The Complete Fairy Tales by Charles Perrault, Newly Translated

Image: Oxford University Press
Image: Oxford University Press

Fairy tales fill our childhoods. Story after story, all just a little bit different, make up the books we read, the movies we see and the modernized versions we are exposed to. Sometimes it is just nice to go back and read how things were originally written. Or at least read a modern translation. A good number of our traditional fairy tale stories, mostly not including fairies, were based on writings of French author Charles Perrault.

I recently received a review copy of the brand new book The Complete Fairy Tales by Charles Perrault, in a new translation by Christopher Betts. Betts took Perrault’s original French prose and verse from the 1600s and did a completely new modern translation. The book also contains dozens of gorgeous illustrations from the 1800s by Gustave DorĂ©. He had also been the Gothic illustrator for Dante’s Inferno.

This book is filled with some familiar stories, such as “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding-Hood,” and “Puss in Boots,” and some I had not ever come across, such as “The History of Griselda” and “Donkey-Skin.” The stories and poems flow really well, and retain a sneaky feel, as if the author and reader are conspiring together about something. They are all such a delight to read. Betts retained the old feel to the stories, but at the same time translating them in a way that is accessible to us today. The morals are quite obvious by the end of the stories, but for some of the tales, you aren’t quite sure what the moral will be until you get to the end.

Some of the stories and verses have translated correspondence paired with them. Perrault sent the letters along with a copy of the applicable story to someone he knew. They are very interesting to read, too, and they made me giddy with anticipation to read the stories themselves. With the verse stories, I was surprised to find that I had no trouble reading them and following the plot. Poetry usually puts me off, but not in this case. Some words that I would use to describe “Three Silly Wishes,” for example, are hilarious, sarcastic, clear, playful, and excellent.

The book’s valuable front matter includes an extensive Introduction which goes into Perrault’s life and his writings with plenty of footnotes. Especially fascinating to me was the Notes on the Text and Translation. Here Betts talked about what he changed while translating and what he left alone. He said he believed this “to be the first complete English translation in which verse is rendered in verse.” He placed importance on fidelity to the original tales, while still making the story readable. I think he succeeded. Simple language intended for kids can still have some subtleties that are hard to translate, especially since the meaning of some words has changed over time. So, he consulted 17th century dictionaries. Translating verse is additionally difficult because of maintaining rhyme and meter. Translating is a lot more than just changing words from one language to another. The meaning of the passage has to be considered and also brought across.

So read some original tales you are familiar with, and share some new ones with your family. It won’t be the same bedtime story experience, and I believe you will enjoy yourself.

Sharing Perrault’s classic stories in The Complete Fairy Tales with your family is a great way to learn the original intent and meaning. These stories are delightful to read, and, despite the modern translation, the book still felt like a historical text. But in a good way.

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