I am having a hard time translating analogies and descriptions in a fairy tale written a century ago. My fear is today's children will not understand the analogy at all or misunderstand it, and as such it will not have the desired affect. At the same time the author of the story deliberately and consistently used a specific visual language, and changing that would make it a different story.

Some examples: There is a giant with a 'head as big as a barrel, with a beard like a shock of corn'

  • A head as 'large as a barrel', may give the wrong impression. Any barrel I can think of is about the size of a chair and certainly smaller the I would imagine the head of a giant that is described as looking over a 1000 year old forest and carrying a group of children in the palm of his hand.
  • 'A shock of corn' is an excellent analogy for a giant's beard: corn straw is pretty hard, prickly, more tangled then regular straw and makes a rustling sound when you brush up against it. But I fear a contemporary child has no idea what 'shock of corn' looks and feels like, corn straw is not tried standing up anymore anyway.

Other descriptions and analogies place the story in time, for example the length unit 'sežanj' is used. The time of writing coincides with the slow acceptance of the metric system but I have not been able to ascertain if the metric system was already in use (and the writer used older units to denote the past) or if 'sežanj' was still an actual unit of length. A final example: a swing moves as quietly as the galley of the Doge. Again, neither term will mean anything to children.

I see several options:

  • Choose a term intended readers (listeners) are familiar with: The giants beard is like a shrub, his head as large as a windmill.
  • Use a description: Instead of a steps measuring 10 sežanj, just say: huge steps. Say: the swing moved slowly, quietly and with ease.
  • Translate ancient measurement units to ancient measurement units in the target language.
  • Throw the readers in the deep end: if they didn't know a barrel can be huge and corn straw is bushy, they will learn from the analogy of a giants head and beard. It's okay they don't know what a Doge is, I certainly didn't when I was a kid. They probably don't know what a galley is either. Books are meant to expand your horizons.

The story is: Regoč from Priče iz davnine by Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić. I'm translating it from Croatian to Dutch. It has an English translation which is available through project Gutenberg.

The English translator translated the analogies directly to English, I think their translation is excellent but it was written for an audience long ago. The unit 'sežanj' was translated to the old english measurement 'fathom'.

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    It's a really good question, but the answer may be hard to get. It is highly situational and there's some opinion involved. Good luck!
    – DWKraus
    Dec 20, 2021 at 3:29
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    The 'correct' choice is a combination of effect and effectiveness, a balance of style and straightforward communication. As a reader, I do not want an 'old' story that has been scrubbed of its patina..., but honestly not to the point where I am missing the intent, or where text has become misleading or cryptic…. Maybe try each method on a chunk of the translation, to get a feel of how far you care to push the stylistic direction. Also consider the original's tone, and intent – adults will want to preserve any literary style/wit/satire; children will want the core story.
    – wetcircuit
    Dec 20, 2021 at 12:51
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    Just so it's said. A good (live-action) story-teller would embellish without losing the flow. E.g., he might say "he had a head as big as a barrel, with a beard like a shock of corn. That's so big you couldn't put your arms around it, and you wouldn't want to because of that stiff, prickly, scratchy scruff". I'm not sure if that works in your context... But that being said, I wouldn't worry too much about the deep end. Children (unlike adults) pick up implications. They may not know what a 'shock of corn' is, but they will 'get' that it's supposed to be something unpleasant, and roll with it. Dec 20, 2021 at 15:37
  • Are you interpreting corn in the American sense (maize), or in the British sense (the most common local cereal crop, usually wheat or barley)? What's the original Czech?
    – TRiG
    Apr 12, 2023 at 11:33
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    @TRiG Maize, and it is Croatian: 'stog kukuruzovine'.
    – Ivana
    Apr 12, 2023 at 13:00

1 Answer 1


Well, I'd translate into familiar terms, just like the original translator:

Is the unit 'sežanj' really a fathom? Or just approximately the same measure?

I doubt the "galley of the Doge" is a Croatian thing; the Doge is an elected Lord in Italy; a galley is a sailing ship -- I don't get the reference at all, but I doubt this simile is what was in the original Croatian.

So I'd invent my own similes and allusions; the point of translation is a faithful conveyance of meaning, and I'm not doing that if the kids need somebody to translate my translation.

I'd put it all in terms they can easily understand. So not even "windmill" which they have never seen, the head is as big as a house. His palm is the size of a trampoline. The beard is like a tangle of thin ropes.

Fiction is supposed to be immersive entertainment. Descriptions that don't trigger any imagination in the audience will break their reading immersion every other paragraph. That is boring and not worth reading.

Invent your own. Translate the meaning of the words, not the words themselves.

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    Croatians should be well familiar with the Doge of Venice, since the Venetians ruled much of that area in the middle ages. -- Which also means that leaving it in the fairy tale gives you a good excuse to expound a bit of history when kids ask about it.
    – user54131
    Jan 18, 2022 at 16:06
  • @towr Fair enough; I don't know the history. I disagree about leaving it in the fairy tale, at best a fairy tale illustrates a moral lesson in an entertaining way; I that that function is severely damaged by trying to turn it into a history lesson.
    – Amadeus
    Jan 18, 2022 at 16:13
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    This makes me wish I had a research budget to find out, because this is a really interesting question. My guess is it would come down to balancing "mysterious language" that makes you curious about what it means, with enough actual understandable content to keep caring about the story. I don't think there's anything wrong with tempting your child to ask "Daddy, what does XYZ mean?" But there's definitely an upper limit to how often. And the balance will lie differently if they read themselves instead of being read to.
    – user54131
    Jan 18, 2022 at 16:47
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    @Ivana Well, I don't think you can keep to the writer's original images and have a story understandable to children. One or two explanations may be alright, but in my experience children will quickly get bored and want to do something else if they have to learn something new every other page. If you want the story accessible to modern children without using modern objects, you will have to find substitute metaphors that can occur in either time; back when it was written or now. I'm not sure what; but something like "his palm was so big, twenty kids could sit there without crowding."
    – Amadeus
    Feb 3, 2022 at 15:09
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    @Amadeus, i think you are right, I will have to be creative and find a way to write the story so that it is both exiting to listen to and firmly placed in a long-ago time. For that i will have to leave behind translations of words and phrases and mode to translating the vibe.
    – Ivana
    Feb 3, 2022 at 15:14

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