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Understanding the Depth of Translating Children’s Books and Fairy Tales Into and From German

German fairy tales have had a profound impact on children around the world for multiple centuries. Tales like Rapunzel, Snow White, and Little Red Riding Hood continue to be popular in a plethora of non-German speaking countries.

Of course, such popularity is only possible because fairy tale collections like Grimm’s Fairy Tales have been translated into a variety of languages. And as you might imagine, translating children’s books and fairy tales into and from German is a complex process. Join us for a journey into the complexities and intricacies required for an accurate translation.

Germany’s Importance in Storytelling

Before the late 18th century, children’s stories and fairy tales were intensely local. Each culture and area had its own stories, often used to teach good manners and morals to children in a narrative, playful way. Fairy tales have been around for ages; but it was the Brothers Grimm, born in 1785 and 1786, who would forever change the way stories were told.

The Grimm brothers were the first to collect and write down the stories that had become oral tradition into one publication accessible even to lower class families. The famous story of Rapunzel, for example, now a major Hollywood motion picture called “Tangled,” had its origin in the 10th century. Other, similarly famous fairy tales, had similarly early origins. Through the Grimms, they gained nationwide popularity.

More than 200 years later, Grimm’s Fairy Tales has become one of the most popular books in the world, setting the stage for more modern German children’s stories that continue to thrive in bestseller lists worldwide.

But how have these stories gained such global notoriety through the ages? The answer: translation that relies not just on word-for-word transcription, but a careful consideration of context.

Understanding the Context

Any translation can only be successful if the translator understands the context in which the original text was written. Intend is not always easy to infer, but comprehending the situation in which the original author composed his work is a crucial part of getting the translation right.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, were united by a simple goal: to educate young children on manners, ethics, and morals. Any translation that would lose these essential goal would not be true to the original text. Similarly, more modern German children’s stories, such as the novels by Michael Ende and Cornelia Funke, were written as introductions for children into the context on fantasy and literary escape, concepts that need to come through in any translation for the success to span languages.

Of course, historical context matters just as much. Grimm’s Fairy Tales were (ironically, considering the name of their publisher) relatively grim, seeking to essentially educate children through scare tactics. In the original Cinderella, the evil step sisters cut off different parts of their foot just to fit into the mysterious shoe. The prince is eventually alerted to their presence by pigeons, who proceed to pick out the sisters’ eyes.

Naturally, more modern versions of the same, iconic stories are not nearly as violent. In Disney’s iconic 1950 movie, the stepsisters merely try on the shoe despite the fact that it clearly doesn’t fit. Both versions contain the same theme: kindness and compassion are preferable to greed and selfishness. But because of the era for which they are made, they deliver that message in very different ways.

From Fairy Tales to Professional Translations

In other words, translating fairy tales and children’s stories into and from German is a perfect example of the in-depth nature good translations require. Contrary to popular belief, translation does not simply mean a word-for-word transcription of the original text. Instead it demands an examination and understanding of the underlying meanings, intentions, and context. Add to that the fact that fairy tales are often transcribed from outdated languages no longer in use, and the complex nature of translation comes into view.

Fortunately, most translation professionals know about this complexity, and are cognizant of the meanings behind the words as they translate texts from one language into another. To learn more about partnering with professionals who will translate both words and meanings into your desired language, contact us.

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