A Persisting Fascination: German Interest in Aboriginal Australians

By Haag, Oliver | Social Alternatives, April 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

A Persisting Fascination: German Interest in Aboriginal Australians


Haag, Oliver, Social Alternatives


German interest in Aboriginal Australia seems to be quite considerable: 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 (Haag 2009). 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 2009; Haag 2009; Haag 2011; Haag 2012). Most of these studies concentrate on techniques of rendering intelligible the contexts of Australian culture for a German-speaking readership.

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

Drawing on Jeannie (Mrs Aeneas) Gunn's Die kleine schwarze Prinzessin (2010), translated by Leni-Tschüdi- Rüegg (original title: The Little Black Princess, 1905), and William Peasley's Die letzten Nomaden (2007), translated by Johanna Ellsworth (original title: The Last of the Nomads, 1982), the present study demonstrates that inter-racial history and the history of German perceptions of Aboriginal Australians have been rendered invisible in the German translations. Yet instead of having been completely erased, the historical contexts have been leftin 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 source texts 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 coauthored by an Aboriginal person in order be designated as 'Aboriginal'. The two books are written and marketed in different genres: Die kleine schwarze Prinzessin is a children's book, whereas Die letzten Nomaden is adult literature. Despite this genre difference, ideas of Aboriginal authenticity are so tenacious that they affect both translations fundamentally. Both translations reveal the power of perceived traditionalism on the politics of German publishing of Aboriginal-related literature. Translating literature is not a merely linguistic endeavour of copying a text from its source language into a target language, but involves complex processes of cultural transfer, adaptation and renewal (Lecercle 1999: 19; Venuti 2008: 15-20; Limon 2010).

As André Lefevere argues, translations entail a rewriting of original texts, influenced by mechanisms of patronage which lie mostly outside the literary system (1992: 5, 15). Patronage, Lefevere furthers, is determined by status, economy and ideology (1992: 16-17). All three components exert an influence on which texts are being translated, thus entering a foreign language market. As for the books under this study, German images of Aboriginal authenticity constitute the most obvious form of patronage. …

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