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Pippi Longstocking

Pippi Longstocking - Astrid Lindgren, Lauren Child, Tiina Nunnally, Tina Nunally This is a review of a new translation of a children's classic. My comments and the number of stars this edition gets has nothing to do with my adoration of Pippi Longstocking, which my review of the previous edition should make pretty clear.

I'm always wildly excited to hear of new translations of books I love, so it saddens me to have to say I'm disappointed in this one.

It was published in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Astrid Lindgren, the author of the Pippi books. (Lindgren lived to be 94 years old, which makes me very happy.) There's a little information about Lindgren on the last page of this edition, but I wish the editors had taken the opportunity to tell more – to mention, for instance, that Lindgren came up with the stories when her young daughter was sick in bed and said, apropos of nothing, "Tell me a story about Pippi Longstocking." Just like that, one of the most famous names in the world was born. Lindgren obliged, and later wrote some of the Pippi stories down (thank goodness).

None of this is mentioned in this new edition – which seems, as I said, a lost chance, since it's as good a story as any of Pippi's adventures.

I can't fairly judge Lauren Child's illustrations for this edition. I love her work, and the pictures are perfectly cute; but I grew up with the old black-and-white illustrated editions of the Pippi books, and I can't help finding those pictures edgier and more interesting.

I think I can fairly comment on the new translation, even though I'm deeply attached to the old one. The fact is, this is a job that just didn't need doing. It's not as if the text of the old edition was unclear. In fact, the previous translation gives its young readers more credit for intelligence than this one does.

As a child, I loved reading about Pippi making "pepparkakor -- a kind of Swedish cookie," as that translation put it. Tiina Nunnally simply says that Pippi was "baking gingersnaps."

This isn’t exactly earth-shattering, but I do find it significant. I remember first reading this little episode of Pippi’s story because it was my first clue that this story didn’t just take place in a different country, but that the book itself was in fact Swedish in every sense.

Later, this idea would be confirmed in the chapter “Pippi Entertains Two Burglars.” The burglars in question are drawn to Pippi’s house when they see the light on. Their initial errand is simply to ask for some food, but when they see Pippi counting up a great number of gold coins, they decide to make an excuse for knocking on her door, quickly case the joint, and come back later to steal the loot.

“We just came in to ask what your clock is,” they say.

Now, this isn’t how American English-speakers ask for the time. Even as a very young reader, though, I was able to work out what this phrasing meant, and to be amused by it.

The reason the translator kept this phrasing in the translation I grew up with is that it’s important to some funny wordplay that follows:

”Great, strong men who don’t know what a clock is!” said Pippi. “Where in the world were you brought up? The clock is a little round thingamajig that says ‘tick tack, tick tack,’ and that goes and goes but never gets to the door. Do you know any more riddles? Out with them if you do,” said Pippi encouragingly.

This paragraph also gave me my first introduction to the idea that different cultures describe certain noises differently. I think this is important as well as entertaining.

It’s also important that American children in particular are introduced to the concept that their country isn’t the only one, or even the most important one, in the world. (Plenty of American grownups are weak on this concept, and this national chauvinism is not, in my opinion, making the world a better place.)

The passage continues, and I promise I’m quoting it at length for a good reason:

The tramps thought Pippi was too little to tell time, so without another word they went out again.

“I don’t demand that you say ‘tack’” [thanks in Swedish], shouted Pippi after them, “but you could at least make an effort and say ‘tick.’ You haven’t even as much sense as a clock has. But by all means go in peace.” And Pippi went back to her counting.

Those brackets are in the original. I loved that as a kid. It was my first introduction to what kind of work it takes to translate a book from one language to another – a subject that has fascinated me ever since.

Here’s how the new translation handles that same passage:

“Well, we just came in to see what your clock says.”

“Big, strong fellows like you, and you don’t even know what a clock says?” said Pippi. “Who brought you up, anyway? Haven’t you ever heard a clock before? A clock is a little round thingamajig that says ‘tick tock’ and keeps going and going but never gets to the door. If you know any other riddles, let’s hear them,” said Pippi to encourage them.

The tramps thought that Pippi was too young to know about clocks, so without another word they turned on their heels and left.

“I’m not asking you to play tic-tac-toe!” Pippi yelled after them. “But you could at least play along with my tick-tock riddle. I don’t know what makes you tick! But never mind, go in peace,” said Pippi, and she went back to counting her money.

Now, look. If you’re going to even try to bring wordplay over from one language to another, you’re going to have to do better than that. Mentioning tic-tac-toe here is completely random – and there is always a method to Pippi’s madness. And if Nunnally was going to go with the American idea that clocks says “tick, tock,” why didn’t she have Pippi say something about how she can’t figure out the burglars tick if they won’t tock to her? (I can’t take credit for this one. My husband pointed out to me the rhyming possibilities of “tock” and “talk” in this passage. But seriously, it’s right there.)

The whole book seems dedicated to rooting out any references to the fact that this book was written in Swedish. The music box Tommy and Annika give Pippi plays “Ack, du käre Augustin” in the original translation. In this one, it plays “The More We Get Together.” In the original translation, Pippi makes the burglars dance the schottische with her; in this one, it’s simply a polka.

Note to the world: kids who are old enough to read Pippi are old enough to handle some unfamiliar references. Heck, they’re more prepared for them in some ways than kids were when I was a kid and had to find an encyclopedia if I wanted to look something up.

So, yeah, I found this translation of a favorite book condescending. If you’re thinking of giving Pippi as a gift, you can probably buy copies of all three of the Pippi books for what you’d pay for a single copy of this hardcover new translation. The paperbacks might not look as “gifty,” but they’re better. So say I. And tack for hearing me out.