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…determines the result of your story.

I’m currently translating fairytales, and I found that they have a very unique rhythm.

Just take the beginning and ending of a typical fairytale. It always starts with “Once upon a time…” and more often than not ends with “…and they lived happily ever after”.

Why doesn’t it say “A long time ago…” and “…then they got married, the end.”

Because then it wouldn’t be a traditional fairytale format, that’s why.

In other languages these building blocks of a “proper” fairytale exist as well, and you need to be versed in the topic in order to use them correctly. That means reading a lot of fairytales and then reading some more. (This is true for all genres, actually. If you want to learn how to write thrillers, read loads of them to see how it’s done.)

In the beginning I translated the stories as closely to the original as possible. But I wasn’t happy with the results. Some stories just lost their appeal, and didn’t quite work as well as I thought they would. Others just didn’t work at all.

So I changed my approach and edited the stories as I went along. Sometimes it’s just a small edit, but sometimes I outright change the story to make it work.  One example is the story about the taniwha Awarua, a Maori tale from New Zealand. I translated the story into German, but unfortunately nobody in Germany knows what a taniwha is. There is no translation for the word, and the closest description for this particular taniwha would be an aquatic mystical being of sorts, a bit like a dragon. Now here is my problem – in traditional folklore, german dragons are land-dwelling, and look, feel and behave completely different to a taniwha.

But they have a creature called a ‘Wassermann’, a water-dwelling folk that live in streams, ponds and rivers, and sometimes plays tricks on humans, and sometimes help them. I changed the story to make Awarua one of those, because it is something familiar, and would better bring the point of the story across, without touching on the rest of the tale.

You also need to watch your choice of words. In a fairytale you wouldn’t say “…and then he met a blacksmith…” if you can say “… and he came upon a blacksmith…” instead. It’s exactly the same in German or French. Style matters, and for traditional-style fairytales it is quite strict. Of course I could simply write as I would write an essay and call it a modern fairytale, but that wasn’t the point of my project.

Somehow, it sounded very simple when I had the idea of translating stories, but now I can see there is much more to it than I previously thought. I tip my hat to anyone doing this professionally.