New translation of ‘Bambi’ showcases tale as allegory on early Austrian antisemitism

While the 1942 Disney film is far more well-known, the original text analogizes the tragic story of a fawn to the plight of Jews just before the Holocaust

A screenshot of the 1942 animated film 'Bambi.' (Screenshot/Youtube)
A screenshot of the 1942 animated film 'Bambi.' (Screenshot/Youtube)

The 1942 animated film “Bambi” has charmed generations and has cemented its status as a cinema classic. However, the tale has a darker origin, dating to the antisemitism of 1920s Austria.

A new translation is looking to showcase the original text as a parable foreshadowing the fate of Jews in the Holocaust, The Guardian reported Saturday. Departing from the somewhat sanitized version audiences are familiar with, the new text is aiming to make clear the political and societal undertones that informed the original version.

The new edition will be published by Princeton University Press and released in the US on January 18, 2022, translated by Jack Zipes, a professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, and illustrated by Alenka Sottler.

Felix Salten, a rabbi’s grandson born in Austria-Hungry in 1869, wrote the iconic and poignant tale of the fawn bereaved of his mother by hunters in 1922, under the title “Bambi: A Life in the Woods.”

Salten was a product of the cultural blossoming in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire around the turn of the 20th century, a prolific writer who moved in the same circles as the likes of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis.

But beneath the trappings of prestige and privilege that were afforded Salten, a dark undercurrent of antisemitism was sweeping through Austria, a trend that he picked up on and that informed his writing while he was putting together this work.

“The darker side of ‘Bambi’ has always been there,” Zipes told The Guardian. “But what happens to Bambi at the end of the novel has been concealed, to a certain extent, by the Disney corporation taking over the book and making it into a pathetic, almost stupid film about a prince and a bourgeois family.”

The original book, Zipes said, was “about survival in your own home,” as hunters invade the forest and “kill whatever animal they want.”

A new translation of ‘Bambi: A Life in the Woods.’ (Princeton University Press)

“All the animals have been persecuted. And I think what shakes the reader is that there are also some animals who are traitors, who help the hunters kill,” he said. “Bambi does not survive well, at the end. He is alone, totally alone… It is a tragic story about the loneliness and solitude of Jews and other minority groups.”

“I think [Salten] foresaw the Holocaust,” he continued. “He had suffered greatly as a young boy from antisemitism and at that time, in Austria and Germany, Jews were blamed for the loss of the first world war. This novel is an appeal to say: no, this shouldn’t happen.”

On its publication in 1923, the book did not enjoy immediate success among the reading public.

However, in the 1930s, Salten — himself a hunter — sold the film rights for the text for $1,000 to an American producer, who in turn sold them to Disney.

As for the book itself, “Felix Salten changed publishers and from then on it became much more successful,” said Ursula Storch, curator of an exhibition on Salten and other neglected artists in Vienna at the Wien Museum.

“Of course it was made even more famous by the film adaptation in 1942,” Storch told AFP earlier this year.

But by then, “Bambi,” along with the rest of Salten’s work, had been banned because he was Jewish, first in Germany and then in Austria after Hitler’s annexation of the country in 1938.

Felix Salten (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Felix Salten (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Storch said that while Salten himself never offered a commentary on the meaning of the book, it is a powerful evocation of the dark side of human nature and the relationship between humans and the environment.

“It’s a book which is deeply anchored in its time and is much more than a simple children’s story about the loss of one’s mother,” said philosopher Maxime Rovere, who authored the preface to a previous French edition of the book.

Given “the impression of fear, the way the animals must constantly escape,” Rovere said it is “impossible not to make the link with [Salten’s] personal experience,” living as he did through an era of rising antisemitism.

In March 1939, Salten fled to Switzerland, taking with him a library comprising thousands of volumes.

Two years later, the Nazis stripped him of his nationality, and he ended up dying in Zurich in 1945, alone and in despair, with no safe place to call home — much like Bambi.

AFP contributed to this report.

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