The real ‘Bambi’: A somber tale of danger and Jewish assimilation

The story of the famous adorable fawn Bambi wasn’t originally for kids. Its author was a European Jew who wanted to assimilate.

 THREE BAMBI Award gold-plated statuettes of a roe deer fawn at the award ceremony in Germany. (photo credit: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)
THREE BAMBI Award gold-plated statuettes of a roe deer fawn at the award ceremony in Germany.
(photo credit: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

The character of Bambi was made famous by Walt Disney when his animated film came out in 1942. Bambi became a classic. Most of you may well remember the story of the cute little fawn with reddish fur and white spots prancing through the forest, making friends with the other animals and learning about the world. Just like other Disney films, Bambi was marketed as a children’s film. Numerous Bambi books for children, with the same Disney characters, were published over the years.

Bambi’s story, however, was not originally intended for children. Disney based his film on an English translation of a novel written in German by Felix Salten, a Jewish journalist living in Vienna. Bambi was published in 1923, and the English version, translated by Whittaker Chambers, an American writer, was published five years later.

The Original Bambi is a new translation of Salten’s novel, translated and introduced by Jack Zipes, a professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota.

Bambi: The original vs the Disney version

An excerpt illustrates some of the differences between the newly translated original Bambi and the more well-known Disney version:

Bambi was curious and asked his mother hundreds of questions, trying to make sense of the world in the forest that was his home.

 Screenshot of Bambi, Thumper and Flower from the January 1942 theatrical trailer for the film 'Bambi.' (credit: BAMBI/WIKIPEDIA) Screenshot of Bambi, Thumper and Flower from the January 1942 theatrical trailer for the film 'Bambi.' (credit: BAMBI/WIKIPEDIA)

“One day Bambi saw a polecat catching a mouse and killing it.

‘What was that?’ Bambi was aroused.

‘Nothing.’

His mother tried to calm him.

‘But,’ Bambi trembled. ‘But... but I just saw it.’

‘Yes certainly,’ his mother said. ‘Don’t be frightened. The polecat killed the mouse.’

Nevertheless, Bambi was dreadfully frightened. An unfamiliar horror clenched his heart.”

At that moment, Bambi realized that the forest was not always a peaceful place to live. Sometimes animals killed and ate other animals, and that was not all. One day his mother took him out of the forest to the meadow to play in the grass. That was the day he learned that his mother was afraid of something she called “danger.”

Before leaving the forest for the meadow, his mother gave him specific instructions. He was to watch her as she went into the meadow and made sure it was safe for him to come out and play. She told him that walking onto the meadow could be dangerous, but he was not to ask why. He was to wait until she was sure it was safe, and only then could he play in the meadow.

Once Bambi was able to run into the meadow and play in the sunshine under the wide blue sky, he found it to be a joyful and delightful place. Yet as the weeks and months went by, he began to learn the true meaning of danger. He learned about “he,” the human hunter who arrived unannounced in the forest with his gun, which Bambi thought was a strange extra arm attached to the hunter’s body.

Why were the versions of Bambi so different?

In his in-depth introduction to The Original Bambi, Zipes writes:

“One of the reasons Salten had become famous was the translation of Bambi into English in 1928 by Whittaker Chambers (who, decades later, was revealed to be a communist spy). Chambers had a limited understanding of Austrian German and spent little time in Austria. 

“Consequently, his translation is filled with all sorts of errors and fails to capture Salten’s unusual Viennese style of writing and anthropomorphism. Moreover, he mistranslates many German idioms, omits phrases, and does not convey Salten’s profound personal and philosophical dilemma. Nevertheless, the translation became enormously popular.”

In other words, Chambers’s translation missed a lot of what Salten was trying to say when he wrote Bambi, and this of course had implications for Walt Disney’s animated film. Besides the fact that the translation was not accurate, Disney and his staff added “cuteness” to the film and transformed Bambi “to fit a different medium, their own sensibilities, and a mass market.”

"Many European Jews at that time aspired to assimilate, which meant imitation and adoption of Austro-Hungarian norms and manners, and abandonment of their own religious ties."

Jack Zipes

Who was Bambi's original author?

SALTEN WAS born in Pest, Hungary, in 1869 to a Jewish mother and father and moved with his family to Vienna as a child. At first, his father was a successful businessman, but the family situation changed and they were plunged into poverty. When Salten and his brothers were teens, they were forced to work to help support the family, but Salten was determined to rise above his family’s poverty.

Zipes writes, “Indeed, many European Jews at that time aspired to assimilate, which meant imitation and adoption of Austro-Hungarian norms and manners, and abandonment of their own religious ties.” Later he will remind us that “adaptation never meant full acceptance.” Salten was a Jew who wanted to assimilate.

Salten was exposed by some relatives to music, theater, and literature and became determined to become a writer. He strove to be accepted by other writers and journalists, many of whom were middle-class assimilated Jews. He got involved with Viennese cultural and social circles and wrote reviews, essays and articles about a range of subjects. In 1890, he began writing animal tales. He loved animals and owned dogs of various breeds over the years. Yet at the same time, Salten was a hunter.

“Clearly, Salten longed to be close to animals, who he regarded as pure, honest and decent creatures, unlike the people of the Viennese society in which he lived and worked. His forays in the forest resembled paradoxical religious rituals in which he would cleanse himself of sin and then enjoy communion by hunting and killing the creatures he loved.

“In writing Bambi, despite his own contradictions, he hoped to reveal that nature was not a paradise, and that only when people truly understood how the animal suffered persecution from hunting in the forest could they create peace among themselves.”

Zipes’s translation of Bambi reflects Salten’s descriptive prose, bringing the animals and their challenges to life for the reader. Accompanying the book are the charming but somber illustrations by artist Alenka Sottler. Reading The Original Bambi made me remember that the Bambi film I watched as a child had an element of fear to it I had not really understood. 

While the Disney film changed and sweetened Salten’s story, some of the fear to which Bambi and his friends were exposed in the forest remained part of the plot. The film, however, reduced the challenges and complexity of life in the forest that Salten’s novel portrays. Salten wrote about a world that is exciting and beautiful and, at the same time, filled with danger and fear. Unfortunately, that is not only the reality of life in the forest but also the reality of the human world on so many levels.

The Original BambiBy Felix SaltenTranslated and introduced by Jack ZipesPrinceton University Press192 pages; $11.39