The tale of the Ugly Duckling (Den Grimme Ælling) is perhaps Hans Christian Andersen's most famous tale - part autobiographical story about striving against the odds, and part celebration of the sublimity of nature.

Whilst a full analysis of the linguistics and narrative elements of the fairy-tale in translation would be fascinating, it would also be a vaster task than I currently have time for at the moment, thus I decided to take a look at perhaps a minor if decisive line in the very beginning of the fairy tale, where the stork is described as speaking Egyptian "as he was taught by his mother."

These ciconid bringers of babies and eater of frogs, were rumoured to turn into their human shapes once they received their native land of Egypt, according to Mary Tartar's erudite commentary on a collection of Andersen's tales translated into English.

The line in particular is:

Der var saa deiligt ude paa Landet; det var Sommer, Kornet stod guult, Havren grøn, Høet var reist i Stakke nede i de grønne Enge, og der gik Storken paa sine lange, røde Been og snakkede ægyptisk, for det Sprog havde han lært af sin Moder.

"It was so lovely out in the country; it was summer, the corn was yellow, the wheat green and the hay was piled in stacks down in the green meadow, and there walked the stork on its long red legs and prattling Egyptian, for that was the language that he had been taught by his mother."

(Own translation, the relevant sentences have been marked in bold.)

Thus, there are three important artefacts of translation: the name of the animal, the description of its long legs, prattling Egyptian and the fact that it was taught so by its mother.

Before we enter the two translators that I have chosen for this short essay, let's look at the good bird itself.

In Japanese it is called kounotori and uses the character 鸛.ordinarily it is written in biology texts as コウノトリ, using the katakana script, since the character that is used to write the bird is a complex one and thus it is easier to also write and distinguish it in written form. It also serves to differentiate it from the similarly looking kanji 鶴 (tsuru, "crane"), which likewise is sometimes written in katakana as ツル (tsuru).

This will hopefully be covered in another article.

Therefore, without further ado, let us look at the translations:

Ueda (1911):


No ni dete miru to nani mo kare mo utsukushiku mieru natsu no koto, komugi wa kiiro ni, karasumugi wa aoku midoriiro koki makiba ni wa karekusa no ikumura ga tatteite, nagai akai asi de arukimawatteru kounotori wa hin no ii okkaasan kara naratte ejiputogo de shabette iru.

"When one got into the fields, very much everything that you could see was of rendered beautiful by summer, the wheat was yellow, the oats were immersing the feeding grounds in an unripened shade of green and amidst all the numerous dry grass was the stork with his long red legs, wandering about, chattering the Egyptian language that his refined mother dearest had given him lessons in."

Kazutoshi Ueda, featured on this blog in terms of covering his various translations of fairy-tales, has rendered the passage in the most faithful manner if adding a few details of his own such as describing the mother as refined (品のいい, hin no ii, "a good article"), which can also mean "genteel" and "gracious, as well as using the archaic word 阿母 (aba), where the word consists of "a", an archaic honorific typically used for either women's names or expressing a light degree of politeness towards the subject, hence "mother dearest" in my translation - this, however, is given the reading okkaasan, "mommy," a far more colloquial term for one's mother.

His described as talking Egyptian (埃及語 ejiputogo) using the old fashioned ateji spelling - phonetically based, not semantically -  for the country, rather than the now modern エジプト (ejiputo). This term in general refers to the old pharaonic Egyptian language of antiquity rather than the Arabian unrelated one of modern times.

The stork, kounotori, is roaming about, arukimawatte, and chattering, shaberi, the language. Shaberi ("chattering") here is given the non-standard kanji writing - jukujikun, as the way of spelling is known, - 喋舌, an, on the surface of things, uncommon compound word that would be read as chouzetsu, lit. "speaking in/with the tongue," presumably meaning to chatter or prattle.

I say "would be read," because apparently its usage was a popular variant way of writing shaberu ("to chatter/talk"), where the ordinary kanji-based orthography is 喋る, here using the first kanji of the former compound, 喋, lit. "talk/chat/chatter".

Nakajima (1921):


Noyama no nagame no utsukushii natsu no koto deshita. Mugi wa mou kiiro ni iroduita naka ni, tokorodokoro mada aoi karasumugi ga majiri, midoriiro no magusaba ni wa, hoshikusa ga yama no you ni tsumiagerareta aida ga, ano nagai, akai ashi wo shita kounotori ga, hahaoya kara osowatta kotoba de, nani ka shikiri ni shaberi nagara, achira kochira to urotsui te imasu.

"The view of the hills and dales of summer was beautiful. The wheat was in the middle of ripening to a yellow colour, here and there the blue oats were mingling, thus rendering the feeding grounds green, and within the mountainous stacked hay, the stork loitered about hither and thither, incessantly chattering the words that his own mother had taught him."

Nakajima Kotou is also no stranger to this blog when it comes to covering his works. He is most prominently featured on this blog in regards to his translation of  A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

Here the stork no longer speaks any specific ancient language, but merely endlessly gibbers the words that his mother had taught him. He is no longer wandering about, but is clearly "loitering", where the kanji 俳徊 (haikai, lit. loiter/roam/saunter) is given the furigana urotsui (to prowl, to wander about aimlessly). "Hither and thither" or alternatively "to and fro," translates こちらどちら (kochira dochira, lit. "here and where") and is used to denote aimless movement, here strengthening the stork's seemingly brainless meandering and babbling.

Thus, Ueda's is the oldest and conveys the most, if adding something of his own, of the original Andersen text, and Nakajima simplifies things and removes entire details and renders the stork a perplexed mess of macrology and prowling.