Winnie the Pooh translator passes away

Harry Rowohlt, the first person to translate Winnie the Pooh into German and a respected translator and publisher – not to mention a lover of Irish whiskey and a soap opera actor – has died aged 70.

Winnie the Pooh translator passes away
Harry Rowohlt with his trademark bristling beard and round glasses. Photo: DPA

Rowohlt’s relationship with Winne the Pooh – “Pu der Bär” in German – began when his mother read the book to him as a child.

Later in life, his name would be printed alongside that of author A.A. Milne on the covers of the German editions of the children’s classic.

“Harry Rowohlt was the first translator who appeared on the cover of a book,” translator Ruth Keen said.

“Because he was so good, so ingenious, he had freedoms that others didn’t.”

Since 1969, Rowohlt had translated a total of around 200 books by the time of his death, earning him a special German Youth Literature Prize for his life’s work in 2005.

Beyond A.A. Milne, he translated literary landmarks like Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” (“Die Asche Meiner Mutter” in German) and Flann O’Brien’s “At Swim-two-Birds” (“Auf Schwimmen-zwei-Vögel”).

But his freedom often made for battles with other linguists, with some arguing that he took too many liberties with the original texts.

One cartoon from artists Hauck & Bauer was printed with the caption “You should read the book in Harry Rowohlt’s translation. A lot is lost in the original.”

Wartime origins

Rowohlt was born in an air-raid shelter in the final weeks of the Second World War, on March 27th 1945.

His mother, actress Maria Pierenkämper, was married to painter Max Rupp, but he was in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp at what Rowohlt always called the “time in question” of his conception.

In fact, he was the son of Ernst Rowohlt, a publisher who went through five bankruptcies during his career, and whose name Harry took at the age of ten.

Harry liked to say that “I would have been the first to revive this tradition” if he had followed in his biological father’s footsteps. He and his brother later sold the publishing house to the Holtzbrinck group.

While he didn’t fulfil his childhood ambitions of becoming a forest ranger and comic-book artist, he was a prolific producer of translations and other artistic projects.

Whiskey Ambassador

For years he wrote a well-loved column in newspaper Die Zeit called “Pooh’s Corner – Opinions from a bear of very little brain”, which editor-in-chief Giovanni di Lorenzo said “brought humour into our culture section”.

Rowohlt’s love of Irish literature and culture extended to a fine appreciation of whiskey, which he was hapy to share with his public – and for which he was dubbed an “Ambassador of Irish Whiskey”.

But a nerve disease diagnosed later in life meant that Harry had to swear off alcohol in his final years.

Shunning the spotlight?

He lived quietly with his wife in the Hamburg district of Eppendorf, where he was often recognized on the street – although he disliked being thought of as a public figure.

For 20 years, though, he played down-and-out character Harry in 193 episodes of the long-running soap “Lindenstraße”, planting his trademark full beard and round glasses firmly in the national consciousness.

“Harry never sought out the spotlight,” said comic and fellow Eppendorfer Karl Dall.

“Harry had his own quirks and blemishes. At home he only had an old Bakelite telephone and stacks and stacks of books.”

Despite his success, Dall said, Rowohlt remained true to himself to the end.

“Saying what you think and having thought about it first,” was his favourite virtue.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.