ARTICLES Hans Christian Andersen - in which edition?

Hans Christian Andersen wrote his fairytales more than a hundred years ago, and they were translated into many different languages early on. This means that many of them are now hard to understand for children and youngsters. The question is: What is the best way of presenting Andersen's fairytales?

By Professor Torben Weinreich - Center for Children's Literature

Hans Christian Andersen wrote his fairytales in the period from 1835 to 1872. There ended up being 156 of them - a vast majority of which "written for children".

Since then, the original versions have been read by - and not least aloud for - children. Moreover, children have encountered his fairytales retold as plays, radio plays, operas and ballets, and in our day and age they appear as comic strips and movies, not least animated films.

But many children have also encountered the fairytales in a different prose form: in abridged or otherwise adapted versions. We know that many translations have changed the stories: Have either made them short enough to be little bedtime stories, or have literally removed the rough scenes, apparently to protect the child.
This is very much the case with The Little Match Girl. For many years, one of the most well-known versions of Andersen's fairytales in Denmark was an abridged edition that was translated from German! The argument was that it was too difficult to read the original versions. There were too many strange words, oddly spelled and partly unfamiliar, and the sentence structure was too complicated.

It is far from uncommon that literature of a certain date has been rewritten for children. Between 1896 and 1914 Denmark saw the publication of several books in the series Børnenes Bogsamling (The Children's Library), among them Robinson Crusoe.

And from 1955 to 1976 the series Classic Illustrated was published in Denmark, as in a number of other countries. The question is whether one should be allowed to reproduce adapted versions of Andersen's fairytales, for instance in order to present him to very young schoolchildren. This is a matter of much disagreement, as was illustrated by a public debate in Denmark in 1993-94.

It started when Johan de Mylius, Head of the Hans Christian Andersen Centre in Odense (Andersen's native town), expressed the opinion that it was necessary to present Andersen's fairytales in more accessible and seriously adapted editions, a kind of "translations" from old to new Danish. His argument was that we encounter more and more unserious abridgments, and we risk that the fairytales will henceforward only be read by well-educated people and their children.

This led to a heated debate. One critic attacked de Mylius head-on with terms like "literary fencing" whose only purpose was to support the "spiritual laziness" of our time. Critics and other people who participated in the debate used the argument that a work of art is an inviolable unity that you cannot tamper with without breaking up that unity. "A work is an organism with a modern life," one critic wrote, and added," Anyone who works with texts knows how much might be hidden in the placing of a comma."

But this was too much for the literary editor of one of the big Danish dailies. This was Jens Andersen, who has since written an acclaimed biography on Hans Christian Andersen. He wrote in a commentary:

"Reading fairytales for your children ought to be an amusement, not a philological, language-historical obstacle race. Let us by all means get our treasure chest of fairytales translated into present-day Danish, including all of Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales."

And Jens Andersen did, by the way, make his own wish come true when he retold twenty-nine of Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales in 2000.

Maybe we should bear in mind that seriously adapted versions of the fairytales do not replace the originals, and that the adapted versions may serve some sensible, even pedagogical purposes.

Parents and teachers might benefit from editions that are easy to read aloud and that children will understand better, and such editions will not necessarily erase all memory of the characteristic tone and world of Andersen.

This might be a better solution than the reader him- or herself constantly having to change and explain the text. And we could still use the original versions in other contexts, for instance with older school children who can go on to use the texts for analyses.

And the younger classes might read some of the shorter and more accessible fairytales in the original, together with some adapted ones. The purpose of it all would be to insist on Andersen's fairytales as a vibrant part of our literature and culture - in acknowledgement of their poetic quality and knowing quite well that Andersen's universes have very much become a part of our common frame of reference.

In primary and lower secondary school, serious adaptations can be used for reading aloud and for comparison with both the originals and the strongly adapted translations into, for instance, German and English (an obvious project for cooperation between subjects).
This might lead to discussions of the qualities of the various editions and whether we should stick to the literary classics. The original editions of the fairytales can also be compared with editions of other media, such as animated films or ordinary movies.

This would also give the students a chance to investigate the peculiarities and the fortes and weaknesses of the different media, when it comes to telling a story. How would you for instance reproduce the opening lines of What the Old Man Does is Always Right in an animated film, play, movie or ballet?