How can I read Bambi: A Life in the Woods in English?

What’s the best translation of Bambi by Felix Salten?

Bambi: Eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Walde, a novel in German by Austrian Jewish author Felix Salten, was serialized in 1922 and published in book form in 1923. The first English translation was published in 1928 with illustrations by Kurt Wiese.

Why is the novel called ‘Bambi’?

The main character’s name is based on the Italian word ‘bambino’, meaning ‘child’, as is the girl’s name ‘Bambi’, most popular in the US in the year 1979.

Bambi: Translation History

There are now three in-print translations of Bambi, and one being published in September this year.

  1. 1928 – Whittaker Chambers (Simon & Schuster)
  2. 2019 – Hannah Correll (Simon & Schuster)
  3. 2022 – Jack Zipes (Princeton University Press)
  4. 2022 – Damion Searls (New York Review Books)

The original text is public domain in the US as of January 1, 2022, which means American publishers can release English translations without buying translation rights. That’s why there are two new translations being released in 2022.

The 1928 English translation will remain copyrighted until 2024.

See below for details on the English Bambi translations.

Other Books by Felix Salten

Salten is the author of numerous works, including a sequel to Bambi titled: Bambi’s Children.

Simon & Schuster’s series “Bambi’s Classic Animal Tales” includes:

  • Bambi
  • Djibi
  • Perri: The Youth of a Squirrel
  • Florian: The Emperor’s Stallion
  • Fifteen Rabbits
  • The City Jungle
  • The Hound of Florence (the basis of the 1959 Disney film The Shaggy Dog!)
  • Bambi’s Children: The Story of a Forest Family
  • A Forest World
  • Renni the Rescuer
1928 · Whittaker Chambers · Bambi: A Life in the Woods

Who was Whittaker Chambers?

Whittaker Chambers was an American writer, editor, and spy.

He also translated Salten’s Fifteen Rabbits and The City Jungle.

About the Chambers translation of Bambi

Includes a foreword by John Galsworthy, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1932:

Extract from the Chambers translation of Bambi

Get the Atheneum Chambers translation of Bambi: A Life in the Woods

Illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. Adapted by Janet Schulman.

Available as a hardcover (ISBN 9781442493452, 192 pages).

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Get the Aladdin Chambers translation of Bambi: A Life in the Woods

Illustrated by Richard Cowdrey.

Available as an ebook (ISBN 9781442486805).

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2019 · Hannah Correll · Bambi: A Life in the Woods

Who is Hannah Correll?

The marketing text says, “Most nineties kids grew up with the adorable Disney movie Bambi, but the basis for the movie was the 1923 book by Felix Salten.” I hypothesize that Correll is one such nineties kid, but it’s certainly not just nineties kids who grew up with Bambi. The movie was re-released six times between 1942 and 1990; that’s a lot of kids in a lot of decades.

About the Correll translation of Bambi

I spotted some typos, and I take issue with some of the wording. For example:

  • Serious books do not spell “all right” as “alright”.
  • There’s an important difference between “lay” and “lie”; hens lay eggs, deer lie down.
  • The game “catch” involves a ball; what Bambi and his mother played was not catch but “chase” or perhaps “tag”.

In short, I’m glad a modern translation exists, but the book could have been copyedited better.

I have a theory that this English translation was mainly produced to serve as the basis for Gina Gold’s illustrated adaptation, but the publisher figured they might as well sell the whole novel too.

Extract from the Correll translation of Bambi

Get the Clydesdale Classics Correll translation of Bambi: A Life in the Woods

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9781949846058, 218 pages).

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Get the Racehorse Correll translation of Bambi: A Life in the Woods

Adapted by Gina Gold and illustrated by Cindy Thornton.

Available as a hardcover (ISBN 9781631586422, 88 pages).

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Get the Racehorse Correll translation of Bambi: A Life in the Woods

Adapted by Gina Gold and illustrated by Cindy Thornton.

Available as an ebook (ISBN 9781631585361).

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2022 · Jack Zipes · The Original Bambi: The Story of a Life in the Forest

Who is Jack Zipes?

Jack Zipes is a Jewish American writer, editor, and translator. He is a professor emeritus with expert knowledge of German literature and children’s literature and has translated and written extensively about Grimms’ fairy tales.

» Website of Jack Zipes

About the Zipes translation of Bambi

The introduction describes the book as an allegory and ties it to the life of the author.

The book includes 11 illustrations by Alenka Sottler, an award-winning painter and illustrator who lives in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Lit Hub: ” ‘A Syrupy Love-Fest.’ On the Blasphemous Disneyfication of Felix Salten’s Bambi” by Jack Zipes
“Salten’s novel is a brilliant and profound story of how minority groups throughout the world have been brutally treated, even when they try to live peacefully in their own environment. Read in the original language and in its sociohistorical context, Bambi is, if anything, dystopic and sobering, for it reveals the cutthroat manner in which powerless people are hunted and persecuted for sport. Salten was able to capture this existential quandary through a compassionate yet objective lens, using an innovative writing technique that few writers have ever been able to achieve.”

The Guardian: “Bambi: cute, lovable, vulnerable … or a dark parable of antisemitic terror?” by Donna Ferguson
“[T]he new translation… attempts to convey in English for the first time the way that certain characters in Salten’s novel have a Viennese ‘flair’ when they talk in German. ‘The animals have wonderful ways of talking, which makes you feel as though you are in a Viennese cafe. And you immediately recognise that they’re not talking how animals talk. These are human beings.’ ”

The Telegraph: “Graphic violence, Zionist parables and no happy ending: the Bambi Disney didn’t want you to see” by Jake Kerridge
This paywalled article looks to be saying something similar to what the Guardian article says: the book is nothing like the movie.

The Times of Israel: “New translation of ‘Bambi’ showcases tale as allegory on early Austrian antisemitism”
The Zipes translation is “looking to showcase the original text as a parable foreshadowing the fate of Jews in the Holocaust… [and] aiming to make clear the political and societal undertones that informed the original version.”

The Jewish Chronicle: “Is Bambi really a foretelling of the Holocaust?” by Gloria Tessler
“You could read many things into Bambi’s story: abandoned children, human danger to wildlife, to conservation and the planet. But the Holocaust?… Whether or not Salten intended his novel to prophesy the decimation of European Jewry, the Nazis certainly thought so. In 1935 they banned the book because they perceived it to be a Jewish allegory of encroaching fascism. ”

Wall Street Journal: “‘The Original Bambi’ Review: Afterlife of a Fawn” by Meghan Cox Gurdon
This paywalled article is contrasting the Disney movie and the original book. Perhaps, since David Chambers wrote to protest, the review accuses the Whittaker Chambers translation of infidelity to the original story (possibly because Zipes does).

WSJ Opinion: “‘Bambi,’ Whittaker Chambers and the Art of Translation” by David Chambers
“Meghan Cox Gurdon’s review of Jack Zipes’s new translation… does an injustice to my grandfather, Whittaker Chambers, and his 1928 translation of the novel…. Chambers’s simple, poetic translation contrasts well with the horrors that came after. His translation in no way transformed ‘Bambi’ into ‘a story for children’: Disney did that.”

The Spectator: “The Dark Story Behind Bambi, the Book Hitler Banned” by Piers Torday
“[I]f you were one of many children traumatised by an unseen hunter shooting Bambi’s mother in the Disney film, consider this your trigger warning: what follows is far bleaker…. Salten’s allegory derives its real power from the experience of anti-Semitic alienation, persecution and genocidal slaughter played out in a grimly ironic woodland paradise.”

New York Times: “A Deer in the Headlights: ‘Bambi’ Reconsidered” by Bill McKibben
After noting that Bambi is “a meditation on powerlessness and survival told with great economy and sophistication”, this author of this book review focuses on the change (for the worse) in the natural world in Europe. Of course he would; he teaches environmental studies.

Publisher’s Weekly: “New Bambi Translation Reveals the Dark Origins of the Disney Story” by Joanne O’Sullivan
“There’s no happily ever after for Bambi in the original story. Instead, he must make his way through the forest alone. Ultimately, Zipes said, Salten chose to focus on the themes of solitude, loneliness, and lack of connection. He believed ‘that animals who don’t want to be killed have no choice but to become loners. As a Jew, he knew what it meant to be pursued and killed. He knew how difficult it was to assimilate and play by the rules of a society that he and his ancestors had not created. Bambi is indeed Salten, and Salten is Bambi.’ ”

Princeton University Press: “Bambi: The Lonely Destiny of Outsiders” by Jack Zipes
“Salten never wrote this book for children, and it is time that we recognize Bambi as a work that anticipated the devastation of European Jews and also draws parallels with the way that minorities are treated in various countries throughout the world.”

Princeton University Press (Podcast): ” ‘Bambi’ isn’t about what you think it’s about” by Jack Zipes
This is an interesting interview with translator Jack Zipes, which spans a number of topics. Zipes originally refused to translate Bambi for the book’s 100th anniversary because he didn’t like Disney’s “pervertedly sweet” story, but afterwards he learned about the original text and read the Chambers translation, which he felt was “not a terrible translation” but was “faulty” because “Whittaker Chambers had no idea of the way Austrian German is much different than high German from Germany.”

Jewish Book Council: “Not Meant for Chil­dren: Felix Salten and the sto­ry of Bambi” by Jack Zipes
“Felix Salten was one of the most out­spo­ken Aus­tri­an writ­ers in the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Although he sought to bring a mes­sage about the impor­tance of civil­i­ty to Euro­pean and Amer­i­can read­ers, his works have been mis­un­der­stood, ignored, and exploit­ed. It is impor­tant to explore why Salten failed, and why he turned to ani­mal sto­ries such as ‘Bam­bi’ to express his con­flict­ed feel­ings as a Jew who want­ed to be accept­ed by elite Aus­tri­an society.”

Slovenia Times: “Alenka Sottler illustrates new English translation of Bambi”
The 11 illustrations took the artist almost three years.

Extract from the Zipes translation of Bambi

Get the Princeton University Press Zipes translation of The Original Bambi: The Story of a Life in the Forest

Includes an introduction by Jack Zipes and 11 black-and-white illustrations by Alenka Sottler.

Available as a hardcover (ISBN 9780691197746, 192 pages).

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Get the Princeton University Press Zipes translation of The Original Bambi: The Story of a Life in the Forest

Includes an introduction by Jack Zipes and 11 black-and-white illustrations by Alenka Sottler.

Available as an ebook (ISBN 9780691232263).

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Get the Princeton University Press Zipes translation of The Original Bambi: The Story of a Life in the Forest

Narrated by Peter Marinker. With a preface read by John Chancer. Unabridged.

Available as an audiobook.

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2022 · Damion Searls · Bambi: A Life in the Woods

Who is Daimon Searls?

Daimon Searls is an American writer and translator. He does translation from German, French, Norwegian, and Dutch. He has translated works by Hesse, Proust, and Rilke, among others.

About the Searls translation of Bambi

“Paul Reitter’s afterword discusses the surprising political readings to which Salten’s fable of the woods was subjected.”

Jewish Review of Books: “Bambi’s Jewish Roots” by Paul Reitter
This article links Bambi to Zionism, but also to a de-romanticized attitude to nature: “Salten wanted to disabuse members of the then-popular ‘back to nature movement’ of idealizations that evidently annoyed him…. Bambi sets the record straight by emphasizing the inevitability of violence and privation in its sylvan setting. Even without the hunters, the woods would be a dangerous, difficult place for most animals.”

Get the New York Review Books Searls translation of Bambi: A Life in the Woods

Includes an afterword by Paul Reitter.

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9781681376318, 208 pages).

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Get the New York Review Books Searls translation of Bambi: A Life in the Woods

Includes an afterword by Paul Reitter.

Available as an ebook (ISBN 9781681376318).

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Conclusion

Bambi the Disney movie

Until someone mentioned it to me in mid-2021, I had no idea Bambi was a book before it was a Disney movie. The 1942 film was re-released to theaters in 1947, 1957, 1966, 1975, 1982, and 1988, so when I watched it in a theater as a kid, it seemed new. I’ve seen it at least twice as an adult. I love the music and I see a lot of parallels with The Lion King, another bildungsroman that depicts the circle of life in general and the death of a parent specifically.

Although it’s impossible not to compare Salten’s original story to Disney’s version of it, I think books and movies are vastly different art forms. The movie wasn’t trying to be the book; it was always its own thing. Although it owes much to the book and its author, the movie is a separate creation, and much loved by generations for what it is. Reportedly, even Salten liked it.

Bambi the SNL skit

A live-action (CGI) Disney remake of the 1942 Disney cartoon may or may not be coming soon. Meanwhile, perhaps you will be amused by the Saturday Night Live skit featuring Dwayne Johnson exacting vengeance on deer hunters.

Bambi the novel

This is a long and detailed piece with lots of background information that upholds the broadest possible interpretation of the novel, and expresses a preference for the original English translation:

The New Yorker: “Bambi is even bleaker than you thought” by Kathryn Shulz
“Salten insisted that he wrote ‘Bambi’ to educate naïve readers about nature as it really is: a place where life is always contingent on death, where starvation, competition, and predation are the norm…. But authors do not necessarily get the last word on the meaning of their work, and plenty of other people believe that ‘Bambi’ is no more about animals than ‘Animal Farm’ is. Instead, they see in it what the Nazis did: a reflection of the anti-Semitism that was on the rise all across Europe when Salten wrote it…. Yet the most striking and consistent message of the book is neither obliquely political nor urgently ecological; it is simply, grimly existential…. In the language in which it was written…. it is often described not as a bildungsroman—a general novel of maturation—but more specifically as an Erziehungsroman: a novel of education and training…. This is ‘The Fountainhead,’ with fawns…. Zipes is knowledgeable about his subject matter, but he is not a lucid thinker or a gifted writer… and the Chambers translation, from which I have quoted here, is much the better one.”

Bambi: Best Translation?

It’s natural for Zipes to find fault with the Chambers translation as he does; what translator would undertake a job if he thought his predecessors had done well enough already? However, I do think that standards for translation have changed in the last century. If you seek modern, faithful translation, or you’re drawn to the political interpretation of the novel, the Zipes translation will appeal to you more than the Chambers translation.

There are a few more months before we’ll start hearing about the Searls translation of Bambi. It’s out in September. Paul Reitter, author of the afterword, no doubt has a different idea of how the novel should be interpreted.