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De l'un au multiple

Viviane Alleton
Michael Lackner

I. Le jeu européen des langues

The role of intermediate languages in translations from chinese into German

Wolfgang Bauer †

Texte intégral

Résumé. Le rôle des langues intermédiaires dans les traductions du chinois en allemand

1Les retraductions à partir d’une langue tierce ont rarement été étudiées dans les ouvrages théoriques. Les deux qualités qu’on demande au traducteur, fidélité et élégance, sont alors dissociées. On peut étendre cette notion de retraduction aux reformulations dans une même langue.

2Les premières adaptations de textes littéraires chinois en allemand, de la deuxième moitié du xviiie siècle, basées sur des traductions françaises ou anglaises, étaient très loin de l’original. Paradoxalement, c’est en composant des poèmes rimés à partir de traductions en prose et en effaçant tout marque de sinicité que Goethe, par exemple, s’est approché de façon remarquable du naturel de la poésie chinoise. Il existe depuis la fin du xixe siècle des traductions directes du chinois en allemand, suscitées en particulier par la fascination pour la pensée chinoise et le goût des fictions exotiques. Néanmoins, il y a encore eu des traductions secondaires de l’anglais et du français ainsi que des paraphrases de traductions précédentes en allemand par des auteurs célèbres par ailleurs. C’est ainsi que Martin Buber réussit à exprimer sa propre pensée philosophique à travers des adaptations du Zhuangzi et du Jingu qiguan. Quantité de traductions du Daode jing d’origine douteuse connurent un grand succès. Des centaines d’adaptations de poèmes chinois furent publiées. Il arriva que, pour un même texte d’origine, des intermédiaires différents aboutissent à la production de traductions sans aucun rapport entre elles.

3Après 1950, les traductions directes se multiplièrent, en particulier de textes modernes et contemporains. Néanmoins, on pensait que le caractère officiel des Éditions en langues étrangères de Pékin conférait les meilleures garanties aux très nombreuses traductions publiées par cet organisme. On a retraduit en Allemagne à partir de ces ouvrages, sans toujours le mentionner. Maintenant ces pratiques tendent à disparaître. Il reste que tout traducteur, compétent soit-il, confronte son travail aux traductions antérieures. Le rôle des langues intermédiaires a considérablement diminué, en raison surtout de la position de l’anglais. Étant donné que les grands textes n’ont jamais une seule signification close sur elle-même, les glissements occasionnés par le jeu des langues intermédiaires contribuent au déploiement du pouvoir créatif de ces textes.


5The subject of this paper is the role of “intermediate languages”, as I call them, in translations or, more precisely, in re-translations from Chinese into Western languages, with special reference to German translations. One may perhaps argue that a topic of this kind is outdated as working conditions for translations from Chinese have tremendously improved in the last two or three decades. Indeed, competent translators from the Chinese not only have multiplied, but they can also re-examine the accuracy of their translations with Chinese informants and sometimes even with the authors of the original text. Nevertheless, I feel that the problems inherent in multiple translations from Chinese have disappeared only from the surface, and in the first place because most translators today would hesitate to admit that they have benefited from earlier translations. Yet, one can hardly deny that connoisseurs of the Chinese language are seldom good and creative writers. The image of any foreign literature will always suffer in the target language if it is poorly translated, even if the translation is quite faithful to the original.

6In spite of the multi-layered significance which translations from intermediate languages had – and for many translations from non-Western, and not only Chinese sources, still have – their role has rarely been treated in works on translation theories. The reason seems to be two-fold: First of all, the majority of these works are written in English and start, therefore, from this language, at least with regard to the practical examples cited here. This also applies to most publications on the problems of translation from the Chinese, for example the excellent recent book by Eugene Chen Eoyang, The Transparent Eye (1993). English has become a sort of “Internationalese” to such a degree that translations into other intermediate languages are indeed no longer necessary: English is the most important intermediate language, then. In the case of American English, we have the additional factor that many of the Chinese intellectuals who came to the USA after World War Two came to feel at home in both cultures as time went by and consequently became ideal mutual interpreters. Secondly, the lack of interest in intermediate languages in research on translation theories stems from the emphasis placed upon issues arising in the context of inter-European translations, where intermediate languages are rarely of great importance. But the case of translations from Chinese into European languages other than English is quite different, and is exacerbated by the fact that, in contrast to the situation in the USA, not many Chinese intellectuals ever embarked on translating Chinese texts into other European languages. Thus it may be worthwhile taking a closer look at the appearance and function of these intermediate languages against the background of Chinese-European literary translations. I have chosen the case of Chinese-German translations as a characteristic, but by no means unique, example.

7The very existence or necessity of “intermediate languages” is, of course, always connected with a great linguistic, mental and cultural distance between two countries which usually goes with great geographical (and in some special cases with great temporal) distance. This phenomenon was also familiar to traditional China, where we have occasional reports about embassies from far-away barbarian countries whose members could be understood only with the help of “double interpreters”. In written re-translations, the usual problems of any translation are intensified, in particular the confrontation between literal and literary translation, which even under normal conditions not infrequently develops into a real dilemma. In Chinese translation theories, we encounter the same problem of the juxtaposition of “faithfulness” (xin) to the source language and that of “elegance” (ya) in the target language, which both have to “reach to each other” (da). This latter, actually decisive term da, which also has the meaning of “to succeed”, “to apprehend”, “to pass through”, “to have access to”, is rather vague. And yet it is still clear enough to identify it as somehow related to the usual expressions for “translating”, in European languages (“to translate”, “über-setzen”) which, in spite of all their differences, imply the meaning “to cross over”, “to ferry over”, a meaning which is, interestingly, behind the word “metaphor”, from the Greek word metapherein. Indeed, translating is transmitting and transforming at the same time, it is a specific way of “understanding”, and for this reason an endeavour which, in its last consequence, belongs to the field of hermeneutics.

8Now, the fascinating aspect of translations by means of intermediate languages lies in the fact that the two mentioned obligations of good translation – faithfulness to the source language and elegance in using the target language – are here distributed between two different groups of persons, each group mastering only one of the languages which are to be bridged by the translation, whilst having in common the Knowledge of a third language which is neither the source language nor the target language. The necessary competence in the former is more on the plane of linguistic ability, that of the latter on the plane of stylistic capacity. Under certain conditions, this curious dichotomy may work even without the external presence of an intermediate language, namely in those cases when the source or the target language actually implies two or more different languages. A good example on the Chinese side would be the literary production of the famous scholar and writer, Lin Shu (1852-1924), who was ignorant of Western languages and nevertheless “translated” numerous Western works of fiction into beautiful Chinese literary language with the help of Chinese interpreters.

9This demonstrates that Roman Jakobson’s classification of translation theory into three fields (1959) is still useful. He distinguished between “(1) intralingual translation, a rewording of signs in one language with signs from the same language; (2) interlingual translation, or the interpretation of signs in one language with signs from another language ([i.e.]translation proper’); and (3) intersemiotic translation, or the transfer (‘transmutation’) of the signs in one language to non-verbal sign Systems ([e.g.] from language into art or music).” Quite valuable in our context is the notion of “interlingual translation”, which includes all sorts of paraphrases of a given text in the same language as well as real translations from an outdated version of one language into its modem form. This would also apply, for instance, to translations from classical literary Chinese into modem colloquial, which have become popular in China in the last two or three decades. Thus the “intermediate language” is not necessarily a real third language, it can also be a special configuration of the source or target language. In a certain respect, even mere second or third translations into one and the same language have the benefit of an “intermediate language”, namely the specific language of the first translator.

10The earliest German adaptations of Chinese literary productions go back to the second half of the 18th century. They were almost exclusively based on French and English translations, and consequently also appeared considerably later. Although French and English thus functioned as intermediate languages, the German adaptations were so far from the originals, even in comparison to their French and English versions, that they can hardly be considered "translations". Among them were free adaptations of the most popular Chinese drama, Zhaoshi guer, of the 13th century, which had become known through a free French rendering by P. J. de Prémare under the title L’Orphelin de Tchao, and the novel, Haoqiu zhuan, of the 16th or 17th century, which was translated into English in 1761 by Thomas Percy and again in 1829 by John Francis David, under the title The Fortunate Union. Goethe knew the latter quite well; in 1797 he mentioned it in his letters to Schiller, who had formerly planned a translation of his own, and Goethe himself was motivated by it to write his short novel Der Mann von fünfzig Jahren (The Man of Fifty: 1818) (Goethe 1994: 16-224).

11It may be worth noting that these two early examples of Chinese literature both belonged to vernacular literature which was not well respected in China. In contrast, poetry, which is perhaps the most developed segment of premodern Chinese, was discovered comparatively late. The decisive impetus sprang from the English translation of Chinese poems by Peter Perring Thoms, an Englishman residing in Macao and Canton, which was published under the title Chinese Court-ship, in verse in 1824. Four of the poems in this collection, which was dedicated to “a hundred beautiful women”, were rendered into German by Goethe, in a very free manner, in his collection Chinesisches (Things Chinese) (Goethe 1903: 272-275). While Thoms, in his translation from the Chinese, had restricted himself to prose style, Goethe cast the text into verse. The first poem in honour of a certain lady “See-yaou-hing”, to give only one example, reads, in Thoms’ translation:

When dancing you appear unable to sustain your garments studded with gems,
Your countenance resembles the flower of new-blown peach.
We are now certain that the emperor Woo of the Han dynasty
Erected a screen lest the wind should waft away the fair Fe-lin.

12Goethe’s rendering of these verses (which he also supplemented with two further stanzas which were only placed in a commentary by Thoms and therefore omitted here) was as follows:

Du tanztest leicht bei Pfirsichflor
Am luftigen Frühlingsort:
Der Wind, stellt man den Schirm nicht vor,
Bläst euch zusammen fort.

13Comparing Thoms’ translation, which is in every respect prosaic, with Goethe’s adaptation, we can see that Goethe provided the whole poem with a more personal atmosphere. Moreover, he left out all the names associated with the Chinese environment. Obviously he intended to break away from the exotic atmosphere, which otherwise was the most attractive element of all dealings with China in that European age of chinoiserie, and to address the reader on a more personal level. It was perhaps just this attitude which enabled him to come rather close to the gist of classical Chinese poetry in his lyrical collection Chinesisch-deutsche Jahres-und Tageszeiten (Chinese-German Times of Day and Seasons) (1827), which intentionally contained no (not even secondary) paraphrases of the Chinese, but merely nature poetry conceived in a Chinese sentiment; indeed (except the first sentence of the first poem) none of these poems alludes in any way to China. And yet, the most famous among them, which begins with the verse: “Dämmerung senkte sich von oben, / schon ist alle Nähe fern”, could be felt by Guo Moruo as being so “Chinese” that he added to his Chinese translation the commentary that “this poem was originally a translation of a poem by Li Bo, which, however, could not be identified” (Guo Moruo 1927).

14Goethe’s earlier adaptations of real Chinese poems were based, as we have seen, on translations from the original into English, a language, which, in its structure, is comparatively close to the Chinese and therefore fortunately left little room for misunderstandings. The contrary was true for adaptations, which were confined to translations into Latin as intermediate language. A good example is the paraphrase of the Shijing (Book of Songs) by the German poet Friedrich Ruckert, based on P. Alexandre de Lacharme’s Latin translation published in 1830 (Ruckert 1882). Ruckert’s work, which appeared three years later under the title Shi-King. Chinesisches Liederbuch, dem Deutschen angeeignet, became quite famous, as it gave Lacharme’s rather dry translation new life. The first stanza of the Ode No. 16, about a happy couple, appears in Lacharme’s version as: “Sol oriens, venusta scilicet puella domi meae degit, domi meae degit, et vestigiis meis insistens venit.” In Ruckert’s adaptation it reads:

Die aufgegangene Sonne,
Das heiβt ein schônes Weib in klarer Wonne,
Verweilt in meines Hauses Mitten
Und geht mir leise nach auf allen Schritten.

15Ruckert neglects the quite typical repetition, in the middle of the stanza (line 3 and 4), and he also turns the “girl” (puella), who is, according to the traditional understanding of the song (though to the embarrassment of many Confucian puritans), a young female visitor to the male speaker’s house, into the speaker’s “wife” (Weib). But in a way, Ruckert came perhaps closer to the psychological atmosphere of the original than Lacharme. He owed this certainly not the least to the fact that he chose for his adaptation (as already Goethe before him) a lyrical style with rhymes which was more congenial to the Chinese original. Given the principal difficulty, if not impossibility, of translating poetry, especially if it is rhymed – a topic which has been discussed by translation theorists over and over again – it is quite interesting to see that the original translators (Thoms on the one hand, Lacharme on the other) eschewed rhymes from the very beginning because they saw their main obligation in “faithfulness” to the Chinese text, whereas the authors of the respective adaptations insisted on “elegance”, as they felt more responsible to their native readership. Thus, the dichotomy generally characteristic of double re-translations became even more conspicuous with translations from Chinese poetry.

16These early specimens of paraphrases of Chinese texts in German literature have been mentioned because they clearly demonstrate the characteristics and motives of this literary genre as a whole. Obviously their authors did not intend, in the first place, to transmit the Chinese originals as they were, but wanted to transform them so that they would be acceptable to their audience. In this respect, they should doubtlessly be called “traitors” rather than “translators”, according to the famous Italian pun, “traduttore traditore”. On the other hand, we must acknowledge that they also showed a great deal of modesty, perhaps rare in our time, in that they were at all willing to reverently imitate, however freely, the thoughts and images of poets and writers who lived or had lived far away in space and time, and whose native language they had never learned. In view of the fact that every translation provides two antithetical kinds of understanding, an understanding which “replaces the original” and another “which shows that the original is irreplaceable”, they were honest in that they chose only that part of translation which is always sui generis and not the other, which is (or should be) contingent on the original.

17Since the end of the 19th century, direct translations from the Chinese have come to the fore in Germany, too. This development is related to a rising political interest in China and a correspondingly more widespread knowledge of the Chinese language. After World War One, moreover, the urgent need for an intellectual re-orientation led to a new interest in Chinese philosophy, which was satisfied by the most successful translations of Chinese classics and philosophers, published by Richard Wilhelm. These competent translations, which in a way paralleled the much earlier translations into French and English by S. Couvreur and James Legge, superseded to a certain extent translations from intermediate languages all the more successfully as at least Wilhelm mastered German with great elegance, thus attracting a large, devoted audience. About half a generation later, many works of Chinese fiction were made available to German readers by numerous, though sometimes rather free and abridged, direct translations by Franz Kuhn. In both cases, however, the selection of the works to be translated from the Chinese into German was at least partially influenced by earlier translations into other European languages.

18In spite of these new enterprises, secondary translations from English or French translations as well as paraphrases from existing German translations remained popular in Germany throughout the first half of the 20th century. This was especially true when they came from authors who – like their predecessors in the late 18th and 19th centuries – were already famous for their work. Among the prolific writers of this kind, the name of Martin Buber may be mentioned, who selectively published remarkable adaptations of the collection Liaozhai zhiyi (Chinesische Geister-und Liebesgeschichten, Zurich, 1948) and of the philosopher Zhuangzi. Both works were largely based on previous translations into English, and they became well known because they made beautifully transparent Buber’s own philosophical thinking.

19It is perhaps characteristic of the sentiment of that period that Buber’s translations were published almost exactly at the time when Ezra Pound published his book, Cathay (1915), with English paraphrases of the Chinese poems based on the word-for-word translations of the Japanologist, E.F. Fenollosa. The fascination of Pound’s paraphrases, which are, of course, beyond the scope of this paper as they were adaptations in English, can partially be traced back to his interpretation of the graphie structure of Chinese characters, although they sometimes provided the text with a sort of mysticism which it certainly did not have in the original. Pound’s Cathay is mentioned here in passing in order to show that a specific mysticism, which was rooted in a typical laymen’s over-interpretation of Chinese texts, was generally widespread in the first three or four decades of our century. Before this time, scarcely anybody had had the chance (or the courage) to hazard an interpretation of a Chinese text based exclusively on a curious combination of existing translations and a superficial knowledge of the Chinese language and script, but this was exactly what became fashionable, at least in certain circles in Germany, but probably, as Ezra Pound proves, in other parts of Europe as well. One of the prerequisites for these activities was probably the seeming simplicity of grammar in classical Chinese, which enabled anybody to take a mere word-for-word translation as a starting point for audacious speculations.

20The most conspicuous result of this attitude, in which intermediate translations into various languages were involved, was the host of translations of Laozi’s Daode jing. As far as German translations are concerned, there appeared, aside from serious efforts such as Wilhelm’s, quite a few of most dubious origin which nevertheless (or precisely for this reason) were widely read. One of them, published by an author named Ular, who introduced his translations by the statement that it had come about by “reflecting on the original characters” (“den Urzeichen nachgedacht”), claimed, whatever critics might say, that he had a good knowledge of Chinese (Ular, n.d.). Others admitted frankly that they relied on one or several earlier translations as, for example, a certain Dallago (Dallago 1921), who based his translation on Wilhelm, Ular and an (otherwise unknown) theosopher by the name of Franz Hartmann – in other words on renderings, of which two most probably were themselves secondary. The great appeal of the Daode jing, which is, of course, basically a mystical text, but which became through these “translations” even more mystical, is by no means accidental, for it met exactly the expectations of learned Western readers, who hoped to gain, through translations from the exotic Chinese philosophy, revelations or literary delights that they could not expect from their own culture. If “defamiliarization”, namely a certain distance from normal life, is one of the main incentives of literature as a whole, this is certainly even more true with translations from foreign and particularly from “exotic” languages where this “defamiliarization” becomes “alienation”. So it is small wonder that a text like the Daode jing, in which the mystic message, if only on account of its multiple translations through several intermediate languages, was sometimes blurred to the limits of any understanding, did not diminish, but rather enhanced its common attraction.

21One of the German adaptations of the Daode jing was written by Klabund (i.e. Alfred Henschke), a poet who otherwise made himself a name with paraphrases of Chinese poetry in the 1920s (Klabund, 1930). Indeed, the enthusiasm for Chinese poetry paralleled that for the Daode jing in that time, and it was represented also to a great extent by the same figures. Most popular were the poems of Li Bo, Bo Juyi and, to a lesser degree, of Du Fu, which had been first introduced by two French anthologies, that of M.J.L. D’Hervey-Saint-Denys (1862) and that of Judith Gauthier (1867), but later also by German translations from the originals, like those of the Austrian scholar August Pfizmaier, and the German Hans Heilmann. Based on these first-hand translations, literally hundreds of adaptations of Chinese poems were published between 1900 and 1930. Their versions differ from each other to such a degree that it is sometimes almost impossible to identify them as stemming from the same original; obviously the translators were sometimes working from different intermediate translations.

22In reading we may ask ourselves why these poets took such pains to paraphrase Chinese texts. The motive seems to be twofold: on the one hand, there was perhaps the wish to create a sort of artificial ideal world where the ordinary world could be kept at a distance. On the other hand, we may assume the intention to transpose one’s personal imagination into remote regions in order to experience a sort of intellectual ubiquity. The most important observation in our context is, however, that these poets were able to experience this double expansion of their minds only because they did not know the Chinese originals. For, had they known them, it would probably have curtailed their freely rambling phantasy.

23After World War Two, little was left of this romantic attitude so typical of the first third of our century. However, translations from intermediate languages remained important for the German adaptation of Chinese literature even though the focus of interest shifted gradually to modem and contemporary titles. A new dimension was opened by numerous translations into various foreign languages, though mainly into English, by the Foreign Language Press in Peking, after 1950. As these were more or less official publications, they suggested the idea of flawless translations on which one could base re-translations into other languages with blind confidence. This was, to give only two examples, the case with a German collection of essays by Lu Xun, which was published in 1973 and, admittedly, based primarily on an English translation by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang done in 1956-1960; or, much later, with a German anthology of seven Chinese women writers, published in Peking in 1985, which was a re-translation of an English version that had come out three years earlier. Not always (and this is important to note) would (and will) the translators admit that they proceeded (or proceed) from a translation into an intermediate language. Thus the anthology mentioned above was published in Germany as a second German version (reduced by only one story) one year after the one printed in China, with the remark “edited and translated into German”, which left open the question of from which language the translation had been done. Generally speaking, one may assume that today every informed translator will verify his translation by means of earlier translations into other foreign languages familiar to him, even if he has a good command of the Chinese language.

24Although intermediate languages thus still play a certain role in European, and particularly in German, translations from Chinese, the whole process of Chinese-Western translation has changed a great deal since the mid-1960s. There is, for one thing, the shrinking distance between China and the West in general, which allows easier cooperation between Chinese and Western scholars and writers. But even more important is the development of the English language towards a universal language, such that it is gradually becoming the one and only “intermediate language” in the world. This holds true also, and in particular, with regard to translations from the Chinese. Whereas up to the 1960s, European, as well as German, translations from the Chinese were still re-translated into English – e.g. Wilhelm’s rendering of the Yijing (1924), Kuhn’s translation of the Jinpingmei (1930) or anthologies of Chinese novellas – the transatlantic current has by now increasingly become a one-way street from West to East. A significant phenomenon in this connection is the appearance of Chinese-American translators from Chinese into English, for example great figures like J.Y. Liu, D.C. Lau or Irving Lo, who took over in many respects the position that previously had been occupied by scholars like James Legge or Arthur Waley. At the same time, not only did the accuracy of translations greatly improve (which perhaps holds for non-English European translations as well), but they also found a new audience which included learners as well as connoisseurs of the Chinese language or even native speakers of Chinese. Eugene Chen Eoyang, whose recent book has already been mentioned, goes so far as to distinguish among contemporary American translations from Chinese into English between (1) “surrogate” translations addressing only the reader of the target language; (2) “contingent” translations meant for an audience which “is at least potentially bilingual”, and (3) “co-level” translations, each of “which is to be considered as a correlate to the original, to coexist with ... as its possible rival ... [with an] audience ... equivalently bilingual, its readers [being] a more cosmopolitan polyglot tribunal”.

25Indeed these are high standards, and quite difficult to meet even if the process of translation takes place only between two languages – Chinese and English – and not between Chinese and a multitude of languages, as is characteristic in Europe. But the very fact that a given text, as modem hermeneutical philosophy has shown, can never be definitely identified in its meaning, not even in its own language let alone in a translation, has not only negative but also positive aspects. The unavoidable difference between the original and the translated text frequently opens surprisingly new views on fascinating concepts and literary expressions which are not actually inherent in the original. And these new views multiply, of course, the more the gap widens between the original texts and their final rendering into a target language, which is precisely the case when translation work has to force its way through intermediate languages. We may, of course, simply state that what is being multiplied in this manner is nothing but sheer misunderstanding. Nevertheless, we may observe that these misunderstandings are sometimes quite creative, notably when they occur in the minds of great writers or poets who are translating from translations in their own capacity, imitating a model which they indeed can only vaguely perceive. Thus the modem improvement of translation work from Chinese, which includes the fact that translations from intermediate languages have become more and more obsolete, also has its price. But the variety of different languages in Europe will perhaps guarantee that the wealth of possible understandings dormant in all texts, but in Chinese texts perhaps to a particularly high degree (at least when seen from a Western perspective), will continue to exercise their creative power in the future as well.



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Wolfgang Bauer †

Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat, Munich.

© Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 1999

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