Art Professor and Alum Collaborate to Retell Red Riding Hood

cover of Little Red Riding Hood
Wednesday, August 5, 2020
Project with Anchorage Museum grows out of Marek Ranis’s research into untranslatable words.

The story of Little Red Riding Hood is so old, no one really knows its origin. But a new version published this summer by the Anchorage Museum in Alaska recasts the familiar tale as a celebration of language, diversity, and self-determination. Little Red Riding Hood: A New Translation is the latest product of a three-year research project by Associate Professor of Art Marek Ranis into unique words in many languages that have no direct English translation. It is illustrated by alumna Hannah Barnhardt (BFA Digital Media, ‘16).

Partnering with London-based psychology scholar Tim Lomas and the Anchorage Museum, Ranis launched a community-engaged art project in 2017 to expand Lomas’s “Positive Lexicography” index. Through an event at the museum, where Ranis is curator at large, and subsequent interviews with taxicab drivers, Ranis collected new vocabulary. That research led to a card game, “TAXI: The Cross-Cultural Word Game,” and The Cafuné Project: Dancing Nuances of Culture, which incorporated dance, film, improvisation, live music, and language.

Little Red Riding Hood: A New Translation, edited by Ranis and Anchorage Museum Director Julie Decker, brings words from the vast lexicon into the context of the age-old children’s story, loosely grouping them to offer the reader suggestions for interpreting Barnhardt’s wonderful, cheeky illustrations.

picture from book, Little Red in flower field“I love the words,” says Barnhardt. “I love odd words that communicate something specific about a culture.”

Some words are directly manifested in her highly-detailed, hand-drawn pictures. The Japanese word shinrin-yoku, which means to “bathe in the forest, to appreciate the restorative power of nature,” prompted a picture of Little Red gleefully immersed in a vast field of flowers (each one painstakingly drawn). The French word frimousse (“a sweet/cute little face”) and the Tagalog word gigil (the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved”) are reflected in Little Red’s bright, happy expression when she first meets the wolf.

Other words are mere hints. On the final page, the Spanish word sambo (“an unmarried couple that live together”) might refer to the grandmother and the woodcutter, seen shyly looking at each other through a doorway.

The extraordinary words come from languages both common (Greek, Italian, Hindi, Mandarin, etc.) and uncommon (Tshiluba, Fijian, Malagasy, and Boro, for example).

“Our hope is that the discovery of this new vocabulary – this positive lexicography – might enhance our daily encounters with loved ones and strangers, suddenly giving us the ability to recognize and describe a much more nuanced environment of human relationships,” the Ranis and Decker write in the foreword.

Hannah BarnhardtBarnhardt illustrated in black ink, then took the drawings into Photoshop to add texture and a splash of crimson (Little Red’s cloak, Granny’s socks). The process took more than a year, but the product, she says, is worth it.

“We wanted the visuals to have a sense of wonder. I’m glad it comes across with a joyousness."

Pictured: Top, detail of book cover; above, Little Red "bathes" in flowers; right, Hannah Barnhardt.