A Persisting Fascination: German Interest in Aboriginal Australians

By Haag, Oliver | Social Alternatives, October 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Persisting Fascination: German Interest in Aboriginal Australians


Haag, Oliver, Social Alternatives


This article examines the German translations of Jeannie Gunn's The Little Black Princess (1905) (Die kleine schwarze Prinzessin, 2010) and William Peasley's The Last of the Nomads (1982) (Die letzten Nomaden, 2007). The focus rests on the translation of Australian historical and political contexts into the foreign context of German target culture. It argues that the specifics of inter-racial Australian history evident in the two books have been rendered invisible, without the very contexts having completely disappeared. Rather, the translations have reproduced Australian racisms and German ideas of Aboriginal authenticity and traditionalism, as reflected in the notions of the harmonious Naturvolk (natural people). Both translations, the article ultimately contends, testify to the persistency of German ideas of Aboriginal Australia, construing Aboriginal people as timeless, unchanging and pre-modern.

Germans seem to be obsessed with Aboriginal Australians: Germany is the largest market for Aboriginal art in Europe, and no other European country has produced as many translations of Aboriginal literature as Germany. Studies of the German reception of Aboriginal-related literatures constitute a relatively new yet burgeoning field, including literary analyses of translated Aboriginal texts, studies of the marketing of German translations, teaching Aboriginal literature in German classrooms and bibliographies of translations (Brewster, 2009; Gerber, 2007; name removed for the peer review process). Most of these studies concentrate on techniques of rendering intelligible the contexts of Australian culture for a Germanspeaking readership.

Little, however, is known about the ways in which historical and political contexts, especially interracial history and racism, are made intelligible in German translations of Aboriginal-related literature. The present article examines the ways in which interracial Australian history has been translated. The translation of interracial history, I argue, does not merely require an explanation of the historical contexts of the source text but also one of the historical contexts of the target text, in this event, the explanation of both interracial history within Australia and the history of German perceptions of Aboriginal Australians.

Drawing on Jeannie (Mrs Aeneas) Gunn's Die kleine schwarze Prinzessin (2010) (original title: The Little Black Princess, 1905) and William Peasley's Die letzten Nomaden (2007) (original title: The Last of the Nomads, 1982), the present study demonstrates that interracial history and the history of German perceptions of Aboriginal Australians have been rendered seemingly invisible in the German translations. Yet instead of having been completely erased, the historical contexts have been left in palimpsests 'overwritten' by the use of seemingly neutral terminologies and German ideas of Aboriginal authenticity. Both texts are thus a good source not only for examining how the historical contexts of the stories have been translated but also for inferring the persisting nature of German interest in Aboriginal Australians.

What makes the two books worthwhile for comparison is their focus on Aboriginal 'traditionalism'. Moreover, both translations have been published by the same publishing house, a Leipzig-based company which focuses on German and Aboriginal-related literature. Both books have been issued almost contemporaneously (2007 and 2010) and advertised as 'Aboriginal literature' in stark contrast to Aboriginal self-definitions according to which Aboriginal literature needs to be either authored or co-authored by an Aboriginal person in order be designated as 'Aboriginal'.

As this article argues, both translations reveal the power of perceived authenticity on the politics of German publishing of Aboriginal-related literature. This article will first elaborate on how the historical contexts of the source texts have been made invisible and then discuss to what extent the two translations represent the persisting nature of German interest in Aboriginal cultures. …

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