Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

I never knew.

I loved them all so well. Moon Child, the gem, the dragon, the musty bookshop, the fire dashing from the sphinx's eyes, and the letters, the wordplay, the child of three B's, the old man of three C's, each chapter begun with the elaborately-drawn next letter in the alphabet...

"The Neverending Story" was one of my favorite books as a child. I crawled under my desk on the second reading to be like Bastian, curled up in the gym mats in the school attic. I made lists of character names for every letter in the alphabet. I tried to craft my own world for a neverending story. I cried. So many times.

It was probably the first exposure I had (or consciously remembered having) to meta-literature, reading about reading, being stuck in an endless loop of recording and reciting with the Old Man of Wandering Mountain.

But in all the dozens of times that I read and loved this (by now very well-worn) book, I never knew.


Friends, Romans, countrymen...

Dear readers...

This book is a translation.

Yes. A translation. From German into English, by a man named Ralph Manheim.

This is why translations are important. Because a little girl who reads voraciously will fall in love with one of the greatest stories ever written, and will love the characters and the magical places, and will notice the language--the way the story is told--for the first time. And it will be the beginning of her wish to avoid movies based on books, because she'll realize that she can't bear to see someone else's imagination take the place of her own. And she'll learn how to notice more things, after it takes her at least five readings to see the two snakes from the cover of The Neverending Story on the cover of her own copy of "The Neverending Story."

And through all of that, she'll never notice it was a translation. Never stop to consider that it might be bad, or lesser, because it wasn't originally written in English. Because the mastery of the translator and the mastery of the author combine forces to make a brilliant book. And even though she's shocked, frankly rattled to the core fifteen years later when she discovers that this book has been all along what she now practices, that her eyes as a child must have skipped over the translator's name on the cover (ON THE COVER! of a Penguin book!) in favor of Bastian on the dragon in Fantastica, it only makes her more pleased. Here, finally, is the proof that translations can and do sell. Publishers will understand that, right?