Monday, April 4, 2022

Bambi: Review Of A New Translation

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Behavior, Nature, Wildlife, Science & Society

Ed Hessler

I never knew that Disney's classic movie Bambi (1942) was not a work of imagination from the Disney studio or that it was not based on a fairy tale. It was, as Kathryn Schulz reports in The New Yorker (January 24, 2022) an adaptation of "a 1922 novel by the Austro-Hungarian writer and critic Felix Salten, titled "Bambi: A Life in the Woods." Or did I know that Stephen King, who knows a few things about horror stories, once said that it was "the first horror movie he ever saw." Or that its translator was Whittaker Chambers, an American Quaker who became a communist,a spy for the Soviets. who later defected and testified in the trial of Alger Hiss.
In this essay, Schulz reviews a new translation - "The Original Bambi: The Story of a Life in the Forest" Princeton) -  by Jack Zipes, "professor emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota." She describes the illustrations by Alenka Sottler as "wonderful." Given Salten's background as a hunter and killer of many deer, the author of a work "of child pornography,"  a novel about a Viennese prostitute "as told by herself," it was even more surprising. The book latter book was published anonymously, but Salten is "regarded as the undisputed author of the book, believed even at the time of publication in1906.

Schultz draws our attention to "a through line to Salten's scattershot career...his interest in writing about animals, which was evident from his first published work of fiction." Salten wrote many books in which non-human protagonists were featured, not always with happy endings, most "not particularly suitable for children.  One of them was made into a Disney film, "The Shaggy Dog,"  Disney also transformed Salten's novel about Bambi, "the whole point...Salten insisted (was to) educate naive readers about nature as it really is: a place where life is always contingent on death, where starvation, competition, and predation are the norm."
If you saw this film long ago or have never seen it, Schulz provides "a quick refresher" of Disney's "Bambi." It is a film with some wider influence than entertainment, again more than I knew, e.g., "environmental historian Ralph Lutts," once commented that 'It is difficult to identify a film, story, or animal character that has had a greater influence on our vision of wildlife."'  Of course, I've heard the phrase "the Bambi Complex," used in management circles. Basically, the film is a Garden of Eden and then humans enter a place in which "nature (is) benign and wild animals - interspecies amity is the rule - are adorable and tame, coupled with a corresponding resistance to crucial forest-management tools such as culling and controlled burns."

We impress both on books and films our particular meanings and to devil with the evidence, e.g., it was  considered in Nazi Germany as "a parable about Jewish persecution."  Schulz describes the book as "at heart," (as) a coming of age story...a novel of education and training." The professor is the stag known as old Prince and Bambi is his student. Schulz argues that two sentences from the book - "Can't you stay by yourself? Shame on you!" - i.e.,  "anything short of extreme self-reliance is shameful; interdependence is unseemly, restrictive, and dangerous." In other words "you must live alone." Consider the story this way, Schulz says: "This is not 'The Lorax' or 'Maus.' This is 'The Fountainhead,' with fawns." However, the book also includes scenes that are not  "a paean to individualism: (but) a belated (and) tender recognition of how much we mean to one another."

Schulz thinks that the Whitaker translation is the better of the two. Zipes is knowledgeable, but "he is not a lucid thinker or a gifted writer." The example she provides of this illustrates her point. 
One novel by Salten was about a zoo, the zookeeper enlightened and humane."The animals within it, Salten writes, 'are all sentenced to life imprisonment and are all innocents."  Schulz  notes that this line is "lovely...and one that seems to apply, in his moral universe , to all of us. In the forest--that is, in a state of nature--we are in constant danger; in society tended and cared but fundamentally compromised, we are still not out of the woods.'"

I urge you to read this essay.  I've merely scratched the surface and hope I haven't marred it. You certainly don't want to miss learning about a surprising scene Disney included in the studio version of  Bambi and then cut after it was shown to test audiences. Schulz's credentials -  2016 Pulitzer Prize and National Magazine Award (see category feature writing 2016)- are on full display. And you may want to take a look at the Wiki entry about her.

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