Donald Duck Giving David Hasselhoff a Run for His Money

May 24, 2009

Susan Bernofsky has a wonderful article in the Wall Street Journal in which she describes Donald Duck’s runaway popularity in Germany (including a group called the German Organization for Non-Commercial Followers of Pure Donaldism, or D.O.N.A.L.D.), and attributes it largely to the translator, Erika Fuchs, and her reworking — some might even say shameless improving — of the comic books. Whereas in English the language is straightforward and even plain, Fuchs made Donald a literary, philosophical duck, “a bird of art and letters,” as Bernofsky puts it, who quotes Schiller, Goethe, and Hölderlin.

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.

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.”

Fuchs also inserted political and ethical issues into the comics that were mostly absent in the original. Bernofsky describes, for example, what happened to The Golden Helmet, a childhood favorite of mine, which is about a treasure hunt for a legendary Viking helmet that conveys possession of the United States upon its owner. While the human (or duckly) lust for wealth and power certainly drive the plot of the English original — I recall Donald fantasizing about charging for breathing (“a sigh, a nickel; a gasp, a dime!”) — Fuchs makes the tale a metaphor for German nationalism:

In Dr. Fuchs’s rendition, Donald, his nephews and a museum curator race against a sinister figure who claims the helmet as his birthright without any proof—but each person who comes into contact with the helmet gets a “cold glitter” in his eyes, infected by the “bacteria of power,” and soon declares his intention to “seize power” and exert his “claim to rule.” Dr. Fuchs uses language that in German (“die Macht ergreifen”; “Herrscheranspruch”) strongly recalls standard phrases used to describe Hitler’s ascent to power.

The original English says nothing about glittering eyes or power but merely notes, “As the minutes drag past, a change comes over the tired curator.” Even the helmet itself, which in German Donald describes as a masterpiece of “Teutonic goldsmithery,” is anything but nationalistic in English: “Boys, isn’t this helmet a beauty?” is all he says. In an interview, Dr. Fuchs said she hoped that a child who “sees what power can do to people and how crazy it makes them” would be less susceptible to its siren song in later life.

-ar

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