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.
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.