According to a piece in German trade mag Buchreport, 22-year-old Lucas Zwirner knew and loved the book because his German dad used to read it to him as a kid. So he sat down over the summer of 2009 and translated it. I'm not sure whether that means he was 18 when he did it. But either way it's delightful. Zwirner talks about what happened next in a very interesting interview on the McSweeney's website:
Marcel was amazing. I contacted him the summer I finished the translation and he agreed to read it. He liked it and said he would do drawings for it. Once he agreed, I got really excited about the project because it seemed like it might actually happen. Then (surprise, surprise) it took me almost three years to find a publisher. After a number of rejections, Marcel and I got McSweeney’s McMullens involved and despite the long delay, Marcel still agreed to do the drawings. Ende originally did drawings for the book, images that were built into the text. So there were a few drawings—the final drawing of the turtle and the drawing of the children with the posters—that Marcel had to put in because of how Ende wrote the book. But other than that, he had complete freedom. He drew whatever he found interesting or moving. And he did it in his own style, which is exactly what I was hoping for. He has given us a part of his own imaginative process in those images—what he saw when he read the book—and the results are captivating.It sounds like it was a labour of love all round. My daughter loved the book too, read to her by her own German dad from a strange bootleg paperback from his own childhood. I know what it's about because they made a cartoon series of it that drove me round the bend several years ago. Momo, as far as I recall, turns up out of nowhere with a clever tortoise and makes the world a better place, except that these men in grey are out to make everything more efficient by stealing time. You can see how that might make for an annoying TV series, but I assume the book is less saccharine.
The German original has been re-released in a new hardcover and a retro edition – aimed squarely at parents who once loved it themselves. Michael Ende died in 1995 and is revered pretty much universally in Germany. He came from an artistic family and volunteered as a courier for the resistance in Munich as a teenager at the end of the war. Then he wrote political satire for cabarets and studied Brecht, which plunged him into a creative crisis. Someone asked him to write a picture book for children, which seemed like a good way to escape Brecht's doctrine, and the result turned into the two books Jim Knopf und Lukas der Lokomotivführer and Jim Knopf und die Wilde 13, published in 1960 and 1962. From then on he was a star, wrote plays and moved to Italy and then in 1979 published Die unendliche Geschichte – the film adaptation of which, The NeverEnding Story, was a defining moment in many an eighties childhood. I saw it twice, so it helps me to remember when my parents separated.
Jim Knopf has not aged well, in my opinion. Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver was last published in Anthea Bell's translation in 1990, as far as I can find out, and is now fetching about $300 for used editions. During the recent bust-up over racism and changing language in children's fiction in Germany, the books were held up as a shining example of how it's perfectly OK to use the N-word. Ende was indeed an anti-racist and the Jim Knopf stories are parables about how wrong Nazi racial ideology was, as Julia Voss wrote in an excellent FAZ article. Nevertheless, Ende was writing in the late 1950s, in a Germany that was very different to the way it is now, and the very fact that Jim is black and everyone else he meets is not must make the reading experience strange for today's children. Yes, Ende meant well, but he wrote about his abandoned black boy in the language of the 1950s, with all its attendant horrors. Or perhaps it was the dreadful cartoon series that put me off Jim Knopf too.
Whatever the case, I think it's very sweet that Ende's latest translator may well have been named after one of his characters, good old earthy Lukas the train driver.