A Traditional Avant-garde

— Trends and Features of Scandinavian Children’s Literature in Italy

Davide Finco, University of Genoa

CSS Conference 2019, published in July 2020


My paper is meant to present the first outcomes of a new research, which in turn is a widening of a previous investigation: some years ago, I studied the influence of Scandinavian children’s writers on Italian ones during their childhood or their education, by basing my survey mainly on their direct statements and testimonies.1 See D. Finco, “Freedom starts as early as childhood. Scandinavian children’s (female) writers’ impact on Italian children’s literature before and after the Second World War” in Robert Zola Christensen (ed.), A collection of articles based on presentation held at the CSS Conference 2017 – “Rethinking Scandinavia” (web proceedings), Lund, International web community for Scandinavian Studies, 2018, www.csspublications.net/konf17proceedings From this perspective, I assessed that Scandinavian children’s writers, above all the Danish Karin Michaëlis, the Swedish Astrid Lindgren and the Finland-Swedish Tove Jansson, played a relevant role both in the inspiration of some future children’s writers and in the innovation of Italian children’s books; to this regard, two main waves of change can be pointed out in the 1960s and in the 1980s.2 See also point 4 in the conclusive remarks of the present paper. This time I propose to look at the overall phenomenon from a broader perspective, with reference to which Scandinavian children’s books were published in Italian translation, so as to constitute a kind of Nordic tradition in the still neglected area of children’s literature. This survey will allow me to highlight which Scandinavian children’s writers (have) characterized the Italian children’s book market and how the presence of Scandinavian children’s authors in Italy changed through the years.

The present contribution features, therefore, as the first step of a potential deeper survey, which raises a series of questions, in the following introduced as a kind of framework. First, we should reflect on what ought to be considered children’s books or, at least, to notice how this label includes very different works, from illustrated albums to young adults’ literature, from nursery rhymes to fantasy novels, just to mention some. In spite of common readers’ viewpoint, it is therefore hard to consider children’s literature as a “literary genre”, as it actually consists of very different genres (nearly all finding a counterpart in adults’ literature). On the other hand, it seems surprisingly easy to identify children’s works, as they are clearly mentioned in editorial catalogues and evidently shown in specific sections of most bookshops and libraries, sometimes even in handbooks about the history of literature. The case of fairy tales or folk tales is enlightening to this regard: born as the expression of folklore, they represented wonderful and suitable means to involve children, even to transmit values or, at least, to start making the youngest ones more aware of reality, of the outer world, its challenges and its dangers, through their symbolic language and their typified characters. Therefore, they played an important role in children’s experience of narration and, if possible, in children’s readings, so that they gradually were pointed at as children’s literature, as they commonly are considered even today. When publishing his worldwide known tales, H. C. Andersen himself shifted from the initial title of Eventyr fortalte for Børn (Fairy Tales Told for Children) to the later Eventyr og Historier (Fairy Tales and Stories), so as to highlight the different and peculiar approach he had towards this kind of stories in spite of his original source of inspiration.

Another interesting, even though less problematic aspect is that children’s writers – more and more often in Scandinavia – do not write children’s books only, and sometimes they are known in Italy just for their adults’ books, or for their children’s, or even for both. In order to define my corpus, I chose to refer to the canon of children’s literature as is presented by Italian scholars of Scandinavian studies. To this purpose, I found a very useful and relevant tool in the recent Italian history of Scandinavian literature,3 Massimo Ciaravolo (ed.), Storia delle letterature scandinave. Dalle origini a oggi, Milano: Iperborea, 2019. which displays a specific section on children’s writers; starting from this corpus, I mapped Italian translations of Scandinavian children’s works, by consulting both the Online Catalogue of the National Library and several lists of Italian translations available online.

A first necessary, general remark – which I will not go into in this paper – is that in the beginning, Scandinavian children’s books – as well as Scandinavian books on the whole – were usually translated from French, German or English versions, even though translations from Scandinavian languages appeared, occasionally, relatively early (a noteworthy example is Selma Lagerlöf’s Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige, published in 1906-1907 and translated into Italian from Swedish already in 1914). A second, more meaningful, feature is that both children’s literature in Scandinavia (like in Europe) and Italian translations of Scandinavian books are late phenomena, thus the connection of them both could only lead to a late beginning, as well as a late breakthrough, if compared to other literature.

This is clear if we consider the low number of Scandinavian children’s writers who for decades had a place in Italy; as a matter of fact, before the 1950s Sweden is represented, in Italian translation, by Selma Lagerlöf and Gerd Rissler; Denmark by H. C. Andersen, Karin Michaëlis and Jens Sigsgaard; Norway only by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe (however, with their folktales); Iceland only by Jón “Nonni” Sveinsson.

Selma Lagerlöf is here considered for the above mentioned Nils Holgersson, which is undoubtedly a children’s book as it was commissioned as such (even though she made a Bildungsroman out of the requested geography handbook). After the first translation in 1914, certainly encouraged by her winning of the Nobel prize (as the first woman) in 1909, another Italian version appeared in 1922, later in the 1930s, in 1960, 1964, 1974 and, most recently, in 2017. This marks, therefore, a constant presence of this writer, although the numerous complete translations were often accompanied by the publishing of excerpts, or – even – by adaptations or reductions.4 Selma Lagerlöf’s book participated therefore to the high increase of translations of Scandinavian works in Italy during the 1930s, when – paradoxically, if we consider the historical context and climate – Italy was the European country that displayed the highest amount of literary books in translation (see, e.g., Christopher Rundle. Publishing Translations in Fascist Italy, Bern: Peter Lang, 2010, p. 46).

One might reflect, in addition, on how much and how pertinently authors like Selma Lagerlöf may be taken as children’s writers into account: can Gösta Berlings saga, or other novels by her, be considered books for children or adolescents? This inclusion, in any case, would relevantly increase her presence in Italy through the whole 20th century. Gerd Rissler’s Mickegubben på Rosenön (1943) was translated in 1949, but the author had no other book translated afterwards.

H. C. Andersen’s (fairy) tales were partly translated already in 1864 and this author is regularly present in Italy and elsewhere until nowadays. Therefore, he can be somehow considered the first Scandinavian writer featuring in Italy as regards ‘children’s literature’. Karin Michaëlis is the other Danish author who can boast an almost constant occurrence, although with an obviously much later beginning; however, she had her Bibi-series early translated into Italian, likely due to her international renown at the time: her seven novels on Bibi (the last one was actually ‘completed’ by the translator) were published between 1927 and 1939 and translated between 1932 and 1941; moreover, they were republished in the 1960s, 1970s and 1990s (however, a new translation, this time from Danish and not from German, appeared first in 2005). I will not go into details now, but the importance of this character is testified by several Italian children’s writers, so that they even have talked about a “Bibi generation” and a “Pippi generation” as for young (female) children’s writers and readers.5 See Donatella Ziliotto, “Generazione Bibi, generazione Pippi”, in Francesca Lazzarato - D. Ziliotto (eds.), Bimbe, donne e bambole. Protagoniste bambine nei libri per l’infanzia, Roma: Artemide, 1987, pp. 23-33. At the time of her Bibi-breakthrough in Italy, she was famous for Den farlige Alder (1910), a provocative and modern portrait of a woman in her forties, which had had an Italian version in 1911 and 1929.

Jens Sigsgaard wrote Palle alene i verden in 1942: it is the story of a child who discovers he has remained alone in the world, something that – with regard to children’s dreams of power and freedom from the adults – shows similarities with the much more articulated and famous adventures of Pippi Longstocking. This work was based on a real survey that had involved children, and was translated into Italian already in 1949, whereas a second translation appeared only in 2005.

Asbjørnsen and Moe’s collections of folktales (Norske folkeeventyr) are likely the most famous and among the earliest examples of Scandinavian folklore in Italy, translated in 1925 and 1945. Apart from all controversial issues we have mentioned before, Scandinavian folktales or fairy tales had their first Italian editions already in the late 19th century, more systematically in the 1940s and regularly from the 1960s onwards. I think that they contributed much to the imagery of North in Italy (even beyond the field of children’s literature) in terms of mythological beliefs and relationship with nature, and this might have somehow influenced Italian editors.

Jón “Nanni” Sveinsson authored autobiographical novels – written in Danish and German – about life in Iceland, which were published in Italy from the 1920s, in 1946 and, later, only in 1998.6 These latest versions feature, however, in several numbers of the review Popoli (Folks) and were translated from French. The context highlights the character of these contributions as testimonies about life in a little known country.

I propose now to follow Scandinavian children’s children’s books’ fortune in Italy, at least in terms of translations, decade after decade, starting from the most present country, which is Sweden (and this occurs, by the way, not only for children’s literature).

In the 1950s, we find the first translations of the three children’s writers who will mark the Italian survey for several decades: Astrid Lindgren (her Boken om Pippi Långstrump, 1952, was translated in 1958),7 See Donatella Ziliotto’s considerations (as translator and editor of Pippi) on the relevance of her relationship with Astrid Lindgren and on the pioneering role of Pippi in the Italian children’s book market in D. Finco, “Freedom starts as early as childhood”, cit. Tove Jansson and her Moomin-series (1946-1970, since 1959 in Italian) and Martha Sandwall-Bergström (Kulla-Gulla-series, from the 1940s to the 1970s, in Italian from 1956 to the 1980s). Astrid Lindgren, unsurprisingly, dominates the Italian panorama until nowadays, with ever new versions and editions; more notably, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Lindgren, Lagerlöf, Sandwall-Bergström and Jansson are nearly the only Swedish children’s authors translated into Italian, as far as I have found, the exceptions being Maria Gripe, whose Hugo och Josefin (1962) was translated in 1977 and whose Italian fortune lasted until the 1990s (with a republishing of Galsblåsarns barn in 2018), and Gösta Knutsson’s Pelle Svanslös på äventyr (1939, transl. in 1956).

In 1980, we have the only Italian version of a book by Inger and Lasse Sandberg, in spite of their series of illustrated albums started in 1953 and published for over fifty years. Other relevant exceptions are Ulf Nilsson (Älskade lilla gris, 1982, transl. in 1984) and Gunnel Linde (Den vita stenen, 1964, transl. in 1994), on the friendship between an unmarried mother’s daughter and an orphan, which inspired a successful TV-series. We can conclude that until the half of the 1990s the presence of Swedish children’s books in Italy was stable, rich in publications but relatively poor in the number of authors.

At this point, Italian children’s book market made acquaintance with the currently most famous or trendy writer: Ulf Stark, whose Sixten (1987) was translated in 1995. His works have regularly appeared in Italian, often only a few years later than the Swedish version, and he is appreciated for his humour and – as many other Scandinavian children’s writers – for his courage in dealing with delicate topics, in particular the relationship between children and adults and children’s view of the adult world.