An illustration from Struwwelpeter.
It is not my habitual practice to go toe-to-toe with Mark Twain. I revere him, have made lengthy extracts from his works, have read aloud many times from Life on the Mississippi and Huckleberry Finn. I find Twain much funnier than [insert the name of your favorite humorist here]. But.
In 1891, stranded in Berlin, Twain set about translating the most famous children’s book ever written in German: Struwwelpeter. It is not a lengthy work. The whole thing is just ten medium-size poems, mostly in rhyming iambic tetrameter couplets. The German is hardly esoteric; it was originally composed (1844) for the benefit of the author’s three-year-old son. Twain, too, had the benefit of a young audience for his translation: his three daughters, Jean, Clara, and Susie (ages eleven, seventeen, and nineteen, respectively) were with him at the time, suffering in Berlin.
There are several narratives here, all worth the telling, regarding Twain’s deal with the German language, the Germans’ deal with Struwwelpeter, Twain’s surprising his family by unveiling and performing his translation of the poems on Christmas morning, und so weiter. But we have a great deal of more essential ground to cover. Read More