Thursday, October 18, 2007

Goldilocks: A Literary Translation


A tale which may content the minds
Of learned men and grave philosophers
GASCOYNE

ἐὰν μ στραφτε κα γνησθε ς τ παιδα
ο
μ εσλθητε ες τν βασιλεαν τν ορανν
Ἰησοῦς

  1. A truly literary translation will suggest the foreignness of the original without being incomprehensible.
  2. A literary translation will not be literary in ways that the original is not.

I’d like to riff on those two maxims looking at THE STORY OF THE THREE BEARS. (I just ripped off two or three lines from Lingamish, linked way below).

Perhaps I should just let the children play.

Once upon a time, when my kids were younger, we’d go to the library to check out every version of the same storybook we could find. We’d read James Marshall’s version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears (where she spits out the porridge crying “Patooie!”); then we’d “read” through Marshall’s own Spanish translation he calls Ricitos Dorados y los tres osos. Next, we’d breeze through the two Spanish-English bi-lingual versions we found: both Goldilocks and the Three Bears – Ricitos de Oro y los tres osos by two different authors; except one had the Spanish before the English. (If Aprende Ingles con Cuetnos de Hadas: Ricitos de Oro y los Tres Osos had been in the library, I’m sure we would have been fascinated at the instruction for Spanish readers learning English. And if Learn Hebrew Through Fairy Tales: Goldilocks and the Three Bears were there, we’d have tried the English-to-Hebrew learning that David Burke provides by his book.) We did laugh over Jolie Blonde and the Three Huberts (a Cajun Creole – English bilingual translation), and my kid who signs was most moved by the ASL / Sign Writing / English translation. We found Alvin Granowsky’s Bears Should Share! which gives Goldilock’s side of the story; Tamara Lynn Thiebaux’s re-telling, which ends with Goldilocks returning to fix Baby Bear’s chair. We looked at Dusty Lock and the Three Bears, which closes with the girl’s mother dunking her into the bathtub and lovingly cleaning her so that the bears didn’t recognize her when they saw her in the end. Then we’d check out Shelley Duvall’s video version of the story acted out by famous actors including Tatum O’Neal as the bratty Goldilocks.

The versions are DIFFERENT. But my kids would still intuit that they are all really the SAME story. My kids are native speakers of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” They know how radically relative the foreigness and the literary plot and the notional structure and the style and the characters and the lexical-and-grammatical simplicity can be. And they also understand (that THEY HOLD ON -- with the authors, and transposers, and translators -- TO) the rigid restraints of the story.

Now that my kids are older, and I’m more learned, I must first consider “the foreignness of the original.” So in the big research library here on campus I find it as first written by scholar, Dr. Robert Southey, in his self-referential book, The Doctor.

(Alas, it’s not quite the original, if foreign enough, for it’s the 1848 version, that “newer” compilation retitled The Doctor &c.: Complete IN ONE VOLUME and edited by “HIS SON-IN-LAW, JOHN WOOD WARTER, B.D.”

So I think to myself, “1848?! That’s the same year of the original Woman’s Rights Convention on the other side of the Atlantic where the un-original declaration of independence was declared rather sentimentally. Will I be surprised by any sexism in this English language book out of England? Oh no. Here’s a reference to the “FAIR SEX.” And CHAPTER CLXXXVIII is entitled: “FOLLY IN PRINT, REFERRED TO, BUT (N.B.) NOT EXEMPLIFIED. THE FAIR MAID OF DONCASTER. DOUBTS CONCERNING THE AUTHENTICITY OF HER STORY.”)

But I find it among the 650 pages: at the end of CHAPTER CXXIX. WHEREIN THE AUTHOR SPEAKS OF A TRAGEDY FOR THE LADIES, AND INTRODUCES ONE OF WILLIAM DOVE’S STORIES FOR CHILDREN.

The CHAPTER begins in English (followed by an epigraph in italicized Portuguese attributed to BALBUENA):

HERE might be the place for inquiring how far the Doctor’s opinions or fancies upon this mysterious subject were original. . . Original indeed in the Doctor it was not; he said that he had learned it from his poor Uncle William; but that William Dove originated it himself there can be little doubt. . . The Doctor believed that this poor Uncle. . . had deduced it intuitively as an inference from his intuitive skill in physiognomy. . . [to which is added much more English, and a bit of Greek, on the rationale for including this story]. Bearing this in mind [is "Bearing" The Doctor's pun???!!!] I have given a Chapterfull . . . for physiologists and philosophers; but this Opus is not intended for them alone; they constitute but a part only of that “fit audience” and not “few,” which it will find. . . One thing alone might hitherto seem wanting to render it a catholic, which is to say, an universal book, and that is, that as there are Chapters in it for the closet, for the library, for the breakfast room, for the boudoir, (which is in modern habitations what the oriel was in ancient ones,) for the drawing room, and for the kitchen, if you please, -- (for whatever you may think, good reader, I am of opinion, that books which at once amuse and instruct may be as useful to servant men and maids, as to their masters and mistresses) – so should there be one at least for the nursery. With such a chapter, therefore, will I brighten the countenance of many a dear child, and gladden the heart of many a happy father, and tender mother, and nepotious uncle or aunt, and fond brother or sister; [to which is added a quotation, in Greek, from Sophocles]. For their sakes I will relate one of William Dove’s stories, with which he used to delight young Daniel, and with which the Doctor in his turn used to delight his young favourites; and which never fails of effect with that fit audience for which it is designed, if it be told with dramatic spirit, in the manner that our way of printing it may sufficiently indicate, without the aid of musical notation. Experto crede. Prick up your ears then, My good little women and men; and ye who are neither so little, nor so good, favete linguis, for here follows the Story of the Three Bears.

I’ll let you find in your own library the book and the chapter and the nearly “original” THE STORY OF THE THREE BEARS.

But let me spoil it ahead of time: There is NO Goldilocks at all. Rather, the bears are visited by “a little old Woman,” who is “naughty” and “impudent” and who “said a bad word” and who had an “ugly, dirty head” and who not so innocently did all kinds of nasty things to three nice, good bears.

Furthermore, the readers and listeners are left to determine “whether she broke her neck in the fall [after jumping out of the window]; or ran into the wood and was lost there; or found her way out of the wood, and was taken up by the constable and sent to the House of Correction for a vagrant she was, I [the author] cannot tell.”

And still, the Doctor – the self-confessing un-original author – gives additional story-reading instructions to his readers.

Now, allow me to address some of the literary difficulties here, for translation, before returning to our two original maxims. First, there are plenty of contingency difficulties. Who are these story tellers? What of the Greek and Latin and foreign sounding English? Well, I overcome these by answers.com or wikipedia or a trip to the library or my language lexicons or by reading the author’s very explicit statements of intent. Second, there are tactical difficulties. You’ll fly on by the “Once upon a time,” but just getting to it is tough. If you deny that, then you flew by that long (and . . . abbreviated by me) set up in the block quotation above. And, when you read your nearly “original” copy of the story, you may have some difficulty with the epigraph (which is the one in English at the top of this blog post). This is a story for kids, The Doctor says; but it’s all addressed [yawn] to the adults. The Doctor wants to make you understand the context of the story (and just how smart he is) before you read it, so you’ll get it (and get that about him). He sets up some difficult stuff by those tactics. Third, [yawn] there are modal difficulties. The Doctor credits one “G. N.” who has “versified” the story and had it “published specially for the amusement of ‘little people.’” And in both the long quotation (above [yawn]) that sets up the story and in the instructions to adult readers that starts the next chapter, The Doctor acknowledges the modes of orality and literacy and the difference they make. Fourth, what kind of beings do we have to be or to become to appreciate “good Bears” in contrast to “an impudent, bad old Woman”? That, I suppose, is an ontological difficulty. I think George Steiner might agree.

If you’re still with me, we come back to that much more adult question of literary translation.

  1. A truly literary translation will suggest the foreignness of the original without being incomprehensible.
  2. A literary translation will not be literary in ways that the original is not.

But if you’re like my kids, and me, you’re awfully glad for James Marshall’s Goldilock’s cry: “patooie!”


P.S. for more serious, much more intelligent discussion on all "literary translation," pay a visit to:


1 comment:

lingamish said...

Excellent post. So many of the fairy tales of our childhood have "Grimm" origins. Being raised on sappy storylines I think the result is that we are all a bit sappy ourselves.

You're inspiring me to post on Tin Tin and Curious George and Winnie the Pooh and the Boxcar Children, grim stories all of them about loss and alienation hidden behind sappy sentimental prose.