Humor and Translation: Sneewittchen and Мёртвая Царевна

Sneewittchen and Мёртвая Царевна
By Mark Herman


The same basic folk material can be reconfigured in many ways, depending on the culture doing the reconfiguring. Consider the two stories “Sneewittchen” / “Snow White” and “Сказка о мёртвой царевне и о семи богатырях” / “The Tale of the Dead Princess and the Seven Heroes.”

“Sneewittchen” is a tale retold by the German Grimm brothers.The title is a dialectical form of “Schneeweißchen,” a diminutive form of the word meaning “Snow White.” Diminutives are not easily translated into English, and so locutions such as “dear Snow White” or “little Snow White,” though sometimes used, are not quite right. Therefore, the diminutive is almost always ignored in English translations. Also, the title of most English versions, including that by Lore Segaland that in the Walt Disney film,3  is “Snow White [or Snow-White] and the Seven Dwarfs,” though the German title is the single word “Sneewittchen.”

“Сказка о мёртвой царевне и о семи богатырях” is a tale retold by the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin.The princess of the title is a tsaryevna (i.e., a daughter of a tsar), while the seven heroes are bogatyrs (see the painting above5), heroes of былины (byliny), medieval East Slavic oral epic narrative poems, and now a Russian animation franchise.6 The story is translated into English by Oliver Elton as “Tale of the Dead Princess and the Seven Champions.”7

The basic story in both the German and Russian versions is the same. An evil vain queen, obsessed with her looks, cannot tolerate anyone in the kingdom being more beautiful than she. When informed by her magic mirror that her stepdaughter is in fact more beautiful than she, the queen sends the girl off to be killed. However, the assigned assassin does not kill the girl. Instead, the would-be assassin tells the girl to run. The girl does so, eventually finding refuge in the home of seven men, where she resides in safety for a while, doing all of their domestic housework. Eventually, the queen learns that her stepdaughter is still alive, and so, disguised as an old woman, comes by and offers the girl a poisoned apple. The girl takes a bite, falls down dead, and is not buried but is placed in a transparent coffin. A prince comes riding up, sees the girl, breaks into the coffin, gives the girl the kiss of life, and carries her off to live happily ever after. And the evil queen dies.

The girl is, of course, Snow White, explicitly called that in the German version because she is “so weiß wie Schnee, so roth wie Blut, und so schwarzhaarig wie Ebenholz,” or, in Segal’s translation, “as white as snow, as red as blood, and with hair as black as ebony.” Pushkin never names his protagonist, but she has the same physical qualities as in the German version.

Despite the same basic story, there are many differences, reflecting the very different German and Russian cultures. The most obvious difference is the form. Both versions are products of the nineteenth- century Romantic era, but the Grimm version, first published in 1812, is in prose, as is Segal’s English translation, while the Pushkin version, dating from 1833, is in rhymed tetrameter couplets, as is Elton’s translation.

Although the Grimm version is almost exclusively in prose, it does include several famous lines in verse. They are the question the evil queen asks her magic mirror:

Spieglein, Spieglein an der Wand,
wer ist die schönste im ganzen Land?

[Mirror (dimin.), mirror on the wall,
who is the most beautiful in all the land?]

Or, in the now standard English version also included in Lore’s translation:

Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
who is the fairest of them all?

Pushkin’s version is:

Свет мой, зеркальце! скажи
Да всю правду доложи:
Я ль на свете всех милее,
Всех румяней и белее?

[World/Light of mine, mirror! say,
indeed always the truth report:
Am I in the world/light of all pretty girls
rosier and whiter than all?]

Or, in Elton’s English translation:

Mirror, mirror, let me hear
Nothing but the truth, my dear!
Tell me, am I sweetest, fairest?
Are my red and white the rarest?

One stark difference between the German and Russian versions is the nature of the seven men who offer the fleeing princess refuge. In Grimm, they are “seven dwarfs, who dug and delved for ore in the mountains.” In Pushkin, they are “seven champions,” “ruddy bushy-whiskered men,” who spend their waking hours killing people. As Elton puts it:

Mounted Saracens, or lopping
Some broad-shouldered Tartar’s pate;
Or from woods they extirpate
Pyatigorsk Circassians…

Other notable differences are that in Grimm’s version the rescuing prince comes upon Snow White’s coffin by chance, whereas in Pushkin’s version the prince is her betrothed from before she was sent off by the queen to be killed, and he has been looking for her all the while. In Grimm, there is no question of any intimate relation between any of the dwarfs and Snow White. In Pushkin, the seven bogatyrs ask the princess to choose one among them to be her husband. Fortunately, she can diplomatically decline on the grounds that she has been previously engaged. In Grimm, the queen tries three times to kill Snow White at the house of the dwarfs: first by lacing her up so tightly she cannot breathe, next by giving her a poisoned comb, and finally by giving her the poisoned apple. In Pushkin, there is just the poisoned apple. In Grimm, the evil queen is killed by being forced to put on red-hot slippers and dance until she dies. In Pushkin, she simply drops dead when she realizes that all her schemes to kill the princess have failed.

And the endings reflect very different sensibilities. In Grimm, the death of the evil queen is the end of the story. Pushkin, however, adds a coda by the teller of the story, who supposedly was present at the wedding celebration of the princess and prince:

И никто с начала мира
Не видал такого пира;
Я там был, мед, пиво пил,
Да усы лишь обмочил.

[And nobody from the beginning of the world
saw such a feast;
I was there, drank mead and beer,
but my moustache was only wetted.]

Or, in Elton’s version:

Never, since the world’s creation,
Saw man such a celebration.
I drank beer, drank mead, and yet
Hardly were my whiskers wet.


1.”Sneewittchen,” in Märchen der Brüder Grimm, ausgewählt von Lore Segal und Maurice Sendak, mit Zeichnungen von Maurice Sendak (Zürich: Diogenes Verlag AG, 1985), 254-71.

2. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” translated into English by Lore Segal, in The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm, selected by Lore Segal and Maurice Sendak, translated by Lore Segal with four tales translated by Randall Jarrell, pictures by Maurice Sendak (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973, volume 2), 256-74.

3. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, animated musical film (Walt Disney Productions, originally released by RKO Radio Pictures in 1937).

4. “Сказка о мёртвой царевне и о семи богатырях,” автор Александр Сергеевич Пушкин (1799-1837), written 1833,

5. “Три Богатыря / Three Bogatyrs” (1898) by Victor Vasnetsov (1848-1926).  Oil on canvas. The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia ( Used by permission of the Tretyakov Gallery. On the left is Dobrynya, the prince. In the center is Ilya Muromets, the peasant. To the right is Alyosha, the son of a priest. Each of these characters has his own set of legends, and all three supposedly served Prince Vladimir I of Kievan Rus, Saint Vladimir, during whose rule (980-1015) Christianity was adopted in Russia. There is evidence that at least the first two bogatyrs were based on historical figures, or possibly composites of several historical figures. The exploits in the epic tales are of course mostly fictional.

6.  See, for example,

7. “Tale of the Dead Princess and the Seven Champions,” translated into English by Oliver Elton, in Pushkin’s Fairy Tales, with illustrations by Palekh artists, Irina lvova, ed. (Saint Petersburg: Medny Vsadnik Trading House Publishers, 2017), 122-39.



Submit items for future columns via e-mail to mnh18@columbia.eduDiscussions of the translation of humor and examples thereof are preferred, but humorous anecdotes about translators, translations, and mistranslations are also welcome. Include copyright information and permission if relevant.

1 Responses to "Humor and Translation: Sneewittchen and Мёртвая Царевна"

  1. Svetlana says:

    Though the etymology of the word “bogatyr” goes back to as early as 12th and 13th centuries and the reign of Genghis Khan, it’s not about the word but about its meaning and the idea behind it. The word “bogatyr” was used to refer to mythological national heroes in the early history of Rus’—the heroes or guards protecting the country from enemies—which were thought to be endowed with supernatural powers or symbolize some elements of nature. The underlying idea is pre-Christiаn pantheism of Rus’. Though I understand your humor, bogatyrs didn’t “spend their waking hour killing people”. Rather, they might have flown like wind or flowed like river fighting with a dragon, for example. But early culture, I agree, is highly representative of the nature of people sharing it. And, yes, it is fun to imagine the princess marrying one of the bogatyrs

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