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In the foreword to his translation of Henrik Ibsen's plays, Rolf Fjelde explains that the title of the 1879 play is A Doll House:

There is certainly no sound justification for perpetuating the awkward and blindly traditional misnomer of A Doll’s House: the house is not Nora’s, as the possessive implies; the familiar children’s toy is called a doll house; and one can make a reasonable supposition that Ibsen, intending an ironic modern contrast to the heroic ring of the house of Atreus or Cadmus, at least partially includes Torvald with Nora in the original title, Et Dukkehjem, for the two of them at the play’s opening are still posing like the little marzipan bride and groom atop the wedding cake.

Ibsen, Henrik. Four Major Plays: Volume I. Translated and with a foreword by Rolf Fjelde and a new afterword by Joan Templeton. New York: Signet Classics, 1965, rev. 1992, 2006. p. xxv.

However, Elettra Carbone uses the translation A Doll's House and maintains:

A Doll's House was used to indicate a cosy and neat home and not a house or home for dolls, a meaning it only acquires by the end of the play when Nora declares that she has been passed on from her father's hands to Torvald's like a doll.

Carbone, Elettra. “Nora: The Life and Afterlife of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.” Introduction to Nordic Cultures, edited by Annika Lindskog and Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen. London: UCL Press, 2020, pp. 102–16. JSTOR. Accessed 23 January 2024.

I have seen both renditions of the title used in critical essays. For example:

For both Norwegian and Danish, Google Translate suggests et dukkehus for a dollhouse and et dukkehjem for a doll's house.

Semantically and thematically, which translation works best? Is there a case to be made between et dukkehjem for a place that is cozy and neat, versus et dukkehus for the child's toy? If so, A Doll's House is preferable, as it maps onto the original more closely. However, if et dukkehjem can and does refer to the toy, then the translation A Dollhouse would fit better. I do not believe the toy is called a doll house, but perhaps the unfamiliar phrase might be a good translation if the intention is to convey the ambiguity between "cozy place" and "child's toy"?

This is not intended as an opinion-based question; I am seeking answers based on an understanding of the Norwegian/Danish language and/or translation theory.

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3 Answers 3

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The clue is in the place of publication of the Fjelde translation - New York. The child's toy is called a dollhouse in American English, but a doll's house in British English. Evidently Fjelde didn't know this when he called it an 'awkward misnomer'. The British term implies 'a house for dolls to live in' rather than 'a house belonging to a doll'. It's a perfectly natural translation of the play's title to British audiences.

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  • This is useful info, +1. That said, I would like to wait for an answer that engages with the question of et dukkehjem vs et dukkehus.
    – verbose
    Jan 23 at 9:45
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tl;dr

A Doll's Home would appear to fit best.

Deets

This is what I gather from conversations with one native speaker each of Norwegian and Danish, and from consulting a book by Egil Törnqvist that CDR referred me to in a comment:

  • The child's toy variously called "a dollhouse" (American) or "a doll's house" (British) is et dukkehus or et dukkestue
  • dukke is doll; hus is house; hjem is home; stue is living room
  • et dukkehjem is not typically used for the child's toy
  • As noted by Carbone in a sentence quoted in the question, et dukkehjem in Ibsen's day meant "a cozy and neat home," and did not refer to the child's toy
  • Post Ibsen, et dukkeheim generally refers to his play; the older meaning of a cutely tidy place has been overshadowed.

These linguistic facts show that the translation "A Doll's House" is indeed misleading, but not for the reasons Rolf Fjelde adduces. As Kate Bunting's answer notes, Rolf Fjelde is wrong about the phrase:

  • The possessive in "a doll's house" does not imply that the house is Nora's
  • The "familiar children's toy" is in fact called "a doll's house" in Britain.

Two further reasons can be given for Fjelde's choice of phrase being infelicitous:

  • "A doll house" is not typically used to refer to the toy; even in America, the usual term is "dollhouse"
  • Most important, Ibsen did not have the toy in mind when he chose his title, and a good translation would avoid making this specious association.

A good translation for the title would, however, capture the sense of a small, tidy, and comfortable place. It would also mention a doll or dolls, since Ibsen not only uses the word in the title, but also has Nora explicitly compare herself and her children to dolls:

NORA: When I was at home with papa, he told me his opinion about everything, and so I had the same opinions; and if I differed from him I concealed the fact, because he would not have liked it. He called me his doll-child, and he played with me just as I used to play with my dolls. And when I came to live with you—

HELMER: What sort of an expression is that to use about our marriage?

NORA [undisturbed]: I mean that I was simply transferred from papa’s hands into yours. You arranged everything according to your own taste, and so I got the same tastes as you—or else I pretended to, I am really not quite sure which—I think sometimes the one and sometimes the other. When I look back on it, it seems to me as if I had been living here like a poor woman—just from hand to mouth. I have existed merely to perform tricks for you, Torvald. But you would have it so. You and papa have committed a great sin against me. It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life.

HELMER: How unreasonable and how ungrateful you are, Nora! Have you not been happy here?

NORA: No, I have never been happy. I thought I was, but it has never really been so.

HELMER: Not—not happy!

NORA: No, only merry. And you have always been so kind to me. But our home has been nothing but a playroom. I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I was papa’s doll-child; and here the children have been my dolls. I thought it great fun when you played with me, just as they thought it great fun when I played with them. That is what our marriage has been, Torvald.

Ibsen, Act III

On the basis of the above, I agree with D A Hosek's answer: "A Doll's Home" would seem to be the best translation. It is unfortunate that snuggery is not a word one can use with a straight face, else A Doll's Snuggery would meet the case. A Doll's Den would suggest a brothel, alas.

References:

  • Ibsen, Henrik. A Doll's House. 1879. Accessed at Project Gutenberg 25 January 2024.
  • Törnqvist, Egil. "Translating 'Et Dukkehjem.'" Chapter 3 of Ibsen: A Doll's House. Plays in Production, series editor Michael Robinson. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1995. pp. 50–62. Accessed at the Internet Archive 25 January 2024.
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  • I'm going to partially disagree with you. I don't know how Dukkehjem and Dukkehus sound to a native speaker of Norwegian or Danish, but A Doll's Home sounds quite awkward to me. When you're translating a title into a different language, you generally want to avoid constructions that sound bad, even if they're literally more accurate.
    – Peter Shor
    Jan 28 at 14:51
  • For example, the French novel L'Écume des jours has been translated into English several times, with the titles Froth on the Daydream, Mood Indigo, and Foam of the Daze — it seems that none of the translators thought that a literal translation, like The Foam of the Days or The Scum of Days, would made a good title.
    – Peter Shor
    Jan 28 at 16:44
  • @PeterShor Fair enough, but translating the title as "A Doll's House" suggests that Ibsen had in mind the toy, which is misleading. And I think "A Doll House" is more awkward than "A Doll's Home." It looks like a typographical error. "A Doll's Home" doesn't sound awkward to me. In any case, I was considering editing this to say "A Doll Home" is best.....
    – verbose
    Jan 28 at 20:01
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I would note that dukkehjem appears to be a coinage by Ibsen based on a cursory search on the Danish Wikipedia where the only articles using the word are those referring to the play or its subsequent adaptations, so perhaps the still better translation might have been “A Doll’s Home” although as near as I can tell, it seems to be considered equivalent to dukkehus (perhaps someone who actually speaks Danish can more accurately attest to this). As for the variations of “doll’s house” vs “doll house” vs “dollhouse,” all are equivalent (much like, e.g., grey vs gray).

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