Im Dienst des Diktators: Translation [2] — The Korean War Years

Having now read a bit more than half of the new memoir/expose by former North Korean arms dealer Kim Jong Ryul, I wanted to share a few more thoughts about the book and translate another portion of the text.

Although the book is getting attention for its detailed description of DPRK purchases in Vienna and the German-speaking world, not so many Anglophone commentators seem to care for the really Korean aspects of this story.

Kim Jong Ryul’s childhood is described through some tinted glasses here, but it’s worth noting that his father was taken away from his northern village to work for three years as a laborer in Japan, returning only after the Japanese defeat in the Second World War.  His father’s early joining of the Party — in 1946 — would prove to be his son’s greatest defense in future years, as an unquestionably solid “class background” resulted.  Scholars interested in the dynamics of regime consolidation in the earliest years of socialism north of the 38th parallel get a few more details here (pp. 37-39).

Unfortunately, Kim’s voice is consistently overtaken by the omniscient narrators, who frequently interrupt his story with a three-page spiel of general background on Korean history which could easily be found elsewhere, and in more expert hands.  But they write well and context isn’t in itself a bad thing to have.  And, since writing for a German-language audience, we get little tidbits like this view of the Korean War:

The intensity of the war is evidenced in the actions of the formidable of the U.S. Air Force [veranschaulicht der gewaltige /Einsatz der US-Luftwaffe].  In the space of three years, they dropped more bombs on the city of Pyongyang alone than on all of Nazi Germany in the Second World War.  After the end of the war, virtually no intact buildings were left standing in the destroyed cities (p. 42).

Kim Jong Ryul’s personal experiences in the Korean War are described (pp. 43-46).  When the war breaks out in 1950, he is 15 years old, working at a print shop for a Party school in Pyongyang.  (Very much at odds with societal findings by scholars like Charles Armstrong, Kim describes himself in this period as being totally uninterested in politics.)  Under the weight of U.S. bombers overhead, Kim and his colleagues schlepped all of the school’s printing implements to the Pyongyang train station and moved towards China with the entire staff and student body of the school, totaling over 700 people filling more than 20 railroad cars, stopping occasionally when the danger of air raids loomed, and dispersing into the woods to flee the angel of death (p. 43).

At the Chinese border (which was either at Andong or Ji’an, the authors don’t bother to ask, reproducing the worst and ubiquitous problem displayed even by people like Mike Kim for whom “the border” with China is all one big amorphous thing), the train is stopped.  The Chinese were allowing only students, teachers, and fuctionaries into the PRC.  Refugees who had clung to the train were not allowed in.  More to the point, Kim Jong Ryul was not a formal student at the school, and was thus denied entry to the PRC.  Thus he, along with others, began walking south in the direction of his hometown, a refugee within his own country.  They walked day and night, and found sufficient food — but also found American soldiers moving north.  He and his friends were shocked nearly to death, having been strongly inculcated with the idea that the “American devils” would shoot them.   Instead, the GIs threw he and his friends some sustenance and chocolate bars.  Kim finally ended up in his hometown.  His family has fled to the city of Pyongyang, where daily air raids are sinking the city into ashes…(p. 44).

A neighbor remains, however, and, knowing Jong Ryul’s aptitude with printers, seeks out an official in the Workers’ Party who can use the young man’s skills.  He is thus brought back into the embrace of the North Korean state, and imbued with the notion that he simply needs to work hard, study hard, and ultimately join the Party.  His workshop is 1.5 kilometers from the ministry for which he worked, allowing him, along with his 1000 colleagues in the ministry, access to a precious item: ten Czech-produced vehicles given to Pyongyang by communist “brothers” before the war.  This appears to be Kim’s first encounter with the technologies which would later form the centerpiece of his career (p. 45).

On one day, however, he has to flee his vehicle and see it destroyed by an American air raid.  “It wasn’t your fault,” his supervisors tell him, surveying the smouldering wreck.  Kim told his biographers that he never thought of the possibility of his own death in those years, but did flee many, many times during air raids into the bunkers built by the Japanese while the sirens wailed for what seemed like hours.  Emerging from the bunker, he saw body parts hanging from tree branches, craters meters deep in the streets.  Closing his eyes, he can still perpetually see those images.

For two years, Kim Jong Ryul lived underground in a tunnel system.  He slept in a bunker 70 meters under the ground next to the Education Ministry in Pyongyang. However, in 1952, at the age of 17, he was given the chance to leave the city, taking a small backpack to the “Jong Ju” school 150 km north of Pyongyang. (p. 46).

He then immerses himself in education, focusing on physics, but also reading literature classics like “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “War and Peace.”  The lack of food brought him to a rapid understanding of which wild plants could be eaten, while, at the same time, in his science classes, he learned that living things need protein to survive.  (p. 50)

Korean War Memorial detail, Bozeman, Montana -- photo by Adam Cathcart

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’. “