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.
|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!”
|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…
|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.
|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…