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Translation as Anesthesia: Karl May In The 21st Century

In the long history of literature there have been few authors as successful as they are anomalous, yet in German literature it can be discovered a writer such as Karl May, prominent in both exceptionalism and popularity. An author of the all-American Western genre, May’s works, particularly the Winnetou Trilogy, became a literary sensation that has left an indelible mark not only on German culture but Central Europe as a whole. As Richard H. Cracroft of Brigham Young University once wrote, “such an observer [of Europeans reading/enacting Westerns] soon understands that the myth of the American West belongs not only to North Americans, but to all mankind” (Cracroft, 1985, pg. 111). Since then, as Cracroft points out, the European Western has become a fully-fledged genre of its own.

Along with other qualities, May’s popularity alone justifies his being translated into English. But the translation of May into English for the 21st century Anglo-American reader is a weighty task for those who do not make the socially risky choice of publishing a completely unabridged translation. A recent 2014 translation made by M. A. Thomas of the Winnetou Trilogy (Thomas, 2014) is a deeply insightful case study that highlights the extremes a translator can take. The end result is a product that one can call an ”anesthetic translation”: for rather than adhering to faithfulness, the translator chooses to anesthetize the source language original.

Figure 1: A portrait of the German writer Karl May by Erwin Raupp (1907)

A Translator’s Liberties

While writing about a distant culture has its challenges, Karl May, as a product of his time, received a blow to his reputation when Adolf Hitler named him as his favorite author (Thomas, 2014, pg. vii). While critics of authors often credit them with greater power over their readers than authors truly possess, May’s association with Hitler’s reading preferences undoubtedly posed an ethical challenge to translators in the postwar years. As a slew of recent translations have shown, this needless and unwary hindrance towards translation has largely dissipated since the turn of the millennium given the large number of recent May translations. Marlies Bugmann (also the first English-language May biographer in decades) and Herbert Windolf are two such translators who, alongside Thomas, have translated May for a contemporary audience.

With that in mind, May was not only mistaken about numerous Native American anthropological and ethnographic facts; he was also politically incorrect when writing about issues sensitive to the average Anglo-American in a time when a German pride extended into nationalist dimensions was acceptable. That being said, it might be noted that filtering –or censoring– politically incorrect language, and even entire segments, has become common to the point of normality in the current world-to-Anglosphere translation surge, which is true not only for European authors like May but non-European writers as well. The English translation of Texaco, by Patrick Chamoiseau, is a remarkable example.

Figure 2: A german stamp with an illustration of Winnetou, character created by Karl May (1987)

Nonetheless, benevolent a translator’s motive might be, this act of censoring naturally conflicts with and contradicts certain core approaches to literary translation. On one hand, faithfulness to the author comes into question: after all, should not faithfulness to the author be applied across the board? Another issue is what translation scholar Annie Brisset calls “the dual act of communication”, namely the dualistic synthesis of the source and target languages together (Brisset, 2000, pg. 343) inasmuch as censoring one side of the duality risks an imbalance in this undercurrent. Thirdly, there is the usual issue of “domesticating otherness”, as Lawrence Venuti often discusses. Describing it as a political and ethical act, Venuti also wrote the following:

“The ethically and politically motivated translator cannot fail to see the lack of an equal footing in the translation process, stimulated by an interest in the foreign, but inescapably leaning towards the receptor. This translator knows that translations never simply communicate foreign texts because they make possible only a domesticated understanding, however much defamiliarized, however much subversive or supportive of the domestic” (Venuti, 2000, pg. 469).

Cultural otherness, suffice to say, is not merely restricted to positive and socially-reinforcing literary content. Nor would it be true to overall source cultures to focus solely on that type of literature. By filtering or censoring unsavory elements of world literature –or, as Thomas vaguely describes it, “parts that…could evoke bad associations” (Thomas, 2014, pg. vii)–, elements of cultural otherness are willfully subtracted from the bicultural equation. In other words, the translator expands their role from messenger into both acting author and anesthesiologist. In Thomas’ case, his “leaning towards the receptor” of domesticity can only be called extreme in that it is less of a slight imbalance and more of a domestic servitude to May's prospective Anglo-American audience.

Figure 3: Book cover of ''Texaco'', written by Patrick Chamoiseau (1998)

Winnetou’s Domestic Inscriptions

M. A. Thomas calls his translation of the Winnetou Trilogy “an unabridged, but edited version” (Thomas, 2014, pg. vii). While relaying all the changes made to the trilogy would require the replication of a huge swath of the translator’s foreword, several major changes are of interest here.

The first is a common conundrum best dealt with on a case-to-case basis: long dialogues, or segments. Outside of theater, long dialogues vary when it comes to stylistic popularity in English. When translating strongly literary authors –Hungary’s Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Czech author Bohumil Hrabal come to mind– this is less of an issue as those translations are aimed at a literary, academic and/or culturally tolerant readership, but as May was a popular writer, Winnetou requires a popular appeal that novels like Satantango or Dancing Lessons For The Advanced In Age do not require in English. This in and of itself wouldn’t be an issue were it not for Thomas “transforming descriptive paragraphs” into dialogues, and if not abridged, technically speaking, it is a radical departure from the original text. Nor may it be necessary: when Sir Cecil Parrott translated The Good Soldier Švejk, he chose to keep Hašek’s long dialogues, including those obviously written for beer money — a choice that does not appear to have seriously hindered its international reputation.

Figure 4: Book cover of ''The Good Soldier Švejk'', written by Jaroslav Hašek and illustrated by Josef Lada (1992)

In addition to changing erroneous geography, Thomas, as mentioned earlier, strove to make an ethnographically-accurate translation that involved what must have been a nitpicking process of renaming tribes, social positions and wigwams. While a noble act in theory, Thomas’ foreword unveils a translation agenda that, by itself at least, is indifferent to May’s authorial intent: “Unfortunately, most of the ethnographic errors could not be removed. The reader will not have a true picture of the life of the Native Americans’ from May books” (Thomas, 2014, pg. viii). While a “true picture” is certainly a preferable authorial choice, Thomas is translating a work of fiction, not an ethnographic work of nonfiction. Applying foreign layers of fact into an artistic work risks additional consequences for the artistry of the novel. At the least, Thomas’ translation will be a product of its time and not a definitive translation.

The third eyebrow-raising stratagem was described by Thomas as follows: “The religions of the Native Americans were more varied than it appears in the book. May, essentially, projected a version of Christianity onto the Native Americans. This could not be fully removed, but wherever it was possible, it was toned down” (Thomas, 2014, pg. ix). While scholars could write encyclopedic volumes bemoaning May’s lack of inclusion of Native American religious beliefs —assuming he was even qualified to write about them in the first place—, Winnetou is not the average American Western, since as studies have shown, European Westerns have taken on a life of their own. As a translator of the most famous exponent of European Westerns, Thomas uses ethnography as a justification to cloak Winnetou in a domestic inscription that dilutes, and further anesthetizes, Winnetou’s European character; in this case, May’s “projection” of Christianity. Why Thomas followed this translation strategy is incomprehensible given that Thomas earlier on reveals a not-unsubstantial understanding both of May’s stylistic origins —written “in the style of village storytellers,” namely European villages— and moral objectives (Thomas, 2014, pg. vii).

Figure 5: Book cover of ''Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age'', written by Bohumil Hrabal (2011)

The fourth component of Winnetou with which Thomas took great liberties was related to race and prejudice. The issue taken here is less about whether it is right to sanitize May until he is politically correct and more about the translator’s chosen strategy. As Thomas explains, prejudicial or racist comments by May were deleted, such as the “comical” role of Bob, the black servant in Volume III, was eliminated. However, it was impossible to completely achieve this aim about certain Native American tribes: in May’s stories, the Apache are the noble people and any tribe hostile to them are mean and cruel (Thomas, 2014, pg. ix).

Ethnographic considerations aside, the main problem with this description is that after stressing the importance of ethnography and criticizing projection, Thomas, on the strategic front, projects a monolithic view of Native Americans, suggesting through implication that it was somehow strange in their tribes' idiosyncrasy to develop a negative perception about someone from another tribe. In addition to disregarding May's authorial freedom to take sides, this is artistically counterproductive when writing about good versus evil as a moral foundation; in order for good to vanquish evil, it needs an evil enemy to vanquish. Presuming that Native Americans possessed or were incapable of possessing no such understanding only compounds the problem. Keeping in mind Merriam-Webster’s definition of abridged as “shortened or condensed especially by the omission of words or passages” (Merriam-Webster, 2023), we get to the final issue: calling this an unabridged translation when, in fact, it is indubitably abridged.

Figure 6: Book cover of ''Winnetou III'', written by Karl May (n.d.)


Fraught as our present day is with a slew of social taboos, it can appear difficult at first glance to pinpoint the best translation strategy for Karl May. In this sense, the greatest European author of Westerns is a posthumous victim of his own popularity. Ultimately, however, it is apparent that present-day propriety will have to be sacrificed if Winnetou – or any other outstanding work by May with the same problems – is to represent the European Western genre in Anglo-America while also avoiding the dark, Orwellian path literature has been down before. As Cracroft observed: “though often more awkward than its American counterparts in its attempts at artistry and at cultural, anthropological, and topographical authenticity, [the European Western] mirrors not only nationalistic pride and national values, but often depicts a West stranger and more fantastic than the West evoked in the wildest American dime novel” (Cracroft, 1985, pg. 112). In other words, there is an obvious cultural benefit to the European Western existing in English translation.

While the European Western may be out of sync with today’s ideological trends – such as the aforementioned pride – it has all the discomfort-generating characteristics of cultural otherness all genuinely foreign literature possesses. Thomas’ translation of the Winnetou Trilogy may introduce many new readers to May. Thomas may even teach readers a thing or two about Native American ethnography that they wouldn't already know. But the translator in this case possesses an anesthetic strategy which seeks to render readers numb to that mysterious ingredient that – not unlike a fast-paced Western – makes world literature the riveting adventure it truly is.

Bibliographical References

Brisset, A. (2000). The Search For a Native Language: Translation and Cultural Identity. In L. Venuti (Ed.), The Translation Studies Reader, 343–375. Routledge.

Cracroft, R. H. (1985). World Westerns: The European Writer and The American West. Western American Literature, 20(2), 111–132.

Hasek, J. (1990). The Good Soldier Svejk (S. C. Parrott, Trans.). Penguin.

Hrabal, B. (2012). Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age. New York Review of Books.

Krasznahorkai, L. (2012). Satantango (G. Szirtes, Trans.). New Directions Publishing.

Merriam-Webster. (2023). Definition of ABRIDGED. Merriam-Webster.

Shaw, A. M., Tashquinth, M.and Schimmel, C. F. (1978). Pima Indian legends. University Of Arizona Press.

Thomas, M. A. (2014). The Translator’s Foreword. In Winnetou, The Chief of the Apache. CTPDC Publishing Limited.

Venuti, L. (2000). Translation, Community, Utopia. In L. Venuti (Ed.), The Translation Studies Reader, 468–488. Routledge.

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Felix Purat

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