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.”
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.
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.