Translation Issues

I just got another Lüthi book, the German version: Es war einmal: Vom Wesen des Volksmärchen (6th ed, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983) (I bought it second hand through AbeBooks, and went on a minor rant about the markings in it here). Anyway, the English version, which I’ve got out from the library, is called Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1970), and it’s translated by Lee Chadeayne and Paul Gottwald and has a very interesting introduction by Francis Lee Utley, and even an extra chapter that the German doesn’t have. Which is all great. And of course Lüthi is awesome.

But I hit one gripe (I seem to be griping a lot these days, don’t I?). It’s about the translation, which on the whole is really good. But there is one chapter where, I feel, the translators really missed the mark on a key word. The chapter is called “Der Märchenheld: Das Menschenbild des Märchens”, the translation, “The Fairy-Tale Hero: The Image of Man in the Fairy Tale”. What’s my gripe? Translating “Mensch” to “man”. Generally speaking, that’s not wrong, and most of the time it doesn’t matter all that much. But in this case, it does.

Lüthi starts the chapter by pointing out that almost all of the fairy tales he’s discussed up to that point (this is quite late in the book) are about fairy tale heroines, about women, and that the fairy tale hero, i.e. the male, is actually in rather short supply in the European cycle of tales. He briefly hypothesises that the reason for this is the prominence of males in society – I read that as “patriarchy” – and so society, he says, has given women the more prominent place in tales and in art (it’s an interesting idea, which I’m not going to go into and examine in detail right now). So far so good. But, he says, this societal imbalance hasn’t always been so and not in every case; in mythology, for example, the male hero predominates. And then he goes on to say: “But one thing is quite clear: at the focal point in the fairy tale stands man” (137). Exceptthat’s actually not what he says! In the German, the word is Mensch – “at the centre of the fairy tale is the Mensch“! The Mensch – the human being, not man, the male.

With the foregoing argument about the prevalence of females in fairy tales, you could easily take this (mis)translation to mean that Lüthi is saying that really, in spite of all those women around, what fairy tales are actually about is men. Which he isn’t. Yes, der Mensch is a masculine noun (all German nouns are gendered). But it does not mean male. Mensch is the gender-neutral expression for “human being”; “man” is the wrong translation in this case. It becomes obvious if you say “Eine Frau ist ein Mensch, und ein Mann ist ein Mensch,” and translate “Mensch” as “man”, like in the book: “A woman is man, and a man is man,” – uh, no. “A woman is a human being, and a man is a human being,” that’s what that means.

Lüthi is saying that fairy tales are about human beings, men and women equally; they tell us what humans are like and how they operate, they “show them in their confrontation with the world” (137, pluralisation mine). Looking at “The Fairy-Tale Hero” takes on a different flavour if you consider that “the hero” can be male or female. The scribbling by my predecessor in the margin of my German copy says on that page “All together male heroes = female heroes”. I don’t think she would have come to that conclusion from the English text, which so stridently claims that fairy tales are about man. And that’s why I nitpick small matters like that – it’s just one word, but its meaning makes a difference.


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