May 26, 2009

Donald Duck: Something gained in translation


Germany, the land of Goethe, Thomas Mann and Beethoven, has an unlikely pop culture hero: Donald Duck,” says well-known German translator Susan Bernofsky. In a Wall Street Journal commentary, she notes that “Comics featuring Donald are available at most German newsstands and the national weekly ‘Micky Maus‘ — which features the titular mouse, Goofy and, most prominently, Donald Duck — sells an average of 250,000 copies each week, outselling even ‘Superman.’ A lavish 8,000-page German Donald Duck collector’s edition has just come out, and despite the nearly $1,900 price tag, the publisher, Egmont Horizont, says the edition of 3,333 copies is almost completely sold out.” And then there’s the monthly “Donald Duck Special” comic, which has a monthly print-run of 40,000 copies.

Why is he so much more popular there than here? Bernofsky speculates that it’s because of the fact that while Americans know Donald Duck from cartoons, Germans know him mostly from print. From there, she says, “much of the appeal of the hapless, happy-go-lucky duck lies in the translations. Donald quotes from German literature, speaks in grammatically complex sentences and is prone to philosophical musings, while the stories often take a more political tone than their American counterparts.”

And this was no accident, says Bernofsky — the translator, Erika Fuchs, who translated Donald Duck into German from 1951 until just before her death, at age 98, in 2005, had been given orders “to crank up the erudition level.” As a result, says Bernofsky, “Dr. Fuchs’s Donald was no ordinary comic creation. He was a bird of arts and letters, and many Germans credit him with having initiated them into the language of the literary classics. The German comics are peppered with fancy quotations. In one story Donald’s nephews steal famous lines from Friedrich Schiller’s play ‘William Tell’; Donald garbles a classic Schiller poem, ‘The Bell,’ in another. Other lines are straight out of Goethe, Höderlin and even Wagner (whose words are put in the mouth of a singing cat). The great books later sounded like old friends when readers encountered them at school. As the German Donald points out, ‘Reading is educational! We learn so much from the works of our poets and thinkers.'”

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives