A Little History of Ernst H. Gombrich’s Translation

Published on August 08, 2018

By Kali Faulwetter

A Little History of the World

Written and translated by Ernst H. Gombrich

Originally published in 1936

“And that's how it is with 'Once upon a time'. We can’t see where it ends. Grandfather's grandfather's grandfather's grandfather... it makes your head spin. But say it again, slowly, and in the end, you'll be able to imagine it. Then add one more. That gets us quickly back into the past, and from there into the distant past. But you will never reach the beginning because behind every beginning there’s always another 'Once upon a time'.” 

- Excerpt from A Little History of the World

Written originally as a way to get children interested in history, Ernst H. Gombrich’s best-selling novel, A Little History of the World was published in German in 1936. Gombrich, only 26 at the time he wrote it, tells an accessible tale of mankind’s journey from the Stone Age to the First World War, focusing on the greater impact of human experience rather than paying meticulous attention to detail. Gombrich would not permit anyone to professionally translate his work into English, his second language. He reserved this project for himself, insisting that he was the only one who could do it properly. At the end of his life, he was rewriting his little history into English when he died in 2001, at age 92.

  • A young, ambitious art history doctorate with no prospects for a job, Gombrich attempted and completed a history of the world for young readers. Eine kurze Weltgeschichte für junge Leser gained immediate success in Vienna, now circulating the world in 25 languages. Creating an accessible version of mankind’s successes and failures, Gombrich was hesitant to immediately translate his work into English after its initial German publication. He said A Little History of the World had a primarily Eurocentric worldview and thought it was “too European for the English”.

  • Sadly, Gombrich was unable to complete this English translation himself. WIth collaboration from translator Caroline Mustile and his granddaughter Leonie Gombrich, the English translation was finally published by Yale University Press in 2005.

  • Gombrich was fascinated by child-like intelligence and was convinced that a smart child could grasp all the complexities of adulthood. He was inspired to write A Little History of the World after talking to a young daughter of some friends, who inquired why he was working all the time. He proceeded to explain his work to the young child, using words and concepts that she could understand. Thus, he was inspired to expand this interaction into a whole 40 chapters, writing one a day, miraculously delivering the work is just six weeks.

  • Nearly immediately after its original German release, “A Little History” was banned by the Nazis. Disregarded as “too pacifist”, the novel had yet to reach its full potential in the German market. Already having fled Austria for England, Gombrich then focused on his art history career. 50 years later, in 1985, “A Little History” was reissued with a fresh epilogue from Gombrich, and translated into 13 more languages. Gombrich even released bracketed versions of the work for the French, Italians, and Turks to insert additions about their own history.

Ernst H. Gombrich not only gave children a gift with A Little History of the World, but his whimsical take on humanity allowed anyone who reads his words in any language a chance to see the world from a child’s eyes. Not only did he pour his German heart into the novel, because he was bilingual he was able to put that same amount of love into the English version as his last gift to the world before his passing. Thanks to Gombrich and his collaborators for spreading “A Little History” all around the globe.

A Little History of the World in numbers:

During his six week stint writing A Little History of the World, Gombrich utilized Ms. Mustill two mornings a week. It is said that they sat “in the front room, crammed with books and musical scores and a grand piano”. Mustil had studied Chinese, and was able to help Gombrich with his thoughts on the Chinese segment of “A Little History”.


Number of chapters Gombrich was able to complete in English before his death. His wife commissioned his friend Ms. Mustill to finish his work, which took her 3 more years to complete.


Number of pages in A Little History of the World.


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About This Article

Famous Translators is a MotaWord segment showcasing notable professional translated works and famous linguists from history to the present. We will be researching, compiling and sharing stories that matter to every translator on our blog.

You, too can be published right here on the MotaWord blog site. To help us make this segment more tailored to our community, contribute any comments, ideas for articles, or share your story please contact kali@motaword.com.

Citations: NYTimes, Britannica, FinancialTimes, TheIndependent