Squirrely Cinderella

When mistranslations become literary magic


When you recall the childhood fairy tale of Cinderella, what do you remember? 

Her wicked stepmom? Her mean girl stepsisters? Her rags? Her sleeping in ashes next to the hearth to stay warm? Her fairy godmother who changes a pumpkin into a fancy coach, mice into stallions, a rat into a coachman, and lizards into footmen?

Or do you recall the climax? The prince who can’t recognize the “stranger in the night” except for a token left behind as she fled the fete at the stroke of midnight before she reverted into a scruffy ragamuffin covered in soot and cinders?

Prince Charming grabs the souvenir he’s recovered and scours his kingdom, looking for the mysterious gal using this sole clue to her existence: her footwear lost in her hasty departure — a glass slipper!

When you think about it, the entire plot and theme of Charles Perrault’s story of 1697 hinges on this one concrete object: a shoe made of glass. As a youngster, I wondered about this mystery: How did she dance or even walk in an inflexible glass shoe? Why didn’t it break as she scurried off? Shoes get scuffed; wouldn’t it have cracked? Even a child has questions about the practicality of fragile glass shoes. Was that what rich gals of the Middle Ages wore? I recollect questioning the glass slipper more than I did the magic of the godmother with her wand.

In high school, most likely, you were exposed to Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you had to memorize a soliloquy from Willy Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy. Maybe when you repeated “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” you thought it was how folks at the end of the 16th century pronounced the adverb “Where.” Ergo, it wasn’t until you read the following line that you realized she was ruminating about his name, not his whereabouts. Juliette pondered why he had to have that name instead of another. She’d be permitted to love any boy named John, Dick or even a red-headed Harry but not a certain Romeo Montague, the son of her folks’ enemy. “A rose by any other name…” 

Though Shakespeare’s play wasn’t written in Old English, it’s still tricky to decipher the meanings of some words.

Aren’t there those among us today who have trouble with modern song lyrics, especially when loud drums in the background drown out words and syllables or a breathy lead singer mumbles or speaks with an accent or adds sounds and groans that aren’t verbal iterations at all? Have you confused these lyrics and sung loudly: “Dancing Queen, young and sweet, only seven teeth?”  What about Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” where he belts out, “It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not,” but New Jersey kids heard, “It doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not.” Sometimes, the misheard lyrics paint a more vivid picture!

The fairy tale Cinderella was written and spoken in Old French. Earlier versions of the tale dating back to ancient times don’t include a glass slipper, only the one by Perrault. Some stories describe it as an anklet left behind — not a shoe. Not only are words different from modern French. The objects mentioned may also be unfamiliar to us today. In addition, if you have studied French, you know there exist dozens of homonyms for each word. You must examine the context to understand which word is selected. Sometimes, orthography helps! My point regarding Cinderella is that the old French word “vair” sounds the same as “verre,” which translates as “glass.” So when an ancient Frenchman was telling the story of Cinderella and how she wore fancy slippers of “vair,” the listener might think she wore slippers of glass because “verre” means “glass” in French, and the pronunciation of the two words are the same. Yet, slippers of “vair” were common among the wealthy in the Middle Ages. Vair was common in heraldry. Vair is Russian squirrel fur. They employed the hide and the underbelly of the squirrel. These fur-lined shoes would be comfortable moccasins; only the wealthiest young damsels would sport them.

Which makes sense to you? Cindy was garbed in a beautiful, jeweled gown and donned comfy fur-lined shoes, or was she a dancing queen with breakable glass footgear? Interestingly, the image of glass shoes gives the story a je ne sais quoi power. This aspect makes it memorable. Sometimes, the story isn’t called Cinderella but is known as The Little Glass Slipper. We picture the handsome prince searching in vain, long and far, to locate that gal with exactly the right shaped and daintily sized foot to fit into the immovable slipper. A Patagonian would shatter it.

The story is unforgettable because of the error of misinterpreting the word. So although Mark Twain cautioned writers to search for “le mot juste,” I’m going to play contrarian and suggest that the wrong word or a word misheard or misinterpreted or lost in translation can add zing to a story and take one’s imagination in another direction, which might improve the tale. Aren’t heels made of crystal more picturesque and sexier to conjure up in the mind’s eye than a pair of floppy, furry moccasins? 

Mondegreens exist — all the time. I remember once, when my kids were small, one son murmured something I didn’t quite hear. I responded: “How did you know I had to urinate?” My 10-year-old looked at me dumbfounded. He repeated, “I asked if you need a hearing aid?”