Fables for Technologists by Hans Christian Andersen

By Bjorner, Susanne | Searcher, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Fables for Technologists by Hans Christian Andersen


Bjorner, Susanne, Searcher


Two stellar anniversaries are shaping my two home countries in Europe this year. Spain is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the first publication of volume one of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote de la Mancha. Denmark is observing the 200th anniversary of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen, world-renowned writer of fairy tales. Both events spawn significant events in the worlds of book publishing, performing arts, travel and tourism, and national image-building.

I was in Copenhagen on April 2 for the observation of Andersen's birthday. A top PR firm had worked for over a year, planning the national party. My name had been on the e-mail list--with about 400 other journalists--to receive all announcements, but when I presented myself and my press credentials at Copenhagen's Town Hall at the beginning of the big weekend, I didn't make the cut for VIP coverage of the ballet at the Royal Theatre, the international pop show at Parken soccer stadium, or the fast train shuttle between Copenhagen and Odense, where Andersen was born in 1805, to cover parallel celebrations there. I wasn't too sorry to lose out to The New York Times and The Associated Press--after all, my TV provided better "house seats" to watch those festivities and I didn't have to stand around for hours in the early spring bluster.

Not for Children Only

Although famous and appreciated, Andersen has long been relegated to the nursery as "just a children's storyteller" in English-speaking countries. As adults, we often use the expression "the emperor has no clothes" to denote vanity unbared or that no one is brave enough to speak truth to power. But most of us learned the phrase as children. We were told or read the story of swindlers who convinced a vain king that they were weaving the most magnificent new cloth, one only visible to the wise and elegant, and then proceeded to suit up the king in a suit made from nonexistent cloth and send him out to lead a grand procession. We also understand allusions to an "ugly duckling" or the "princess on the pea." (Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark joked on national television this year that Crown Princess Mary, an Australian commoner before she married him in 2004, had not been subjected to "the pea test.")

In his lifetime (1805-1875) Andersen published 156 fairy tales and stories, but he was first known for his poetry, novels, and dramatic works. An avid traveler (he remarked that "to travel is to live"), he penned travelogues inspired by the 7 years in total (one-tenth of his life) that he "lived" outside of Denmark.

The primary reason that so many English readers have so misevaluated Andersen, though, is poor translations. The first English translations were done by Mary Howitt, who didn't know Danish, so she translated from German editions. Another British translator, Caroline Peachey, simply omitted large sections she did not like or understand. Modern American perceptions of Andersen's work are too often shaped by Disney films rather than books; these works follow in the dubious traditions of expurgation and sugar-coating.

Two new English translations of selected Andersen's tales are more faithful to Andersen's intent: Diana Crone Frank and Jeffrey Frank (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) and Tiina Nunnally, trans., and Jackie Wull-schlager, ed., (Viking, 2005). The definitely adult introductory material in these editions makes clear what has long been ignored, that Andersen intended his stories to be "told for children." Andersen built all his tales as imaginative works of literature for adults to contemplate while telling them to children.

As good as these two translations may be, the selections include only 30 of his 156 stories; with one exception, they do not present the ones I will tell you about now; these are almost never available in book form in English and seldom even in Danish. They have, however, recently become available in digital editions on the Internet.

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