Translating the Grimm Brothers’ “Rumpelstilzchen” Through Disability Studies

By Maria Rovito

The act of translating can uphold and strengthen certain traditions and values within a culture. For instance, American translated versions of foreign texts can uphold certain stereotypes and problematic ideologies of these foreign cultures within American culture and society. One of the troublesome ideologies within translated Western literature is the tradition of ableism, a show of bias in favor of individuals with no disability. Many translators, when dealing with instances of disability within a text, often interject their own morals and values within their translations—often times upholding certain ideals concerning sexism, racism, and homophobia. The aim of this project is to demonstrate how translators can uphold and reinforce negative ideas and images of disability through their translations of texts. Through translating the Grimm Brothers’ short fairy tale, “Rumpelstilzchen,” and analyzing the 19th century English translations of this story, I will demonstrate that an accurate and appropriate method of translation is not to reinforce negative images and stereotypes of individuals with disabilities; rather, through the lens of critical disability studies, an appropriate translation should attempt to eliminate any injected ableist beliefs within the text.

Theoretical Framework

I will use the sociocultural framework of translation studies in attempting to understand how and why certain translations of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale “Rumpelstilzchen” reinforce negative images and stereotypes of individuals with disabilities. As Munday writes, concerning the sociology and historiography of translation, “the study of translators and the social nature of translation have become centre stage in translation studies research” (236). A translator’s stance and positionality are greatly determined by their ideology and sociocultural context (Munday 235). As Tymoczko states,

[T]he ideology of a translation resides not simply in the text translated, but in the voicing and stance of the translator, and in the relevance to the receiving audience. These latter features are affected by the place of enunciation of the translator: indeed they are part of what we mean by the ‘place’ of enunciation, for that ‘place’ is an ideological positioning as well as a geographical or temporal one. These aspects of a translation are motivated and determined by the translator’s cultural and ideological affiliations as much as or even more than by the temporal and spatial location that the translator speaks from. (qtd. in Munday 236)

It can be argued, then, that the rise of the meanings and definitions of “normalcy” influenced the different translations of the tale “Rumpelstilzchen,” which depict the character of Rumpelstilzchen as being “abnormal,” “weird,” “funny,” or “different.”

According to Tymoczko, the translator has great power over the ideology of the text; translators must act ethically in order to effectively produce social change within society. This concept also intersects with Venuti’s theory of the invisibility of the translator and his concept of the “norms” of the translator. These norms “may be in the first instance linguistic or literary, but they will also include a diverse range of domestic values, beliefs, and social representations which carry ideological force in serving the interests of specific groups . . . they are always housed in the social institutions where translations are produced and enlisted in cultural and political agendas” (qtd. in Munday 224). The discourse of these institutions (such as universities, hospitals, and publishing companies) can unconsciously reinforce certain cultural ideologies that promote a whole range of norms and values. Translators, therefore, as members of these institutions, must choose to rebel or play into these discourses. These discourses in translation studies are often tied to gender, postcolonialism, rewriting, and ideology (Munday 219). In this essay, I suggest that translators also play into the discourse of ableism, as demonstrated by many of the 19th century English translations of “Rumpelstilzchen.” Ableism is defined by Lewis as, “…social stigma and oppression against the physically different” (117). Much like racism, sexism, ageism, and other forms of institutional oppression, translators can (and have) participated in the discourse of ableism within their works.

The Concept of Normalcy in the 19th Century

Disability studies scholar Lennard Davis describes the problem of being “normal” and the idea of normalcy in relation to the industrialization and other practices during the 19th century. He writes, “the social process of disabling arrived with industrialization and with the set of practices and discourses that are linked to late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century notions of nationality, race, gender, criminality, sexual orientation, and so on” (Davis 3). Discourses surrounding institutions and their practices (such as universities, hospitals, prisons, churches, and so on) have all contributed to the enforcing of normalcy within western society. This process begins with how these institutions define what being “normal” is. As Davis writes,

I begin with the rather remarkable fact that the constellation of words describing this concept “normal,” “normalcy,” “normality,” “norm,” “average,” “abnormal” –all entered the European languages rather late in human history. The word “normal” as “constituting, conforming to, not deviating or different from, the common type or standard, regular, usual” only enters the English language around 1840. (Previously, the word had meant “perpendicular”; the carpenter’s square, called a “norm,” provided the root meaning.) Likewise, the word “norm,” in the modern sense, has only been in use since around 1855, and “normality” and “normalcy” appeared in 1849 and 1857, respectively. If the lexicographical information is relevant, it is possible to date the coming into consciousness in English of an idea of “the norm” over the period 1840-1860. (3)

This correlates with the number of translations of the Grimms’ tale “Rumpelstilzchen,” as the translations mentioned in this paper range from the years 1823 to 1902, which directly covers the period when the term “normal” came into being in the English language. It can be argued, then, that the rise of the meanings and definitions of “normalcy” influenced the different translations of the tale “Rumpelstilzchen,” which depict the character of Rumpelstilzchen as being “abnormal,” “weird,” “funny,” or “different.” These translators are, in effect, enforcing the discourse of “normalcy,” which considers non-normative bodies as something to be feared or revolted at by able-bodied society.

By depicting and illustrating what normal and abnormal bodies look like and read like within the text, translators uphold a value and belief system where bodies that do not meet what the “norm” is supposed to be become imposing and menacing. As shown in the tale, Rumpelstilzchen differs greatly from that of the other characters; due to this, he is jeered at and made fun of at the end of the tale, further stigmatizing non-normative bodies within the context of Grimms’ tales and the 19th century. As Davis writes,

The concept of a norm, unlike that of an ideal, implies that the majority of the population must or should somehow be part of the norm. The norm pins down that majority of the population that falls under the arch of the standard bell-shaped curve…Any bell curve will always have at its extremities those characteristics that deviate from the norm. So, with the concept of the norm comes the concept of deviations or extremes. When we think of bodies, in a society where the concept of the norm is operative, then people with disabilities will be thought of as deviants. (6, emphasis mine)

It is essential, therefore, that translators consider these operative norms when attempting to create an accurate translation of any text dealing with disabled or non-normative characters.

This problematizing of physical difference is also reflected in the medical community of the 19th century. For instance, orthopaedic disability became viewed as an individual’s problem that needed to be corrected, often through surgery. This medical model of disability often left the individual feeling isolated and separated from their community–similar to how Rumpelstilzchen was treated by others within the story. As the 19th century surgeon R. W. Tamplin states,

t…[T]he deformed have been regarded as loathsome in body, and depraved in mind; they have often isolated themselves from their fellow creatures. . . . Possessing all the feelings, and susceptible of all the impulses which animate the breast of man, frequently morbidly sensitive from the consciousness of their deformity, adorned with genius, gifted with wit, graced by fortune and by birth, crowned with learning,–still is the deformed man exposed to the derision of the heartless, and is shut out from the world simply because nature has played some freak by which he differs from his fellow mortals. (Lectures on the Nature and Treatment of Deformities, Delivered at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital)

It can be therefore argued that Rumpelstilzchen’s disability was viewed as a problem during the 19th century, as medical professionals (and ultimately western society) regarded disabled individuals as loathsome and depraved. Translations produced during this period reflect the medical and social ideologies surrounding disabled individuals and project these anxieties onto the character of Rumpelstilzchen, which reinforces the characterization of disabled figures in the Grimms’ tales as villains that need to be fixed.

Translated Versions of “Rumpelstilzchen” of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

Many English translations of the Grimms’ tale ingrain ableist assumptions regarding “unnatural” characters such as Rumpelstilzchen, injecting slurs and phrases regarding these characters’ abilities. Edgar Taylor was the first translator to render many of the Grimms’ tales into English, and his 1823 German Popular Stories included the translated “Rumpel-Stilts-Kin.” The German “ein kleines Männchen” (or directly translated as “a little man”) was translated into a “droll-looking little man,” in the princess’s introduction to Rumpelstilzchen: “She sat down in one corner of the room and began to lament over her hard fate, when on a sudden the door opened, and a droll-looking little man hobbled in, and said ‘Good morrow to you my good lass, what are you weeping for?’” (German Popular Stories 213-214). Not only is the character of Rumpelstilzchen “droll-looking,” he is also “hobbling” into the story, therefore, depicting his as crippled and malformed. Later in the tale Rumpelstilzchen is described as a “dwarf”: “As soon as she was alone the dwarf came in and said ‘What will you give me to spin gold for you this third time?’” (215). Taylor switches between calling Rumpelstilzchen a “dwarf” and a “little man” or “little friend”; the illustration that is included with the text also portrays him as comical or ridiculous–the queen and her court are jeering at him as he grabs his leg, attempting to angrily force his leg into the ground (216). The term “dwarf” can connect the real-life condition of dwarfism to that of dwarfs in mythology, creating a false expectation of those who live with the condition (Berube 163). This is furthered by the names the queen attempts to call Rumpelstilzchen by: “The second day she began with all the comical names she could think of, Bandy-legs, Hunch-back, Crook-shanks, and so on; but the little gentleman still said to every one of them, ‘That’s not my name’” (216). Clearly distancing this translation from the 1819 second edition, Taylor translates the German “Rippenbiest, Hammel wade, Schnür bein” (which directly translates to “rib beast, mutton calf, lace leg”) into “Bandy-legs, Hunch-back, Crook-shanks,” substituting the original into slurs directed towards the non-normative body of Rumpelstilzchen, implying that the “little man” is freakish and perverse in nature. This unnatural and monsterly quality is further ingrained into the story when the queen’s messenger discovers Rumpelstilzchen in his home:

The third day one of the messengers came back, and said “I can hear of no other names; but yesterday, as I was climbing a high hill among the trees of the forest where the fox and the hare bid each other good night, I saw a little hut, and before the hut burnt a fire, and round about the fire a funny little man danced upon one leg, and sang: . . . ” (216)

Depicted as an outsider of civilization, Rumpelstilzchen is excluded from society, perhaps for being a “funny little man” in the eyes of others. He is further ridiculed and depicted as comical by the end of the tale: “‘Some witch told you that! Some witch told you that!’ cried the little man, and dashed his right foot in a rage so deep into the floor, that he was forced to lay hold of it with both hands to pull it out. Then he made the best of his way off, while every body laughed at him for having all his trouble for nothing” (217). This translation by Taylor differs from the 1819 edition of the tale, as “every body laugh[s] at [Rumpelstilzchen]” as he exists from their presence. This demonstrates that the queen’s court, and ultimately western society, treats Rumpelstilzchen as a simpleton, suggesting that individuals with physical disabilities are to be mocked and jeered at in the 19th century (see figure 1).

Translations produced during this period reflect the medical and social ideologies surrounding disabled individuals and project these anxieties onto the character of Rumpelstilzchen, which reinforces the characterization of disabled figures in the Grimms’ tales as villains that need to be fixed.

Additional translations of the Grimms’ tales in the 19th century contribute to this rhetoric of ableism within the same tale of Rumpelstilzchen. The 1853 “Rumpelstiltskin” in Household Stories, by Edward H. Wehnert, continues the tradition of translating Rumpelstilzchen as a “little man” or “dwarf.” For example, Rumpelstilzchen is introduced in the tale as a “little Man”: “All at once the door opened and in stepped a little Man, who said, ‘Good evening, fair maiden; why do you weep so sore?’” (Household Stories 271). Later within the same instance, he is referred to as a “Dwarf”: “The Dwarf took it, placed himself in front of the wheel, and whirr, whirr, whirr, three times round, and the bobbin was full” (271). The illustration of Rumpelstilzchen also depicts him as an angsty “little Man,” attempting to free himself after he sticks his foot into the ground (see figure 2). The 1855 Home Stories includes a translation of the tale titled “Rumpelstiltz,” translated by Matilda Louisa Davis, and further depicts the character as either a “little man” or “dwarf.” In one instance, he is called a “wonderful little man”:

On the third day the messengers returned, saying, “We have found not a single new name;” but one added, “As I was crossing a mountain I came to a very small house, before which a fire was burning, and round the fire a most wonderful little man was dancing and springing, and hopping on one leg, singing at the same time,– . . . ” (Home Stories 221)

Later in the tale he is named the queen’s “little friend,” which departs from the representation of Rumpelstilzchen as a violent, maladjusted creature of the Taylor translation of 1823. Instead, readers can view the “wonderful little man” as child-like, further depicting a non-normative character as childish and infantile, which is another stigma related to many with disabilities.

The 1872 translation by Edgar Taylor, titled German Popular Stories and Fairy Tales, as Told by Gammer Grethel, is where Rumpelstilzchen is curiously named “hobgoblin”: “‘What will you give me,’ said the hobgoblin, ‘to do it for you?’” (69). As noted by Scott in 1895, the term “hobgoblin” refers to “a rural spirit or goblin” (96). As Christianity spread within Europe and North America, the terms “hobgoblin” and “goblin” transformed from that of the helper to an evil creature, often portrayed as wicked (Briggs 320). Rumpelstilzchen is also called “manikin” in Taylor’s translation: “Round went the wheel again to the old song, and the manikin once more spun the heap into gold” (70) as well as a “funny little dwarf” (71). This term refers to individuals that are small in nature; combined with the terms “hobgoblin” and “dwarf,” this translation by Taylor greatly departs from the 1819 Grimm’s edition of calling Rumpelstilzchen a “little man.” Similarly, the 1902 poetic translation of the tale by Guy Wetmore Carry further disfigures the character of Rumpelstilzchen in “How Rumplestilz Held Out in Vain for a Bonus.” He is introduced in this translation as a “gnome”: “When suddenly, from out the wall, / As if he felt at home, / There pounced a singularly small / And much distorted gnome” (Carry 50). This is the first translation where Rumpelstilzchen is referred to as a “gnome”; this term can either refer to the mythical creatures known as “gnomes,” or a rather unpleasant-looking person. However, the word “gnome” ultimately serves in this context as a derogatory term for unnatural bodies such as Rumpelstilzchen, operating in a similar fashion to that of “dwarf,” “goblin,” and “hobgoblin.” The illustrations for this translation also depict Rumpelstilzchen as an ugly, tiny, meddlesome figure as he is seen tripping and falling when the queen correctly guesses his name (see figures 3 and 4).

The Grimms’ Story: “Rumpelstilzchen”

The manuscript of the Grimms’ tale was handwritten between 1807 and 1811. The character of Rumpelstilzchen is introduced in this version as a “small man”:

It is imperative to note that a direct translation of the phrase “ein kleines Mänchen” should be “a little man,” as many English translators of the 19th century often interject problematic wording into this phrase, such as “goblin” and “manikin.” Rumpelstilzchen is referred to as “a little man” in other places in the first version of the text:

The climax of the tale is where many translators introduce other problematic and ableist phrases when speaking of the character Rumpelstilzchen.

The closing scene is also a site where translators (such as Edgar Taylor) interject troublesome ideologies regarding disability; many depict Rumpelstilzchen ripping himself in half angrily, despite the fact that the original handwritten text shows him flying away on a cooking spoon:

In this closing incident, many translators substitute Rumpelstilzchen’s fear into anger, as this closing scene is drastically changed in the editions that were published after the manuscript.

The first published edition of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, produced in 1812, brought many changes and alterations to the tales; particularly, “Rumpelstilzchen.” Many of the plot elements were transformed, and the Brothers included many more elements to the storyline of the tale. The character of Rumpelstilzchen is continuously referred to as a “little man” in the manuscript:

However, Rumpelstilzchen is referred to by the king as “ein gar zu lächerliches Männchen” (or, “a too ridiculous little male”):

It should be noted that Rumpelstilzchen is characterized here as a “too ridiculous male” as this is the first instance where the question of his “funny” nature comes into being within the tale. By describing his as “too ridiculous,” the text opens up a point where translators can interject ableist notions of Rumpelstilzchen’s character; instead of a “little man,” he is referred to in several translations of the 19th and early 20th centuries as a “goblin,” “manikin,” or “hobgoblin.” The ending also reflects the change of Rumpelstilzchen’s character from frightened to angsty:

In this first edition, the character of Rumpelstilzchen is transformed from a magical “little man” to an angry, “too ridiculous” creature–which creates an ableist assumption regarding the nature of his character.

The second edition of the Grimm’s tales was published in 1819 and contains several more alterations to the plot and characterization of many elements of the stories. Rumpelstilzchen is again defined here as “ein kleines Männchen,” or translated: “a little man” (Grimm & Grimm). This second edition of the tale adds more instances where translators can interject views on disabled bodies, such as when the princess is attempting to name Rumpelstilzchen:

By associating the character of Rumpelstilzchen to names such as “rib beast,” “mutton calf,” and “lace leg,” the text opens up an instance where ableist translations can implant negative stereotypes and imagery regarding non-normative bodies. Rumpelstilzchen exists as an unusual body within the text–and the princess attempts to name him based off of his abnormal figure.

Rumpelstilzchen is still described as “ein gar zu lächerliches Männchen” (or “a too ridiculous male”) within the second edition (Grimm & Grimm). However, the ending of the tale depicts him as a violent being:

Not only is Rumpelstilzchen viewed in the text as an aggressive man, he is depicted to be so strange that he rips himself in two when the princess tells him his name. This creates an image of Rumpelstilzchen as so unnatural that he inflicts death upon himself, thus creating the ableist assumption that non-normative bodies must kill themselves when reckoning with societal encounters and confronting normalcy. This instance of bodily harm also creates the assumption that non-normative bodies are something to be feared–as the purpose of this edition’s ending is to make readers (who are assumed to be children) afraid of characters who appear to be unnatural or different.


The act of translating can create social identities within a target culture; many times, these identities are based on negative stereotypes and images of characters that reflect problematic norms and values within the target culture. Although there has been much research discussing how identities relating to gender, race, sexuality, and colonialism reflect these ideologies in translation, there has been a gap in the research of translation studies concerning the identity of disability within translation and cultural identities reinforced by translation. By examining the many translations of the 19th and early 20th centuries of the Grimms’ tale “Rumpelstilzchen,” it can be concluded that translators of this period reinforced the normative discourse of institutions of western society, strongly enabling the ableist culture of medicine as well as prison, government, religion, and other forces. A proper translation cannot ignore or intensify these problematic and ableist norms within translation history, and must work to overcome it.

Figure 1 - The queen and her cort mock Rumpelstilzchen
Figure 1 – The queen and her court mock Rumpelstilzchen
Figure 2 - Rumpelstilzchen angrily sticking his foot in the ground
Figure 2 – Rumpelstilzchen angrily sticking his foot in the ground
Figure 3 - Carry's depiction of Rumpelstilzchen characterizes him as comical
Figure 3 – Carry’s depiction of Rumpelstilzchen characterizes him as comical
Figure 4
Figure 4

Works Cited

Berube, Pierre H. “The Origins of Dwarves.” Mythlore, no. 1-2, 2010, pp. 163-164. EBSCOhost,

Briggs, Katharine Mary. An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. Pantheon Books, 1976.

Davis, Lennard J. “Constructing Normalcy: The Bell Curve, the Novel, and the Invention of the Disabled Body in the Nineteenth Century.” The Disability Studies Reader, 2nd ed., edited by Lennard Davis, Routledge, 2006, pp. 3-16.

Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. German Popular Stories. Translated by Edgar Taylor, C. Baldwyn, 1823.

—–. German Popular Stories and Fairy Tales, as Told by Gammer Grethel. Translated by Edgar Taylor, C. Bell and Daldy, 1872.

—–. Home Stories. Translated by Matilda Louisa Davis. G. Routledge, 1855.

—–. Household Stories. Translated by Edward Wehnert, H. Addey and Company, 1853.

—–. “How Rumplestilz Held Out in Vain for a Bonus.” Grimm Tales Made Gay, translated by Guy Wetmore Carry, Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1902.

—–. “Rumpelstilzchen Von Den Brüdern Grimm.” Edited by D. L. Ashliman, Rumpelstilzchen, 19 Mar. 2011,

Lewis, Bradley. “A Mad Fight: Psychiatry and Disability Activism.” The Disability Studies Reader, edited by Lennard J. Davis, 4th ed., Routledge, 2013, pp. 115–131.

Munday, Jeremy. Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Applications. 4th ed., Routledge, 2012.

Scott, Charles. “The Devil and His Imps.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, vol. 26, 1895, pp. 79–146.

Smart, Julie F. and David W. Smart. “Disability Issues in Translation/Interpretation.” The Changing Scene in World Languages: Issues and Challenges, Marian B. (ed. and preface) Labrum, Benjamins, 1997, pp. 119-130. American Translators Association Series (ATAS): 9. EBSCOhost,

Tamplin, Richard William. Lectures on the Nature and Treatment of Deformities, Delivered at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital, Bloomsbury Square. London: 1846.

Maria Rovito is a graduate student in the Master of Arts in English program.