Last year, I celebrated it in my own way by telling the story of how a collection of popular tales in Arabic, The Thousand and One Nights, became over the centuries, by way of translation, nativisation, selection and adaptation of several kinds, one of the most popular and robust of British Christmas entertainments, the theatrical pantomime Aladdin. To find those posts, just type 'aladdin' into the Search box in the right-hand column. Each pantomime production is a unique adaptation, because although the story line and characters are preserved, changes are made to fit it to the players, who are often famous stars making 'guest appearances'. Pantomimes have survived by adapting to changing times and tastes.
This year I've taken another look at the pantomime scene, and guess what I've found – more translation.
First, though, a footnote to Aladdin. Fellow Canadian Pamela Anderson (ex-Baywatch, ex-Playboy), who last year starred in a production in the London suburb of Wimbledon, is appearing this year at the Liverpool Empire in the north of England. Again she doesn't play the title role but the character of the Genie of the Lamp. Perhaps she would be too unbelievable in the male role of Aladdin even for pantomime, although the character is often played by a woman.
Yet popular though it is, Aladdin is not the most often staged of the pantomimes. That honour belongs to another fairy tale, Cinderella. And not only Cinderella but also several other favourites – Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots – all have a lineage in English that goes back to one French author and his English translator at the turn of the 18th century. The author was Charles Perrault.
Both the 1001 Nights and Perrault's stories are drawn from folk tales, but there the similarity ends. Whereas the Nights were a loose compilation of a vast number of tales, varying from manuscript to manuscript and augmented by oral tradition in Galland's translation, Perrault's book is made up of just ten stories. Whereas the authorship of the Nights remains a matter of conjecture and was certainly dispersed in both place and time, Perrault was a well-known literary figure in 17th-century France, a member of the Académie Française. Last but not least, there were plenty of French translators in London and so Perrault could be translated directly; whereas the Nights came from a little-known language and therefore via an indirect translation.
In 1695, when he was 67, Perrault lost his post in Paris as a royal secretary. He decided to retire and dedicate himself to his writing and his children. One outcome, today by far the most famous, was Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé (Tales from Olden Times), better known as Les Contes de ma Mère l'Oie (Mother Goose's Stories – see References). Its publication made him suddenly widely known beyond his own circles and all over Europe. It marked the beginnings of a new literary genre, the fairy tale, thus paving the way for the success of the Nights.
Perrault's book reached the English reading public in 1729, though many in Britain had probably read it already in French. It did so in the form of a translation by Robert Samber (1682-1745), probably for a bookseller. Strangely, no copy of the first edition has survived; not even the British Library has one. We know of it only from a newspaper: an advertisement in the Monthly Chronicle that year announced a translation "by Mr Samber, printed for J. Pote." "Mr Samber" was presumably Robert Samber of New Inn, London.
The choice of translator was important. It's true he did at least some of his work as a professional translator for booksellers – the booksellers ànd printers were the publishers of that time – but he was no 'Grub Street hack'. In 1721, Roger Greaves had paid him to translate La Motte's Fables Nouvelles (1719) as One Hundred New Court Fables, which was a good preparation for translating Perrault. He gained some notoriety in 1724 when he translated Venus in the Cloister, or the Nun in her Smock for the printer Edmund Curl (or Curll), who was promptly prosecuted for publishing pornography. However, the book itself describes the translator as "a man of honour". He was a very active freemason, an author, and as a translator he was prolific. He wrote several volumes of poetry and also translated and wrote scholarly treatises, including a Treatise on the Plague, in which he gives instructions for preventing the disease. In short, he was, by virtue of his experience, an Expert Translator. His translation of Perrault is still available (see References).
Samber's translation won wide popularity, as is shown by the fact that there was a seventh edition published in 1795, for J. Rivington, a bookseller, of Pearl Street, New York. It was followed by innumerable retellings and adaptations, mostly of individual stories. To cite just one of them:
Cinderilla, or, The little glass slipper: designed for the entertainment of all good little misses, ornamented with engravings. Albany NY: Printed by E. and E. Hosford, 1811,which already follows another tradition, that of Perrault as an inspirer of book illustrators.
Until – as was almost inevitable in England and America in those days – Perrault's tales made their way to the stage.
To be continued.
Pantomime, abbreviated colloquially to panto: a British theatrical entertainment involving music, topical jokes and slapstick comedy, usually produced around Christmas time.
Genie: a spirit imprisoned within a bottle or an oil lamp and capable granting any wish when summoned. It came into English as a borrowing of the French génie, which was itself a blend of the existing word génie (genius) with the meaning of a similar-sounding Arabic word, jinnî.
Cinderella (aka Cinderilla as a text but not as a pantomime): from French Cendrillon, derived from cendre (ash). Italian Cenerentola.
Simon Hattenstone. Pamela Anderson. The Guardian newspaper electronic edition, December 18, 2010.
'Perrault d’Armancourt, son of Charles Perrault'. Histoires ou contes du temps passé. Avec des moralitez. Par le fils de Monsieur Perreault de l’Académie françoise. Purportedly published in Amsterdam, 1698, but the title bears the word “Suivant la copie à Paris” (According to the Paris text). 175 p. In fact written by Charles Perrault himself but put under his son's name because he was uncertain of the reception such a childish book would have from his fellow Academicians. It had an engraved frontispiece bearing the title Contes de ma mère loye (Mother Goose's Stories), and from it derives the title by which it is better known.
Charles Perrault. The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault. Translated by Robert Samber and revised by J. E. Mansion. Introduction by Thomas Bodkin. Illustrated by Harry Clarke. London: Harrap, 1922. Reproduced as a Project Gutenberg eBook,
This is the Samber translation revised by the lexicographer Jean Edmond Mansion, editor of the great Harrap's Standard French and English Dictionary. I've quoted from Bodkin's introduction.
'Widow's Son'. Brother Eugenius Philalethes sendeth greeting. The Burning Taper, May 31, 2007. http://burningtaper.blogspot.com/2007/05/brother-eugenius-philalethes-sendeth.html.
Eugenius Philalethes was a pen name of Robert Samber.
Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th edition.
Image: Cinderella, by the English book illustrator Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).