'The Neverending Story' and the Art of Good Translation



The Mantle Image Reading Neverending Story


It’s a strange thing to read a book for a second time. There’s always the chance—perhaps, the fear—that you’ll see it differently, which will then raise questions you may not want to answer.


The book hasn’t changed, which means that in some way, you have. Perhaps the characters are less relatable, leading you to wonder whether years of unsatisfying relationships have left you less sympathetic to the imperfections of once-beloved fictional friends. Perhaps, on the other hand, the pace has become leaden, and you’ll wonder if your once youthful delight in small details has been reduced to grouchiness and impatience. All in all, reading a favorite book for a second time can be risky, which is probably why there’s only one book I’ve ever gone back to; one that, from its high perch on the “already read” shelf, called out to me, telling me it had more to say.


That book was Die unendliche Geschichte or The Neverending Story, and I read it three times before I actually read it. Or at least, that’s how it felt the first time I picked up a copy of Michael Ende’s classic fantasy novel in its original language. When I mention The Neverending Story, most people reminisce about the 1984 film version, which was no doubt a fixture in their childhoods or now, their children’s childhoods. Fewer remember it as an epic adventure novel that ages along with you, just as the magical “book within a book” changes each time its reader, the bullied schoolboy anti-hero Bastian Balthazar Bux, picks it up. Almost no one knows it was originally written in German.


I’d been living in Germany and speaking German for about four years by the time I read the original version. Everyone kept telling me it was high time I started reading more to improve my vocabulary. I couldn’t bring myself to pick up the daily newspapers or intimidating tomes of classic German literature, but a book I’d read before seemed like the perfect cheat sheet. Perhaps knowing the plot already would help me concentrate on the words and sentence structures instead. I didn’t expect to be at all surprised as I turned to the first page. I was wrong.


With each chapter, I saw double: first, the German words on the page, and then, acclaimed translator Ralph Manheim’s nearly impossible task of rendering them into English. I appreciated his work all the more, because I had already read The Neverending Story in English, first as a preteen, then as a teenager, and again as an adult, and had never had a clue that it was first written in German. After all, the story seems to exist outside of a particular place and time, so it doesn’t have much trouble crossing international borders and leaving no trace of its original self behind. British classics like The Chronicles of Narnia and the Harry Potter series may have a universal appeal, but they nevertheless espouse a particular Britishness that is hard to get away from: Narnia wouldn’t be Narnia without the great country house and the wardrobe in the attic; Harry Potter’s Hogwarts places the books squarely in the English boarding school tradition. But the bookshop of Mr. Coreander (or Koreander, if we are to go by the German original) could be just about anywhere; that feeling of a book beckoning could be felt by anyone, on any continent. I’m just as sure I envisioned the book’s first scene taking place in a dusty old bookstore in New York’s West Village as I am that a French reader imagined a “Monsieur Coreandre” setting up shop on Paris’s Left Bank.


The language, on the other hand, is a whole different animal. No matter how universally appealing the idea of The Neverending Story, its words must be reckoned with. To do so, of course, is to transform the book entirely, and a translator’s greatest challenge is to leave his mark upon the text without leaving a trace. I’ve no doubt that many generations of happy children read The Neverending Story for the first time without any sense that an act of translation has occurred in order to deliver the book to their hands. But how do we appreciate the translator’s work, then, when it is so very invisible? The only way, I might argue, is to have become very familiar with the book in translation, and then to be introduced to it anew in its original form. Unfortunately, very few of us ever find ourselves in a situation where we are able to do that.


As an example of extraordinary and yet undetectable translation work, take this particularly bouncy passage in Chapter XVIII: The Acharis (or in German Die Acharai), in which Bastian, taking pity on the worm-like Acharis, who are doomed to weep at their own ugliness for all eternity, uses his wishing powers to turn them into something quite different: clown-faced, mothy creatures called Shlamoofs in English or Schlamuffins in the original German:


 ‘I am your benefactor!’ cried Bastian.
     ‘Did you hear that? He’s our bemmafixer! His name is Nastiban Baltebux! No, it’s Buxian Banninector. Rubbish, it’s Saratit Buxibem! No, it’s Baldrian Hix! Shlux! Babeltran Billy-scooter! Nix! Flax! Trix!’
     Beside themselves with enthusiasm, they shook hands all around, tipped their hats to one another, and raised great clouds of dust by slapping one another on the back or belly.
     ‘We’re so lucky!’ they cried. ‘Three cheers for Buxifactor Zanzibar Bastelben!’[1]


A passage like this, with made up words and nonsense variations on a real name, presents a particular challenge to the translator, but absolutely no sign of its difficulty to the reader. The entire thing hinges on the word “benefactor” (Wohltäter in German), variations on which are introduced with “bemmafixer (Tolwäter in German) and “Banninector” (Wahltöter in German). Of course, all of these words are merely objects of the authors’ imagination, but their nonsense has its own internal logic. A translator approaching this would be quite aware of the need to preserve the playfulness of the language, but in such a way that it would become apparent to all readers—in all languages—that these silly creatures were either unable to hear Bastian correctly or refused to.


Reading this passage in German for the first time was like going back to my high school days of translating Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphosis (not entirely a coincidence, actually, as German’s accusative, dative, and genitive cases often make it feel like a living version of Latin). Once upon a time, I’d even unpacked an Old English poem’s usage of the singular and plural address (not far off from the German Du and Ihr), analyzing how a switch from one to the other indicated something subtle about the speaker’s intentions. Indeed, my entire adult life had been driven by a fascination with translation, an obsession with finding the right word.


Another passage earlier in the book reads like a secret ode to the translation art, and must have been particularly pleasing to the translator. It comes when Atreyu (in German Atréju) finally reaches the so-called Southern Oracle and finds that, although invisible to the eye, she has a voice like the wind, everywhere and nowhere at once:


Never has anyone seen me,
Never do I appear.
You will never see me,
And yet I am here.[2]


The voice, which is the sum total of the Oracle’s existence and calls itself Uyulala, goes on to explain that, so long as she keeps singing, she will live. (“My life will last the time of my song/But that will not be long.”[3]) What better way, then, to describe the translator, who is never seen but always there, and whose “lifetime” only endures for the length of a book—its readers less and less aware of his presence the more skilled he is.


In the end, this is the contradiction inherent in the art of translation, but one translators could barely care less about. The prestige in translating is low, the money even lower, and respect only comes from other translators who know and appreciate the difficulty and beauty of what they do. Yet there is a satisfaction all its own in finding the right word, in becoming the invisible voice of the singing oracle that is the author—never to be seen, yet always there. It is a satisfaction that can only come from delving into other languages beyond your native tongue. And that, of course, is a never-ending story all its own.



1. “Ich bin euer Wohltäter!” rief Bastian.
   “Habt ihr das gehört? Habt ihr das begriffen? Er ist unser Tolwäter! Er heißt Nastiban Baltebux! Nein, er heißt Buxian Wähltoter! Quatsch, er heißt Saratät Buxiwohl! Nein, Baldrian Hix! Schlux! Babeltran Totwähler! Nix! Flax! Trix!
     Die ganze Gesellschaft schien außer sich vor Begeisterung. Sie schüttelten sich gegenseitig die Hände, lüpften die Hüte und schlugen sich auf Schultern und Bäuche, daß große Staubwolken aufstiegen.
     “Was sind wir für Glückspilze!” riefen sie. “Hoch leb unser Buxtäter Sansibar Bastelwohl!”


2. “Noch nie ist geschehen,
     daß jemand mich sah.
     Du kannst mich nicht sehen
     und doch bin ich da.”


3. “Ich lebe, solange ich klinge,
doch nicht lange mehr werd’ ich bestehen.”


Translation, Fiction, Germany, Youth