A New Translation Emphasizes “Bambi” as a Parable for European Antisemitism
Nan Cohen reconsiders Disney’s sanitized film version of Felix Salten’s classic novel
My husband likes to tell a story from when he was eight years old, in Los Angeles, in 1975: His parents dropped him and his seven-year-old brother at the movies to see Disney’s animated 1942 classic Bambi, then in its fourth re-release. Their parents drove home, and as they walked in the door, the phone rang. It was the younger boy calling from the theater lobby payphone, outraged: “You don’t expect us to sit here and watch Bambi’s mother being dead, do you?”
Across the country in suburban Baltimore, I was seven, too. Even if my mother had judged me able to handle the death of Bambi’s mother on film (which I doubt), she would no more have left me at a movie theater without an adult than given me the keys to the car. But on a shelf of old children’s books, culled from the mixed-lot boxes my mother bought at farm auctions, was a copy of Bambi: A Life in the Woods by Felix Salten, bound in green cardboard stamped with figures from children’s books. Attracted by a familiar character name, as I’d also been to musty, foxed copies of The Adventures of Pinocchio and Raggedy Ann Stories, and with no one to forbid or warn me, I read it.
I was a timorous reader. I started Little Women several times, but each time I stopped where Beth gets scarlet fever and appears likely to die. Eventually I steeled myself to read on, and I cried over her eventual death, but I was not shocked. No more was I shocked by Bambi: the likelihood of his mother’s death hangs over the book. In Chapter 2, she brings Bambi to the meadow for the first time, telling him:
“I’m going out alone first. Stay here and wait. And don’t take your eyes off me for a minute. If you see me run back here, then turn round and run as fast as you can. I’ll catch up with you soon.” She grew silent and seemed to be thinking. Then she went on earnestly, “Run anyway as fast as your legs will carry you. Run even if something should happen … even if you should see me fall to the ground … Don’t think of me, do you understand? No matter what you see or hear, start running right away and just as fast as you possibly can. Do you promise me to do that?”
I thought of this passage when I heard that Jack Zipes’ new translation of Salten’s novel emphasizes something of which most American readers have been unaware: his use of Bambi’s plight as an analogy for European antisemitism and the worsening conditions for Jews in Salten’s home country of Austria and elsewhere on the continent. Bambi, published in 1923 as a novel for adults, was banned in Germany in 1936. “It is a book about survival in your own home,” Zipes told The Guardian in December 2021. In the forest, “All the animals have been persecuted. And I think what shakes the reader is that there are also some animals who are traitors, who help the hunters kill.”
Rereading my old copy, translated in 1928 by Whittaker Chambers, brought back how it reflected my childhood fears—of losing my mother in a crowd, of my parents dying, of the general indifference and cruelty of the big world outside the bedroom where I read. The novel painted the world as a beautiful and dangerous place, whose beauties were easy to see and whose dangers were implied without being named (why couldn’t I be dropped off at the movies?). I would have learned about the Holocaust around the same time I read Bambi, but of course I didn’t connect the two myself. The translation reflected the anxiety of being a child, not the anxiety of being a Jew.
Bambi starts slowly, the whole opening chapter devoted to the first hours of the fawn’s life: the quiet of the little glade where he is born, the silent weariness of his mother. A magpie intrudes, chattering inanely:
“How amazing to think that he should be able to get right up and walk! How interesting! I’ve never seen the like of it before in all my born days. Of course, I’m still young, only a year out of the nest, you might say. But I think it’s wonderful.”
When the unwanted postpartum visitor eventually takes the hint and flies off, Bambi’s mother licks her fawn as the voices of the forest fill the silence:
The wood-thrush rejoiced incessantly, the doves cooed without stopping, the blackbirds whistled, finches warbled, the tit-mice chirped. Through the midst of these songs the jay flew, uttering its quarrelsome cry, the magpie mocked them, and the pheasants cackled loud and high. At times the shrill exulting of a woodpecker rose above all the other voices. The call of the falcon shrilled, light and piercing, over the tree-tops, and the hoarse crow chorus was heard continuously.
I barely remembered this chapter; it must have bored me when I was young. Now, I’m delighted by how it braids together the novel’s different registers. There’s the way it inhabits the subjectivity of its animal hero in characteristic bildungsroman fashion:
The little fawn understood not one of the many songs and calls, not a word of the conversations …. Nor did he heed any of the odors which blew through the woods. He only heard the soft licking against his coat that washed him and warmed him and kissed him. And he smelled nothing but his mother’s body near him.
There’s a sense of the beauty and complexity of the forest, of the sacredness of birth. The intrusive magpie brings the petty comedy of social life, the mundane existing beside the miracle. If I found it boring as a child, now I find it beautiful.
In the Disney movie, however, Bambi’s birth is a spectacle. Assembled to view “the young prince” are virtually all the peaceful creatures of the forest, neatly arranged according to species: quail in one section, rabbits in the next. That the forest is American, not Viennese, is clear from the folksy aw-shucks quality of the dialect. (“He doesn’t walk very good, does he?” asks the young rabbit Thumper, a character invented for the movie.) The sense of occasion is at odds, too, with the novel’s emphasis on the seclusion and safety of the glade where Bambi’s mother nurses her fawn. Here, the new child is a public figure, the center of attention, atop a stratified social hierarchy almost from the moment he is born.
In the novel, Bambi starts learning early about danger and death. Like any child, he has many questions, such as when he sees a polecat kill a mouse. Evading his question about why it happened, his mother assures him that they will not kill a mouse: “Because we never kill anything.” Later, in the heat of summer, Bambi pesters his mother to go to the meadow again:
His mother lifted her head. “Go to the meadow,” she said, “go to the meadow now?” Her voice was so full of astonishment and terror that Bambi became quite frightened.
When he tries to get her to explain why, she says, “You’ll find out all about it later when you’re bigger … we don’t talk about such things to children.” It’s not just danger—a word he has heard before and doesn’t understand—it’s also sex. The ellipses in the dialogue are in the original German as well:
“Can we only go there early in the morning?” Bambi was curious.
His mother was patient. “Only in the early morning or late evening,” she said, “or at night.”
“And never in the daytime, ever?”
His mother hesitated. “Well,” she said at last, “sometimes a few of us do go there in the daytime …. But those are special occasions …. I can’t just explain it to you, you are too young yet …. Some of us do go there …. But we are exposed to the greatest danger.”
Chambers and Zipes differ moderately in style, with Zipes cleaving more faithfully to the German (“polecat”) and Chambers privileging his American audience (“ferret”). An aim of Zipes’ translation is to restore Salten’s more overt anthropomorphism, which Chambers softened. To a reader familiar with the 1928 translation, some of Zipes’ more faithful anthropomorphic choices are jarring; it feels odd to read that a fawn “yelled,” for example. (Because I am thinking so much of my childhood reading, the passages quoted are from Chambers.) But both Zipes and Chambers preserve ellipses like the ones in Bambi’s mother’s explanation. In them, the adult explains without explaining. She tells the child as much as she thinks he can take, while also indicating that there is more she’s not telling him.
This is what Disney leaves out: not the danger, but the awareness of danger; not the growing up, but the awareness of the changes that must come. What the movie puts in their place is ignorance. Salten’s animals, like Vienna’s Jews, cannot remain ignorant, even though they don’t understand everything that is to come. Ignorance is too costly.
In Chapter 6 of the novel, as Bambi grows, his mother leaves him alone for increasingly long stretches. He and his cousins, Faline and Gobo, speculate that the mothers are with the distant, mysterious fathers—that is, it’s rutting season, though they don’t know what that is. As Bambi roams the forest alone one night, he is overcome with loneliness and begins to call for his mother. At this moment, “one of the fathers” appears: “What are you crying about?” Bambi, awed, cannot speak. “Your mother has no time for you now,” declares the old stag. “Can’t you stay by yourself? Shame on you!”
Throughout the autumn, Bambi becomes more competent and self-sufficient. In the next chapter, after a brush with hunters in which Bambi becomes separated from his mother and sees one of the younger stags shot, he encounters the old stag again.
“Where is your mother?” asked the stag.
Bambi answered still very softly, “I don’t know.”
The old stag kept gazing at him. “And still you’re not calling for her?” he said.
Bambi looked into the noble, iron-gray face, looked at the stag’s antlers and suddenly felt full of courage. “I can stay by myself, too,” he said.
Bambi’s mother returns. Winter comes; she teaches him how to find enough food to survive. They spend more time in the society of other deer and assorted forest creatures. As he did with the magpie at Bambi’s birth, Salten satirizes the self-importance, the jockeying for social position, and the rampant speculation and gossip of human society. The animals, like people, act according to their instincts and rationalize them afterwards. (Later, when Bambi and Faline fall in love, there’s a sly comedy in the contrast between their clearly instinctive mating behavior and their romantic conversation about it.) The deer talk about the much-feared, little-understood threat they call “He”—a strange-smelling creature, walking erect with a strange and powerful face, and a “terrible third leg,” as Bambi first perceives it, that spits fire.
Bambi’s mother said, “He throws His hand at you, my grandmother told me so.”
“Is that so?” asked old Nettla. “What is it that bangs so terribly then?”
“That’s when He tears His hand off,” Bambi’s mother explained. “Then the fire flashes and the thunder cracks. He’s all fire inside.”
“Excuse me,” said Ronno. “It’s true that He’s all fire inside. But that about His hand is wrong. A hand couldn’t make such wounds. You can see that for yourself. It’s much more likely that it’s a tooth He throws at us. A tooth would explain a great many things, you know. You really die from His bite.”
It’s not much of a stretch to think about Vienna’s Jews speculating about the Austrians among whom they lived, and the Germans just over the border, when the animals exchange their theories about how to keep safe and out of the way of Him, assigning importance to their own choices even though events will prove those choices largely irrelevant when disaster comes. In another scene, a squirrel and some birds bicker about who is responsible for the death of a hunted buck:
“My voice is probably louder than yours, and I warned him as well as I could,” the crow said in an impudent tone. “But gentlemen of that stamp pay little attention to the likes of us.”
“Much too little, really,” the squirrel agreed.
“Well, we did what we could,” said the magpie. “We’re certainly not to blame when an accident happens.”
In Chapter 10—the late winter of Bambi’s first year—hunters come to the forest, shooting hares, pheasants, deer. Bambi and his mother must flee across an open space. She gives him one last warning: “And don’t forget, Bambi, my child, don’t pay any attention to me when we get out there. Even if I fall, don’t pay any attention to me, just keep on running.” Bambi’s survival instinct propels him to safety; when he comes to his senses, his mother is gone. He survives the rest of winter with the help of old Nettla, past her breeding years and kind under a crusty exterior. Soon spring has come and he is rubbing the velvet off new antlers of his own.
In the movie, Bambi hardly seems to have grown in size at all between his birth and the loss of his mother. He seems very small indeed as he wanders the snowy forest calling for her. For the first time in the movie, the old stag speaks to him: “Your mother can’t be with you any more. Come, my son.” With one bereft backward glance, Bambi falls into step behind the huge deer, and they disappear into the whiteness of the falling snow. The old stag seems as remote as ever. What kind of care can he possibly give Bambi? Yet almost immediately the world is green again, and he’s a young adult, ready to fall in love.
This is what sentimentality is—the movie’s insistence on Bambi’s innocence against all the evidence to the contrary—and what enables it is a simplified narrative that ruthlessly excludes the truth of his situation. Movie viewers’ hearts break for him because of the pitiful contrast between his ignorance and the enormity of all that can happen in the world. Compared to Salten’s novel, Disney’s sentimentality seems downright willful, determined not to acknowledge that a fawn could lose his mother, or that he should learn to care for himself, so that when the worst happens, it seems—as it did to my husband’s brother—an utter betrayal.
It has been a betrayal in more ways than one. Railing against the Disneyfication of Bambi is a recurring theme for scholars of Salten’s work, and Zipes lobs familiar pejoratives at the film: “sugary,” “syrupy,” “sentimental.” His lucid introduction, “Born to Be Killed” makes a persuasive argument for rediscovering “The Original Bambi” (the pointed title of his translation). But I wonder if the most valuable aspect of this rediscovery might be in reassessing how we came to think of children as needing to be protected from knowledge. Why should they not know that the natural world is complex, bloody, beautiful, and dangerous? Why should they not learn that reality is nuanced and complicated; that we all live in a present created by a history not of our making; that to grow in understanding is the work of a lifetime?
The Original Bambi: The Story of a Life in the Forest is unlikely to be banned in 2022, but every day we read of attempts to ban other works that convey difficult truths: The 1619 Project, The Bluest Eye, Fun Home, Maus. Each time, the justifications offered are about protecting children—most recently, in the case of Maus, from reading “rough” language and seeing drawings of naked mice. Rather than expose children to even a hint of painful realities, we defend, we deny. And then, of course, they are betrayed twice: once when they learn what can happen—what has happened—and again when they realize that we shielded them from it. Perhaps a third time, too, when, unaccustomed to facing history, knowing too little about the world’s dangers, they become vulnerable to them: vulnerable to becoming oppressors in a world that still seeks to oppress, or oppressed themselves—either predator or prey.
After the annexation of Austria, Felix Salten was fired by the newspaper for which he had written for more than twenty years. The Gestapo descended on his publisher’s offices and seized all the unsold copies of his works. No longer able to publish in Austria, he struggled to receive payments for work published abroad. In 1939, at nearly seventy years old, Salten managed to emigrate to Zurich, where he died in 1945. His one surviving sister, Rosalie, remained in Vienna, where she lived in increasing poverty and desperation. In June 1942, Rosalie was deported to the concentration camp Theresienstadt. She died there on August 30, 1942, just a few weeks after the release of the movie Bambi. Though Zipes’ aim is to restore the novel’s political allegory for a new generation of readers, to read The Original Bambi is to be reminded that the heavily foreshadowed death of a mother doe is not, after all, the most shocking of losses or betrayals.