Ten Bloody Years of Translation: Welcome to the New German “Dream of the Red Chamber” / 红楼梦

When I was in Hamburg this past July, I picked up a rather fascinating newspaper, in Chinese, published there, the Ouzhou Xinbao (“New European Newspaper”).  Apart from two very, very long articles from the Berlin 17 May 2009 Book Fair on the meaning of “democracy” and an advertisement for a very-well-paying job of teaching Chinese in Hamburg for a Confucius Institute, the highlight was the following:

Ten Years of Heart-Blood Translation of “Red Chambers”: German Sinologist and “Dream of Red Chamber” translator Shi Huaxi: Record of Interview [Partial translation of the interview by Adam Cathcart.]

Shi Huaxi at work translating Cao Xueqin in East Berlin
Shi Huaxi at work translating Cao Xueqin in Prenzlauer Allee, East Berlin

Newspaper’s Preface: In 2006, the German version of “Dream of Red Chamber / 红楼梦” was finally published by European University Press.  It can be said that this event impacted German literature, and at the same time, was an occurrence which influenced Chinese literature.  This book’s translator was Dr. Rainer Schwarz, a man to whom we once again pay attention.  While in the eyes of many Germans, Schwarz might be seen as a strange artist, in China, readers see him as a “delivery man” who spent ten years to deliver “Hong Lou Meng/红楼梦.”  From the basis of this interview, our belief is ratified that Schwarz is a serious translator, an incredible [liaobuqi] translator, and a very generous scholar and teacher.

Q.  When did you first encounter the Chinese novel 红楼梦?

A. When I went to middle school, the first time I saw Franz Kuhn’s translation of it, the earliest version.  From 1958 to 1963, I was at Berlin’s Humboldt University [洪堡大学]  East Asian Studies and History period, I got my first impression via Kuhn’s translation along with the original Chinese, and noticed that the two were not completely the same.  In 1966, at Moscow International Bookstore I bought four books of the Chinese version (Renmin Wenxue Chubanshe, 1963).  This was my first encounter with the complete Chinese text.  From spring 1971- autumn 1975, I was a translator for the German Democratic Republic embassy , frequently in Beijing.  [Note: Click here for my own scholarly analysis of the diplomatic circles in Beijing in this time.] At this time I began to earnestly read 红楼梦.  In 1978, a publisher made a suggestion that I translate it and in 1980, I got a contract to do that.  From this point I began the work of translating it, using ten years.  In 1990 I basically finished it.

Q.  In Chinese there are many versions of 红楼梦, which version did you use?  Why does your version have 80 rather than 120 chapters?

A. I used two versions….and because Cao Xueqin had plans to write another 40 chapters but did not actually do so  ….

Q.  Why, if you finished the translation in 1990, did you wait until 2007 to publish it?

A. In spring of 1990, I finished the text and gave it to my publisher.  But as everyone knows [众所周知], historically speaking, 1990 was the year during which East and West Germany were unified.  For this reason my publisher dropped its plans to publish 红楼梦.  After this I talked with a Swiss publishing house [苏黎世天平]  about the project, but our cooperation was unsuccessful.  Then on August 12, 2003, Dr. Martin Woesler wrote me a very beautiful letter about my problems publishing this text.  After this, the two of us cooperated.  In 2006, it was published.

Q.  In Germany, from 1932, the totally popular version of book was the Franz Kuhn translation, and many German readers had welcomed its reissue.  What do you think about this translation? [Note: A number of standard English translations of were also based on Kuhn’s work!]

A.  First of all, I thing that Kuhn’s transltion is not at all bad, that it has areas of great success. [Gangload of chengyu follows, I abdicate and leave the passage below.]

First, it’s not complete.  Kuhn himself said that his translation represented 六分之五 of the Chinese version.

Strictly speaking, it’s not a translation, because in the most important sections of 红楼梦, Kuhn uses his own language.  Thus there’s a huge difference between Kuhn and Cao Xueqin.  Not only this, but Kuhn uses many constructions which are appropriate for popular expressions of German language and literature in the 1920s.

This is why I feel it is necessary to have a new translation.

Chengyu City -- Go to Town
Chengyu City -- Go to Town

Q. How do you feel about reading translations versus reading in the original language?

I believe that literature its best to read the original language.  But note everyone has the ability to do this, so, it’s fine to rely on the aid of translations.  As regards 红楼梦 translated into German for German readers, there’s a lot of pressure to create a solutio.  My idea to get into the original tone and convey it to high level German readers.  Thus the translation is still a translation.  As one Japanese  author/translator said of Chinese Ming dynasty literature to say: Best translations are not merely impressions…

Cao Xueqin took ten years to write 红楼梦, I can take ten years to translate it.

das Buch
das Buch

Relevant Links: In digging around for the above image, I ran across a modified German version of this complete interview which is available here, confirming my suspicions that a). I have left a huge amount out of my translation, and b.) that this whole interview has been Xinhua-approved.

For a short academic paper based partially on Schwarz’s previous work featuring a very wickedly interesting picture of Li Hongzhang emerging from a dark corridor in lockstep with Wilhelm von Bismarck, click here.

Dr. Martin Woesler’s wisdom gleams through the English-language press release for the volume:

Woesler’s personal motivations for the translation and publication were that he was already deeply resentful of the lacking quality of the Kuhn translation during his student time at Bochum. At the same time he was fascinated by the worldwide success of the novel (which has been an uninterrupted bestseller even in Germany despite its somewhat abridged translation) and he has harboured a wish to research the work to find the secrets of its success. Although the novel is seen as an epitome of Chinese culture, Woesler finds a main reason in the culturally independent possibility of identification with the protagonist Bau-yü and respectively one of the female main roles Dai-yü or Bau-tschai: “In every person dwells the transfiguration of memories of childhood and youth. The idyllic narratives of the process of growing up facilitates the reader’s identification with one of the main figures. The Dream of the Red Chamber is a novel of developing generations, which is comparable with Thomas Mann’s ‘Buddenbrooks’. “

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