While at a Modern Language Association annual conference a few years ago, Jack Zipes was approached by representatives from one of his former publishers with a proposition. Would he like to do a new translation of Bambi from the original German? An English version had not been published since 1928. Zipes hesitated to take the idea seriously. As one of the nation’s pre-eminent fairytale scholars (he was the first to translate the entire Brothers Grimm collection from the original German), he knew as much about the story as most people—that the story was a classic Disney film, bursting with cheerful woodland creatures and swells of orchestral music. But as editor of Princeton University Press’s Oddly Modern Fairy Tales series, he was intrigued.
As he researched, Zipes made “a stunning discovery”: a nearly forgotten author and a story much richer than he could have imagined. First published in Austria in 1922, Bambi, a Life in the Forest by Felix Salten was anything but the “shallow, sentimental story” portrayed in the Disney movie. Instead, Zipes said, the novel is “a brilliant and profound story of how minority groups throughout the world have been brutally treated” and an “allegory about the weak and powerless.”
“I was shocked,” Zipes said. Calling it “dystopic and sobering,” he said the story “was never intended for children.”
His translation of The Original Bambi: The Story of a Life in the Forest will be released February 22 by Princeton University Press, featuring an introduction by Zipes and black-and-white illustrations by Alenka Sottler that capture both the stillness and interplay of animals in the forest.
“Today, people think of Bambi as a children’s story as a result of the Disney animated movie, along with later adaptations and abridgments of the book,” said Anne Savarese, Princeton’s executive editor. “We see this [as a] new translation of a classic novel, in some ways a complement to the publishing we do in fairy tales and folklore.”
Born in 1869 as Siegmund Salzmann to a Hungarian Jewish family of little means, Salten came of age at a time when many Jews in Eastern Europe were trying to assimilate in the cosmopolitan Austro-Hungarian Empire. He changed his name as an adult, long after the family had moved to Vienna, where classism and anti-Semitism were commonplace. “Reading and writing were his refuge,” Zipes said. Salten’s greatest wish was to be seen as a “true” Austrian and a “man of culture.”
As newspapers and magazines started to publish his work, Salten’s social status rose. But because of his humble beginnings and his Jewish identity, he never really felt accepted by Vienna’s elite. In 1922, the original Bambi was serialized in Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse, then published as a novel the following year. Influenced by both his upbringing and his experience in World War I, Bambi, eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Wald (Bambi, a Story of Life in the Forest) was a big success, and several other well received animal books followed. Each of them, Zipes said, was full of metaphor about what was happening to Austrian Jews.
“Salten saw something meaningful in the way the forest animals lived so freely,” Zipes said. He had a lifelong habit of long walks in the woods, communing with the natural world he revered. Animals, he believed, were of pure heart, unlike humans. “He allegorically expressed a dark vision of the world through his animal stories,” Zipes continued. And yet, he was also a hunter, a dichotomy that’s hard to reconcile with the Bambi narrative. In Zipes’ translation, that complexity comes across. There’s a scene in which a hunting dog who has been tasked with finding a fox is confronted by the animals of the forest, furious at him for his allegiance to the hunter. They circle him and call him a traitor. The dog defends his human master, saying to the other animals, “Everyone belongs to Him just as I do. But I, I love Him. I worship Him. I serve Him. Everything we have comes from Him.”
The original Bambi is a classic Bildungsroman, Zipes says. The plot follows a boy who experiences hardship, has to leave his home and family to forge his own identity, and finds the help of a mentor along the way. In Bambi’s case, it’s a stag known as the “old prince” who warns Bambi, “We must learn to live.... and be on our guard.”
The 1928 English edition of Bambi was translated by the American writer Whittaker Chambers (who decades later was arrested as a Communist spy). At that time, translation wasn’t professionalized as it is today. Until after World War II, the job wasn’t well paid and many translations were sloppy, according to Zipes. Chambers had no real knowledge of the subtleties of Austrian German, so the resulting translation not only contained many errors, but also missed much of the nuance in Salten’s work, “opening the possibility for the story to be understood less as a human story about persecution and more as an animal story,” Zipes explained. The faulty translation contributed to the later misinterpretation of the story in the Disney film. The book was, however, quite popular; it earned a review in the New York Times and was a Book of the Month Club selection.
Salten “more or less ignored the perils of fascism during the 1930s,” Zipes said. In 1933, American director Sidney Franklin—a friend of Walt Disney—visited Vienna and bought the film rights to Bambi for $1,000 (about $20,000 today) intending to make a live-action film from the story. He “basically swindled” the author, Zipes added. But Salten was satisfied with the deal—it was a bird in the hand during uncertain times. In 1935, Salten’s books were banned by the Nazis.
Franklin transferred the rights to Bambi to Disney, where the staff was at work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the studio’s first feature film. In part because of the faulty English translation, Disney viewed the story largely as a delightful animal tale. The studio began developing Bambi in 1939, the same year Salten and his family were forced to flee the Nazis and take refuge in Zurich, where Salten was prohibited from writing as a journalist. Walt Disney himself was involved in writing dialogue for Bambi and is said to have added many of the humorous touches to the film. He was insistent that the animals appear realistic and even brought live deer into the studio so the animators could study their movements.
The film was released in 1942, during the height of World War II. Box office returns were disappointing, and reviews were mixed. Some felt that the death of Bambi’s mother—although not explicitly shown—was too dark for children. That criticism has been repeated through the years. The American hunting lobby was outraged by the film, and sponsored a story in Outdoor Life that referred to the depiction of hunters in the movie as “the worst insult ever offered in any form to American sportsmen and conservationists.” Some saw it as a wakeup call for animal rights, including Paul McCartney, who credited the film with sparking his early interest in protecting animals. For Zipes, what Disney did to the story was “perverse. They put maple syrup on it,” he said. “I loved the film when I was younger, but it’s poisonous. It’s such a lie.”
In the film, for example, a woodland mouse stands on a leaf and washes its face in a raindrop as dreamy orchestral music plays in the background. In the book, young Bambi is shocked when he witnesses a mouse being ruthlessly devoured by a polecat. He asks his mother if one day he, too, will kill a mouse. “Never ever,” his mother says. “Because we never kill anybody.” The deer are never the predator, always the prey.
Salten saw the film in Zurich the year it was released. After the credits rolled, he stood to applause in the darkened theater and thanked the audience. But privately, he told friends that “it was not about what he wrote,” Zipes said. “He was not an optimist. He said that his name was going to be erased. He was right.” Salten died in 1945. According to Zipes, his name was indeed “detached, if not erased” from the story of Bambi, which is widely believed to be a Disney original rather than an adaptation.
Into the Woods
Zipes’s new translation captures the poetry of Salten’s language—the forest whispers and rustles, leaves flutter. Mosquitos dance and hum. Beetles buzz through the hazel bushes. A “delicate and constant silvery tone” pervades in the woodland. “It a beautiful text—a little old-fashioned and formal. It’s the kind of Austrian German you’d hear in cafes around Vienna,” Zipes said. He affirmed that to really capture the meaning, it’s important to have spent time in the country, as he did in the 1960s. “There’s a real flair to the conversations between animals. The last translation didn’t capture that and I hope mine does.”
The Original Bambi also conveys the deep philosophical nature of Salten’s story. On the brink of winter, two leaves mournfully discuss how empty the branches around them are getting, alert to the constant threat of falling. “Do you think it’s true,” the first leaf asked, “...that other leaves come and replace us when we’re gone, and then others come and even others after them?” The two go on to question what happens after they fall. “Who knows? None of those who have fallen down there have ever returned to tell us about it,” they conclude.
There’s no happily ever after for Bambi in the original story. Instead, he must make his way through the forest alone. Ultimately, Zipes said, Salten chose to focus on the themes of solitude, loneliness, and lack of connection. He believed “that animals who don’t want to be killed have no choice but to become loners. As a Jew, he knew what it meant to be pursued and killed. He knew how difficult it was to assimilate and play by the rules of a society that he and his ancestors had not created. Bambi is indeed Salten, and Salten is Bambi.”
While studying in Germany in the early 1960s, Zipes, who is Jewish, lived alongside fellow students who were less than a generation removed from the war. The European Jews he met “kept a bag packed” in case they had to leave on short notice. Like the deer of the forest, they had to be vigilant and ready to flee if the danger was too near.
Savarese said, “We hope this translation will lead a new generation of readers to discover Salten’s book. It’s certainly accessible to children, but adults are more likely to fully appreciate the book’s moving and carefully observed depictions of the natural world, the cycle of life and death, and the threat humans pose to animals.”
Zipes said that as he worked on the translation, he felt a responsibility for reviving Salten’s work and, in particular, for correcting the record about Bambi. He advocates for a new Bambi movie based on the translation. “I was overwhelmed by Salten’s dilemmas as I translated his work,” he said. “I hope that I have done it justice.”
The Original Bambi: The Story of a Life in the Forest by Felix Salten, translated and introduced by Jack Zipes, illustrated by Alenka Sottler. Princeton University Press, $24.95 Feb. 22 ISBN 978-0-691-19774-6