The Turnip Princess

A few weeks ago during one of our big group discussions, Shelley brought up a fascinating new discovery of fairytales (500, to be exact) that have just been unearthed after 150 years by historian Franz Xaver von Schönwerth in Germany. I had heard of the news before, but I couldn’t for the life of me find the exact article I had read when I learned about it. But guess where I found it?

…Ashton Kutcher’s twitter. Thanks, man!

Anyway, I reread the article last night and read one of the fairytales in Von Schönwerth’s collection (which interestingly enough is called “Scarab Beetle” because scarabs bury their eggs — their most valuable possessions — just as fairytales hold ancient wisdom and knowledge, the “most valuable treasure known to man”). The fairytale I read is called “The Turnip Princess,” which tells the story of a young prince who meets a cursed witch who tells him how to meet the beautiful wife of his future (…by hiding a nail underneath a turnip). If you read this short fairytale, you might notice some of the same things I did the first time around: the translation seems a bit… off. I’m no expert in German (auf wiedersehen!) but I can still tell when reading the English translation that this fairytale was definitely not meant to be told in English. For example, several word choices and the sentence structure seem very awkward, particularly when read out loud.

“So the moral of the story is that stabbing people with rusty nails is the key to a healthy relationship” (see link below)

I think the problem with translating fairytales (and poetry, too) is threefold: the words and the meaning of those words are immediately changed, the flow of the story is made a bit awkward, and the overall “magic” factor is lost as a result of these changes.  When my parents used to read me fairytales in bed, I would always love to imagine losing myself in these fantastical worlds of angelic princesses and glittering mermaids, wicked queens and romping unicorns. But the magic was totally lost on me when I read “The Turnip Princess,” and I think this says a lot about how important language is to telling stories. Isn’t it strange how you can be telling the same story in another language, yet when conveyed in a different language, the story completely changes? No doubt, the message contained within the framework of the story is the same, but the feelings and emotions that different words and the sounds and flow they stir up are so very different.

All of this makes me curious about Von Schönwerth’s intentions: was his target audience children, or adults? I can definitely tell that he didn’t gloss up the stories or interpret them according to any personal agenda; he translated these stories factually and faithfully. But what if he didn’t? Would that make them more enjoyable? Ironically more truthful?

I really encourage you all to try reading fairytale if you can spare two minutes. It makes reading responses like this one worth the laugh.

2 thoughts to “The Turnip Princess”

  1. Your post reminds me of a story a anthropology professor once told me (and twenty or so other people.) She was living in Tanzania during the late 70s. American movies were popular there but they were the low class, C-movie, horror stuff: man-eating tomatoes and the like. She wanted to introduce her friends to popular American culture so she chose the most popular series of movies at the time: Star Wars. However, they were bored. They didn’t get it. If it were “A Phantom Menace” or “the Emperor Strikes Back”, this would be understandable. (I include “The Emperor Strikes Back” because of the Ewoks and the improbably shotty construction of the Death Star.) In Tanzania, though, they had no concept of space travel, aliens or science fiction so it just seemed weird. They did have the concept of strange monsters though so man-eating tomatoes made sense to them.

    No matter what happens, when a cultural form is taken from its place of origin and brought to another, a change in meaning happens because as you said, there aren’t the same words, concepts, and associations. That’s why I think a good translation isn’t “literal.” When I was learning a new language, we were told not to think in English because our idioms and thought patterns just would apply. Instead, I think you have to get at the meaning and realize that it may have to be augmented to appeal to the new audience. Usually this just happens anyway. To use another random example, Japanese Rap has a different meaning to Japanese people than Rap does to American people. To Japanese people, it’s about the rhyme, the style; it’s something different and it annoys the older generation. It doesn’t have as much to do with African American experiences (other than fashion styles; they tend to copy those more faithfully).

    This issue gets even more complex when you talk about context, translation and meaning in regards to bigger books like the Bible or Koran and even the Constitution. Maybe for a more effective fairly tale Von Scconwerth should have done an intro explaining the significance of turnips and rusty nails to Germanic peoples at that time. As writer’s this can give us even less control over our audience and the meaning of our writing when we’re dealing with a cross-cultural audience. Also, if you’re lucky enough to have some of your work survive, it could be completely misunderstood because the new audience you didn’t intend for doesn’t know your context or intent and tends to fill that in with their context and purpose.

  2. Very interesting post. That’s something I’ve never really thought about, how translating poetry sort of defeats the purpose. The whole point of poetry is to create that flow you mentioned; the way the words are organized and appeal aesteically to the reader is just as important as what the poetry is talking about.

    I’ve been trying to read a book called “Iron John” by Robert Bly which is the author’s rendition of a German fairytale by the Brother’s Grimm. I’m not sure whether the original was closer to the form of a book or poetry, but it’s possible that Bly chose to extend the tale into a longer piece because just duplicating it and translating it to English would detract too much.

    Thinking about this topic makes me uneasy, in the sense that I could be missing out on some of the best poems and fairy tales of all time just because of a language barrier. I am automatically exlcuded from the magic of the author’s work. Learning of an epic poem or fairy tale from a friend who speaks the language it is written in would make me want to learn the language so I can enjoy it.

    On another note, the book I mentioned earlier has helped me appreciate the value of fairy tales. They consist of timeless life lessons that have survived from who knows how far back, and can still be made relevant to today’s person. Fairy tales, or at least the Iron John Story, are so old that some precede writing itself, and were told orally over the centuries.

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