Reviews of Emil and the Detectives (1929)
Review by spiphany (2005-05-18)
A very characteristic example of Kästner's work and one of his most widely known books.
I was re-reading this recently as part of some German tutoring I'm doing, and I've come to the conclusion that I didn't really appreciate this as a child. Even writing for children, Kästner tends to be somewhat satirical, and I've never been very good at interpreting that type of humor. I find it much funnier now, though it won't ever be quite my sort of book.
I've long suspected that the English translation of this is pretty poor, and a comparision with the original only confirms this. The main thing that has bothered me about the translation I have (Eileen Hall), although I didn't notice it when I originally read the book, is that the money is all converted into shillings and pounds, which strikes a rather incongruous note in a book set in 1930s Germany. And there's no reason why the currency couldn't be left in marks. Additionally, bits of the story are left out (Kästner's very funny introduction, for one thing), or words are added where they aren't necessary. The humorous tone of the book comes in a large part from Kästner's use of colloquialisms and slang words. Granted, this is difficult to translate, but Hall attempts to give the writing and dialogue a British feel, which is not really successful. The incongruities in tone, where Emil addresses his mother using the formal 'you' and calls her "Mrs. Tischbein" had greatly puzzled me in English, as the bantering nature of the exchange (which is obvious in German) didn't come across at all in the translation.