A great Dane for all ages

10th December 2004 at 00:00
HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN: Fairy Tales. Translated by Tiina Nunnally. Edited and introduced by Jackie Wullschlager. Penguin Books pound;20

THE STORIES OF HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN. Translated by Diana Crone Frank and Jeffrey Frank. Granta Books pound;15

TALES OF HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN. Translated and introduced by Naomi Lewis. Illustrated by Joel Stewart. Walker Books pound;14.99.

FOR SURE! FOR SURE! By Hans Christian Andersen. Translated by Mus White. Illustrated by Stefan Czernecki. Tradewind Books pound;9.95

Jane Doonan selects editions for adults and children to celebrate next year's bicentenary

Next year's bicentenary of Hans Christian Andersen's birth suggests an appropriate time for us to get to know his best work better: more, at least, of the 156 fairytales and stories he wrote over five decades. Most of the stories we read when young, and which form the collections we share with children today, were published between 1835 and 1845.

Our dependency on translation and our view of Andersen as a writer for children hold us back. He would not be happy about this limited approach.

When he heard that a statue had been planned with children clambering over him, he wrote that his blood boiled. His aim was to be "a poet for all ages... The naive element was only part of the tale; the humour was the salt of it."

The reader with no knowledge of Danish can only appreciate the seasoning if the translation is true to the original texts, which early translations into English were not. In the 1970s, however, readers were able to discover Andersen's range and power in a selection of 80 tales translated by RP Keigwin, and Eric Haugaard's translation of all 156 stories, the first complete collection to be published in Britain. Both are out of print.

This makes two new selections of tales for adults all the more welcome.

Tiina Nunnally's translation of 30 tales for the Penguin edition is edited and introduced by Andersen's recent biographer, Jackie Wullschlager; the Franks have translated 22 tales for the Granta edition, with introduction and notes.

When Andersen's first stories were published, a critic wrote that a new prose was born in Danish literature; that the language had acquired grace and colour, the freshness of simplicity. Andersen caught on paper an equivalence of the oral storyteller's performance to an audience of all ages: a voice speaking with colloquial ease in a range of emotional tones, its diction incorporating idioms, wry asides, humorous interjections and ironic observations. These vital qualities are difficult to translate; nevertheless, the new translations seem more like fluent talking and thinking aloud than writing. While the Franks favour a contemporary turn of phrase, Nunnally's aim is to make the stories "sound lively and natural without sounding too modern"; she relishes repetition, as did Andersen.

Appropriately, in both translations the tone changes in the later stories Andersen wrote for adults.

Both are faithful, as far as I can tell, to Andersen's text in relation to plot and character motivation; his concluding sentences are fully honoured.

The Little Mermaid gains the promise of an immortal soul, the Emperor was not merely vain when he commissioned his new clothes; Andersen's last published tale of 1872, "Auntie Toothache", keeps the bleak ending that sees the spark of genius thrown out with the rubbish. And the Princess sleeps on the pea (Andersen's choice of preposition, which modern translators avoid).

As for the range of stories, the two editions have 13 in common, from 1835 onwards, including "The Fir Tree", "The Snow Queen", "The Shadow", and closing with "Auntie Toothache". Wullschlager's introduction in the Penguin edition offers a vivid portrait of the man set within a critical summary of the three phases of his work as a storyteller: the early tales derived from folklore which were to have an inestimable influence on children's books; the great classical stories of his middle years, when Andersen can be understood as a representative figure of the European Romantic spirit; the revolutionary late experiments in which he reinvents the fairytale as a "modern self-referential genre".

Wullschlager's notes show how many of Andersen's experiences are woven into his work. Her knowledge, insight and warmth for the man and his tales draw us close to him. The introduction and notes of the Franks's Granta edition are rather more detached and scholarly. They record how Andersen's literary career was deeply affected by his family circumstances and the snobbery, rivalries and intrigues of 19th-century Copenhagen. They explore the writer and his times, placing Andersen among his literary contemporaries in Europe, and stress the importance to him of friendship. Then they extend their discussion almost a third of its total length to Andersen's relationships with friends and literary figures in North America, where his work became immensely popular.

Their notes illuminate all aspects of the tales, with 260 references, and never a dull word. These include publication details, literary antecedents, Andersen's personal experiences, definitions of unfamiliar terms, information as varied as how glow-worms create light, the quality of Jenny Lind's voice, and such gems as the comment of Simon Meuling, Andersen's schoolmaster: "You're a stupid boy, who'll never make it."

Frank and Frank have chosen reproductions of the original wood engravings by Vilhelm Pedersen and drawings of Lorenz Frolich, Andersen's earliest collaborators, to illustrate their edition. The Nunnally edition prefaces each tale with reproductions of paper cutouts or silhouettes made by Andersen. He used his exceptional talent for cutting paper in simple or intricate patterns to entertain children and friends from his student days to the end of his life.

For a younger audience, Naomi Lewis collaborates with artist Joel Stewart for the Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, a handsome book aimed at children of about eight and above. Lewis briefly summarises Andersen's life; then follow 13 tales, each prefaced by stories about the story. The text resonates with words as spoken.

Stewart's style - a seamless blending of hands-on mixed media and digital art - is vigorous, unsentimental and humorous, yet capable of expressing the dark side of the tales. Seemingly magical processes have been at work in his pictures, which look as fresh as Andersen's tales must have been to their first listeners.

Andersen's literary game of Chinese whispers, For Sure! For Sure!, could well start a craze in key stage 1 classrooms. The story begins in a coop with a single fallen feather and ends with the reported death of five lovelorn hens. Mus White's translation is faithful to the spirit of the original, all garbled gabbling, clucking, and hooting; Stefan Czernecki's illustrations have bold stylised images in unmodulated hot-gossip colour.

Watch out for the Flying Suitcase: the Danish Tourist Board will send one to UK primaries that register on the website below by next April (schools in Ireland must register by January 8). The stout, shiny scarlet suitcase contains enough information to launch a Year 5 project, plus a chance to win a class visit to Denmark. Also, 44 stories in a new translation by Neil Philip, illustrated by Isabelle Brent, will be published in the spring by David and Charles with Reader's Digest.

More details of the Flying Suitcase pack and competition for Year 5 in Going Places, free with The TES on February 11, 2005, and at www.visitdenmark .com\flyingsuitcase

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