Woodcut print etched by Ramdhan Das Swarnakar, showing a sleeping princess lying on a dog’s back, and a soldier with his hands raised above—scrupulously avoiding any physical contact with his beloved, but staring with angry intensity at her bosom. From Cakamaki baksa o apurbba rjabastra, a translation of Hans Andersen by Madhusudan Mukhopadhyay.

The Task of Translating Fairy tales

The translation of fairy tales increased rapidly in mid-19th century Bengal. Doyeeta Majumdar reflects on how adjustments to translations of these works were influenced by a desire to make them accessible to Bengalis and to fit Indian moral sensibilities.

How did Scandinavian folk stories become part of the common cultural vocabulary of mid-nineteenth century Calcutta? The first collection of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales appeared in 1837, quickly followed by successive volumes. By 1845, Andersen’s fairytales had been translated in four European languages including English. The first of these were included in Bentley’s Miscellany. In 1846 the London literary journal Athaneum published a glowing review of the Danish folk and fairy stories, and by the end of the decade Andersen’s fame had been firmly established.

In the meantime, halfway across the world, the second city of the British empire was in the throes of a great socio-cultural ferment, which witnessed, among other things, a concerted effort to invest in the translation of European literature. As part of this project societies of belles lettres were set up, and publisher’s series were started, which principally dealt with translations of European works or the production of curriculum-based textbooks. Under the aegis of the Vernacular Literature Society (established 1851) the Bengal Family Library series began in 1852. As the decade wore on, there was a distinct rise in translations of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales (Gupta, p. 156), which was perhaps unsurprising, given the Society’s stated policy of translating works which served a didactic or moral purpose, while also providing an easily comprehensible, idiomatic, text for the consumption of ‘native’ readers.

The present volume was the last of the Andersen stories published as part the Bengal Family Library series. The translator, Madhusudan Mukhopadhyay, served as assistant secretary to the Vernacular Literature Society, and was also one of its most prolific translators and writers. Mukhopadhyay is perhaps best remembered for his novel Sushilar Upakhyan, which was a female bildungsroman depicting the making of the nineteenth-century Bengali bhadramahila. In a deeply self-referential moment in the novel, the protagonist Sushila, who is a model young female scholar, is shown reading the books of the Bengal Family Library series (Bandopadhyay, p. 58), thus drawing attention to the intellectual and moral appropriateness of these works.

On the one hand, the nineteenth-century impetus to translate European literature into ‘native’ languages was inextricably tied up with the larger colonial pedagogic project and the desire to produce proper imperial subjects. Simultaneously, translators like Mukhopadhyay co-opted this drive into a parallel project of enriching the Bengali language. The preface to his translation of Krilof’s Fables (clearly Mukhopadhyay’s interest in folk narratives was not limited to Andersen) begins with the sentence: ‘The improvement of the nation is impossible without the improvement of the mother tongue’. Though he admits the translation project was undertaken at the behest of ‘sahib’ (Rev. James Long), his desire is that his people would learn from Krilof’s philosophy, and learn, above all, the value of disseminating knowledge in one’s mother tongue.


Cakamaki baksa o apurbba rajbastra

Title page from Cakamaki baksa o apurbba rajbastra

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Cakamaki baksa o apurbba rjabastra
was printed in 1867, at the Tattwabodhini Press by one Anandchunder Vedanvugees. Including the appendix advertising other volumes printed by the Vernacular Literature Society, it runs to thirty odd pages, and was priced at one anna. Mukhopadhyay’s translation was derived from the English rendering of Andersen’s tales, and would pass the most rigorous of fidelity tests with flying colours. In keeping with the Vernacular Literary Society’s commitment towards adapting the subject matter of these European texts in order to make them more accessible to Bengalis, Mukhopadhyay uses local equivalents for specific nouns which could not be directly translated. For instance, in the first story (Tinderbox Soldier) he uses ‘angiya’ (garment for the upper body) for ‘apron’, ‘boro ghor’ (big room) for ‘tower’,  ‘khorua ghor’ (straw hut) for ‘garrett’ etc. The sign of the cross that the princess’s nursemaid makes in order to identify the soldier’s house, is exchanged for the sign of the trishul or trident, more immediately identifiable to the Bengali reader. In the second (Emperor’s New Clothes) ‘dressing room’ is translated into the laborious phrase ‘baithakkhana-r parshwabarti kuthri’ (the cubicle adjoining the living room), ‘mantle’ is ‘labeda’ (a loose tunic) and so forth.

Apart from these minor cultural readjustments, the stories are virtually unchanged—except for one detail in the Cakmaki Baksa: the English as well as the Danish versions tell us how the sleeping princess was transported to the soldier by the magical dogs, and, smitten by her beauty, the soldier then proceeds to kiss her. Mukhopadhyay, however, studiously avoids any mention of a kiss transpiring between the two—clearly out of concern for Bengali sensibility and the moral health of girls like his Sushila. The single illustration in the volume maintains this avowed silence on all matters oscular. The woodcut print etched by Ramdhan Das Swarnakar, and shows the sleeping princess lying on the dog’s back, and the soldier with his hands raised above—scrupulously avoiding any physical contact with his beloved, but staring with angry intensity at her bosom. 

  • Doyeeta Majumdar
  • Doyeeta Majumder is an assistant professor at the Department of English, Jadavpur University.

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