Arts, Culture & Media

We love fairy tales — maybe we'd love them more if they were translated right

This story is a part of a series

In Other Words

This story is a part of a series

In Other Words

snow white 16x9.jpg

Illustration from a 1905 edition of Grimms' Fairy Tales. The dwarfs warn Snow White not to accept anything from strangers. (Illustration: Franz Jüttner )

Credit:

Andreas Praefcke via Wikimedia Commons

Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty... they are some of the best-known stories of our time. But how well do we really know these and other fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm? Probably not well at all, since we have generally read sanitized translations.

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Take Snow White. Her stepmother — or mother in some versions — tells the huntsman to take Snow White out into the forest. In the 1823 English edition, the huntsman is directed to "lose her."

In the original German, things are bit different: “I want you to cut out her lungs and her liver, and bring them back to me so that I might boil them in salt — and eat them,” the stepmother commands.

Disney, not surprisingly, opted to use the Anglicized plot — and the rest is history.

The deliberate mistranslations and omissions have flourished ever since, according to Adam Gidwitz, author of A Tale Dark and Grim, In a Glass Grimly and The Grimm Conclusion.

Gidwitz’s versions of these stories, such as Hansel and Gretel and Rumpelstiltskin, draw on the oral origins of the stories, along with Gidwitz’s favorite English translator of the Grimms’ tales: Ralph Mannheim.

“He keeps the lyric quality, as well as all the blood and gore,” says Gidwitz of Mannheim. 

Gidwitz tests his versions of stories on kids. “The first time I ever told these stories to children, I was supposed to be a substitute librarian for a day,” he says. He pulled out a copy of the Grimms’ stories and opened it up to one called Faithful Johannes. In it, children get their heads cut off by their parents.

“I thought, 'Can I read this to second graders?'" Gidwitz remembers. "And I thought, 'Let’s find out!'”

As he started reading the story aloud, he saw some of the children getting nervous. He started making jokes to calm them down and warning them when a scary moment was coming up. Afterwards, a few kids came up to Gidwitz. He says they were shaking — traumatized. “But one of them pointed her finger in my face and she said, ‘That was good. You should make that into a book,'" he says.

And so he did, using the same formula as his first-ever reading: Adding jokes and preparing the listener for the violent parts — and then including all the gore.

(Editor's note: In the audio of this story, you'll hear Gidwitz tell his own version of Snow White, complete with references to JC Penney, Foot Locker and "punks")

Gidwitz’s versions of the Brothers Grimm stories have now been translated back to German. “I get a lot of positive feedback from the Germans,” he says. “They like it when Grimms’ tales get recognized.”

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National Endowment for the Humanities

With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities