Emil’s Berlin in Translation

How can you translate a book that is deeply rooted in a particular time and place? This question crops up time and again in translation, and is one that every translator of "Emil und die Detektive" has to try and answer. By

The city of Berlin plays a prominent role in Kästner's novels. Source: WikiCommons.

Diese Autos! Sie drängten sich hastig an der Straßenbahn vorbei, hupten, quiekten, streckten rote Zeiger links und rechts heraus, bogen um die Ecke, andere Autos schoben sich nach. So ein Krach! Und die vielen Menschen auf den Fußsteigen! Und von allen Seiten Straßenbahnen, Fuhrwerke, zweistöckige Autobusse! . . . Und hohe, hohe Häuser.

Das war also Berlin.

Motor cars rushed past with horns honking and screeching brakes. They signalled right-hand turns and left-hand turns, and swung off down side streets while other cars came swooping up behind them. The noise was indescribable, and on the pavements crowds of people kept hurrying by. Out of every turning vans and lorries, trams and double-decker buses swarmed into the main thoroughfare. . . And all the buildings stretched up and up into the sky.

So this was Berlin!
(Eileen Hall)

This is the Berlin that the titular character of Erich Kästner’s classic children’s book Emil und die Detektive encounters when he first arrives, a heady tumult reflecting the vibrance of the city in the 1920s. Much as these ‘[hastige] Autos’ and ‘hohe, hohe Häuser’ were a break with the previous pace of life, Kästner’s book also broke with the general trend of children’s literature at the time, which was mostly moralistic or fairytales far removed from everyday life. His Emil deals with the real Berlin of the time, and its characters – and not just the unprincipled ones! – unashamedly speak their local dialect.

This, then, is what the various English translators who have tackled the book came up against, a question which crops up time and again in translation. How can you translate a book so closely connected to a particular time and place? How do you let young English readers understand Emil’s world without losing the specificity that is part of the original’s charm?

It didn’t take long for Emil to be translated into English. The book was published in 1929, and the first English editions appeared in 1930 (USA, May Massee) and 1931 (UK, Margaret Goldsmith). The most common version in print in Europe today is the 1959 translation by Eileen Hall, although it does now share the stage with a 2007 translation by W. Martin. Hall’s translation is generally more fluent than her predecessors’, but it retains one significant feature – the way the slang used by both Emil and the gang of children he meets in Berlin is conveyed.

Da wär ich dir kolossal dankbar

I’d be most frightfully grateful
I’d be awfully glad

In Kästner’s work, Gustav and his gang speak with a distinct urban vernacular. The most obvious British equivalent – given the Berlin setting – would be London Cockney. Both Goldsmith and Hall, however, opt for an upper-middle class, public school register. This immediately places the book in a comfortable tradition of English children’s books, ‘domesticating’ it by aligning the speech with that of authors such as the incredibly prolific Enid Blyton  (whose books are full of ‘lashings of pop’ and ‘jolly good fun’). This is what readers at the time would have expected – and almost entirely misses the mark of Kästner’s deliberately lower register.

Hall does do a deft job of finding strong alternatives for Kästner’s speech, replacing it with specifically British slang and adding in colloquial phrases elsewhere if there is no fitting replacement for something specific. While the phrase ‘[nennen wir] uns alle von morgen ab nur noch Moritz’ is simply conveyed with ‘we shall be disgraced’, for example, Hall turns ‘schon sieht er auch’ into ‘he’ll spot you sure as eggs is eggs’. For all its deftness and internal consistency, however, the choice of the upper-middle class register ignores the way Kästner breaks with the tone of contemporary mainstream children’s literature. The concrete setting and urban slang of his everyday characters were startingly different – and Hall’s slang is not.

Donnerwetter noch mal . . . gibt’s in Berlin famose Eltern!

My word, parents in Berlin are jolly decent.
Berlin parents are so cool!

The above example again shows Hall’s public school approach, which paints over Kästner’s choice of social milieu with a broad upper-middle class brush. Having discussed this already, however, it’s time to take a look at the 2007 translation. Martin makes a very dramatic departure from his predecessors. The register is more in line with the spirit of the original; the modern terms, on the other hand, clash with the book’s clear time period and jar in a more obviously glaring way than Hall’s. The setting and storyline clearly belong to an earlier time, but the characters speak like modern children. Where Hall blurs Kästner’s evocation of place and class, Martin stumbles over aligning the speech with the time period.

Kästner’s speech in Emil is not the only quagmire in which translations have foundered. The book is also firmly set in a very real Berlin, with specific street names and concrete amounts of money exchanged (and, of course, lost). Hall’s use of upper-middle class slang takes a step away from Kästner’s original tone, and she takes a further step in her use of pounds and shillings rather than marks and her renaming of some of the minor characters to better suit English pronunciation, such as Mittenzwey becoming Mittler. Martin’s translation then goes ahead and unmoors the original completely.

Herr Grundeis
Herr Grundeis
Mr Grundeis
New Town
Mr Groundsnow

Massee, the original US translator, retains the German place names and even the German titles, providing a short explanation at the front of the book (letting her readers know, for example that Herr is Mr); Hall copies over many of the place names or translates them slightly, rendering Kaiserallee as Kaiser Avenue and Trautenaustraße as Trautenau Street. Martin, however, puts much more into English, such as the literal translation of Herr Grundeis as Mr Groundsnow; even Emil Tischbein becomes Emil Tabletoe. This makes many of the meanings of the original names clear to English readers, or conveys a similar effect, but it does so in a haphazard way – many of the other names remain inexplicably in German – and creates further tension with the book’s clear Berlin setting. Emil Tabletoe from New Town does not convey such a distinct German flair as Emil Tischbein from Neustadt.

Translation is always about negotiation, and this is in great evidence in all the English translation of Emil. From Hall, who metaphorically moves the book halfway to England with her upper-middle class slang, to Martin, who hits the right register but the wrong time period, each translator finds their own balance between the specificity of the original and the demands of their (young) English-speaking readership. It is also likely that this kind of discussion is one that hits closer to home with adults than children; given the book’s enduring popularity in English, British children are still easily absorbed in a story filled with any kind of slang when it comes alongside Kästner’s unerring ability to convey the joy of the young detectives tackling their own adventure and triumphing. And as long as Emil continues to be retranslated and republished, readers worldwide will continue to share in that triumph.

Erich Kästner/W. Martin: Emil and the Detectives. (Original title: Emil und die Detektive)

Harry N Abrams Inc 2014 ⋅ 159 Seiten ⋅ 16,32 Dollar


Erich Kästner/Eileen Hall: Emil and the Detectives. (Original title: Emil und die Detektive)

Puffin Penguin Books 1967 ⋅ 127 pages ⋅ out of print


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