Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe has been on my bookshelf for as long as I have been able to read. When I was a kid I got a children’s version in Faroese from my book club which I faithfully read, and as an adult I bought a copy in the original language, also faithfully reading. And yet, the two situations could not have been farther apart.
As a little girl, what I read was a story of a man trapped on an island, fighting off cannibals and saving a friend whom he named Friday. It was a wonderful and adventurous tale that left me adventurous, ready to pack my suitcase and leaving my parents for the sea life and hoping for a shipwreck on a deserted sunny island. I mean, how hard can it be when you are ingenious by heart like Crusoe? And so I grew up thinking Robinson was a merry, brave and carefree man.
Fast forward to age 27. Scene: I am studying comparative literature now and we are at my translation studies elective. We are discussing literary translation and the problems and choices that come along with being a translator. For my exams I have chosen my trusted friend Crusoe as an example of the very interesting shift that comes with translating an 18.century Enlightenment novel (which some would call the first novel in the history of literature) into a Danish children’s book. And so I buy a copy of the original as it was written back in the days, and borrow 2 children’s versions in Danish for comparison.
The funny thing about reading Robinson Crusoe when you are respectively 10 and 27 is that a lot of growing up happens in the mean time At 27 I am baffled over the complexity of the character Crusoe, truly an individualist at heart. And a struggling one at that. He is definitely not all rainbows and sunsets and heroically saving the day and life of a fellow man. No, no, no. Before the shipwreck Robinson Crusoe is a wretched soul who has spent his youth squandering his possibilities away, not respecting his parents and living it up, as we could say. And the ‘blink of an eye’ moment I had perceived his stay on the island to be at age 10, was actually a loooooong time filled with sickness, hard toiling and dangerous situations that leave Crusoe not so much a hero as a survivor.
When I wrote my paper on the translation and transposition of 18. century Crusoe to 20.-21.century children’s literature, I concluded that a lot of depth had been lost in this transaction, and it was questionable if Crusoe, as Defoe had written him, was stilted by the act. I still feel that it is a very interesting question. The grown-up version deals with huge themes of religious piety, colonization, master-slave relationship and the individual as a free agent. This is all very much watered down in the children’s version.
When you think about children’s books in the genre fantasy and adventure, Crusoe almost always creeps up as example par excellence (well, back in my days, today it’s probably more likely to be Twilight by infinity and Harry Potter, god bless them). But when you compare the two – Crusoe for adults, and Crusoe for children – it’s so obvious that the adjustments that are taken to convert the story to children is so encroaching upon the thematics of the text that it renders it flawed. I was, to say the least, baffled when I read Robinson as an adult, because the image I had had of him as a child and the storyline + a given morale was completely different from the one I could put in a historical and literary context as an adult.
Having said that, the memory of my suitcase and the adventurous dreams Robinson inspired in me, still brings me to the conclusion, that as a child I knew and loved a story of a man called Robinson Crusoe who climbed coconut trees and built huts on a deserted island far away. And as a child I couldn’t care less that the adults had to read Crusoe as someone who was a product of the historical waves of an increasingly individualistic society, deeply frustrated, borderline certifiable and alone on an island.