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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Taylor Roberts <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 31 May 1996 17:58:03 -0400
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
text/plain (102 lines)
[N.B. The following review was authored by Ines Koessl-Timm, on whose
behalf I am posting it. --T.R.]


     Twain, Mark.  _Die Abenteuer des Huckleberry Finn_.  Deutsch von
     Wolf Harranth.  Zeichnungen von Edward Windsor Kemble.  Hamburg:
     Cecilie Dressler Verlag, 1995.  Pp. 461.  DM 12.  Cloth.  ISBN

     Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:

          Ines Koessl-Timm <[log in to unmask]>
          University of Munich, Germany

     Copyright (c) Mark Twain Forum, 1996.  This review may not be
     published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

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).