How important are translations in literature

20th December 2019
Literature and translation: the written bridge between cultures

Interview with Ruixiang Han, China. Ruixiang Han received his doctorate on Thomas Bernhard from the University of Salzburg, is professor of modern German literature at the Beijing Foreign Studies University and regularly translates works by German-speaking authors into Chinese. He is currently working on the translation of the novel “Origin” by Saša Stanišić. We put our questions to the literary expert at the European Translators' College in Straelen, where he was a translator in residence from September to November 2019.

Mr. Han, where does your passion for “German” literature come from?
In the 1990s, literary translation in China was almost like a fever. Many German classics have been translated again and again, often unsatisfactorily. As a professor of modern German literature, I felt obliged to get involved in translations. So I called a group of German scholars together and they translated Franz Kafka's narrative work in three volumes (2003), which was very well received by Chinese readers. Since then, I've been working as a translator, often in a group. Of course, teaching and researching German-language literature are still my main work at the university.
In addition to Thomas Bernhard, you have given your Chinese voice to numerous other outstanding authors, in addition to Franz Kafka, among others, Ingeborg Bachmann and Friedrich Dürrenmatt. How is German-language literature perceived in your home country? Which authors, which genres are particularly valued and which topics, in your experience, find particular attention?
Basically, there is more and more interest in German-language literature in China, both classic and modern. In the past, French, English and Russian literature were the focus of attention for Chinese readers. German-language literature was more or less neglected. Today the situation is different. More and more German-speaking authors appear on the Chinese book market and are very popular with Chinese readers, not only classics such as Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Kafka, Hesse, Thomas Mann, Musil, Zweig, etc., but also modern ones such as Grass, Walser, Jelinek, Herta Müller, Handke, Bernhard, Dürrenmatt, Krechel and others. If you look at the translations of German-language literature in China today as a whole, you can say that narrative literature was and is preferred. And the thematic interest here offers a very broad spectrum.
You did your doctorate in Salzburg, Austria, and keep returning to Austria and Germany to take part in workshops and seminars on literary topics as a literary expert and translator, among other things. How important are international exchanges and connections to Europe for you?
Of course, international exchange is always important and necessary for literary scholars and literary translators alike. In my opinion, literature, like its translation, is an indispensable written bridge between different cultures and thus contributes to their mutual understanding. For years I have participated in various translation workshops and seminars and learned a lot from them, not only from literature, but also from cultures in general. It was a very enlightening exchange between cultures and people beyond literature translation. If you really want to understand something, many prejudices can be broken down. That is why I came back to the European College of Translators in Straelen in order to be able to continue this interesting exchange with translators from all over the world with my translation of the novel “Origin”.
Speaking of exchanges. You have been participating in the Goethe-Institut Korea's Social Translating Project since April 2019, where you translate Saša Stanišić's novel “Ursprung”. How did that happen?
I translated Saša Stanišić's novel “Before the Festival” and the translation was published in July 2019. When I read this novel, I was particularly fascinated by its special narrative and its language. I perceived his narrative style as a new driving force for contemporary German literature. This is how I became aware of his books. When I found out about his new publication in the spring, I immediately got hold of a copy and read it. I was very impressed by the new novel and immediately decided to translate it. At that moment the same Chinese publisher was planning to buy the license for “Origin”, and the Goethe-Institut Korea selected the novel for the shortlist of the second Social Translating project, which the Goethe-Institut Beijing drew my attention to. That was a nice coincidence of several events.
You have already translated the novel “Before the Festival” by Stanišić, which takes the reader to the small fictional village of Fürstenfeld in the Uckermark. You have dealt intensively with the author Stanišić and his work. What do you think is special about his literary work? What do you find fascinating about Stanišić's works?
I like reading and translating his books because I notice something special about his literary work. First and foremost, I admire the fact that, as a German writer with a migration background, he has such a beautiful narrative language. For me it's a miracle. Of course, I also really appreciate his fragmentary narrative style, which brings episodes from different time levels to an artistic whole, and the changing narrative perspective, the past and present, fictional and documentary in a long period of time confidently mixed with one another in a flowing narrative stream and their characters in a small village has masterfully designed. Last but not least, his storytelling is loaded with wit and humor.
What questions did you want to ask yourself while working on the translations “Before the Festival” and “Origin”? Are there any parallels? How do you solve translation problems? Please give a few examples.
What both novels have in common is that the narrator tells the story fragmentarily, succinctly and succinctly as well as with many ellipses. Different time levels are interwoven and fictional and documentary are mixed together. This is already causing many difficulties for translators. Unfortunately, I can't say anything specific about the novel “Before the Festival” because I don't have the original and the translation with me now. I have already presented all of my translation problems for the novel "Origin" on our platform. Fortunately, I met a German professor here with whom I discussed my problems. There are still a few questions unanswered, to which I have not received any answers from our platform. So I turned to Saša Stanišić directly with these questions, for example on page 223: “Josip Karlo Benedikt von Ajhendorf” and “Eichendorf” - how do you treat these two names when translating? Everything is resolved very well in the end. My experience is that you first have to read the novel as a total work of art very carefully in order to be able to solve many questions in the context yourself. Then you have to talk to experts about problems as well as on our platform. Finally, you can ask the author for help. It would be very ideal if all translators could talk to the author about problems right from the beginning to the end of the book being translated. I experienced that once with Christoph Ransmayr, wonderful.
To what extent does it make a difference to you when translating the current novel "Origin" and exchanging ideas with the author and other translators on the online platform?
I've done it this way for a long time: I always try first to solve my questions in context with the text myself. Only then do I discuss with colleagues or experts. If everything cannot be resolved in the end, then I always contact the authors directly, e.g. I am in constant direct contact with Peter Handke, Volker Braun, Ursula Krechel, Michael Kumpfmüller or Marcel Beyer. The exchange is necessary and helpful for literary translators at any time. Our platform is of course an excellent opportunity for this exchange.
Saša Stanišić recently won the German Book Prize. What was your spontaneous reaction to that?
Of course, I am very happy that he won this important award for the novel “Origin”. It's a wonderful book that deserves such an award.
Will the award show the book "Origin" more attention in China and affect the demand for this and his other works?
Yes, it can be, but I always make sure that you can read such books in China, not because the author has received any awards, but because he has written books that are really worth reading. The price often only triggers a fever, which can also have a negative effect.
What other factors play a decisive role in the demand for German-language literature in China?
It's more a question of the market. Unfortunately, I never did an investigation, so I can't comment on it. There are certainly various contributing factors to this.
Which book would you like to translate one day? And why?
As editor and co-translator, I have already brought a nine-volume Handke translation (2016), which includes 29 works by Handke, onto the Chinese market. I will continue to pursue this project and have already made a wide selection again. Now I am waiting for the final decision of the Chinese and German publishers. I'm sure I'll translate a book by Handke, but which one - I haven't made up my mind yet.