Reviews 2010

Translation under State Control: Books for Young People in the German Democratic Republic

Translation under State Control: Books for Young People in the German Democratic Republic. Gaby Thomson-Wohlgemuth. London and New York, Routledge. 2009. 260 pages. $128 (hardback).

Gaby Thomson-Wohlgemuth explores the effects of ideology on the English-to-German translation of children’s literature under the socialist regime of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Drawing on Eagleton’s reflections about literary canon, Thomson-Wohlgemuth points out that there is a definite connection “between the literary output in East Germany and the doctrine maintained by the small group of people holding the power in that time” (225).

In the first three chapters, Thomson-Wohlgemuth demonstrates that party ideology was omnipresent and permeated the publishing industry at all levels. She makes clear that there was only one ideological view acceptable to the regime, namely Marxism-Lenism. In the first chapter, she analyzes the historical context of children’s literature in the GDR. In contrast to the marginalization of children’s literature in western capitalist countries, in the GDR children’s literature had a status equivalent to that of literature for adults. Children’s literature was to be seen as a privileged medium to educate children in communist ideology – “literary writing was regarded as a political articulation” (226) – which resulted in a predominantly “didactic literature” (226). A very famous author representing this ideological position is Alex Wedding, who started her career in the Weimarer Republic. In Ede and Unku (1931), she emphasized the idea of preparing children for a communist and socialist society.

After giving an overview of the highly political and ideological function of children’s literature in the GDR, in Chapter Two Thomson-Wohlgemuth analyzes the institutional context of the publishing scene. She highlights two publishing houses for children’s literature which gained a very important role in the GDR: the Kinderbuch-Verlag and the Verlag Neues Leben. The fundamental questions at the centre of her study are concerned with the ideological functions of translations of children’s literature in the GDR, how and under which circumstances it underwent censorship and how they fit in the canon of children’s literature in the GDR which was dominated by the educational interest, emphasizing realistic depictions of positive heroes.

However, children’s literature had not only a very important ideological role, it was partly used as a medium to articulate critical messages between the lines, mainly in using allegories and mythological or fantastic genres, like the author Christa Kozik did. As the GDR emphasized the genre of realistic children’s literature, other genres published in the era prior to the building of the Berlin Wall and the total separation between East and West in 1961 were underrepresented. The political function of literature for young readers explains why indigenous children’s books took centre stage and why translated English-language books existed rather at the fringes of the literary system.

According to Thomson-Wohlgemuth, English-to-German translations had two functions: first, to supplement those genres or text types which were rare in children’s literature produced within the GDR. And second, to translate books which presented similar ideologies to those of the GDR. This meant a kind of censorship that was multi-faceted and by no means limited to superficial textual changes. Translated books, including English-language books, had the task of supplying readers with the appropriate ‘correct’ insights. Much of the literature produced in capitalist societies “was rejected out of hand and books that were accepted were ‘reinterpreted’ for the socialist reader (226). Drawing on Lefevere’s theory of rewriting and patronage, rewriting in the East German context manifested itself in the “selection of ideologically suitable texts leading to the creation of a socialist literary canon. (…) The most visible form of rewriting took the form of text modifications, which were performed on the manuscripts during the translation process” (227). For instance, religious or violent references were nearly always eliminated from the texts.

The study clearly points out, that children’s literature in the GDR emphasized education, especially in the first period of the GDR. Popular genres like comics were only allowed if they purveyed the ‘right’ ideology. But one should keep in mind, that in the period immediately after Second World War, literary institutions in the Bundesrepublik Deutschland (BRD) also criticised comics as ‘shmutz und schund’. During the cold war, both the GDR and the BRD, tried to establish moral values through children’s literature, promoting pedagogical and didactic views on children’s literature. One could argue that, in the 1950s, the BRD also had a “literature with a mission” (228). Thomson-Wohlgemuth consequently draws attention to the fact that censorship is not limited to socialist East Germany or other totalitarian states, but may be extrapolated to all societies. In her conclusion, she considers the various forms censorship can take and questions whether there is a “moral border” between “acceptable omissions and unacceptable ones” (231). Unlike totalitarian states, pluralist societies operate on the principles of self-determination within a free market structure. Yet, as Thomson-Wohlgemuth argues, the principle of making profit can also be considered a type of censorship, as it has great impact on which books are published.

Sabine Berthold
Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany