In the game Chinese whispers, all the excitement lies in the emergence of new meaning, as a phrase is passed around and abandons its original wording. When it comes to transcultural migration of texts, however, distortion of meaning is met with a less welcoming response. Here, different interpretations are often dismissed as misunderstandings.
The case of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther serves to illustrate the dilemma of a text that moved far beyond its ‘intended audience’. After the novel’s enthusiastic reception in France, England and Italy in the 19th century, it also triggered waves of translations and adaptations in China and Japan in the early 20th century. Inevitably, Weite (Chinese for Werther) and Ueruteru (Japanese) depart significantly from the Werther portrayed in established critical discussions. Is is possible to engage these revenants in a dialogue?
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Johannes D. Kaminski studied German and Chinese at the University of Vienna. He received his PhD. at the University of Oxford in 2011 for his work on Goethe’s prose works. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge (2012-2015) and at Academia Sinica (2015 – 2017) in Taipei, Taiwan. From 2018 to 2020 he received a Marie Curie Fellowship at the University of Vienna. He is currently a scholarship holder of the National Scholarship Programme of the Slovak Republic at the Institute of World Literature SAS. In addition to Goethe’s work, he is interested in ancient Chinese literature and the issue of dystopia in contemporary literature.