Emil and the Detectives

Both of my parents moved at least part of their childhood libraries into our home where they became the foundation for my collection (and my brother’s, for that matter). Some of these ended up being my own favorites while others simply hung about the house, in various common area bookshelves, forever unclaimed and unread by either me or my brother. Not for any particular reason, either; I think I would just forget about them as soon as I left the room or hallway. Such was the fate of Emil and the Detectives, which I finally sat down to read because sometimes the world is a bummer and you just want to read children’s books from a happier time.

Young Emil from the small town of Neustadt is sent off to visit his grandmother in Berlin with a not insubstantial sum of money, but is robbed en route. A local gang of plucky young boys come to his aid, hijinks ensue, and Emil and the detectives get their man. It’s very wholesome without being cloying, which would explain why there are approximately one million (or just five) movie adaptations of it. It’s cute, it’s a fast read, it’s fun, there’s not much else to say.

For such a slim book, Emil and the Detectives invites a bit of a Wikipedia rabbit hole. The author, Erich Kästner, was the odd duck who was able to remain a vocal critic of the Nazis without being sent to a camp or having to flee the country. While his much more risque and controversial adult novel, Fabian, was the subject of Nazi book burnings, his children’s work was popular enough to keep him more or less out of trouble. Another one of his children’s books, Lisa and Lottie, eventually became the basis for The Parent Trap.

The English translation is another rabbit hole, though a murkier one. It was published thanks to the efforts of legendary children’s book editor May Massee. By all accounts, in addition to her publishing and editing work, Massee also produced the first English translation of Emil and the Detectives, though a later one by Eileen Hall is purportedly the most readily available one in Europe. And yet there’s not much to be found online or in Massee’s biography about any other translation efforts. Was this the only translation she ever produced, a la Alexandra Dick and The Dwarf?

There is lively discussion (read as: this blog post) around the subsequent translations of Emil and the Detectives, and how English translators have approached the question of slang and dialect in the story. My German is several years out of use by this point, though all of this is tempting enough for me to dive back in.

Published by

katherine

Stockholm-based translator and copyeditor of American extraction.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *