The Translator That Sucked The Life Out of Dracula

In 1897, the world was introduced to Dracula, the novel by Bram Stoker. The book — fiction, of course — tells the story of Count Dracula, a Transylvanian nobleman with a secret. Dracula, as we all know, also happens to be an undead vampire who has been around for at least a few centuries — the impact of the story has defined “vampire” for every generation since. And the story itself is good, too; over the course of about 250 pages, we read about Dracula’s powers, his prey, and the hunt to stop him from carrying out his evil deeds. 

Unless you’re reading the Icelandic version of the tale.

In that case, well, that’s not the story of Dracula everyone else read.

It’s hard to pinpoint why Stoker’s Dracula novel became as popular as it now is, but what we do know for sure is that it didn’t take long for the story, to use the modern parlance, to go viral. It was first published in May of 1897 in London and, shortly thereafter, some American newspapers serialized it over a few months. In 1899, an American book publisher secured the rights to the story, and over the next few years, other publishers around the world followed suit. For non-English speaking areas, that required a translation. In 1901, a magazine editor named Valdimar Ásmundsson brought the book to Iceland, under the title “Makt Myrkranna,” or “Powers of Darkness.” The rest of the world didn’t think much of it — why would you give the Icelandic version of Dracula a second thought, especially if you didn’t read Icelandic?

Eighty or so years later, that changed. A literary researcher named Richard Dalby. Dalby discovered that Powers of Darkness purported to contain a preface from the author — that is, from Stoker himself — dated August 1898, about 15 months after the original Dracula book came out in England. The discovery of the Stoker-written preface “was what got English-language scholars interested in the Icelandic book,” according to Smithsonian Magazine, but apparently, they weren’t urgently interested — because it would be nearly another two decades before any non-Icelandic-speaking expert decided to read Powers of Darkness. In 2014, a Dutch author and historian named Hans Corneel de Roos “went back to the original text of Powers of Darkness to verify something” per Smithsonian. And what he found was a different story than the English-language version he was expecting.

In fact, it was almost an entirely different story. As Abrams Books summarizes (somewhat incorrectly, but we’ll get there), Ásmundsson hadn’t merely translated Dracula but had penned an entirely new version of the story, with all new characters and a totally re-worked plot. The resulting narrative is one that is shorter, punchier, more erotic, and perhaps even more suspenseful than Stoker’s Dracula.” It appeared that Powers of Darkness wasn’t, to again using some modern parlance, not a translation of a classic, but a piece of fan fiction that had gone undiscovered for more than a century.

Why was Ásmundsson motivated to pull such a ruse? It turns out, he probably wasn’t. In 2017, literary scholars realized that Ásmundsson’s version of Dracula wasn’t directly based on Stoker’s works; rather, it was almost certainly adapted from an 1899 serial published in Sweden, titled “Mörkrets makter” or, in English, “Powers of Darkness.” (How the connection was not made sooner is anyone’s guess.) The plot of the Icelandic version mirrors the Swedish one, making it all but certain that Ásmundsson’s story was a transliteration of what he probably thought was the true Dracula story, and not a creation of his own imagination. 

We don’t know who came up with the original adaptation. The Swedish version, as seen here, was signed as authored by Bram Stoker, and translated by ” A—e,” and the identity of  A—e is currently unknown and likely lost to history. Similarly, we don’t know why the Icelandic version claims to have a preface written by Stoker — and the story behind that is probably lost as well. But what isn’t lost is the story of Powers of Darkness itself. After news of this century-old alternate story spread, publishers translated it (back?) into English — you can find a copy at the Abrams Books link above, at Amazon, or at many other booksellers. 

Bonus fact: The 1922 silent film Nosferatu is widely considered one of the best early horror films — but it was almost lost to time. It is no secret that Nosferatu is based on Stoker’s Dracula — the film itself admits as much in a title card. But the filmmakers never got Stoker’s estate’s permission to create the adaptation, and as Mental Floss explains, Stoker’s widow sued the filmmaker and won. The court “ruled in her favor and swiftly deployed government agents across Germany to seize all copies of the film and have them burned. The movie was eradicated from its home country and [ . . .] was set to join other lost films of the silent era.” But like Dracula himself, Nosferatu wasn’t so easy to kill. Per Mental Floss, “the ordered destruction turned out to be not entirely thorough, and a surviving reel ended up in the United States. Overseas, the movie enjoyed an existence free from the legal reach that made it unlawful in Germany. Copies were made from the imported film, and Nosferatu found a new audience of admirers among American horror film lovers.” And it turned out that Stoker never properly filed for a copyright in the Uhited States; Dracula has been in the public domain in America for more than a century as a result.

From the Archives: The Bat Bomb: This isn’t really related to the above story but I guess “having to do with bats” is close enough?