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lob- und dankreden

Hans-Christian Oeser

The Translator as a Respecter of Difference


Kýrie dímarche! Kýrie ypourgé! Méli tis epitropís! Agapití synádelfi! Kýries ke kýrii! Esthánomai idiéteri timí os proskekliménos tis politistikís protévousas tis evrópis, tis archéas polis tis Makedonías, ti Thessaloníki, gia tin aponomí tou aristíou metáfrasis tis evrópis. Esthánomai polý tyherós pou sygkatalégomai anámesa se tóssous állous aristéfsantes kai málista sti hóra h glóssa tis opías édose to onomá s’aftó to épathlo.

   Mayor, Minister, distinguished members of the jury, dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen!

    I feel greatly honoured to have been invited to this year’s European City of Culture, the ancient Macedonian city of Thessalonike, to collect the ARISTEION European Translation Prize 1997, and I must say what a wonderful coincidence it is to be ranked among the “aristoi” in the very country whose language gave this prestigious award its name! I feel deeply moved and encouraged to be honoured in this way. There could hardly be a higher reward for a translator than to receive this kind of cross-border recognition for one’s endeavours.

       I have travelled from the most North-Western to the most South-Eastern corner of Europe. Éire and Hellas - two countries, two civilizations steeped in mythology and history, in language and literature. But my country of birth is Germany, and German is the language I translate into. Since my teenage days I have been interested in literature and, by extension, in literary translation. Indeed, I remember that reading Friedrich Hölderlin’s bold rendering of Antigonae by Sophocles with its daring first line “Gemeinsam-schwesterliches! o Ismenes Haupt” offered me my first glimpse of the intricacies and challenges, the freedoms and constraints of translation. But it was a year spent in England and, in particular, my moving to Ireland that appears to have set free creative energies as “intercultural communicator” (Michael Cronin) or “courier of the spirit” (Alexander Pushkin) which otherwise might have gone to waste. Having lived in Dublin for seventeen years, I am bound to consider myself by now a kind of hybrid, partaking as I do in the vibrant cultural life of one country while helping to renew and enrich that of the other, whose own notion of culture has, as you know, suffered the most severe fissure this century. And, as with so many emigrants giving up their old roots without acquiring new ones, language itself, the “interlingual space”, has become the real home.

      The twinning of German and Irish inside one person by no means constitutes a modern European identity in the emphatic sense of the term. This much-vaunted European identity is, I would contend, but an ideological construct merely reflecting underlying economic forces in the same way, as did the national identities before it and the tribal identities before them. What I do believe, however, is that by ferrying literature from one shore to another we translators contribute to a common cultural heritage of humankind and have always done so whether there existed local, regional, national or supranational markets. In today’s world where capitalist globalization ruthlessly and relentlessly sweeps away any local traditions and particularities before it, it is imperative to try and strengthen the particular and the disparate while at the same time stubbornly adhering to the idea of the universal and humane.

      In 1827, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe made his famous remark, “Nationalliteratur will jetzt nicht viel sagen, die Epoche der Weltliteratur ist an der Zeit, und jeder muß dazu wirken, diese Epoche zu beschleunigen.” A little later, in their Communist Manifesto of 1848, Marx and Engels followed suit, “The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.” In the light of these programmatic statements I was very gratified indeed to read the following acknowledgment by the Portuguese novelist José Saramago, “The author with his language creates national literature, world literature is produced by translators”. Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy, the book whose translation earned me the ARISTEION, is living proof that it is translators who produce world literature. Is it not most astonishing that a novel about the troubled adolescence of a deranged youth living in a small parochial Irish country town has captivated the imagination of readers as far apart as Brazil and Japan? For this to happen a kind of derivative imagination is required, a sharp intellectual grasp, moral empathy, aesthetic appreciation, literary sensibilities and linguistic skills all of which combine to re-create the entire fictitious world of a book in the languages of a foreign audiences.

      I have always wondered about the validity of the phrase “the invisible translator”. It is certainly not the case that the translator somehow hides behind the broad shoulders of the author or that he or she vanishes into the translation, as the legendary Chinese painter vanishes into his painting. Rather, it is a question of narrow public perception. The greater part of the reading public, most critics included, seem to assume that they can enjoy direct access to the original work whereas in reality it is the very act of mediation undertaken by the translator that allows them the pleasure of reading in the first place.

      I am of the firm opinion that in spite of all loyalty and responsibility towards my authors, all the books I have translated have, stylistically, more in common with my own literary personality and passion than with theirs. The greatest proof of this rather heretical thesis is to be found in any comparative reading of two translations of one and the same work. And yet, the translator is a respecter of difference who does not conquer, does not appropriate, does not displace or subsume but seeks to rescue, to mature, to expand and prolong the life of the original work, and here I may again quote Goethe, “Und so ist jeder Übersetzer anzusehen, daß er sich als Vermittler dieses allgemein geistigen Handels bemüht, und den Wechseltausch zu befördern sich zum Geschäft macht. Denn, was man auch von der Unzulänglichkeit des Übersetzens sagen mag, so ist und bleibt es doch eins der wichtigsten und würdigsten Geschäfte in dem allgemeinen Weltwesen”. I feel tremendously privileged to be part of this trade in literary exchange.

    May I use this opportunity to thank my two editors, Michael Krieger and Wolfgang Ferchl, the first because it was he who proposed the translation, the second for his most painstaking scrutiny of my text. Quite a number of the stylistic features to be found in my translation are, in fact, the result of editorial decisions that we took jointly. My thanks also go to Susan Cox, who, I understand, suggested the nomination in the first place, to Peter Sirr, Director of the Irish Writers’ Centre, to Marc Caball, Director of Ireland Literature Exchange, and to the late Lar Cassidy, Literature Officer with the Irish Arts Council.

       It is not an empty gesture when I also wish to express my thanks to the author, Patrick McCabe, whose fascinating account, both horrific and humorous, of feverish delinquency driven by the pain of rejection elicited deep responses in me. I can now understand McCabe when he claims that his novel has had an effect akin to that of the Midas touch which turns dust to gold. It seems that anyone touching The Butcher Boy strikes lucky. The critical and commercial success of the novel first published in 1992 enabled its author to concentrate on full-time writing, under the title Frank Pig Says Hello it was highly successfully adapted for the stage, and it has just been filmed by the internationally acclaimed Irish director, Neil Jordan. And now it is the turn of its German translator to share in the good will and the good fortune which it has generated.

      I would like to thank the jury for undergoing the extremely difficult task of assessing so many prize- and praiseworthy translations from so many languages and cultures and for coming to the decision they did. Even a fleeting glance at the short-list of prominent translators tells me that all of my distinguished colleagues and contenders must have produced excellent work, and I feel very privileged to be thus associated with them.

      When the magnificent news of the ARISTEION prize was first broken to me, it almost came as a shock but now it is an undiluted pleasure. Please accept my warmest thanks for your generosity!


(gehalten am 8. Dezember 1997 in Thessaloniki)

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