We begin this year's Christmas themed posts with a look at one of Hans Christian Andersen's few yuletide fairy tales, aside from Den lille pige med svovlstikker ("the little match-stick girl"), wherein a sentient fir-tree experiences the existential crisis and threat over first waxing romantically about wanting to become a Christmas tree, only to realise once it happens the utter dread that it entails to be an object of worship of those strange hairless primates. We will in this article plum right into the action of things where a group of sparrows are telling the inquisitive young fir-tree about what glorious a sight a decorate Christmas tree is, when seen through the windows of a village home.

This long panoply of descriptions is also quasi-Dickensian in its enumerating traditional Danish Christmas elements, where Dickens is quite avid with obsessing about the minutest of details of Christmas cuisine suddenly and fantastically furnishing the living room of Mr. Scrooge.

Enter the sparrows, whose description follows the young fir-tree having experienced how his fellow coniferous peers have been chopped down and dragged into that hallowed and vaunted afterlife of Christmas living-rooms:

"Det vide vi! det vide vi!" qviddrede Graaspurvene. "Vi have nede i Byen kiget ind ad Ruderne! vi vide, hvor de kjøre hen! O, de komme til den største Glands og Herlighed, der kan tænkes! Vi have kiget ind af Vinduerne og seet at de blive plantede midt i den varme Stue og pyntede med de deiligste Ting, baade forgyldte Æbler, Honningkager, Legetøi og mange hundrede Lys!" (original version from 1845)

"We know that, we know that!" tweeted the Sparrows: "We have been down the town and looked into the windows! We know, where they drive to! Oh, they will achieve the greatest lustre and splendour that can be imagined! We have peered into the windows and have seen how they are planted in the middle of the warm living-room and decorated with the loveliest things, both gilded apples, honey-cakes, toys, and many hundred lights!"
(own translation)

Quiet the lauding description and one that not only entices the poor fir-tree, but very much renders him wholly ignorant of the events that are to follow.

So, elements to notice:

Graaspurv or Gråspurv, in modern Danish spelling, lit. "grey sparrow," is the bird known as the house sparrow (Passer domesticus), one of the most common birds in the world and quiet a garrulous lot if you happen to pass them by - hence the perfect avian narrators for the fervent fir-tree.

Forgyldte æbler - lit. "gilded apples," - now archaic Christmas decorations that were apples wrapped in faux-gold paper, since coating actual apples in the precious element would be considered an exorbitant luxury. These would anciently have depicted the Forbidden Fruit of biblical mythology.

Honningkager - lit. "honey cakes," a Christmas classic when it comes to Danish bakery, typically shaped as hearts and adorned with glossy pictures of Father Christmas or angels. They have often been mistranslated as gingerbread, which is incorrect since there is little to no ginger whatsoever involved in the making of the dough.

Thus we have three distinct translation artefacts that will pass through mostly unscathed, though one item will transform.

One of the earliest Japanese translations was by Kusayama, whom we have encountered in other Andersen translations:


Momi no ki wa kouitte kiku to, soba ni saezutte ita suzume-tachi ga sugu ni kou iimashita. "Shitteru yo. Shitteru yo. Machi he itta toki, boku-tachi wa mado kara nozoitakara shitteru yo. Minna wa sorya subarashii hodo rippa ni naru n'da yo. Mado kara nozoku to ne. Atatakai o-heya no mannaka ni, chiisana momi no ki wa minna tatte ita yo. Kin'iro no ringo dano, oishii niku dano, omocha dano, sorekara nanbyaku to nai rousoku da node, sore wa sore wa kirei ni kizararete itakke."

'When the Fir-tree had heard this, some tweeting sparrows began to talk right away, "We know it, we know it! When we went to the village, we knew from what we peered through the window. Everyone (= fir-trees) had become fantastically elegant. That's what we saw through the window, y'know. In the very middle of the warm room stood a little fir-tree. Decorated nicely with all these golden apples, delicious meats, toys and hundreds of lights, y'know!"'

Thus far thus good, though the change of the honey-cakes into meats (肉) leaves it somewhat curious as to if the Japanese translator or rather his source material, since Danish at the time was scarcely known about in academic literature, had somehow misinterpreted the description of the confectionery as bits of glazed bacon rather than honey-cake. The term niku, 肉, does not cover the meat of fruits, but purely that of animals - therefore the Christmas tree becomes some sort of unholy meat-stool.

A more recent 1955 translation of his gives us:


Where the contents are overall nearly identical to the above, but the segment with the "delicious meats" has been changed to 蜜のお菓子 (mitsu no o-kashi, "cakes of honey"), which better fints the Danish Christmas cakes. The sparrows use the pronoun boku-tachi, which fits their diminutive and eager nature, the following translation gives them a somewhat more courteous air, by Taketomo from sometime in 1925, going in reverse for a moment:


"Watashi-tachi wa shitte iru, shitte iru," to suzume ga saezutta. "Mukau no machi ni, watashi-tachi wa mado kara sukimi shita no da. Doko ni iku ka shitte'masu yo. Ano ki wa souzou sareru kagiri de icihiban hanayakani rippa ni sukkari kazararete imasu. Watakushi-domo wa mado kara nozoi te sukkari wakarimasita. Attakai shitsu no mannaka ni uerarete, kanegami de maita ringou ya mitsu no okashi ya omocha ya takusan no rousoku nado de iciban utsukushii kazararete iru koto ka"

"We do know, we do know!" the sparrows tweeted, "next to the village, we did peep through the window. We know where it went. That tree was so lovely decorated in a manner beyond our wildest imagination. We humble lot peeked through and know everything. In the very midst of the warm room it was planted, decorated with rows of apples in gold-paper, cakes of honey, toys and plenty of lights and much more, being surely the most beautiful thing!"

The sparrows use the humble watashi/watakushi coupled with tachi (informal plural suffix) and domo (humble formal plural suffix), thus being much more decorous in their mode of speaking, even if they abbreviate the te-gerund of iru from ~teimasu to ~te'masu, which gives them a bit of an informal tinge, but otherwise their change from watashi-tachi to watakushi-domo seems to be a way of the sparrows apologising indirectly for prying into the rooms of the villagers. The honey-cake is preserved as is, rather than in successive translations becoming meat and then honey cakes again. The apples here appear in golden wrapping therefore being less gold coloured.

Next up and last in this article's items is:


"Boku yori ka chiisai no ni, doko he iku no darou, boku wa nanzaa, konnani ookikunatteru ni naa," to, fushin ni omotte imashitara, suzume no Chuu-san ga, chu chu saezurinagara tonde kimasite, ano wakai moku wa, doumo subarashii rippa na oie no, atatakai, ozashiki he itte, taisou eiyou eika no kurashi wo shite iru node, "boku ga ima shigata, mado kara nozoi te mite kita 'nda yo," to, kuwashiku hanashikakasete kuremashita.

"Even smaller than me, I wonder where they are going. I've become so big..." said the Fir-tree in thinking to himself, but was interrupted mid-thought, by Mr. Tweet the Sparrow, who, flying forth, warbled with a tweet-tweet about how a young tree had gone to a warm tatami-room inside a magnificent house and concerning the extravagant luxury that the tree in particular was living in, "I saw this through the window, but a moment ago," and the Sparrow told them various things.

Once more the sparrow uses boku, but this time is named Chuu-san (忠さん, lit. Loyalty-san), but the kanji is chosen due to being homophone with the Japanese onomatopoeia for chirping, chuu-chuu hence my translation of it as "warbled tweet-tweet." The entire paragraph has been rewritten and all the panoply of Christmas decorations has been reduced to the Sparrow commenting on the lavishness that the tree in question enjoyed, presumably because Wadagaki found it difficult to translate the items listed in the material that he had at hand. We cannot be sure whether or not his source was German, French, English or even the original Danish, but something suggests that it isn't the last due to the thorough rewrite.

Ah, but wait for one jolly second!

We have a last and perhaps the one that features an avian transformation when it comes to the quizzical sparrows, courtesy of Hyakujima from the 1908, thus one of the very earliest of translations titled Kurisumasu Tsurii (くりすます樹, "the Christmas Tree"):


Sono toki tsubame ga waki kara, "Kono hou nara watashi ga shitteru yo, watashi mukau no machi no mado kara nozoite mita 'n daga......... Sonna momi no ki ni wa omocha ya, kashi ya, ningyou ya, tako ya, hane ya, fuusen ya mata takusan aka shiro nado no rousoku ga kazatte atte, atatakai heya no mannaka ni tatte ita, soshite sono kazari to ittara, rippa de rippa de nakanaka o-hanashi nanka ni dekinai 'n da."

'At that time, it came from the swallow, "If that's the case then I know, I peeked  and saw through the window of a nearby village, y'see... I couldn't tell you of the splendour of splendours of the way that the fir-tree in that warm room was decorated with toys, cakes, dolls, kites, feathers, small balloons, and yet an abundance of red and white lights!"'

The sparrow-turned-swallow is once more chirpy and less courteous than some of their literary successors, though they still use watashi, the gender-neutral pronoun which here when coupled with informal speech could suggest a female speaker since there is also an absence of polite speech outside of o-hanashi, an honorific version of hanashi (speech/story). There is an expansion of the decorations of the tree, though overall only the cakes remain and the apples are overall gone. Furthermore there is some playful usage of furigana - ruby text used to indicate the reading of words, such as more uncommon ones - where here words like mukau ("nearby") uses the kanji 彼方 meaning "beyond/across/yonder", omocha ("toy[s]") uses the kanji 玩弄品 ("playthings", lit. "toy articles", which a counter-word indicating items), heya ("room") is using 室 ("room", though more general than just "living room", can also be "chamber"), where the kanji normally used for these three words would, in respective order of mentioning, 向, 玩具 and 部屋.

All in all the prolix bird, be it a sparrow or a swallow, provides the tantalising description that emboldens the fir-tree to his fatal living-room sojourn.