August 23rd, 2012


August Books 22) Emil and the Detectives, by Erich Kästner

Classic children's books, which I had first read many years ago long before I got to know and love Berlin, the city in which it is set. It's a very basic but charming story of the young and smart and good getting together to defeat the old and evil, and has not lost its charm - so popular that it was the only book by Kästner to escape the book-burning of May 1933. I had forgotten the scene-setting dramatis personæ at the beginning, and also Kästner's insertion of himself into the story at the end. Great fun.

I'm sorry to say that I wasn't convinced by W. Martin's new translation, supposed to appeal to the young reader of the twenty-first century. Berlin and Germany are foreign places anyway, and the 1920s a far-off time; why bother to rebrand our hero, Emil Tischbein as "Emil Tabletoes"? It seems if anything more jarring; surely kids even in these unenlightened times can cope with the notion that people in a book set in Germany might have German-sounding names? And rather than try to translate street names, I would have preferred a map showing where they all are (the Nollendorfplatz where the story climaxes is now in Berlin's gay district; that is optional information for the younger reader).

Having said that, there is a very nice introduction to this edition by Maurice Sendak, who had read an early (and possibly better) translation at the age of 10 in 1938.