Alcott’s Adventures – Transnational, by Kimmy Pletting (1/3)

It seems fitting to start my research journey with another journey: the one of Louisa May Alcott’s works to the Netherlands. In the context of the Travelling TexTs project I will look how some of these texts travelled from the USA to the Netherlands, on a transnational level so to say. These are just the beginnings of an exploration, and there is still a lot of ground to cover when it comes to this research. Within the novels texts travel, too: In Little Women (1868) the girls read John Bunyan’s 17th-century religious allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, a text that found its way to the Western world and Africa and was both shaped by the countries (their norms and tastes) as well as shaping in turn the identity of different countries, as Isabel Hofmeyer recently demonstrated in The Portable Bunyan: A Transnational History of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (2003).  Now I want to show, similarly, how Alcott’s novels functioned transnationally, especially with regard to ideas about the role of women and education for girls. I will do so first on a translational level, after which I sketch the contemporaneous context by referring to different review articles on Alcott. I will look at the differences between original and translation of the text, and place these next to what stands out in the reviews. These rather intuitive findings will be taken along for further research on a linguistic and computational level in my next blog, thus creating a dialogue between the findings.

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To the Netherlands: Translations

The first thing that stands out when we look at Alcott’s translations is the change of the title into something that is not the translation of the original title. This is relatively frequent in translations into Dutch. Little Women for example In the Dutch translation by Almine (1876) becomes Onder Moeder Vleugels, which translates into ‘under mother’s wings’. Translations as these shift the dynamic of these texts and highlight certain thematic aspects over others: In this example the attention shifts from the children seen as “little adults” to the mother protecting them.

Admittedly translators during the 19th century were supposed to not just transpose words into another language, but also adapt foreign writers to the tastes and norms of the intended readers of their own country, which may have been “announced“ in these “new” titles. Perhaps this will appear to be particularly striking for Alcott? What I want to look at is what stands out for Alcott specifically as far as changes go, to show what changed in her travelling texts (i.e. in the texts themselves) from the USA to the Netherlands. Some of the translations (mostly those two done by Almine) are, as far as could be checked until now, near to the original and therefore the potential cultural thematic shifts are less visible. Of course the translations are from different translators and therefore the changes also differ because of each translator’s specific style. Some of these changes can also be attributed to the differences in grammar of both languages, but I will not enter into these debates. The high recurrence of these changes seems to point nevertheless to significant thematic changes.  Explanations or comments by the translators are absent: none of the translations contains a preface.

To me, the most noticeable change is that the Dutch translations leave out a lot of the emotional content. In the translation (1876) of Eight Cousins (1875), the sentences describing the emotional state of the person speaking get left out almost all of the time in the passages where a conversation takes place, leaving just the dialogue itself. In the translation (1882) of Moods (1882), most ironically, emotive nouns and adverbs are changed, for example ‘wild actions’ is translated as ‘malle kuren’ (eng: ridiculous whims). Emotional states, it seems, get valued in a different, more negative light in the translation. It is interesting to see that these examples are connected to female characters most of the time, which leads one to wonder whether the cultural norm in the Netherlands was for women to show less emotion.

What also stands out when looking at the supposed norms related to women in the Netherlands is the condescending tone in which women are referred to in Moods. This tone is produced by an excessive use of diminutives in the translation that are not present in the original. While of course the more common use of diminutives in the Dutch language (like in German) must be taken into account, the use here is not necessary to render the meaning of the expressions. ‘Changeful thing’ for example becomes ‘grillig schepseltje’ (eng: capricious little creature). And ‘as a well-bred child’ finds its gendered translation in ‘zoals een jong meisje betaamt’ (eng: befitting a young girl), belittling women once again.

The treatment of education follows the same line, with a lot of implications for the role of women. In the Dutch translation (1879) there are fewer passages where girls are seen to receive the same education as boys. In Little Men (1871) the girl Nan gets the same education as the boys in the story, but in the translation by Misses S. she is not allowed to attend the lessons. Here the translation leaves out the whole passage where she joins the boy group in studying at the end of a chapter.

The translation (1879) of Little Men, also described on the title page as a “free adaptation”, is the one that introduced most changes overall. In the original John Brooke, one of the older characters and the father of one of the boys, dies, but in the translation this whole event is omitted, by leaving out the three chapters before the last. One can only wonder why the decision was taken to leave out such an event.

In the Netherlands: Critics

To contextualize the changes we will now take a closer look into the critical reception of Alcott in the Netherlands. Employing both the Women Writers database and Delpher[i] I found several Dutch articles reviewing either the author’s work or commenting on Alcott herself. These articles showed several similarities, as the following examples will illustrate.

Starting with a rough analysis of the vocabulary of these articles I noticed that the most frequently used adjective is ‘eenvoudig’ (eng: simple) when it comes to the work of Alcott.[ii] Her work is praised most because of her style, which is described as realistic and immersive, with particular emphasis on its homely nature. For example in 1871 Marie Henriette Koorders-Boeke, herself a translator of Alcott, writes in De Gids:

Zoo eenvoudig, zoo natuurlijk, zoo geleidelijk  spinnen die huiselijke tafereeltjes zich af; zoo verrukkelijk gezellig worden die binnenhuisjes geschetst, met een waarheid en fijnheid van toets die aan niets zoozeer herinnert als aan de binnenhuisjes onzer oud-vaderlandsche schilderschool ; […] dat men een gevoel krijgt niet van in een romanwereld, maar in een kring van lieve, dierbare bekenden aangeland te zijn. [iii]

[So simple, so natural, so gradually the homely scenes play out; so delightfully cosy the indoors are sketched, with a truthfulness and fineness of touch and  that reminds of nothing so much as the indoors from our old-native painter’s school […] that one gets a feeling of landing not of in a novel-world, but in a circle of sweet, dear, acquaintances.]

And a male reviewer in 1873 praises the “simple naturalness” with which the story captivated him (“omdat mij het verhaal overigens zoo boeide door zijne eenvoudige natuurlijkheid”[iv]) in Vaderlandse Letteroefeningen. More than half of the articles I analyzed speak of this simple nature of her works. Interestingly, this characteristic is mentioned less after the turn of the century. It seems that different values were on the rise.

Alcott’s works are advertised in magazines as books suitable for education[v], which brings me to the most mentioned topic in the reviews of Alcott: the relationship between education for girls and Alcott’s work. In De Gids a male reviewer discusses whether girls should receive the same education as boys (which he does not see as self-evident). He concludes by stating that a work such as Alcott’s seduced him to do so:

Zonderling dwaal ik af van het werkje van Miss Alcott. Evenwel, juist haar teekening van een meisje  dat niet onvrouwelijk is noch dom, zonder toch ‘substantial talk in Greek or Latin’ te voeren, maar dat uitnemend haar weg wist te vinden in de maatschappij en tot de harten van allen die haar omgaven, verleidde mij daartoe.[vi]

[Curiously I digress from the little work by Miss Alcott. However, exactly her sketch of a girl that is not unfeminine nor stupid, without yet having ‘substantial talk in Greek or Latin’, but who excellently found her way into the society and into the hearts of those who surrounded her, seduced me to do so.]

 And lots of educational magazines such as Op De Hoogte, Richtingslijnen and Boeken Waar Je Wat aan Hebt![vii] take notice of Alcott’s work and recommend her work for education. It is good to know that we find this kind of review mostly at the beginning of the 20th century, we see a change in the nature of the critical reception in this case.

What reviewers in general and those working  in education more specifically seemed to agree upon was the readership Alcott’s works should be recommended to: women and especially adolescent girls, ‘little women’ in other words. More than half of the articles mentioned this target audience. In 1887 J.H.C. Heijse writes in De Gids: “Ik wensch het boek, ook met het oog op den vorm, in veler handen, vooral in die van het aankomend vrouwelijk geslacht.”[viii] [I wish for the book, also with an eye on the form, to be in many hands, especially those of the young female sex.] And in Vaderlandse Letteroefeningen we see the following recommendation: “Voor aankomende, ja ook voor volwassen meisjes  acht ik het een zeer onderhoudend, nuttig verhaal , dat haar vele belangrijke wenken kan geven ter besturing van hart en zin, ook in levensbeproevingen en teleurstellingen.”[ix] [For young, yes also for adult girls I think it a very entertaining, useful story, that can give her many important pointers for the steering of heart and sense, also in tests of life and disappointments.] Mostly these recommendations are accompanied with an eye on the moral education of girls -and even with an eye on the education of adult women, implying they are still in need to be morally educated.

These shifting characteristics and trends in the reception of Alcott can help us to understand and place the translations in a context. In the next blog I will discuss how these different types of methodology come together in an interdisciplinary research that also includes a linguistic and computational approach. Hopefully this will bring us one step closer to unravelling Alcott’s journey in the Netherlands.



[i] Delpher is an online database containing Dutch newspapers, books and magazines which have been digitized, which can be found at http://www.delpher.nl/.

[ii] Looking at other critical reviews it shows in the Women Writers database that this criterion was a more widespread used phrasing in Dutch reception in general.

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