The Wall Street Journal published a letter to the editor in reply to its recent review of one of the new 2022 translations of Bambi: A Life in the Woods, written by Felix Salten in 1923 and published in 1928 with illustrations by Kurt Wiese and translation by Whittaker Chambers.

‘Bambi,’ Whittaker Chambers and the Art of Translation
A grandson defends the ex-spy’s less-famous literary work.
Jan. 21, 2022 11:36 am ET

Meghan Cox Gurdon’s review of Jack Zipes’s new translation of Bambi: A Life in the Woods (Books, Jan. 15) does an injustice to my grandfather, Whittaker Chambers, and his 1928 translation of the novel.

Chambers’s translations neither shows “softness” nor tries to “mitigate” the “totalitarian oppression of innocents.” In 1928, the polyglot Chambers was hearing of European horrors from Jews and other minorities. Contrary to the description offered in the review, he was also drifting out of the Communist Party by 1928, disgusted by its infighting. (Also, Chambers was no “secret communist.” He was one of the few who registered in his own name.)

Chambers’s simple, poetic translation contrasts well with the horrors that came after. His translation in no way transformed Bambi into “a story for children”: Disney did that. We read his translation as teens: beauty could not hide horror, though Disney cut or trivialized it. Here is something only our family knows: Chambers felt sickened by the story’s “Disneyfication.”

Mr. Zipes criticizes Chambers for “textual infidelity.” Is the new translation more accurate? Perhaps. Chambers, then 27, was translating a first of 16 books from German and French. But more accurate does not mean better. Translations need artistry and Chambers was also a poet. He understood that simple, beautiful language in Bambi helped portray the innocence of animals, making human horrors all the starker. I have looked at a few of Mr. Zipes’s passages and found them similar—except where Chambers chose more poetic language.

David Chambers

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2 Responses to Bambi 1928-2022

  1. Ralf Heinritz says:

    Jack Zipes is not only a folklorist, but a longest-time neo-leninist, new left, whatever; no surprise he can’t stand Chambers.

  2. Paul McAuley says:

    As the Russian (Soviet) war on Ukraine illustrates, a film based on “Witness” and/or the life of Whittaker Chambers is long overdue!

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