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Fairy Tales in Translation


Planché, the "bold knight" of Madame d'Aulnoy according to theater critics, greatly admired her works and others which inspired the Parisian folies féeriques.  Although English-speaking readers and audiences have traditionally associated such stories with children, the tradition which fascinated Planché was not originally aimed at the young but rather was a type of imaginative literature which operated on several levels, the surface credulity belied by strata of witty, often cynical, commentary on human nature and expression of humane, occasionally democratic, ideals (Extravaganzas, i, 207-8; Barchilon, Le Conte 63-4).

Marie-Catherine le Jumel d'Aulnoy was one of the earliest and most sophisticated of the fairy writers, as well as one of the main forces in popularizing such tales.  Rather than being embellished folktales (like those of Charles Perrault or of the later team of Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm), her romances were original literary creations, and as such reflect d'Aulnoy's own cultural values, as well as some borrowed from folktales.  For instance, when a prince marries a girl in a folktale, it is usually because she deserves a reward; she is a commoner, and her boon  is the life of comfort and prestige she will enjoy after enduring much hardship.  In the romances, the same marriage still rewards the girl for merit, but also reflects her birth.  Furthermore, the folktale heroine's worth usually lies in her compassion, resourcefulness, or faith.  Her physical attributes and education are often ignored entirely.  While the romances still prize virtue, the girl's beauty and social graces are always lauded, as are the elegance and chivalry of the boy.

Another source of the aristocratic aura is the fairy writers' strong interest in medieval romance as an alternative to the classically-oriented male academic culture of the time.  Many academicians perceived these tales as anarchistic, for they at least seem to question social privilege (Barchilon, Le Conte 63-4).  In truth, the fairy romances often answer such questions with a reassuring restoration of the aristocratic hero or heroine to a comfortable life because he or she merits such a life; only a relative few actually deny the value of birth.  However, even asking the questions was perceived as disagreeably "democratic" by many acadmicians, as was the use of folk motifs.  The continuing argument between such writers as Charles Perrault and Nicolas Boileau-Despré began the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns satirized in Jonathan Swift's Battle of the Books  (Pomeau 78-81).  Eventually the controversy lost momentum, but the romances, although widely read, were never received into the academic canon, and most slowly died of neglect.  However, some of the most successful tales, usually in abridged forms, survived in the adaptations of playwrights and moralists.

The most widely-read tales became part of the received culture of millions in France, Britain, and, to a slightly lesser degree, North America.  However, retellings penned by moralists interested in educating children lost much of their original sophistication.  In Planché's words, the tradition was "most ludicrously perverted"  (Fairy Tales, xiii).  His extravaganzas restored the asides and the fun of "innocent" sagacity.  His interest in the French tradition of both page and stage is suggested by the fact that of his vast output, the only nursery-tale pieces not French in origin were two comic dramas, a pantomime, a spectacle, an opera, and a revue (respectively, Abudah, or, the Talisman of the Oromanes, 1819; and The Dragon's Gift, 1830; Harlequin Little Red Riding Hood; or, Rodolfo the Wolf, 1818; Chevy Chase, 1836, Oberon 1826; and The Seven Champions of Christendom, 1849).  Of these, only Oberon and The Seven Champions achieved notable success, and Oberon is usually praised for Weber's music and damned for Planché's libretto.

Planché labored to produce accurate translations of Aulnoy's tales in 1853 and 1854, having

     the pleasure of placing for the first time in the hands of English readers those
     delightful tales in their integrity, including several that had been omitted, and
     rendering as faithfully as possible the original text of others which had been most
     barbarously mutilated and woefully misinterpreted, to suit the capacity of children still
     limited to the nursery.  (Fairy Tales of Madame d'Aulnoy, note, iii, 43)

Planché showed the extent of his scholarship when he later produced a similar translation of Perrault's tales.  Visiting prestigious French libraries, where even though "it seemed ridiculous for an 'homme de lettres,' a 'savant,' an 'antiquaire,' to present himself to the authorities . . . and inquire for a copy of 'Mother Goose's Fairy Tales!'," he looked almost obsessively for a first edition of the works (2, 161).  He not only visited collections in Paris but traveled to many of the major libraries of the Continent in search of a first edition, and finally had to content himself with second editions and contemporary journal reviews of Perrault's work  (Recollections, 2 160-61).  (Possibly confusion in the dating of the three earliest versions led Planché to this conclusion; for a discussion, see Jâcques Barchilon, Contes de Perrault, iv-v).  Planché even corresponded with the Duc d'Aumale, who, by consulting the royal archives of France, provided background information in a "courteous letter" which also complimented Planché "sur la grace et l'exactitude de la traduction, ainsi que sur les très bonnes et substantielles notices qui sont à la fin du livre" (Recollections 2, 162).

With d'Aulnoy's works, however, definite first editions were available, and Planché worked at length not only to translate the language as accurately as possible, but to provide notes explaining topical references (usually humorous) and word plays not possible to reproduce in translation.  Such a conscientious translator tried not to stray unnecessarily from the original text.  For instance, rather than bowdlerize two of the tales, Le Prince Marcassin and Le Dauphin, which would
likely have offended English-language readers, he merely summarized them  (xiii).

Planché's attempt to convey d'Aulnoy's elusive prose style, full of play with both sound and meaning, was as close as nineteenth-century English would allow, although generally, the original remains slightly richer in possibility than does the translation.  One of the most notable changes Planché made in the language of his translations involves sentence length.  D'Aulnoy, like her contemporaries, often wrote in very long sentences with several parallel independent and subordinate clauses.  Planché, although he kept close to the original word order and phrasing, often chose to separate the independent clauses into as many sentences, presumably for the sake of readability.

While these strategies in translation deserve note, Planché generally approximated d'Aulnoy's prose style as closely as readable nineteenth-century English would allow.  Moreover, he tried to mirror her verse as faithfully as possible.  Although the bulk of her text utilizes a sophisticated conversational tone reminiscent of the salon, d'Aulnoy peppered her tales with verse, usually representing songs or poems composed by the characters.  Poetry is always challenging to translate, and Planché used longer lines (making rhyming easier, since fewer rhymes were needed); however, the general imagery and voice of d'Aulnoy's originals are suggested by Planché's paraphrases.

Last updated 20 January, 2005

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