The following review appeared 31 May 1996 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1996.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Ines Koessl-Timm <Ines.Koessl-Timm@lrz.uni-muenchen.de>
University of Munich
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Reading the translation of a literary work always evokes the question of whether one is still reading the 'original', or is reading an entirely 'new' work of art. Answers to this question generally differ as much as do the translations themselves, and this is especially true for Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Any translator of this great book is immediately faced with the problem of having to render a complex construct of ideas from one culture into another, but the real difficulty arises when the translator tries to capture not only the story and the 'meaning' of the book, but also the true spirit of Twain's language. It is welcome news, then, that--thanks to Wolf Harranth--German readers now have an edition of Huckleberry Finn that equals Mark Twain's original.
Obviously, there cannot be found any equivalent in German for the "Missouri Negro dialect," the "backwoods South-Western dialect," or the "ordinary 'Pike-County' dialect"--not to mention the "four modified varieties of this last." Should German dialects be used instead? It would not be the first time that African-American protagonists would speak the different shades of the Bavarian dialect fluently. But most German editions of Huckleberry Finn do not even allude to this problem. In many cases, Twain's vernacular and colloquial language are represented in German by nothing more than several contractions of articles and verb forms, as well as some misspelled foreign words (e.g., nonnonime Briefe). Consequently, Twain's introductory note concerning the dialects is often omitted in translations, as, for example, in Ulrich Johannsen (trans.), Die Abenteuer des Tom Sawyer und Huckleberry Finn (Munich: Droemersche Verlagsanstalt, 1978).
Wolf Harranth's translation, however, is different. First of all, it is based on the edition prepared by the Mark Twain Project (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), which makes it one of the few, if not the only, translation that has not been abridged and changed in a distorting way. Moreover, whereas previous translations have generally been illustrated by German painters, it is noteworthy that this edition contains E. W. Kemble's illustrations for the original edition.
Reading the book for the first time is a shocking experience, and this also must have been the impression the American audience had upon reading Twain's book for the first time in 1885. Harranth's rendering of Twain's language is so 'terrible' that it is beautiful. But he is right, of course: non-standard dialects of German, as in English, are distinguished by their defiance of prescriptive grammatical rules. A good translation therefore must take this fact into account, and indeed Harranth uses grammatical 'mistakes', misspellings, and malapropisms wisely. Although it is hard to discern to which dialects he alludes, the overall impression is that each character has an idiosyncratic way of speaking. For the first time, German readers can get the feel for Twain's literary innovation and achievement.
Harranth, in fact, is a wonderful translator. I love passages like this: "Wenn Schentlmaenner sichs leisten koennen, pro Kopf und Nase n Dollar fuer die Meile zu zahln und fuers Abholen und Absetzen mit ner Jolle, sollt sich n Dampfer leisten koennen, sie mitzunehmen, oder?" (p. 254; "If gentlemen kin afford to pay a dollar a mile apiece, to be took on and put off in a yawl, a steamboat kin afford to carry 'em, can't it?" Penguin Popular Classics edition, p. 160).
This translation of Huckleberry Finn is presented as a book for children. In libraries and book stores it will be found in the children's section, and the publisher, too, categorizes the new translation as a children's classic. The 'Nachwort' (epilogue) by Wolf Harranth is consistent with the overall goal of a children's book; while it does not advance any new insights for Mark Twain scholarship, it does offer basic biographical information on Mark Twain, in language that is easy to understand. In particular, Harranth mentions Twain's 'crisis' while writing Huck Finn, as well as the critical discussions concerning the Phelps episode and the racial issues. He also explains what was 'new' about Huck Finn, and why it was banned from schools and libraries. Harranth even admits the consequences for the German market: distorted abridgments and changes of the original.
It is necessary to dispel the prejudice that Huckleberry Finn is 'only' a book for children. Many adults who were required as children to read the book were not very impressed by it, though of course at that time in their lives they would have lacked the cultural and historical knowledge without which it is impossible to understand and enjoy Huck Finn's adventures. With this new translation, however, it will be possible for any German reader to enjoy and admire Twain's real wit and artistry, "... und so gibts nix mehr, ueber was ich schreiben koennt, und da bin ich verdammt froh drueber, weil wenn ich gewusst haett, was fuer ne elende Plackerei das ist, n Buch machen, haett ichs gar nicht erst angefangt, und noch mal mach ichs sowieso nicht" (p. 455).