When you think of the Nutcracker, visions of ballerinas probably start dancing in your head. But the ballet we all know and love didn’t start as a ballet at all. The original story was written by E.T.A. Hoffman (a writer, composer, and painter) for the children of a friend, Julius Eduard Hitzig.
Hoffman was born in Prussia, and lived in Poland before landing in Germany in 1808. “The Nutcracker and the King of Mice”, the story written for his friend’s children was published as part of a collection of children’s stories in Berlin in 1816. If you are familiar with the ballet, you know the basic plot: A young girl is even a Nutcracker for Christmas. She dreams of the Nutcracker coming alive and battling the King of Mice.
One the thing you might not be familiar with is the story within the story, which is not part of the ballet. The “Fairytale of the Hard Nut” or “The History of Krakatuk” is its own story, told within the larger story of the Nutcracker.
This embedded story was translated by William Makepeace Thackeray, a young British translator, and appeared in the 1833 National Standard (a newspaper that, unfortunately, collapsed the following year). It was republished in 1929 by Lewis Melville in a collection of Great German Short Stories. We will visit this story in my own retelling.
Other translations of the entire Hoffman tale include that of Alexandre Dumas, a French writer whose name you might recognize as the author of The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo. Translated the Nutcracker in 1844, Dumas attempted to stick to Hoffman’s original story closely, though there are some differences. Dumas names the location as Nuremberg, while Hoffman doesn’t identify a location (though it is often assumed to be Berlin, where both Hoffman, and the Hitzigs, the family he wrote the story for, lived). Dumas includes explanations of German traditions that aren’t needed in the original German. The family name changes from Stalhbaum to Silberhaus; the oldest sister, Luise, is eliminated from the story. He plays with ages a little, identifying Fritz as nine (no age is given in Hoffman’s version). Marie gains half a year (important at that age!), going from seven in the original to seven and a half in the translated version. While Hoffman’s version was frighteningly dark, Dumas offers a more whimsical and charming tale.
In 1886, Major Alexander Ewing, a British Army officer who studied German, wrote yet another translation. While the original story was written for children, this translation was not: it appeared in a two-book set that totals over 1000 pages, with no pictures. Many of Ewing’s changes are mistakes or misunderstandings, but his efforts concentrated in staying true to the original.
In 1892, Ascott R. Hope wrote the first translation intended for English-speaking children.
Right after World War I, Florence Anderson illustrated another translation. It was published in 1919, but despite keeping the original title, all traces of German origin were removed. E.T.A. Hoffman is not named on the title page and the characters’ names are changed: we meet Dick, Molly and Uncle Christopher instead of Fritz, Marie, and Drosselmeier. The story is simplified and modernized.
Perhaps the best modern translation is Ralph Manheim’s, illustrated by Maurice Sendack, after he designed the 1983 Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker set. Published in 1984, this version is the one I grew up with (in fact, I borrowed it from my mom when I started this project). As anyone who has read Where the Wild Things Are can guess, the illustrations are wonderful (many based on his set and costume design for the ballet).
I’ve only skimmed the surface of all the translations and adaptations that have been written in the two-hundred-year-plus history of the Nutcracker. And that’s exactly what’s so fascinating about it: the way this story has lasted and evolved. When Hoffman came up with this story over two centuries ago, did he even dare to dream that it would be told for so many years to come? Did he have any idea that of all his stories, this would be the one that took hold?
Next week, I’ll be sharing about the history of the ballet. In the meantime, you can catch up on my retelling of the story here: Christmas Eve | The Gifts | The Favorite (and if you missed the very beginning, here’s a little explanation of this project: A Nutcracker Christmas).