E is for ‘Emil and the Detectives’

Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner was first published in Germany in 1929 and had its first UK edition not long afterwards, in 1931. Gillian Lathey has argued that Emil was the Harry Potter of his day in terms of the appeal to children, the buzz around the book and the freshness of the writing in comparison to what had gone before. For more details see this article from New Books in German. It was the first book to feature a child as a detective and, in a radical departure for children’s books of that time, used the street slang of Berlin in the dialogue.

Emil and the Detectives, original German cover.
Original German cover

Emil is sent by his mother to Berlin by train with a substantial sum of money for his grandmother. On the way, his money is stolen and the adventure consists of him tracking down the thief, with the help of a group of other boys, and retrieving the money. We read this book in primary school but most of what I remember about it from that time was my Dad’s anguish at my excruciating pronunciation of the unfamiliar German names… (My accent has improved at least slightly since then.) I had certainly forgotten that there is a goodly chunk of book on either side of the actual detecting – I was quite surprised how soon the villain was caught as it seemed to take weeks in my memory. Due to the pace of reading in class, no doubt. Anyway, it then transpires that the thief was a wanted bank robber, Emil gets a huge reward and his mother comes to Berlin for a party. The moral of the story may, or may not, be: never trust strangers, “children shouldn’t be allowed to travel alone”, or that “money should always be sent through the post!”

Emil and the Detectives, Puffin edition
This is the cover I remember from school…

There is an array of English translations out there: the first UK one was done by Margaret Goldsmith in 1931 and another in 1959 by Eileen Hall, which is the one still in print as a Red Fox Classic. I haven’t read the Goldsmith version, but I understand that, like Hall, she rather unfortunately makes the Berlin street slang sound more like something out of the mouths of Enid Blighton’s nice middle class children. See also here for more discussion of this issue…

Emil and the Detectives, Red Fox Classics
Red Fox Classics edition, tr. Eileen Hall

As a child, I had no idea of how the original text was written and, being more than a little addicted to the Famous Five, I was unperturbed by dialogue like:

 “Cheerio Emil. Gosh, I’m looking forward to this. It’s going to be smashing!” (p. 92) 

 On my recent re-reading, though, I was aware that I’d have a completely different idea of the backgrounds of the various children without prior knowledge of the source text.

More disconcerting is the fact that Emil’s 120 marks, his mother’s monthly salary, has become “seven pounds”. With the effects of inflation, this gives modern children no idea at all of just how much money is at stake. Besides which, given that Hall has scrupulously maintained the German names of both people and streets, it is most incongruous for the boys to be talking about shillings, “one and eightpence”, “ten bob” etc.

Emil and the Detectives, US edition, tr. May Massee
US edition, tr. May Massee

In the US, meanwhile it was translated in 1930 by May Massee who, according to Lathey, kept a much more plausible tone to the dialogue:

 “the American translation […] is far closer to the original German in its rendering of street slang than the conservative British version with its entirely inappropriate middle class register.” Source: http://www.erudit.org/revue/meta/2003/v48/n1-2/006970ar.html?vue=resume

As far as I’m aware, she also maintained the German marks.

A new American version by W. Martin has also recently been published, which curiously changes Emil’s surname from Tischbein (table leg) to “Tabletoe”, and has had mixed reactions to its attempts to update the slang.

Finally, there is a Penguin Readers edition, retold (and apparently considerably abridged) by Rod Smith. This changes Emil’s surname to Fisher, his friend Gustav’s name to Paul and moves the action to England, Emil now coming from Newtown rather than Neustadt.

So there we are. Plenty to chose from.

But after all that, if there are any publishers reading this, and you’d like to take up the challenge of producing a version for the 21st century, I’d be very willing to help you out…

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About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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6 Responses to E is for ‘Emil and the Detectives’

  1. Aleksandra says:

    I like your choice for E letter. 🙂 I bought this book in Serbian translation few months ago to my friend's son and he really loved it. Unfortunately, I read it a long time ago, so I don't remember if the translated text sounded convincing. Thank you for reminding me to read it all over again.

  2. Rachel Ward says:

    I hope you enjoy your re-read!

  3. What a lovely sounding story…and what a great idea for a series of blog posts! Glad to have found you through the Blogathon.

  4. This sounds lovely. You can't beat a good detective story!

  5. I totally love this book and have recently enjoyed reading it to my 8year old. It totally captured my imagination, and his too. We're reading Emil and the 3 twins now.

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