Mark Twain's Broad German Grin
New Translations Have Helped to Restore a Lost Sense of Humor
By ULRICH STEINDORFF
I remember my first college vacations when I went to Berlin to see my grandmother. She was then in her seventies, a wise old lady, never without some book she lived in and talked about. I talked about Whitman. But she smiled, opened the book she had in her lap, looked over her glasses and asked me: "Do you know Mark Twain?" It was one of his sketches she read to me, and from that very hour Mark Twain has been my mentor.
I had not known Mark Twain's stories before that time. He had his following Germany as everywhere, but his works had never had the popularity they deserved. People read his sketches, knew particularly the German parts of "A Tramp Abroad." In every library there was "Tom Sawyer," and there was also "Huckleberry Finn," but they did not mean anything to the youth. Mark Twain says in his preface to "Tom Sawyer":
Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try pleasantly to remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.
German adults never did shun these books, but German boys and girls were not their readers.
Ten years after my first acquaintance with Mark Twain's sketches, I read his "Tom Sawyer" first in English. It was in he year of 1912, the same year in which my first translation - Kipling's "Plain Tales" - appeared. Now for the first time I understood why Mark Twain had not acquired a true popularity.
"Translation is always a treason," says Okakura-Kakuzo in his "Book of Tea," quoting the observance of a Ming author, "and can at its best be only the reverse side of a brocade - all the threads are there, but not the subtlety of color or design." Aside from e fact that the German translations of Mark Twain's works missed many threads he had woven together, and that the original color of his humor had faded and the subtle design had been reversed into mere caricature, time was against the American classic. Average German adults of that period, grounded in veneration for monarchism, were unable to appreciate the gospel of democracy; they either would or could not understand Mark Twain's smiling philosophy or his satiric mockery or his relieving laughter. And in keeping with that attitude Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, these potential free citizens of a free county, could not appeal to such parents as playmates for their children. But history helped Mark Twain to enjoy the popularity prewar Germany had refused.
When by the revolution of 1918 democracy replaced Kaiserism, and consequently the spirit of military instruction ceded to the spirit of a true liberal education, there was no doubt in my mind that Mark Twain would replace with a few years the old-fashioned juvenile authors. Already at the end of the year 1918 I decided to do modernized translations of Mark Twain's books "intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls" - "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." I knew what was at stake. I knew what prejudices I had to overcome. Publishing business is business, and Mark Twain had never been a "best seller" in Germany. Almost two years passed before I struck a publishing house which recognized the chance and shared my enthusiasm for reviving Mark Twain's works. It was Ullstein's - publishers of Germany's best-known liberal newspapers, Vossische Zeitung and Berliner Morgenpost, as well as of numerous novels and fictions of all periods - which started the enterprise.
During the summer of 1921 "Tom Sawyer" appeared. But already some months before, when the publication was announced at the Spring Fair of Leipsic, where the booksellers of all Germany meet an order for Christmas, it became evident that "Tom Sawyer's Adventures" would outstrip all its competitors in the market for juvenile books. Maybe it was the unusual cover bearing the colored scene of Tom Sawyer painting the fence that attracted more buyers than an old-fashioned edition had done; but whatever the reason, the slumbering interest in the American classic awoke. When half a year later "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" followed "Tom Sawyer" there were about 50,000 German boys and girls waiting for the "new" Mark Twain.
Publishers in this country may not be satisfied with a circulation of 50,000 copies, but in Germany a first edition of that number means unheard of popularity.
During the years 1922 and 1923 one edition of "Tom Sawyer" and "Huck Finn" followed the other, until today Mark Twain is the pet author of all German youth. About 250,000 copies now are circulating, and there is scarcely a boy or a girl to whom the two American lads are not their best playmates.
The children's enthusiasm awoke the interest of the adults. The popularity "Tom Sawyer" and "Huck Finn" had achieved was reflected in the popularity of other works of Mark Twain. At intervals of about six months Ullstein's published my translations of "A Tramp Abroad," "Roughing It," and finally "Selections of Mark Twain's Sketches," "Punch, Brother, Punch," as well as "The Speech on Babies" were literary hits, and copies of these three books also are in the hands of about a quarter of a million of German readers. The year 1923 was a "Mark Twain year" in Germany, just as the year 1924 may see a recrudescence of his glory all over this country.
The books were printed on the cheapest of paper and bound into cheapest cardboard, a kind of manufacturing this country would scarcely appreciate, but people over there could buy a copy for 50 cents. During the years after the German revolution books were the only presents which people of the former wealthy middle classes could give each other. St. Nicholas was a bookseller's clerk, and boys and girls learned to enjoy his gifts just as we had once enjoyed the most expensive playthings.
When Quakers came to Germany and started their relief work, when American mercy saved millions and millions of German children from starving, many hundreds of thousands of that youth wondered from what sort of paradise beyond the sea those angels came with their load of manna. Once the country of Indian fights, America now changed into the promised land.
What Quakers have done and continue to do for the bodily health of the new German generation will not be forgotten. On the other hand, that same generation had been starving spiritually, thirsty for a smile and hungry for another sort of food which only a poet's hand might offer. Again it was an American who helped them out of darkness by richness of his beaming imagination. Mark Twain's relieving laughter made them smile again, just as the sun did with Tom Sawyer and Becky when after days in the cave Tom "glimpsed a far-off speck that looked like daylight." Mark Twain's works produced a gladness all over Germany by the sunshine of his humor.
German boys and girls recognized very soon that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as well as Becky Thatcher were the children of a new world. the way they played and talked, the way their parents and their teachers treated them, the independence and self-control on the one hand, and on the other the true democratic equality were bound to make a mighty impression on the first generation of the new German Republic. For that reason Mark Twain may be considered as "praeceptor Germaniae."
Mark Twain reopened the fountain of humor, which had almost dried up in Germany. but his humor is far from being witticism. He followed the lesson of Shakespeare. To be a humorist was not to be a joker, but to be a philosopher smiling at the world around him and laughing with it. Mark Twain saw most of this earth, and no region of the human heart was unknown to him. All pain and all joy, all heights and all depths, he had experienced, but he remembered always the eternal sun shining behind the clouds. Sometimes he split the mist, coldly and mercilessly, but he did it by love. The true humorist sees the world as it is, but his wisdom is one of exaggeration. Mark Twain has often been blamed for his exaggerations. As well blame a microscope for exaggerating and unfolding realities never seen before. The eyes of Mark Twain have been such a microscope; and all the variety of human nature he saw and visualized to an admiring world is truth.
Mark Twain's truth belongs to all nations. His Tom Sawyer is as international as Shakespeare's Falstaff or Cervantes's Don Quixote. The old Germany may have shrunk from Mark Twain's magic mirror; the new Germany is laughing before it.
Return to The New York Times
Quotations | Newspaper Articles | Special Features | Links | Search