Trials and Tribulations

Translating Wang Lun Part 3 - the Case Study
Here we go deep into the weeds, detailing the critical comments of the two publisher’s reviewers and my responses to them. I am still puzzled why some of the points were even raised. Readers, feel free to pitch in!
Part 1 of this series is here.

Part 2 is here.


Below are annotated passages from Wang Lun (the first few pages  of the Prologue and of Book Three) with comments from the Anonymous First Reader (AFR) and Sebald, together with my immediate ripostes and a few present-day thoughts.

Since I was not given a chance to proofread or revise the text for the 2015 edition (please don’t blame me for misprints!), I have posted a corrected and revised version of the complete Prologue.


Darkly the ridges of the Hsishan (1) marched (2) inland from the coast. A long way from the golden coast rose the masses of the Tushan, only reluctantly, as if they might desert them (3), leaving the flowerstrewn (4) hills to lie beside the yellow-grey water. In the bright air lines shimmered beyond and above the mountains. They were the peaks of the Pianwai; they were oscillations (5), resembling the eyebrows of a woman.

It was evening on the Gulf of Pei Chihli.

The sea beat higher and brighter on the rocky shore. The warm turbid waves carved grooves (6) in the sand around the little junks on the beach. During long harsh (7) hours the sun’s rays had lashed the water; now they rebounded. The sea had covered itself in an armour which, it is said, is the back of the Peng bird. When the Peng rises up and flies to the southern seas, his scaly body stretches millions of miles and his gigantic wings are able to propel (8) the clouds. A soft haze glided over the surface, gathered loose and thick like cotton wool. The sun’s rays draped themselves in loose folds of mist (9). Moments before a round furnace in the sky has roared forth heat; now the fire was sintered over. A misty shade (10) had suddenly been placed over the world.

Things dissolved together. (11)

The shouts of the harbour workers (12) came muffled from the Customs House. Beside the harbour lay the old town of Shanhaikwan. House shouldered (13) house. Low broad mud huts in narrow alleys, slender wooden structures, ponderous (14) warehouses and pawnshops, a few brightly painted (15) temples, memorial arches, government yamens.

The streets grew quieter as darkness gathered. Mist fell like a wedge between the passers-by, the merchants, peddlars, street hawkers(16)…


  1. Me (now): Since Döblin generally provides no glosses for Chinese terms and names, I provide none in this text. I may transcribe and post the 20-page “Index of Chinese, Tibetan and other exotic expressions occurring in the novel” that I compiled as a self-help guide while translating Wang Lun in the 1980s.
  2. Original text: “Finster rückten die Ketten… ab…” AFR exclaimed “How can ridges ‘march inland’? … ‘abrücken’ simply means ‘rose up from the coast’.” Sebald suggested ‘receded’. Me (now): Döblin employs so many vigorously active verbs throughout his works (even when inanimate objects are involved) that the more active image is not out of place here.
  3. AFR: ‘not “masses” but “massif”. And “as if they might desert them” is meaningless to me, and results from a failure to see the construction… The result is not only something a long way from Döblin but something phony in its own right.’ Sebald: ‘“rose the masses” has inappropriate connotations. …Tushan, reluctantly leaving behind it, as if they had slipped from its grasp, the flowerstrewn hills…” My riposte: ‘There’s a perfectly good German word for “massif” that D does not use here. [AFR] derides “as if they might desert them” as meaningless, yet offers no alternative reading. Or did he mean D’s phrase was meaningless and so might be left out? Me (now): changing “masses” to “mass” removed the unhelpful connotation, and helped reduce confusion about the referents of “they” and “them”.
  4. AFR: ‘flowerdecked’. My riposte: “’überschüttet’ has surely a more active sense than ‘bedeckt’, so I prefer ‘flowerstrewn’.”
  5. Sebald: “’oscillations’ is definitely wrong, though a correct translation of ‘Schwingungen’. Döblin probably meant ‘Schwüngen’ or ‘Bögen’, both rather awkward, which may be why he used the incorrect term. Me (now): Given the many instances in AD of inanimate objects being described as living moving things (cf. the carved lions decorating Chao Hui’s balcony), I remain comfortable with “oscillations” here.
  6. Sebald: “’carved grooves’ is the wrong kind of image. ‘Washed the sand from beneath…’ would perhaps be more precise.” Me (now): I confess to being seduced by the visual and aural effects of all those ‘v’s. There are numerous examples of synaesthesia in AD’s work.
  7. AFR: “German ‘grell’ i.e. ‘dazzling’. My riposte: “a monosyllable is needed here for the rhythm.” Sebald: “‘harsh’ seems all right. The translator’s point about the rhythmic structure is valid, but not necessarily decisive. A minor matter.”
  8. Sebald: “’propel’ is too technical.” Me (now): I’ve amended to ‘drive… along’ in my revised version.
  9. “Die Sonnenstrahlen wickelten sich in lose Nebeltücher.” AFR: “entwined themselves in flowing drapes of mist.” Sebald: “The rays of the sun became enveloped in drapes of mist.” Me (now): Why actually was this sentence seen as a problem?
  10. “unter eine Nebelglocke gestellt.” Both AFR and Sebald struggled with this. AFR: ‘a dome of mist’. Sebald: “‘a misty shade’ doesn’t work. Nor does ‘dome of mist’. A less literal reading seems required.” My riposte: “…requires an active sense of something being placed over the world, as e.g. a shade over a lamp.” Me (now): I’ve always been puzzled that both AFR and Sebald struggled with this rather obvious image.
  11. “quollen zueinander”. AFR: ‘”Things dissolved together” is surely gibberish. …”swelled into each other” or “swelled up to meet each other”. Sebald: rejects both my draft version, and AFR’s “terribly stilted” proposed amendment; suggests ‘all shapes dissolved into each other’.
  12. AFR: ‘should be “dockers” or “stevedores”.” Me (now): I struggled a bit with ‘Hafen-arbeiter’. For an Englishman of my generation, ‘dockers’ generally co-occurred with ‘on strike’, while ‘stevedores’ suggests a young Marlon Brando. I’ve now amended to ‘coolies at the harbor’.
  13. Sebald: “Döblin’s use of ‘schulterte’ is highly idiosyncratic. Cannot be equated in English. A more neutral version using an idiom with ‘shoulder’, I suggest.’ Me (now): I’ve amended to “jostled”. Here again AD is using an action verb for inanimate objects.
  14. ‘schwerfällig’. Sebald: ‘“cumbrous” might be nearer.” Me (now): Working with paper-based reference tools in the late 1980s was tedious and often frustrating. Now, an online thesaurus search instantly yields alternatives like awkward, bulky, massive, as well as cumbrous. I’ve gone for “hulking” in the revised Prologue.
  15. ‘prunkvoll’. Sebald: “‘brightly painted’ is an unnecessary addition. ‘Ornate’ should do, or perhaps ‘ostentatious’.” Me (now): ‘Ornate’ could apply to e.g. the intricate but – nowadays – paintless carvings in Hindu temples; ‘ostentatious’ to e.g. the façade of the British Museum. Neither captures the bright reds and golds of a possibly rather small Chinese temple or pailou. Gaudy or garish might be (patronising) alternatives.
  16. ‘Nebel fiel wie ein Keil zwischen die…’ AFR: “Ungrammatical: ‘between’ one thing and another, not ‘between passers-by’. Something like ‘The mist split the passers-by…like a wedge.’” My riposte: “Criticise Döblin’s grammar, not mine! [AFD’s] suggestion is both comical and gruesome!” Sebald: “Both versions seem unsatisfactory. The trouble is that Döblin’s phrasing makes little visual sense in German, as the translator recognises. Again, a less literal translation would be better here.”
AFR’s further comments, on Wang Lun Book 3

The London publisher sought further comments from AFR on Book Three:

“I felt very little difference between this and the first two books. Again there are stretches that seem to catch the meandering style well, the slowness, the observations juxtaposed in surrealistic style.

“But then as before I found myself stumbling over a phrase or two, then looking at the German and finding a) there was no reason to stumble, b) that the cause of the obstacle was a misreading of the original as often as an unhappy choice of words.”

As before, I annotate the following passage with AFR’s comments and my ripostes.


Ch’ien Lung, the great Emperor, who had received the empire of the world from Heaven and ever-changing Nature, emerged from his hunts and his musings on the northern steppes, made his way back to Mukden.

He had seen again the enormous landscapes of Tartary. Few days (1) in their profound silence had been disturbed by tribute bearers. Tigers loped out of the woods. Week by week letters of fealty arrived from the Imperial princes and high nobility, enquiring after his health.

No great train accompanied the aging Emperor: two hundred men of his lifeguard, one pure Manchu company, a small number of favourites, friends, slaves; lastly the exquisite orchestra. He had hunted the high country east of Kalgan, on the edge of Mongolia. Bright cold air, broad open grassland, mountain glens, broken vistas. He made camp in the trough-shaped valley near Hsuanhua-fu. Houses were dug into the loess, with rooms, vaults, passages. On the thinly-peopled plains shaggy brown horses galloped (2). Teaburdened camels swayed by. Nomad families camped in big round tents of felt. Brown flatfaced Mongols with gaily coloured ribbons prostrated themselves.

At the frontier the Imperial train was joined by the commander of the frontier troops in his red fur cap and red wing collars. Then they crossed the outliers of the great Hsing-an range, descended towards Mukden.

The Emperor’s gaze was remote, his expression fearsomely bleak. Beneath tall willows clusters of peculiar houses appeared. A long twisting mountain path led them to low hills where they saw broadleaved trees, women who wore arrows in their hair and fresh flowers. Cannons boomed from the eight towers on the walls of Mukden. They rode along the straight lines of the town, the Mongols behind on little ponies, until the roofs in the middle of the town came into view with their gleaming yellow tiles. For five days Ch’ien Lung remained in his palace.

In the autumnal park by a pond the Emperor sat alone on a stool, his lap filled with green lettuce leaves. In front of him a giant tortoise slept. The carapace was black with yellow flutings. The broad central plate was edged in yellow with deep indentations. The clumsy forefeet extended sideways like flippers, toes like pegs driven into the feet. Hind legs drawn into the armour. The Emperor, dressed in black silk with a plain silk cap, rapped (3) on the shell with as stout branch from which fircones dangled.

And then out of its lair the grey horny head emerged, that wonderfully passionless head on a wrinkled neck that sparkled like dried fish skin. Like a royal mummy the long, withered, craning neck, the triangular skull turning in contemptuous unconcern. Jaws clamped, the severe work of plane and straightedge. Nostrils sunk with an auger. To the sides, lidless, immobile, clever wise eyes, windows of a gelid brain.

Slowly the shell lifts itself on one side, sinks back, pushes forward. It is the painful gait of a nimble but gouty and ancient man, who lifts his rump, doesn’t bend his knee, swings his legs stiffly out sideways, slowly turns a corner. The foreflippers swim, right, left, scrape. The armour sinks back, the hind legs stretch and follow. A highpitched wheezing, a gentle hiss comes from the punched-out nostrils. Again the rump heaves, the front flippers slide forward. It is a climbing over level ground.

The Emperor sat on the stool with the fir branch. He tried to keep pace with the tortoise, to imitate it, and pondered. As it heaved forward it seemed to turn its eyes on him. He slid slowly after his branch to the ground, crouched on his knees behind the creature as it moved away from him towards the pond. For some reason he bowed down behind it.

Very slowly, as Ch’ien Lung wished, the procession continued on its way. Wide sandy spaces alternated with fields of water-melon. The Liao-ho channelled black soupy eddies in which strips of green bobbed. For two days they waited for the arrival of an ancient Supervisor of Traffic from Niuchuang in order to sacrifice to the river god. Then they entrusted the ferry with the placid (4) Emperor to the waters.

His entourage recognised this state of profound abstraction and lassitude. It had come upon him with increasing age. This man, once so energetic and commanding, now let them do everything, lead him, seat him. The great monarch’s face as they rode silently past the li after li of shops in Hsinmi-tsun was disconcerting in its uncanny absence of will, the rubbery softness and torpor of the eyes. His lips hung, he mumbled inarticulately. As the eight bearers marched slowly over the rippled sand his palanquin opened from within, he climbed out, the front bearers turning in astonishment, and ambled along beside an old halberdier who failed to recognise him. When the horrified Protocol Officers leapt out of their chairs and fell to the ground before him, led him by the hand to the palanquin, he stumbled along with them, wearily raised his swollen eyelids, looked at them in puzzlement. His eyes wept. (5) Before he climbed back into the palanquin they wiped spittle from his grey beard. They walked along beside the palanquin. Across the Taling-ho they came to the Imperial grazing grounds. From the tall watchtowers in the centre of Chinchou-fu cannons again boomed greetings.

The officials stood beside the closed palanquin. They lay in the dust before his sleeping body. His state of indifference improved when they approached the Great Wall. A gentle excitement (6) took hold of the Emperor. He ate well, refused to lie in the palanquin, plucked flowers by the wayside. Their progress had to be speeded. When they asked after his health he waved them away with his flywhisk, not speaking. Half fuddled, he climbed on one occasion during these days onto a block of granite beside the road, and fell. But he was visibly more responsive, observed the work in the fields, summoned his travelling librarian to his side, of whom, however, he asked nothing. They remarked happily on the icy looks he again cast.

A warm breeze blew. He had drawn aside the curtains of his yellow palanquin. In the late afternoon the Director of the Ministry of Rites, Sung, and Hu Chao, Superintendent of the Imperial Eunuchs, walked beside the Imperial chair. Sung a bent man, who wore horn-rimmed spectacles on his little wrinkled face and, screwing up his eyes, sought in vain to discern the beauties of the landscape that Hu described to him so enthusiastically. Hu, a stout gentleman with pendulous cheeks, in the ardour of his descriptions (7) often took the worthy Sung’s hand and squeezed it, so that the eager Minister could at least feel something of the general enchantment.

They chatted of the tenderness with which a young and rising poet had treated the melancholy of white poplars, and how well he had brought off a few interesting verses on the ancient theme of a ride in a moonlit boat. (8)


  1. ‘Wenige Tage war die tiefe Stille durchbrochen worden…’ AFR: “just made no sense to me; even juggling the phrase order left no conviction. He’s confused a singular with a plural verb, so no wonder. To me it means “For a few days the profound silence had been broken…'” My riposte: “The adviser’s perplexity arises from his insufficient acquaintance with D’s common ploy of formulating a statement as if the reader might have expected the opposite – a ploy allied with that of the following sentence ‘No great train’ – just a few hundred of these and those! To spell it out, D’s sentence means not ‘for a few days’ but a negative: we might have expected disturbances every day but in fact they occurred on few days.The suggestion that I am unable to distinguish a singular from a plural verb is most insulting. The choice was between e.g. ‘The deep stillness was broken on few days…’ and the formulation I eventually plumped for. I think the latter is preferable.”
  2. ‘dünn belebten’: AFR: “I would have thought ‘sparsely inhabited plains… were galloping.’ …The translator has not checked the idiomatic nature of his English closely enough.” My riposte: “‘sparsely inhabited’ would be good for a geography book, but D’s choice of words is not that of a geography book. The continuous tense would give too precise an indication of time.”
  3. In the version seen by AFR I had already over-amended my first choice ‘struck’ to ‘tapped’. He pointed out the incongruity re the ‘stout stick’.
  4. AFR: “should be ‘silent'”. My riposte: “I don’t think silence is the only sense of still D means here. Rather the Emperor is inactive (as the next para emphasises). But perhaps placid is not the best choice.”
  5. ‘Seine Augen tränten.’ AFR: “surely makes no sense. The German shows that ‘his eyes were watering’ – no question of weeping. This is bad.” My riposte: “English is able to distinguish the physiological condition of weeping = watering eyes, and the emotional state of weeping. Surely ‘his eyes wept’ means the same as ‘his eyes watered’.”
  6. ‘Eine leichte Erregung befiel den Kaiser.’ AFR: “?? Reference to the German gives me ‘The Emperor became slightly agitated (or somewhat agitated)’.” My riposte: “Would the Emperor eat better and pick flowers if he was agitated as opposed to gently excited?”
  7. AFR: “‘Hu, a stout gentleman…’ The whole sentence reads very awkwardly (‘ardour of his descriptions’!!) It comes from sticking to noun for noun, verb for verb, and so on, ignoring the basic differences between the two languages in this respect. I would put something like this: ‘Carried away by his story, Hu … often grasped the worthy Hu’s [sic] hand…'” My riposte: “Another example of the reviewer failing to read the text. Hu is not telling a story. He is describing scenery to his short-sighted companion. I really cannot see any crime in having used here a nominal rather than a verbal construction.” Me (now): AD often alludes to physical movements without explicitly describing them. In this sentence I visualise Hu’s arms waving energetically about before he grasps Sung’s hands.
  8. AFR: “The awkwardness of ‘brought off a couple of verses’ made me suspicious. Then I found it was a misreading of the German on many counts. What I get is this: ‘…how well he had succeeded in penning a few interesting lines (not ‘verses’!) on the familiar old theme of a ride on the lake by moonlight.’ (why does he say ‘moonlit boat)”. My riposte: “whether lines or verses really seems to make very little difference to the sense here. Chinese lyric poems are usually arranged in verses (i.e. stanzas). In the adviser’s proposed alternative I find that a) penned is a very weak translation of ‘geglückt sein’. Hu and Sung are being patronising about the young poet, who has ‘brought it off’, i.e. succeeded in his intention; b) ancient: I agree, needs the sense of well-worn or familiar. I had in fact already amended it to hoary; c) I agree the last phrase could be improved: ‘boatride on a moonlit lake’ might be better.”


Incidentally, isn’t the ‘turtle’ passage above a masterful example of Döblin’s imagination, and his deft and economical way with words?

In Conclusion

Thank you for indulging me on this visit to the Engine Room!

Have you had similar experiences with publisher’s readers? Please let us know in the Comments!

Part 1 of this series is here.  Part 2 is here.

The revised translation of the Prologue is here.