Roald Dahl

Translation | “I Guess You Think You Know this Story”: Roald Dahl’s Cinderella

In the latest in our series of fresh explorations of the work of Roald Dahl, in collaboration with Cardiff University, Sally King explores his take on the Cinderella story, and the trials of its translation into French, by Anne Krief.

“I guess you think you know this story”. Roald Dahl begins his version of Cinderella with this challenge to readers. This opening line sets the tone of the poem, which is rich with allusions to different influential versions of Cinderella from across time and place. The poem forms part of Dahl’s collection of parody fairy tales, appearing as Revolting Rhymes in 1982. In the same year, the French translation of Dahl’s tales by Anne Krief was published under the title Un Conte Peut en Cacher un Autre. Krief’s approach illuminates how translators are creative agents, and Krief seems to have harnessed this to celebrate Dahl’s work.

But, in the process of translation and adaptation, there is also an inevitable censorship. While translators and adapters interpret and interrogate a text, they present a version of the text that is coloured in a particular way. Translators and adapters conceal and reveal, consciously and unconsciously, in response to multiple demands. They are under pressure from language, culture, society, law and media. Translators and adapters can approach their resulting artistic and social responsibility in a variety of ways. Some may relish the power to obscure elements of the text. Others will take a pragmatic view and engage in a game of give-and-take. Krief seems to adopt the pragmatic approach, as we shall see.

Having defined the “interpretant”, the framework within which the translator or adapter works, as interpretive and interrogative, Lawrence Venuti, in his 2007 essay ‘Adaptation, Translation, Critique’ (2007), goes on to distinguish between formal and thematic interpretants. Formal interpretants work at the level of the choice of word and style of the text. Thematic interpretants shape broader aspects, such as generic codes or cultural conventions.

In his discussion of the “interpretant”, Venuti also emphasises how an interpretant is applied not only by the adapter or translator, but also by the critic, journalist, academic or anyone engaging with the text. Here again the “interpretant” can be formal or thematic. The critic examines the translation or adaptation from a particular perspective, presenting a series of claims as universally true. These claims actually result from the critic interpreting, interrogating and censoring a translation or adaptation and its relation to the translated or adapted text. This process is inevitable, but it is important to be aware of it. I am a white, British, female PhD student aged almost thirty, so I will handle my analysis in a certain way that is likely to differ from readings shaped by other nationalities, genders, social statuses and ages. What’s more, my research topic of fairy tales will give my “interpretant” a particular shape.

In light of this, let us consider how Krief translates Dahl’s Cinderella. In her translation, Krief interprets, interrogates and indeed censors Dahl’s text. First, let’s take a look at the thematic aspects, then formal aspects.

Thematic interpretants

The generic codes or cultural conventions arising in Krief’s translation of Dahl principally relate to fairy-tale tropes. Dahl and Krief repeatedly allude to different versions of Cinderella that form key texts in the tale’s historical trajectory. These versions stem from a range of cultures and were recorded in various languages. Inspired and influenced by these versions, Dahl and Krief make notable use of three elements of the Cinderella tale: the slipper, the flight from the ball and the beheading, which will now each be explored.

The slipper

The tale of Cinderella has shape-shifted considerably across time and place, during which her slippers have been made from different materials. A significant and much-debated change was introduced by Charles Perrault in his French version of Cinderella, first published in 1697. In written medium, he recorded tales with predominantly oral sources, while adapting versions circulating in the literary salons. In the process, he introduced some key changes, including famously rendering the French term for squirrel fur “vair” as the French term for glass “verre”. There have been numerous speculations as to the cause of this alteration: a translation error? A printing mistake? Creative intervention? A means of updating, as the prestige and aristocratic associations of squirrel fur became lesser-known? Perhaps even parodic word-play inserted by Perrault? Whatever the reason, this major shift has been inherited by most modern French and English readers of Cinderella. In mid-nineteenth-century Germany, the Brothers Grimm produced their versions of Cinderella, in which she attended three balls wearing a different pair of slippers each time: silk, silver and pure gold.

In Dahl’s parody of the tale, when the Fairy Godmother comes to Cinderella’s aid, a rather demanding Cinderella gives her orders, including: “…’I want…silver slippers, two of those!’…”. The choice of footwear is particularly interesting, since silver aligns the shoe with the precious metals adopted by the Brothers Grimm, rather than the glass slipper of Perrault. When we consider Krief’s translation of Dahl’s line, the French text is equivalent to “Silver slippers lined with mink fur”. The controversial fashion statement made by mink fur can be enjoyed by most modern readers at face value. But the underlying reference to the debate around squirrel fur adds a further degree of entertainment for audiences who are familiar with this affair. French readers are more likely to be aware of Perrault’s fur/glass choice, to which Krief alludes. She situates the poem both in and in reaction to the fairy-tale canon, and manipulates Dahl’s text in the process.

The flight from the ball

Alongside the slipper, Cinderella’s hasty departure from the ball is another key motif. Dahl adds a creative and ludic spark when the Prince takes hold of Cinderella’s dress in trying to restrain her and ends up ripping it. This leaves Cinderella to depart scantily clad and to drop a slipper in the hurry! The incident offers an unusual spin on the idea of Cinderella’s dress “vanishing”, reminiscent of an aspect of Perrault’s Cinderella. She betrays orders from her Fairy Godmother and has all her finery disappear at midnight as she is leaving the ball. She manages to escape dressed in her rags, but is spotted by one of the guards. Cinderella’s humiliation is taken a step further by Dahl by his complete disrobing of Cinderella. Krief preserves this aspect of Dahl’s text and remains fairly close to the depiction of the deed. She seems to have judged this reference as central to Dahl’s fairy-tale imagery, and deemed it suitable for her translation.

The beheading

The nature of the slipper and Cinderella’s embarrassing departure from the ball refer to the evolution of the Cinderella story. Thirdly, the step-sisters come to a predictably sticky end as Dahl has them beheaded by the Prince for trying to fool him during the shoe-test ritual. This too hints at various tales that form part of the trajectory of the Cinderella tale, while also giving a characteristically Dahlian twist. The abundant bloodshed here is reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm’s version in which the sisters chop off their toes and heels in an attempt to make the slipper fit.

The decapitation in Dahl also recalls an earlier predecessor of Cinderella, an Italian tale called The Cat Cinderella, recorded by Giambattista Basile and published in the 1630’s. There, Cinderella plots against her step-mother, who is looking into a chest when Cinderella drops the lid to decapitate her. In contrast, Perrault’s late seventeenth-century French Cinderella places value on being sweet, kind and forgiving, and avoids explicit violence. In other aspects of her translation, Krief seems to align her text with the French tradition of Cinderella, by re-invigorating Dahl’s text with references to Perrault. These references include the fur-lined slipper as we have seen, and also the approach to rhythm, rhyme and metaphors, as will be shortly examined. However in terms of the gore involved, Krief steps away from Perrault’s version, opting to conjure up Dahl’s gruesome reference to beheading. It could even be argued that she emphasises Dahl’s imagery as will now be seen.

Formal interpretants

Having examined thematic interpretants, now let’s take a look at the formal interpretants. These encompass Krief’s use of metaphors, foreign and archaic language, rhythm and rhyme.

Metaphorical language

Throughout the poem, Krief embraces with verve Dahl’s metaphorical use of language. In depicting the beheading of the step-sisters, Krief refers to their heads rolling around on the floor like pumpkins, an image not used by Dahl. Krief’s version is another nod to Perrault, the inventor of not only the glass slipper, but also the pumpkin coach. Theorists Bruno Bettelheim and Marina Warner present Perrault as a pioneering figure, who introduced these now widely-known elements, used in tales in the UK, US and France. The parodic potential of Perrault’s fabrication of the pumpkin is seized upon by Krief and woven into her translation of Dahl as an element not to be missed.

Foreign and archaic language

Krief’s French translation is dappled with Anglicisms, such as “punching-ball” and “water-closets”, the latter being particularly archaic in the French language. Krief seems to have selected these borrowed English terms for the readerly friction and public attention they are likely to generate. That is, she highlights that hers is a translation from English. She acknowledges the influence of Dahl’s work as itself a melting pot of terms, since he juxtaposes colloquial language, such as “bizz” for business with archaic expressions, such as “alack”. Krief seems to fulfil a dual interrogating role, as she is probing and manipulating Dahl’s text, and also the conventions of translation practice that are traditionally dominated by the aim for transparency and naturalness.

Rhythm and rhyme

Dahl’s Cinderella has a regular rhythm, while the syllabic count in Krief’s French translation is varied. Her rhythms are closer to those in the short verse moral that appeared at the end of early editions of Perrault’s Cinderella.

As for rhyming, Dahl consistently rhymes successive pairs of lines, such as “back”, “whack”, “said”, “head”, “two”, “shoe”. Meanwhile Krief’s text again resembles Perrault’s verse moral, whose rhyming shows some deviation from the AABBCC structure. “False rhymes” are fairly prevalent in Dahl’s and Krief’s texts. For example, Dahl rhymes “palace” with “jalous”, while Krief forces rhyming of “pratique” with “magique”. This flexible adherence to the notion of rhyming adds a layer of comedy. Like Dahl, Krief seems to relish a relaxed approach and its odd, amusing results.

Translation is a creative compromise

As we have seen, Venuti’s notions of thematic and formal interpretants can illuminate Anne Krief’s approach to translating Roald Dahl’s Cinderella. Krief appears to have understood Dahl’s poem as a rich fabric of citations drawn from various forerunners of the Cinderella tale. Guided by this interpretation, she has preserved many of Dahl’s allusions, while also inserting references of her own, particularly through citations of Perrault’s tale, which supplement and reinforce Dahl’s artistry for a French audience.

Krief handles Dahl’s text through interpretation, fixing the form of the text, and interrogation, drawing attention to the nature of this work as a translation of Dahl. Meanwhile, she has censored it through inevitable suppression of elements of Dahl’s poem. Yet Krief has also provided supplementary material, handling her censoring duties in a positive way.

Translation is a game of give-and-take, a compromise. Translators must have faith in their own judgement, since it is a significant part of their role as translators. They are censors, and they can exploit this responsibility in the negative or positive senses of that word.

As Translation Studies and Adaptation Studies grow, the judgemental discourse of “loss” and “unfaithfulness” stubbornly persists. Translations and adaptations continue to be rated according to their fidelity to a supposedly “original” work. Venuti’s concept of “interpretant” is a powerful tool, as it openly expresses that the acts of translation and adaptation are inherently interpretive, interrogative and subjective, thus disabling any simplistic notions of textual fidelity.

Changes resulting in so-called losses are not only inevitable in translations and adaptations, but should be welcomed. Translators and adapters are creative agents making their own mark on the text. To appropriate Venuti’s sentiment in his book The Translator’s Invisibility (2008), translators are not invisible, and so their work should not be either. Krief demonstrates how Dahl’s work can and must undergo change to be celebrated. Her translation roots Dahl’s Cinderella in the fairy-tale tradition and gives French readers access to this literary gem.