Why Donald Duck is the Jerry Lewis of Germany
This past weekend I stumbled upon what is probably one of the best examples on how German and American cultures touch. The Wall Street Journal had a story on the history of Disney comics in Germany which explained why the translated versions of the Mouse House comics are quite different from the originals.
Much of this is due to the fact that publishing company Ehapa which started to import Disney comics in the early 1950s hired a translator with an academic background who took her job seriously. Dr. Erika Fuchs gave Carl Burk’s stories about Donald Duck, his nephews, his uncle and Ducksburg new meaning in German.
Unlike the English originals, the translations included many hidden quotes and literary allusions. Fuchs once said, “You can’t be educated enough to translate comic books”. She sometimes even managed to insert political subtexts into the duck tales. Fuchs’ work spawned a tradition of “Donaldists” who saw deeper meaning in such trivial things as comics. Many of her creations entered the German language, such as the phrase “Dem Ingeniör ist nichts zu schwör” – “nothing is too hard for an engineer”, but with the vowels at the end of “Ingenieur” and “schwer” altered to make them rhyme in a funny way (remember: it was the 50s).
Here are some excerpts of the WSJ article:
Germany, the land of Goethe, Thomas Mann and Beethoven, has an unlikely pop culture hero: Donald Duck. Just as the French are obsessed with Jerry Lewis, the Germans see a richness and complexity to the Disney comic that isn’t always immediately evident to people in the cartoon duck’s homeland. Comics featuring Donald are available at most German newsstands and the national weekly “Micky Maus”—which features the titular mouse, Goofy and, most prominently, Donald Duck—sells an average of 250,000 copies each week, outselling even “Superman.” A lavish 8,000-page German Donald Duck collector’s edition has just come out, and despite the nearly $1,900 price tag, the publisher, Egmont Horizont, says the edition of 3,333 copies is almost completely sold out.
The story goes on to explain how Erika Fuchs’ Donald brought the heavyweights of German literature to “Mickey Maus” readers:
Dr. Fuchs both thickens and deepens Mr. Barks’s often sparse dialogues, and the hilariousness of the result may explain why Donald Duck remains the most popular children’s comic in Germany to this day. Dr. Fuchs’s Donald was no ordinary comic creation. He was a bird of arts and letters, and many Germans credit him with having initiated them into the language of the literary classics. The German comics are peppered with fancy quotations. In one story Donald’s nephews steal famous lines from Friedrich Schiller’s play “William Tell”; Donald garbles a classic Schiller poem, “The Bell,” in another. Other lines are straight out of Goethe, Hölderlin and even Wagner (whose words are put in the mouth of a singing cat). The great books later sounded like old friends when readers encountered them at school. As the German Donald points out, “Reading is educational! We learn so much from the works of our poets and thinkers.” Dr. Fuchs raised the diction level of Donald and his wealthy Uncle Scrooge (alias Dagobert Duck), who in German tend to speak in lofty tones using complex grammatical structures with a faintly archaic air, while Huey, Louie and Dewey (now called Tick, Trick and Track), sound slangier and much more youthful. But even the “adult” ducks end up sounding more colorful than they do in English. Fuchs applied alliteration liberally, as, for example, in Donald’s bored lament on the beach in “Lifeguard Daze.” In the English comic, he says: “I’d do anything to break this monotony!” The über-gloomy German version: “How dull, dismal and deathly sad! I’d do anything to make something happen.”