The Trials and Tribulations of Translating Karl May into English


The year was 1967 and the tides of puberty rushed through my veins, instilling me with fearlessness and a sense of being superhuman. Nothing was too difficult for me, nothing was impossible – until I, a boy with little life experience, tried to translate Winnetou for my friends, who had never heard of Karl May.

Here I was, a newcomer, a foreigner, struggling to make myself understood in a country half a world away from Germany. Here, on the Australian continent in a little country town I made new friends – but my new friends did not know of the beloved characters I had known for most of my existence. We could not play at being Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, Old Firehand or Old Surehand, for our heroes were not the same.

In Germany there had always been two camps of Wild West lore. There were those who adhered to James Fenimore Cooper’s tales and those that adhered to Karl May’s narratives. But here in Australia, neither Fenimore Cooper nor Karl May was known, much less the characters that Karl May created and the ideologies that he instilled in them.

Thus I took down my Winnetou book, opened it to the first chapter and in longhand began to translate that tale into English. Having done just a few paragraphs, I ran into some severe problems. Here was a sentence that in German was fairly standard. It began with a concept, introduced another, made a reference to a third and finally came to a conclusion. I translated it to the best of my ability and then I re-read the German text and I checked my English translation . . . something was not right – but what?

I tried again, exchanging words for other words from my meager supply; I rearranged the wording and removed commas. Still, the English words, when put into a sentence, did not convey the vivid images that I obtained when reading the German text. What was going on? I tried and tried again to create an English prose that did Karl May justice – but in the end, a quiet, meek little voice within me prompted that I should admit that this task had defeated me. I was just not experienced enough to tackle such a gargantuan task this early in my life – besides, there were more important things for a teenager to do than to sit behind a desk and shape words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. What was I thinking . . . ?

Some thirty years later I found myself in the United States, living in the Dakotas, the land I had read about when I was a boy. I was close to those places Karl May had described in his book ‘The Son of the Bear-hunter’. I was also married to an avid reader, and we soon began discussing Karl May, his narratives and the profound effect the characters in those tales had upon me as a child. During one of our discussions resulting from a news segment about juvenile violence, I expressed my opinion that what the youth of today were missing were good role models, and that reading was not as popular today as it was when I was a child. After all, we too were exposed to violence on television – the assassination of Kennedy and Martin Luther King for example – that did not make us violent in turn. I contended that if children of today did more reading and drew examples from ethical role models, we would be closer to solving the problems of our youth. If only Karl May books were available to the English-speaking children of today I mused, and I started to relay to my wife the moralities of the Karl May characters and the black and white struggles between good and evil described in his books.

My wife, Elaine, unable to read German, became interested in the tales I so vividly described to her, so much so that she expressed a desire to read them – if they were available in English. And indeed some were – we were able to obtain ‘Winnetou I’ and ‘In the Desert’ from our local library via the library exchange program and we both read these renditions. My first impression was not at all favorable; I remarked that what I had before me was not what I had read as a child. I questioned the disappearance of characters, and commented on the flatness of the characters that were retained. Elaine, not having any comparison, did not understand my frustration and prompted me to show her what I meant. But when she finished reading the book ‘In the Desert’ she too was rather frustrated – ‘Where is the rest of the story?’ she exclaimed.

And of course the rest of that story had never been published.

I therefore searched for Karl May texts on the Internet and discovered the KMG site. Here were the original, unadulterated Karl May texts – but no true English comparisons.

The only way to demonstrate the reason for my frustration and to satisfy Elaine’s curiosity as to what happens in the rest of the tale was to translate the German text into English myself. A task similar to the one I had tried but abandoned so many years before.

We chose to translate ‘The Shadow of the Padishah’ because it had never made it past the first book, and because the story terminated so abruptly in the middle of some rather interesting action. But before we could translate the sequel, we had to render a good translation of the first book, which was missing a lot of interesting characters.

Elaine and I discussed the work that would need to be done and we agreed that the best approach would be for me to translate the text and for her to edit it, whilst also providing a critical view of the way an English reader would receive the final work.

Neither one of us was prepared for the struggles, disagreements and frustrations we were to face during the translation and editing process over the next couple of years. But we persevered – we tore apart sentences looking for the essence of what Karl May intended to say, we looked for alternate words that were more descriptive and relayed the intent with greater precision. We argued about style, discussed original intention, questioned our representation, commented on the terse dialog and decided to retain it, questioned if the words we used were in character and of the period – and still, we were not satisfied.

We spent the better part of a year just reviewing and editing the translated text. We got to know a character’s foibles well. So well, in fact, that we were able to identify a character by the words that he spoke – and we knew if these words were in character or not. So intricately did we come to know these characters that we began to question our earlier representation of them, which prompted us to begin the revision process again.

After many, many revisions, we were still finding the occasional deviation from what we agreed would be the final standard. We decided to let someone else read a draft copy in the hope that these anomalies would be highlighted. To our surprise, our test reader’s comments were positive and the errors that still existed in the draft were not even noticed. It appears that for some perfection takes a back seat to a good yarn.

Striving for perfection has a price. That being that our work would never be delivered to our readers if we did not let our book go out into the real world. So we forwarded our manuscript to our publisher.

Alarm! Panic! Hold the presses! ‘Padisha’ is missing an ‘h’ – But is it? After all, the fictional ‘Padisha emperor Saddam IV’ in Dune by Frank Herbert is spelled without the ending ‘h’. - No, No! ‘Padishah’ is the correct spelling, fix it! - And while we are fixing things, let’s check Effendi – is it to be capitalized consistently or not? Of course it should be in capitals – You Germans capitalize everything! – Let’s make a decision and be consistent! – OK, capitals it is. – And Sidhi? – Same thing! – What about . . . . –

And so it went on. We had to let go, we could not keep doing this.

Our book made it into print – 123,878 words in 14,533 lines encapsulated in 6,222 paragraphs – and that was just the part we had sent to the publisher. Four and a half chapters from the original had been held back for reasons that are explained in the foreword of the published book.

Did we miss some mistakes? – Oh, YES! - As Frank Starrost from the KMG pointed out –

‘Walter Ilmer does have only one l in his last name and it is spelled with an e.’ and ‘Oh, and it's Walther, not Water. You really screwed that name up. ;-)’

(Sorry Walther, please accept our apologies for this mistake – We will fix it in the second book and the next revision of the first.)

Do we want to know about other mistakes! You bet! This is, after all, just the first version of our translation. Whilst we are working on the second book – we want to know what we overlooked in the first.

So come on, buy a book and become a critic – let’s make this English translation of Karl May the best that it can be, and lets bring Karl May to the English-speaking world together. Michael M. Michalak & Elaine T. Adair Michalak, March 30 2001