewers realized that Andersen was "striving to enter into the livelier and less

orderly discourse of the oral narrative" (Dansk Litteraturtidende), he didn't

approve, and he didn't think the oral style was suitable as literature.
Nevertheless, Andersen, then thirty years old, had begun a literary revolution,

which he continued later that same year with another volume of stories,
including "Thumbelise" and "The Little Mermaid." Andersen himself was

aware that he had created something special. In April 1835 he wrote to a


writer friend, Adalbert von Chamissso, in Berlin, saying, "I think that in these

I have expressed the childlike in a quite remarkable way."


For Andersen the childlike was not a contrived style or a carefully researched
subject. It seemed to have come directly from his own personality. Andersen often
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TRANSLATING ANDERSEN

refers to his own childlikeness (not childishness), and that quality was obvious

to others as well. Jenny Lind, the Swedish soprano whom Andersen adored,
called him a child, and his childlikeness did not disappear with age. In his diary
on 16 April 1871, four years before he died, Andersen quoted the Danish writer

and professor Carsten Hauch as saying that he was "a strange genius of a child"
and that he would always remain a child right into God's heaven.

Childhood seems to have been a source where, if he looked, Andersen


could always find themes for his stories - characters and emotions as well as
details of specific behavior of man and beast. He elevated childhood to a place
of prime importance, not by being cute (Andersen may be sentimental at times,

but he is not cute), or by being unserious, but to get to something essential something uncorrupted by academic prescriptions, intellectual sophistication,
fashion, class, or wealth. He called this essential element "innocence," and a

prime example of this kind of innocence can be found in the character of


Gerda, in "The Snow Queen."
Andersen understood children and their conflicts. And perhaps he used
what seemed to be the language of children to tell his stories because it was the

only way he could be himself. With the fairy tales, he had found - or, rather,

invented - a form of expression that could ignore conventional literary forms

and language. And with it, he invented a world that was as much his own as
the patch of garden behind his childhood home in Odense, where this very
strange child sat by the gooseberry bush with his puppets and performed his
own plays in self-invented languages.

When Andersen's first tales came out in 1835, he had just published his
first novel, The Improvisatore, which became an international best seller. That
novel and subsequent ones, which were written for adults, are not wholly forgotten but rarely read for pleasure, and some were out of print for a time even

in Denmark. The fairly tales for children, though, would develop into a new
genre. With the benefit of hindsight, Andersen defined it this way: "In the
whole realm of poetry there is no domain so boundless as that of the fairy tale.

It reaches from the blood-drenched graves of antiquity to the pious legends of


a child's picture book; it takes in the poetry of the people and the poetry of the
artist. To me it represents all poetry, and he who masters it must be able to put
it into tragedy, comedy, naive simplicity, and humor; at his service are the lyri-

cal note, the childlike narrative and the language describing nature."
But if the childlike makes him modern, it also makes him very difficult to
translate; and shifting between genres - sometimes within the same story - does

not make the job any easier. Many translators have tried to catch Andersen's
voice, and none has ever fully succeeded - and we include ourselves here.

Andersen, who lived to see his tales translated into dozens of languages,

was aware that the results were deplorable. His stories began to appear in
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DIANA CRONE FRANK AND JEFFREY FRANK

English by the mid- 1840s, and new versions have come in a steady stream
since. The most recent ones are our own attempt and that of Tiina Nunnally, an

American. English translations range from the ridiculous - for instance, "The

Ugly Duckling" translated via German to English became in one version "The
Green Duckling" - to the admirable, such as the achievement by the Danish
American actor Jean Hersholt. In 1942 Hersholt published a translation of
every Andersen story known at the time, including the completely impossible

ones - those that depend on puns on Danish words. It was a Herculean task,
which was closely matched by Erik Christian Haugaard in 1974. Both Hersholt
and Haugaard were Danes who lived in America. In Britain there was, above all,
R. P. Keigwin, who published his translations in the 1950s. Keigwin is a scrupulous translator whose virtue is also his drawback. He is so conscientious that
Andersen's stylistic flights of fancy occasionally seem to have a hard time get-

ting off the ground, loaded down as they are by literalness. There are several

other decent translations on the market, so why, one might reasonably ask,
would anybody in his right mind attempt another one?
For us, there were two main factors: one, certainly, was the feeling that the

real Andersen had not yet come through in any English translation; and the

other was that we believed we had an advantage. We both speak and read
Danish, which is Diana's first language, and English, which is Jeffrey's first lan-

guage. So together we had a linguistic range that few other translators had.
Diana grew up with Andersen's stories, and Danes will tell you that if you've
heard many of them from almost before you could speak, you know - without

being fully aware of it - what Andersen sounds like, what his sense of humor
is, what he likes and dislikes; certain phrases are common reference points to
Danes, just as, say, a phrase like "all that David Copperfield kind of crap" (from

J. D. Salinger) would mean a lot to any American of a certain age. You develop
an instinctive reaction to his use of language - even when you encounter him

in English. Being a native speaker of Danish also gives you the advantage of
understanding social subtleties and shadings of language. A lot of Danes of
Diana's generation have so absorbed Andersen and his peculiarities that one
might even say they speak "Andersensk."
That is all very well, of course, but to make Andersen come across like his

own peculiar self in English is almost impossible, unless, of course, a native


speaker of English who also knows Danish is at hand. Jeffrey, a novelist and a
senior editor at the New Yorker magazine, has a good grasp of the nuances in
English. Together, we believed, we could stretch Andersen's reach into English
further than ever before.
Our goal, probably not unlike the goals of all other translators, was to be faith-

ful to Andersen's text, not to leave anything out or put anything in, and above all

to stay true to his voice. We have firsthand reports of how that voice sounded in
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real life. Andersen's friend, helper, and inadvertent tormentor, Edvard Collin,
describes it in his memoir about Andersen and the Collin family:

[T]he tale went on all the time, with gestures to match the situation.
Even the driest sentence came to life. He didn't say, "The children got
into the carriage and drove away" No, he said, "they got into the car-

riage Goodbye, Dad! Good bye, Mom!- the whip cracked, smack,
smack! And away they went. Come on. Giddy up."
People who later heard him giving a reading of his tales will be able
to form only a faint idea of the extraordinary vivacity with which he
told them to children.
It is this vivid, lively, and engaged voice that translators struggle to catch.

But doing so is very tricky Elias Bredsdorff, in his Andersen biography (1975),
quotes Keigwin, who lists some of Andersen's stylistic peculiarities from a trans-

lator's point of view: "He sprinkled his narrative with every kind of conversational touch - crisp, lively openings, to catch the listener's attention at a swoop,

frequent asides or parentheses, a little bit of Copenhagen slang, much grammatical license; and above all, a free use of particles - those nods and nudges
of speech, with which Danish (like Greek) is so richly endowed. So completely

did Andersen maintain the conversational tone in his tales that you are quite
shocked when you occasionally come across some really literary turn."
And there are warnings from Andersen scholar Erik Dal, who points out
that the language in the stories "was not only how children in particular spoke

and thought, but also the way ordinary, nonacademic people used the language. The whimsical tradition of speech, the small words that are so alive, the

unmistakable breaches in logic ... we find ourselves listening to the most intimate shades of meaning our language has to offer, shades so fine that the best
translators often have given up trying to grasp, or at all events trying to repro-

duce, the full combination overtone." Add to that Andersen's happy use of non
sequiturs, merry truisms, puns, and rhymes, and you begin to see the challenge

of Andersen's anarchic prose.


For us, as we hinted earlier, it led to many heated situations, but the argu-

ments were really always the same: to what degree should we let Andersen be
Andersen and reflect what is peculiar in Danish, and to what degree should we

make him sound good in English? One can imagine who insisted on what.
Jeffrey would worry about something sounding like "translatorese," and Diana
would object when the translation seemed to stray from original intent, with
the fervor of Justice Scalia examining the American Constitution.
It is hard to believe that a rather content-free but useful little word like the

conjunctive "And" could start a fight, but it did. Andersen has a tendency to
begin an inordinate number of new sentences with "And," just as children do,
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DIANA CRONE FRANK AND JEFFREY FRANK

and he sprinkles it throughout many stories with abandon. And we did, too but only in early versions. Andersen loves the world "little" and adjectives like
"lovely," "pretty," "magnificent," and "blessed." They are used again and again; it

isn't jarring if you read the stories in Danish and keep encountering a word like

"dejiigi," but in English this sort of repetition becomes unbearable. We quickly


agreed on that. Generally, by the time the fights ended, we had explored what
seemed like all possibilities in an attempt to find a good solution.

In a 1993 monograph about translating Andersen, the Danish expert on


the subject, Viggo Hjornager Pedersen, quotes the Frenchman Joachim du
Bellay, who in 1549 maintained that translations were "forced, cold and awkward" ("contrainte, froide et de mauvaise grace")- Hjornager Pedersen, basically

agreeing with du Bellay, claims, "there are very few translations that readers
prefer above the original." That is probably true - we certainly can't imagine a

way to improve Andersen - but we did want to make Andersen as enjoyable to


read in English as in Danish, while not cheating on accuracy.
We also aimed to make it sound natural to Americans, which introduced
another potential problem. One would think there would be no great difficulty
going from American to English, despite so many different words for the same
thing: lift for elevator, flat for apartment, and all the rest. But when one is try-

ing to get an affectless, natural sound, every word matters. When Granta
brought out the English edition of our translation, we were all keenly aware of
this; we understood that to an Englishman, "straight away" sounds more natu-

ral than "right away." But here's a query we received about a phrase in "The
Snow Queen." We had translated " Kaffe-Commers " as a "coffee klatch," and a
Granta editor wrote to us, " I'd never heard of a klatch before, but fortunately

the Concise Oxford didn't let me down ('noun, N. Amer., a social gathering')."
"A tea party doesn't have quite the same ring," the editor continued, "and a cof-

fee morning would have to be in the morning; so perhaps we could abandon


the drinks and have 'a giant gossipfest.'" We ended up with "a tea party." There

were changes for the English edition that sounded absolutely jarring to us, but

of course we understood. At the end of "The Snow Queen," Kai says to Gerda,
"'You're really something, the way you ran around.'" Granta informed us that
"this is a completely U.S. expression, so we need an altogether new look for it.

Suggestion: 'Well, you certainly led us a proper dance.'" And some of the sug-

gestions, which sounded normal to English ears, sounded borderline obscene


to us. In "Auntie Toothache" the narrator had mentioned "the little pieces of
candy." For Granta, a better way to put it was "the sweeties" - which for us
sums up the risks of a uniform English American edition of Andersen.
Every translator of Andersen has struggled with the same difficulties, and
it is tempting to rely on other people's solutions and consult earlier translations.

We did, too, but very little. We looked at a lot of translations, including those
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awful Victorian ones that are floating around on the Internet, but we read them

before we started. We did not readily seek help from our predecessors, because

we wanted to listen to Andersen's voice and his voice only. That is not to say
that we never looked at other English versions. We certainly did, but only as a

last resort - curiosity as to how certain seemingly impossible phrases were

approached. Almost always, we discovered that everyone else found them


impossible, too.
Some stories were relatively easy to translate, some were very challenging,

and some, which depend on puns or plays on words, are hopeless tasks.
Among the more difficult translations were, for different reasons, the intro-

duction to "The Snow Queen," virtually all of "The Shadow," and "By the
Outermost Sea," in the last story simply because there are passages that are hard

to understand even in Danish. "Outermost Sea" is about explorers freezing to


death near the North Pole. The title comes from a line in Psalm 139, and the
story contains at least one passage that we struggled to understand; we even

consulted a Danish theologian, who had no certain suggestions. "By the


Outermost Sea" is not widely known, and it's not included in most selections
of Andersen stories in English. Jean Hersholt, who clearly didn't quite understand the passage either, actually skips over the knottiest part:
[E] very day he read a portion [of the Bible] , and often as he lay on his

couch he remembered the words of holy comfort, "If I take the wings
of the morning and dwell in the outermost parts of the sea, even there

shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me." Under the

influence of those sublime words of faith, he closed his eyes. Sleep


came to him and dreams came with sleep. He dreamed that, although
the body may sleep, the soul must ever be awake. He felt this life, and

he seemed to hear the well-known songs so dear to him.


Our version was this:

and he read a passage every day. As he lay there, he was often comforted by the holy words: "If I took the wings of the morning, I would

dwell by the outermost sea, and even there you would guide me, and
your right hand would hold me fast." With those words of truth and

faith in mind, the sailor closed his eyes; sleep came, and dreams in
which his spirit felt the presence of God. His body rested, only his
soul was alive, and he sensed it like melodies of favorite old songs.
Hersholt chose to rewrite Andersen; we tried to stick to Andersen's words.

The word that Hersholt translates as "couch" we reduce to "there," because the
story is actually set inside an igloo, and "couch" in modern English didn't have

quite the right connotations. But as for who is closer to Andersen's intended
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DIANA CRONE FRANK AND JEFFREY FRANK

meaning, we honestly don't know, because we don't totally understand, and


Hersholt didn't either. We included the story because it was so different and
also because it has an interesting historical connection to the abolitionist rebel
leader John Brown, who was hanged at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

How did we choose which stories to translate? We asked advice from people such as professor Johan de Mylius, who runs the Hans Christian Andersen
Center in Odense, although we had decided on a lot of stories already. We had

certain space constraints, so we ruled out novellas like the "Ice Maiden."
Because our book was being handled by a trade publisher, we had to include a
large number of tales from the canon, and by far the greatest number in our
book fall into this category. (The selection is meant to give a complete rich sense

of Andersen's work, and we made it a point to select stories from each decade

of Andersen's life.) As Andersen grew older, he wrote less for children and
stopped adding the words "for children" to the title pages; his breakthrough

collection, from 1844 - the one that included "The Ugly Ducking" and "The
Nightingale" - was called New Fairytales (Nye Eventyr ), and in 1852 he started
to use the Danish word for stories ( historier ). Andersen scholars are now pay-

ing fuller attention to later stories, which tend to be both more preachy and

sentimental than the earlier ones. These late stories may be indispensable to
scholars, but for sheer enjoyment, and originality, a lot of them don't measure

up to the early ones. There are, to be sure, many exceptions - for instance, the

last story Andersen ever published, "Auntie Toothache." The story is not for
children; the structure is complicated, the humor sardonic, and the rhythm of

Andersen's prose is jazzy and inventive. Its first-person narrative still feels

entirely modern in the sense that a great impressionistic painting seems


untouched by age. One can only wonder where he was going as an artist. With
a few more years, would there have been a second Andersen revolution?
We worked sitting side by side with the Danish text in front of us and sim-

ply translated sentence by sentence into the best English parallels we could
find. Then we would leave it for several days. After a translation had "rested,"

we would print out two copies and independently read the story in English.

After comparing notes, we would check the agreed-upon changes against


Andersen's original. This process was repeated several times. In the very last
reading of a story, we would read the story entirely in English terms. The final

excruciating reading was after the copy editor had made changes we didn't
want and we had to change them back.
It is almost impossible to talk about the finer points of a translation with
only one language available to make the points. But one way to convey some of
the problems is by comparing translations to see how they succeeded or failed.

The opening line of "The Snow Queen" is an excellent illustration of


Andersen's vivid style, and we did it this way: "All right, let's get started. When
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we're at the end of the story, we'll know more than we do now, because there
was an evil troll, one of the worst - it was the Devil." The first words, an exhor-

tation, are addressed directly to the children who are listening. With the next
sentence, Andersen becomes one of them - "When we're at the end of the story,

we'll know more than we do now" - and then in a huge non sequitur he speaks
like a child - "because there was an evil troll." That jump flaunts grammatical
rules and conventional logic to such a degree that other translators have shied
away from it. Our copy editor was furious.
Jean Hersholt did it this way:

Now then. We will begin. When the story is done you shall know a
great deal more than you do now.

He was a terribly bad hobgoblin, a goblin of the very wickedest


sort, he was the devil himself.

Hersholt leaves out "because" and begins a new paragraph to make the jump
seem less flagrant.

When Hersholt's collection came out, written English was more rulebound perhaps, but in 1974 Haugaard was no more willing to break the rules.
He follows Hersholt by leaving out "because" and making a paragraph break.
All right, we will start the story; when we come to the end we shall
know more than we do now.

Once upon a time there was a troll, the most evil troll of them all.
He was called the Devil.

Hersholt and Haugaard made Andersen sound more conventionally


acceptable (although quite disjointed). But because we had both languages
covered so well, it was somehow less risky for us to let Andersen be Andersen.

And once the precedent was set, Tiina Nunnally, who is American and a veteran translator, could feel free to do the same a year and half later. Her opening lines go as follows: "All right! Now let's begin. When we reach the end of
the story, we'll know more than we do now, because there was an evil troll. He
was one of the very worst; he was the Devil!"

Many sentences in the first book of "The Snow Queen" are complicated,
but Andersen never lets go of the appearance of childlike speech. He uses no
"big" words, only words that a child wouldn't use himself. We tried to do the
same, and the only "adult" word we used is "distorted."
The first book of "The Snow Queen" also contains an example of an argument Diana won. Quite often Andersen, having toodled along in the past tense,

will suddenly throw in a "now" where a grammarian would expect a "then."


Diana saw this as reinvigorating, like a light electric shock, a charge of energy. Just

before the divorce papers were served, Jeffrey surrendered. So in our version of
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DIANA CRONE FRANK AND JEFFREY FRANK


"The Snow Queen," where the nasty trolls are running around with their right-iswrong mirror, it reads, "In the end there wasn't a country or a person it hadn't dis-

torted, and now they wanted to fly up to heaven and make fun of the angels and
god himself." Hersholt, Haugaard, and Nunnally, however, use "then" or "at last."
("At last," we both agree, has the opposite effect of 'Andersen's "now.")

We also occasionally ran into issues of political correctness. William Glyn


Jones has complained that American political correctness "cleaned up" his translation of eleven Andersen stories to a greater extent than the Victorian translators.

He says that he couldn't use the expression "black magic" and that the word
"white," even when describing a fly, was forbidden. By such strict standards, our

translations are definitely not PC., but in the opening of "The Shadow" there is

an example where political correctness and modern usage coalesce.


Here is how Hersholt translates the first lines of "The Shadow": "It is in the

hot countries that the sun burns down in earnest, turning people there a deep
mahogany-brown. In the hottest countries of all they are seared into negroes,
but it was not quite that hot in this country to which a man of learning had
come from the colder north."

And Keigwin: "In the hot countries, my word! How the sun scorches you.
People become quite brown, like mahogany, and in the very hottest countries
they get burnt into negroes. But now we're only going to hear about a learned
man who had come straight from a cold climate to a hot one, where he seemed
to think he could trot about just as if he were at home."

And the Franks: "In the hot countries the sun really burns. People get as
brown as mahogany, and in the hottest countries they get burned black. It so
happened that a learned man traveled from one of the cold countries to one of
the hot countries."

As you can tell from these very different solutions, "The Shadow" is diffi-

cult to translate, but the key point is of course "negroes" versus "black."
Certainly "negro" would rarely be used today except in a deliberate attempt to

be ironic or to express racial bias. It also feels obsolete. "Black" is much more
up to date and neutral when it comes to race. Since Andersen presumably did

not mean to denigrate African Americans - a term that would have sounded
silly in context - we chose to use "black."
And finally there is this peculiar phenomenon: in English, Andersen never

grows old, because new translations appear, and we don't know of any translator of prose who translated into obsolete language. In Andersen's best tales, his
voice in Danish is completely fresh and fun, but the stories do occasionally con-

tain archaic words - and some of these words lose their museum quality in
translation. For instance, in the beginning of "The Tinderbox" - an obsolete
word, but the one that the story is known by - the soldier has a "rucksack" on

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TRANSLATING ANDERSEN

his back, a perfectly recognizable word. In Danish it is "torny ster" which fell
into disuse in the mid-twentieth century.

As times passes, more and more words in Andersen's tales will become
obsolete, and in Denmark there is talk about translating Andersen into modern

Danish in order to keep children interested. If that happens, we hope the


changes will be minimal. (What, after all, is another word for "mead"? And
wouldn't it be a pity to lose the original?) It would be very easy for modernity

to overwhelm the essential Andersen - his childlikeness; it is what keeps his


voice perpetually fresh, and that is what always presents the greatest challenge

to a translator. Andersen is an artist whose language is rich with the startling

imagery of childhood. And in the end, all translations, like the character in
Andersen's story, are shadows of the original. The difference is that in the story

the Shadow triumphs over the original, and in the real world Andersen will not

be surpassed by his shadows.


Works Cited
Andersen, Hans Christian. The Complete Andersen . Trans, and ed. Jean Hersholt. Illus.
Fritz Kreidel. New York: Heritage Press, 1942.

by Virginia Haviland. New York: Doubleday, 1974.

Copenhagen: Hans Reitzels Forlag and C. A. Reitzels Forlag, 1963-1990.


York: Viking, 2004.

Atheneum, 1978.
Diana Crone Frank and Jeffrey Frank. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

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