By Felix Salten, translated & introduced by Jack Zipes, Illustrated by Alenka Sottler.
Bambi was the first book I truly loved when it was read to me as a child. I also loved the animated movie Walt Disney made, based on the book. And I loved deer. In fact, I wanted to be one. Later, when slightly more mature, I scaled my ambitions down to “forest ranger,” where at least I could be around deer.
Deer were my ideal.
The Bambi that my father read to me had been translated from the German by Whittaker Chambers. Chambers became widely known in mid-twentieth-century America, for having been a dedicated communist who later became a devout anti-communist, testifying in court against Alger Hiss, a respected State Department official, who was in fact (as KGB files later disclosed) a secret agent of the Soviet Union.
All that had nothing to do with his early translation of Bambi. From my child’s vantage point, I never found the language stilted or deficient in any way.
So why a new translation, with the title, Original Bambi? In his introduction, translator Jack Zipes provides background and explanation. Felix Salten was born Siegmund Salzmann, in Hungary in 1869, a country then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The family was Jewish, his mother a talented actress, his father a businessman with a rabbinic lineage. The family moved to Vienna, where the father’s business aptitude did not surmount a stock market crash and subsequent fall in the family fortunes.
In consequence, Felix was deprived of higher education and had to learn to live by his talent as a writer and his wits. He became part of a bohemian circle of Viennese writers and nobility. For the nobility, Felix would run the clandestine errands that belonged to their typically double or triple lives. In eventual payback, these high-placed friends enabled him to escape Hitler and find asylum in Switzerland where he died peacefully, at war’s end. He never became wealthy, selling Bambi with all its rights before it became the runaway best seller and movie.
The present translator faults Chambers for his deficient command of German, and castigates Disney for sentimentalizing the original book which he takes to have been written for adults. Zipes holds that the hunted animals of the forest are symbolic, representing hunted Jews and other minorities targeted by their human persecutors.
Having just read the retranslated original Bambi, I have to disagree with Zipes, at least in part. Not about the new translation, however. He certainly has done a better job with language than Chambers. It comes startlingly alive in Zipes’ new version, as if changed, sentence by sentence, from black and white to vibrant color.
However, I don’t agree that the book is about persecuted human minorities, presented metaphorically as deer. The animals in this wonderful book are not metaphors. They are the animals they say they are. Forget German, English, or any other human language! These creatures are speaking in their native dialects: be it grasshopper, magpie, owl, hare — or of course, deer.
Human beings may choose or be taken to represent symbolic values. Animals are innocent of such hopes and fears. That’s why they’re enviable. When, as children, we identify with animals, we may be putting up a natural resistance to the human calling.
The Original Bambi revives the child’s eye view. Its animals, Bambi included, are real!