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
(Gold­smith)
I’d be awful­ly glad
(Hall)

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.
(Hall)
Berlin par­ents are so cool!
(Mar­tin)

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.

Neustadt
Herr Grundeis 
Neustadt
Herr Grundeis
(Massee)
Neustadt
Mr Grundeis
(Hall)
New Town
Mr Groundsnow
(Mar­tin)

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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