Trials and Tribulations

How I Came to Translate 'Wang Lun'
What sort of amateur spends thousands of hours translating an unknown epic novel by a writer known (if at all) for only one of his many works – and then expects the world to jump for joy?
Translating Wang Lun was a challenge – but then I had to find a publisher.

In this group of posts I reflect on the journey from first discovering Döblin, to seeing my first translation in print, to my current retirement hobby – tackling four more massive untranslated epics by this fascinating but still almost unknown writer, collecting lots of rejection slips, and finally recognising that a website is really the only way to bring Döblin to a wider audience.

So far I’ve completed the first English translations of the dystopian Mountains Oceans Giants(1924); the Himalayan epic Manas (1926; I’ve turned this into a 3-act Play for Voices – please download it! Introduce it to your AmDram group!); the Amazonas Trilogy (Land without Death) (1938-39); and am two-thirds through Wallenstein (1920), an epic of the Thirty Years War. Once I finish Wallenstein, you’ll have all of AD’s pre-Alexanderplatz epics at your fingertips (copyrights permitting).

No longer (I dream) will critics and scholars be able to perpetuate the myth of Döblin the one-trick pony, whose OTHER works are probably not worth bothering with!

This post is Part 1 of a series.

Part 2: Adventures in Publishing

Part 3: A Case Study


Alfred Döblin – who? Oh, I might have heard of him… Wasn’t there a Berlin book?

Until the late 1980s I knew of Alfred Döblin only as the author of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Which I’d never read. Because the only English translation was long out of print.

Clever people sometimes mentioned BA in the book pages. In 2002 it was voted one of the ‘100 best books ever’ in an international poll of writers. (It gained 95th place, with 13 votes. Ms. Austen at #1 attracted 424 votes.)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s mammoth TV miniseries (1980) must have introduced lots of people to BA for the first time. I caught a few of the 3-hour screenings at the Hong Kong Film Festival, with my film-editor brother Ken, who was visiting from Canada. (Check out Ken’s long-running movie blog at . He wrote the best ever essay on David Lynch’s Eraserhead – which is way beyond Döblin in terms of weird and challenging.)

Döblin – and China? What’s this about?

A few years later, on holiday in Austria, I chanced upon not one, but two Döblin paperbacks with Chinese-looking titles: the story collection Der Überfall auf Chao-lao-sü, and the novel Die drei Sprünge des Wang Lun. Goodness, I thought, what did this Berlin chap know about China? How come no one’s ever mentioned these?

I devoured the Chao-lao-su story on a long train ride, captivated by the authentic-seeming atmosphere (I’d been living in the Far East for many years already), the crisply-conveyed action, the political intrigue. Back home I scoured Hong Kong U library for information on Döblin and these two ‘Chinese’ works, and found that in the 75 years since he wrote them, no one had ever tried their hand at an English translation! Yet in German there were whole respectful monographs.

I take up the challenge! (Includes a paean to the Apple of earlier days)

Here’s a challenge, I thought. How many native English speakers can read both German and Chinese? And if I don’t try, will anyone else?

For two years, as far as family life allowed, evenings and weekends were taken up with Wang Lun. I acquired my first computer: an Apple IIe with no hard drive – you had to keep switching between the programme floppy and the memory floppy. And a clunking dot matrix printer that produced barely legible text on a long stream of perforated paper.

I loved that computer – it could do stuff simply and elegantly that Microsoft still couldn’t emulate a decade later.

Q: A reader asks: What were the challenges of translation?

A: Thank you for asking! Two, above all.

First: Tuning into Döblin’s voice.  This is an ongoing creative task. Now, after translating four and two-thirds of his epic fictions, not to mention several essays – around a million words in total – I feel pretty confident that I catch the ironies, the unexpressed presuppositions, the abrupt unannounced changes of mood, tone, voice and register, the often surreal descriptions from an imagination that – without warning – blurs boundaries between the senses, between outward descriptions and inward experience. With Wang Lun I was still feeling my way.

The second challenge – particularly acute in Wang Lun – arose from the hundreds of culturally specific names and terms. All culled from numerous German works on China, using various transcription schemes, based on different Chinese languages. (N.B. Please don’t tell me Cantonese is ‘just a dialect’! Is Dutch just a dialect of German? Handy definition: ‘A language is a dialect with an army.’)

And Döblin sometimes misspelled a transcription between notebook and MS. Or the printer misread his often hastily scrawled hand. (Does anyone know of a ‘Wilahwei Boulevard’ in Los Angeles? No? How about ‘Wilshire’? The French translation of Döblin’s last major novel Hamlet: Tales of a Long Night didn’t bother to correct it.)

I still blush at the time I wasted on ‘Juchkin’ (page 2 of Wang Lun), said to be a mandolin, before I realised the ‘c’ should be an ‘e’, giving Wade-Giles yüeh-ch’in or Pinyin yueqin  = ‘moon-lute’.

Once I’d cracked ‘Juchkin’, other mistranscriptions like ‘Schim Mong’ (for ‘Shen Nong’, the founder of agriculture), ‘Te-schang-man’ (for the ‘Desheng Men’, a gate of Beijing), ‘Fo-schon-kung-chu’ for ‘Princess Foshou (Buddha-hand)’ were minor obstacles.

Titles were generally clear enough, as were personal names of historical figures. But geographical names called for hours poring over Chinese atlases, historical and modern, not always with success (but a fine way to pass an hour or two! Döblin adored atlases.)

I eventually made a glossary of all the Chinese terms. It fills 20 pages (printed by that dot matrix printer off a floppy disc), and one day I may transcribe it and post it here.

In March 2015 I introduced the new edition of Wang Lun at an event of the Beijing International Book Festival, hosted by the Bookworm café. Professor Luo Wei from Peking U (she actually translated Alexanderplatz into Chinese!), who shared the platform, told us she’d refused a request to translate Wang Lun into Chinese, because tracing the actual names using the correct Chinese characters would be an almost impossible burden.

Yet again, an editor grossly interferes with a Döblin text! (But where is the outrage?)

As I read more on the background of the Wang Lun novel, it became clear: the Chao-lao-su story is integral to the plot. Why then did Döblin decide to cut that story out, along with a few shorter sections? No German edition has ever restored it, nor any translation into another language, and reprints of the Chao-lao-su story never link it to the novel.

We’ll have more to say on the topic of editorial high-handedness in another post. Including the time an editor decided that the whole third part of a trilogy could be thrown away.

Anyway, I did what a translator probably should never do: made a major editorial decision to include The Attack on Chao Lao-hsü as the Prologue to Wang Lun. The other ‘outtakes’ I decided to leave out. One appeared in 2015 (described not quite accurately as ‘the final outtake’): ‘Conversation in the Palace of Ch’ien-Lung’ in The Brooklyn Rail, to coincide with the new edition of Wang Lun. Later I came across two more short outtakes, which as far as I know have never been reprinted following their appearance in an art journal in 1925. All four outtakes are brought together here for the first time.

No one so far has criticised my decision.

Translator toils… The world yawns…

So, after two years of hard labour, I had a full (dot matrix) printed text in English. Hurrah! Such a wonderful exciting intriguing long-lost work – publishers will be queuing up for the rights!

Won’t they…?

Will they heck. Find out in Part 2!