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. New York and London: Routledge, 2009. 260 pages. $128 (hardback).

In this revisited version of her PhD thesis, 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). Through a widely documented socio-cultural reconstruction, the author offers convincing evidence that children’s books were considered to be strategic tools for didactic and ideological purposes by the GDR socialist regime and that they were therefore subject to canonisation and censorship.

Although the general cultural and historical background of the study considers the whole time span of the GDR existence, the main research body concentrates on books published from 1961 to 1989. This for precise historic reasons: whereas before the 1960’s the state apparatus and ideology were still at a developing stage, after the building of the Berlin Wall a complete cut-off occurred between the East and the West. In the same years, censorship was formally institutionalised with the foundation of a special head office for publishing companies and bookselling trade, i.e. the Hauptverwaltung Verlage und Buchhandel.

Translation under State Control consists of two main sections. The first two chapters offer an in-depth analysis of the ideological aspects which influenced the publication of translated children’s literature. This section undertakes a close investigation of the East German censorship system. It shows that there was a direct connection between the socialist ideology propagated by the regime and the book selection process, and highlights the fact that a multi-level censorship mechanism was at work, with the Unity Party carrying out its ideological literary policies and the publishers self-censoring when selecting texts for translation.

The second section of the book, which includes the following three chapters, focuses on a series of case studies and highlights the ideological mechanisms at play in text selection and publication through a widely documented set of paratextual evidence. Following Gérard Genette’s theoretical framework, Thomson-Wohlgemuth analyses both print permit files, in which publishers justified their book choice to the censors, and afterwords, published in a large number of volumes. She thus demonstrates that literature was re-written not only to comply with the censor’s expectations, but also to directly guide and instruct the reader in the interpretation of the translated texts.

After reading Thomson-Wohlgemuth’s study, one is left with the vivid impression that the political regime in the GDR was similar to a stage director, pulling the strings behind the scene of a huge state production. The study offers interesting insights on the impact of political ideology not only on children’s literature itself, but also on the cultural, social and economic dimensions connected with it. The criteria for book selection and publication ranged from pedagogical potential to financial impact – especially as far as production and copyright costs were concerned – and they were invariably part of complicated and opaque bureaucratic mechanisms.

The whole of Thomson-Wohlgemuth’s discussion revolves around the fact that the GDR regime expected children’s literature to be an effective means for the all-round formation of a new kind of socialist human being. In this context, translation enjoyed the status of an important cultural activity and contributed to the growth of the national conscience. By 1953 translators were therefore officially acknowledged by the regime as “recreating authors”, through the establishment of their own separate institution within the East German Writers’ Association.

In this heavily institutionalised milieu, children’s literature was characterised by sharp contrasts: if, on the one hand, it had a very high profile and was widely noticed and debated; on the other hand, it was largely manipulated. In order to analyse this systematic manipulation process, Thomson-Wohlgemuth expands André Lefevere’s theory of patronage. In contrast with the common Western viewpoint, according to which publishers exert their influence from outside the literary system, she suggests that in the GRD publishers and editors acted from within the system itself, and methodically put into practice the directives issued from a higher authority. She then goes on to draw an interesting distinction between the role of publishers and translators, on the basis of their respective influence over the literary output. Publishers, in her opinion, were “rewriters of literature”, as they were in the position of acting as agents of the selection and adaptation processes, while translators were “rewriters of texts”, as they were in charge of performing the transposition of foreign books into German.

Overall, Thomson-Wohlgemuth’s study offers a clear and exhaustive outline of the editorial mechanisms at play in the literary production destined to children and young people by the socialist regime of the former GDR. Her book is no doubt a fruitful source of information both for scholars and for a more general readership interested in the cultural system of East Germany and of Eastern European countries.

Chiara Galletti
University of Tampere, Finland