Wrestling with Heidi

Heidi left by her Aunt Dete with her Grandfather.
Rudolf Münger. (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/).

I love reading the classics, but I have a big problem; they’re not all written in English. I read, write, speak, and understand, only English. I have smatterings of French, German, Latin, and Spanish, but they are indeed just smatterings. I also know about five words in modern Hebrew. But if I wanted to, I could spend all of my leisure reading time on books written exclusively in English. There’s a lot of them, and I’ve not read them all. I don’t read only English language authors, however, and for a good reason. Doing so would shrink my world. And when I’m confined to my home, as many of us are nowadays, who wants a smaller world?

Because of my language limitation, I must rely on translations for non-English books. As I sit at my desk writing this, I look at the bookshelves around me. There I see many books initially written in a foreign language: Biblical Hebrew, Classical Greek, Latin, Arabic, Italian, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Portuguese, Croatian, Polish, Hungarian, Modern Greek, Modern Hebrew, Persian, Yiddish, and, a particular weakness of mine, Japanese. Without translations, I would wither.

My wife just became a grandmother for the first time; her middle daughter blessed her with a grandson in July. My daughter is expecting twins in December. As a result, or in preparation, perhaps of what I hope to be a future pleasure, I’ve turned some of my reading attention to children’s books. I recently read E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan. I am slowly working my way through the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Concurrently with the Wilder books, I’m reading my first children’s book written in a foreign language, in this case, German. It’s the story of Heidi by the 19th-century Swiss author Johanna Spyri. Fortunately, German is one of my “smattering” languages.

To read Heidi, I had to pick a translation. This is much easier said than done. Susan Stan, in her article “Heidi in English: A Bibliographic Study,” states that between 1882 and 1959, “thirteen distinct English translations were done, five by British translators and eight by American translators.” An embarrassment of riches, so to speak. I want to share with you some issues I ran into when reviewing some of the Heidi translations.

As a child, my wife spent time in India. She attended school in Delhi. As a going-away present, friends gave her the 1970 “unabridged” translation of Heidi with illustrations by Eleanor Mill. The book lists no translator. Here’s the opening paragraph:

From the pleasantly situated old town of Mayenfeld a footpath leads up through shady green meadows to the foot of the mountains. Anyone who follows it will soon catch the pungent fragrance of grassy pastureland, for the footpath goes up straight and steep to the Alps.

Spyri, Johanna. Heidi (Western Publishing Company, Inc.) (p. 9), 1970.

Here’s the corresponding paragraph in the German:

Vom freundlichen Dorfe Maienfeld führt ein Fußweg durch grüne, baumreiche Fluren bis zum Fuße der Höhen, die von dieser Seite groß und ernst auf das Tal herniederschauen. Wo der Fußweg anfängt, beginnt bald Heideland mit dem kurzen Gras und den kräftigen Bergkräutern dem Kommenden entgegenzuduften, denn der Fußweg geht steil und direkt zu den Alpen hinauf.

Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (German Edition) (p. 1). Kindle Edition.

Notice anything missing? What happened to “…die von dieser Seite groß und ernst auf das Tal herniederschauen?”

Here’s the same paragraph in Heidi (AmazonClassics Edition), again no translator is identified:

From the old and pleasantly situated village of Mayenfeld, a footpath winds through green and shady meadows to the foot of the mountains, which on this side look down from their stern and lofty heights upon the valley below. The land grows gradually wilder as the path ascends, and the climber has not gone far before he begins to inhale the fragrance of the short grass and sturdy mountain plants, for the way is steep and leads directly up to the summits above.

Spyri, Johanna. Heidi (AmazonClassics Edition) (p. 3). Amazon Classics. Kindle Edition.

While the second translation is not perfect, it is better. It contains Spyri’s description of how the mountain peaks look down on the valley below, for instance.

How do we account for what’s missing in the “unabridged” translation? Who knows? Perhaps the translator was using a different German text. OK, maybe. But this is speculation. I doubt, however, that the words were left out due to malice aforethought.

Now let’s look at a second example. Heidi’s aunt Dete is bringing Heidi to stay with her grandfather, Heidi’s grandfather. Dete has accepted a job in Frankfurt with a family she met while working at the Baths in Ragatz. She can’t take the girl with her to Frankfurt. She faced the same problem earlier, when she first went to work at the Baths at Ragatz. What did she do then?

The Western Publishing Company edition states: “Last summer mother died, and, as I wanted to work down at the Baths, I took her to board with old Ursel up in Pfäfferserdorf.”

The Heidi, AmazonClassics Edition, has Dete say: “When mother died last year, and I went down to the Baths to earn some money, I paid old Ursel, who lives in the village just above, to keep and look after the child.”

A couple questions here: Did Dete’s mother die last year or last summer? Did Dete take Heidi to a place named Pfäfferserdorf or simply to “the village just above?”

Here’s the German:

“Wie nun im letzten Sommer die Mutter starb und ich im Bad drunten etwas verdienen wollte, nahm ich es mit und gab es der alten Ursel oben im Pfäfferserdorf in die Kost.”

Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (German Edition) (p. 5). Kindle Edition. 

In this case, the 1970 unabridged version comes off better. By the German, Dete’s mother died last summer, not last year, and Dete boarded Heidi with old Ursel up in the Pfäfferserdorf. I have no idea why the town’s name dropped out of the Amazon translation.

In this second case, I would like to point out another problem in yet a third translation, one done by Elisabeth P. Stork in 1901. Here is what Stork says Dete did with Heidi when she took the job at the Baths: “When I went to Ragatz I took her with me;…” (Johanna Spyri. Heidi (Illustrated by Maria L. Kirk). Girlebooks.com. Kindle Edition. Translation by Elisabeth P. Stork.)

What are we to make of this? Well, not all translations are translations. What we have here is some creative writing. Elisabeth P. Stork seems to have decided it would be better if Dete took Heidi with her when she went to work at the Baths in Ragatz. She preferred not to have Dete leave Heidi with Ursel, wherever Ursel was.

In the Introduction to Elisabeth Stork’s translation, Charles Wharton Stork, (that name sounds familiar), Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, describes Elisabeth’s qualifications for translating Heidi. First, she grew up in a European region, similar to the one in which the story takes place. Second, she has the required knowledge of children, having a daughter the same age as Heidi. He points out that the daughter likes to dress up in a Tyrolese costume. Third, German was Elisabeth’s native tongue. He notes that often, people who acquire a second language become proficient in it, and he gives Joseph Conrad as the supreme example. Fourth, style is essential, especially to children, and even more so when a book is to be read aloud to them. He maintains that Elisabeth Stork has been particularly sensitive to this point. He concludes with the following:

In conclusion, the author, realising the difference between the two languages, has endeavored to write the story afresh, as Johanna Spyri would have written it had English been her native tongue. How successful the attempt has been the reader will judge.

Johanna Spyri. Heidi (Illustrated by Maria L. Kirk). Girlebooks.com. Kindle Edition.

Notice, and I find this fascinating, that William Stork refers to the translator as “the author,” a telling comment, or slip of the pen.

Elisabeth’s motives in her “translation” might well have been noble ones. I have no reason to doubt them. However, I prefer that the first version of Heidi I read to my grandchildren be as close to Spyri’s original as possible. After all, it will be their first peek into Heidi’s world. I hope they appreciate what their grandfather is going through.

All the best,

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

5 thoughts

  1. I agree, it’s so important to read translated literature and I also agree that translations (certainly of prose) should be as faithful as possible to the original (With poetry, there is the need also to create a poem that works in the second language, which often requires the translator to be more imaginative in their translation).

    There are indeed writers who are proficient in a second (or even third) language. I’m currently reading the Dream Life Of Sokhanov by Olga Grushin. English is her third language yet you really don’t get that impression reading this novel.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing your journey. I’m wondering if you chose an edition. I just read my childhood edition, which was apparently translated by Marian Edwardes. I found it very repetitive and heavily, archaically, Euro-Christian. The emphasis on this type of Christianity is historically interesting, but our family is not religious. Our grandchildren have grandparents who are Scot, Ashkaenazi, Peruvian, and Finnish American. None are believers. I love the basic story, but don’t want to read that to my grandchildren, 10 and 4. There is a German film dubbed in English in which Grandfather is played by the wonderful Swiss actor, Bruno Ganz. I plan to share this version of Heidi with them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading the post and commenting on it. I appreciate it. Ultimately, I chose the translation of Heidi by Helen Dole, 1899. I understand your concern about the religious nature of the book. That said, it is, nevertheless, a significant interest of Sypri’s. In a later post titled “At Enmity with God and Man,” I address some religious aspects of the book. [September 21, 2020].
      Best wishes, and may your grandchildren enjoy hearing the book read to them by their grandfather.


  3. Thank you for your essay! I read the German original many times (the very book my grandmother had as a young girl), in old German type. Strongly disliking the many attempts at “modernizing” the style in German, I was wondering which English translation would be truest to the original. What made you choose the translation by Helen Dole versus for instance the Amazon Classics?
    Regarding the religious content, I had forgotten how prominent it was. My perception however was not Christian at all (I don’t remember any mention of Jesus or Christ) but rather very universally theist. God is mentioned often and cast as a loving, omniscient Father figure. Overall, even being Jewish myself I felt it was fine reading it to my son (who, BTW, loved the quaint language of the original). I would love to read what your thoughts were on that matter. In another comment you mention something else you wrote, where can I find this? Greetings from Switzerland!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Franziska,
      Thanks for reading and commenting on this essay. I appreciate it. You are so fortunate to have and to be able to read your grandmother’s copy of the book in the old German type. One of the reasons I chose the Dole translation is the conscious attempt to capture the flavor of Sypri’s German. Consider this note from the book’s introduction to the 1899 translation: “The present translation has been carefully made with the idea of preserving as far as possible the homely simplicity and vivacity of the original, the charm of its absolute sincerity and wholesome humor.” Another reason I like the Dole translation is best illustrated with an example. When Heidi is in Frankfurt, she wanders out of the house in search of a church with a church tower from which she can see a great distance. A boy offers to take her to it for money. Heidi asks him how much he wants. In the Amazon Classics edition, he replies, “twopence,” in the Dole translation, he replies, “twenty pfennigs.” She’s in Frankfurt. “Twopence” drove home the fact that I was reading a translation. Like you, I am Jewish and read the book with total comfort. I deal with some of the religious aspects of the book in another essay entitled “At Enmity with God and Man.” You can read it here: https://gbavraham.com/2020/09/21/at-enmity-with-god-and-man/. The piece contains an illustration from Dole’s 1899 translation. All the best, Gershon.


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