New ‘Bambi’ Translation Reveals Original Story’s Undertones About Antisemitism, Nazi Persecution
A new translation of the children’s classic “Bambi” aims to shed light on the original story’s roots in Jewish persecution by the Nazis and Austrian antisemitism in the 1920s.
Authored by Austrian-Jewish writer Felix Salten, the novel “Bambi, a Life in the Woods” was first published in 1923. In 1942, Disney released the animated film “Bambi” about a young, innocent deer who finds love and friendship in a forest, based on a 1928 English translation of the novel.
While Disney’s adaptation brought the story a wide audience, a new English translation penned by University of Minnesota professor Jack Zipes, which will be published on Feb. 1, aims to recapture the more somber themes that defined Salten’s novel.
“Life in the forest is dangerous and precarious, and Bambi learns important lessons about survival as he grows to become a strong, heroic stag,” Princeton University Press wrote in a synopsis of the book. “Jack Zipes’s introduction traces the history of the book’s reception and explores the tensions that Salten experienced in his own life—as a hunter who also loved animals, and as an Austrian Jew who sought acceptance in Viennese society even as he faced persecution.”
Born Siegmund Salzmann, Salten changed his name as a teenager to “unmark” himself as a Jew in Austria, The Guardian reported. In 1935, his book was burned as Jewish propaganda and banned by the Nazis, who believed it was an allegorical commentary on how Jews were being treated in Europe.
“I think he foresaw the Holocaust,” Zipes said. “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.”
Salten’s original story “is a book about survival in your own home,” Zipes explained. As soon as Bambi is born, he lives under constant threat from hunters who invade the forest and “kill whatever animal they want.”
Bambi’s mother is murdered, followed by his cousin Gobo, who was led to believe that hunters would be “kind” to him. Bambi is also shot, but survives with the help of a stag who treats him like a son. The stag eventually dies and, as Zipes 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.”
Zipes also wrote in his translation that at the end of the Salten’s original tale, it is believed that Bambi and all the other forest animals are merely “born to be killed,” and “the major theme throughout is: you don’t have a choice.”
“The darker side of ‘Bambi’ [the tale] has always been there,” said Zipes. “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.”
Zipes also believes that by writing about animals and wildlife, instead of directly mentioning Jews and other minorities, Salten was able “to talk about the persecution of the Jews as freely as he wanted to. Many other writers, like George Orwell, chose animals too because you’re freer to tackle problems that might make your readers bristle. And you don’t want them to bristle, you want them to say, at the end: this is a tragedy.”
Salten fled to Switzerland in 1938 after Germany annexed Austria and the Nazis stripped him of Austrian citizenship, The Guardian reported. He had already sold the film rights to “Bambi” for $1,000 to an American director, who then sold them to Disney. Salten never pocketed any money from the Disney animation and spent the final years of his life “lonely and in despair” in Zurich before dying in 1945, according to Zipes.