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The Tooth Fairy

The Tooth Fairy 

Yesterday was a big day in our house. The youngest occupant lost his first top baby tooth! This follows the fairly momentous day last October when, to his great delight, he lost the first two teeth in the same day!

Photo Catherine Davis: Henry

Teachers always say you can spot a Year One child a mile off – they have the widest gappiest grins!  I started pondering the Tooth Fairy Tradition. Although it is a long-held tradition in the UK, some of our European neighbours would think that we are a little crazy to believe in fairies…. more on that later!

The tradition goes that when you lose a baby tooth, you put it under your pillow for the Tooth Fairy. If you have looked after it and kept it clean, she will exchange the tooth for a coin (or two!). I am reassured to know that in the current COVID climate, the Tooth Fairy has managed to source tiny masks to keep herself safe! She is only allowed to come and visit children as these are essential work trips.

What does the Tooth Fairy do with all the teeth she collects? I am reliably informed that teeth are very strong, so she uses them to build houses, castles and roads in the fairy kingdom. Teeth that are not strong enough for building can be ground down to make fairy dust, which helps the fairies fly around the world to collect more teeth. In truth, there are many tooth fairies, as unlike Father Christmas, they fly around the world every night of the year collecting teeth and visiting children to makes sure they are looking after their teeth. The task would be too big for even the most talented, fairy dusted Tooth Fairy, so there is actually a tiny army of Tooth Fairies. A Tooth Fairy is assigned to a child on the day that they lose their first tooth and visits them for every time they lose a baby tooth thereafter.

In Spain, “Ratoncito Pérez”, or “El Ratón de los Dientes” (The Tooth Mouse), a tiny mouse, visits children and leaves a gift in exchange for their teeth. In 1894, Ratoncito Pérez appeared in a story written by Luis Coloma for King Alfonso XIII, who had just lost a tooth. It is said that Ratoncito Pérez lived with his family in a box of biscuits. He would often run away from home and find his way to the bedrooms of children who had just lost their teeth. Children write a letter to Ratoncito Pérez and put it in an envelope with their tooth. When they wake in the morning, they receive a small present in exchange for the envelope. The little mouse is so honoured in Spain that there is a plaque on the outside of the building that he was supposed to live in! In Argentina, children leave the tooth in a glass of water for Ratoncito Pérez! As with many stories that are passed down from generation to generation, there are now many versions. The original version is now available on Kindle!

In France, La Bonne Petite Souris, a tiny little girl mouse tiptoes into your house while you sleep. She rolls a coin – or if you have been very good, a rolled-up Euro note, in front of her as she makes her way to your room. She climbs onto your bed and snuggles under the pillow to leave the money in exchange for your tooth. The origins of the story are unclear but may come from the story “La Bonne Petite Souris” (The Good Little Mouse) by Baroness d’Aulnoy. The story is the tale of a fairy who turns into a mouse to help the Queen defeat an evil King. The mouse hides under the King’s pillow and takes all his teeth while he slumbers. He must have been a very evil man!

In Italy, it seems tradition has not been able to decide between a fairy and a mouse, so they both take part! The Tooth Fairy, Fatina dei Denti has a little helper, Topolino, who collects the teeth for her. The Fatina dei Denti lives in an enchanted corner of the earth, kept alive by children’s imaginations. Topolino lives in a palace and takes care of all the baby teeth from children all over the world. Some children leave their teeth under a pillow – but others leave them under floor tiles or table legs – which makes sense as it would be so much easier for Topolino to get to them. In Lombardy and Venice, neither a fairy nor a mouse collects teeth, but Saint Apollina, the patron saint of teeth. However, it is said that her chariot made of teeth is pulled by a mischief of mice! 

Understanding both countries’ culture and traditions is as important for a translator as an excellent command of both the source and target language. The stories of the Tooth Fairy (or mouse) share common elements. However, where you live affects where you leave your precious tooth and the kind of reward you receive in return. Creating an effective translation involves recognising the differences and finding ways to adapt a text for a new audience where necessary. By removing cultural barriers, the new audience should be unaware they are reading a translation.

What are the Tooth Fairy traditions where you live? Are the traditions you follow as a family different from local customs? Do you have any exciting tales of lost teeth?

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