Interview von Martin Kämpchen für die Zeitung Ceylon today (Sri Lanka).

Interview von Martin Kämpchen für die Zeitung Ceylon today (Sri Lanka).

Die Fragen stellte Ranga Kumar Chandrarathne

Erschien in Ceylon today am 31. Juli 2016

1.  Your first contact with India began as far back as in 1973 when you visited India as a German Lecturer and studied Indian Philosophy in Madras. How would you describe the beginning of your long journey of re-discovery of Indian philosophies in general and of Rabindranath Tagore in particular as a translator and bridge builder between the West and the East?

My initial aim when I arrived in India was self-discovery. I had worked hard and with full concentration on my Ph.D. at Vienna University. After this I wanted something quite different for a year or two before launching into a proper profession in Germany. I planned to become a cultural journalist. In 1971, as a youngster really, I had already spent three months in India on a government travel grant. So in 1973, I knew what I was in for and went straight to my destination: the Ramakrishna Mission Ashram of Narendrapur south of Kolkata where I was invited to stay as a guest. I taught German language at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture in Kolkata in the evenings and spent the day in the ashram reading and meditating and reflecting. I felt very privileged that I could stay in the ashram and lead a simple and inexpensive life. I believe I was the last foreign guest the Ramakrishna Order accepted in Narendrapur.

My discovery of Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda began right then. I read The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, a huge tome of Ramakrishna’s conversations with his disciples in English translation, and all the then eight volumes of Swami Vivekananda’s Complete Works. They have deeply influenced my life until today. But side by side I read the Christian mystics – Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Meister Eckehart and others. And literature. Oh, these were great four years of freedom and internal development. I had told myself that I would not begin writing in those initial years, but would first absorb and learn.


2. Since 1980s, you have been living at Santiniketan where Rabindranath Tagore started his school and University. There, you have been translating many of his poems from the original Bengali into German and you are considered a Tagore expert although you denied it. Krishnan Srinivasan in an article entitled The work of a liberal humanist  which was published in The Statesman [8th Day]  08 February, 2015, observes, “One of his most interesting chapters is one on Rabindranath and Count Hermann Keyserling. The latter met Rabindranath in India in the second decade of the last century and hosted him at Darmstadt in 1921, but the two men never met again. Keyserling continued to lavish praise on Tagore and both men aimed to achieve a synthesis of East and West. Both established non-formal schools of learning and their correspondence continued till 1938. Keyserling,  whose projects were aborted by the Nazis, died in Austria soon after the Second World War”.  What is the important role that the correspondence between Tagore and Keyserling played in the large corpus of Tagore’s work?

The quote you mention is from a review of my book The Hidden Side of the Moon (Niyogi Books, New Delhi 2014). It is a collection of essays which originally appeared in The Statesman (Kolkata). I have returned to Hermann Keyserling again and again in my writing.  I knew his son Arnold when I was a student in Vienna, and he helped me to meet interesting people in Kolkata by giving me letters of recommendation. Hermann Keyserling is a figure both fascinating and repulsive. His grandiose, self-congratulatory style, his compulsive talkativeness, his endless essays exasperated many. But his expansive personality, his insights into Indian thought, his fine observations in his hugely popular book The Travel Diary of a Philosopher (1918) which is still being reprinted, make him a figure one cannot ignore. His Travel Diary has, by the way, a chapter on “Ceylon”.

Keyserling and Tagore did not really have, I believe, a good personal chemistry. Tagore was wary of him, fearful of being exploited by the popularity-hungry Keyserling. They met in 1921 in Darmstadt near Frankfurt. Keyserling had opened his “School of Wisdom” and invited Tagore to be its first guest lecturer. Tagore spent almost a week in Darmstadt, conducting what is popularly known as the “Tagore Week” of the School of Wisdom. Thereafter they never met again although Tagore visited Germany in 1926 and 1930. In 1926, Keyserling expressed no interest to go and meet Tagore in Berlin although he stayed close-by at the time.

Keyserling’s about two dozen letters, all hand-written (or rather “hand-scrawled”), are preserved at the Rabindra-Bhavan archive at Santiniketan. They are mostly unpublished. Tagore’s letters to Keyserling were destroyed in the second World War when Darmstadt was bombed. Keyserling had retired to Austria to be safer. Keyserling’s letters mostly request or demand this or that from the poet: He wanted to contribute to the Visva-Bharati Quarterly, he wanted a review of his books to be published there etc. He also offered himself as a guide of Tagore on his trips in Europe and suggested who of the great and famous in Germany and elsewhere he should meet. Keyserling wrote on Tagore in several essays. He extolled his personality but showed scant interest in and knowledge of Tagore’s works. These short essays are revealing. I have exhaustively dealt with Keyserling’s relationship with Tagore in my book Rabindranath Tagore in Germany: Four Responses to a Cultural Icon (Shimla 1999).


3.  As Gertrud Althoff observed in an article about your book Leben ohne Armut  (2011) that your stories, such as Das Zicklein (1983), have amply explained the complex Indian concepts such as motherly worship of the Goddess Kali  (indische Muttergottheit, die  Schwarze Kali) to Western readers particularly in German.  How important do you think is the role of a translator as a bridge builder among diverse cultures?

The translator is the important bridge-builder between cultures. There is no culture without the spoken word and most of them now have the written word as well. Few tribal cultures in India continue with oral tradition alone. The written word has become all-pervasive as a cultural tool. So gradually we realize the importance of translation skills on the Indian subcontinent. Twenty year ago, there were hardly any professional translators and their work received sparse praise or criticism. By now, translators are normally acknowledged on the title page of a book and more and more mainstream publishing houses have a translation department. They, so far, focus on translations from regional languages into English. More and more, the regional languages need to interact with one another through translation work. Translation work is, actually, peace work. The knowledge of one another through literature and the performing and visual arts generates sensitivity and an acknowledgement of each other as a part of our cultural identity.


4.  She also observes that you have explained poverty in exquisite terms in your books titled Briefen aus dem Ashram and Leben ohne Armut . You have observed that money and gifts alone could not heal the problem of poverty and that money would not function as a medicine for poverty. Your comments?

Poverty alleviation is an extraordinarily complex and sensitive process – both when it comes to individuals and to societies. It is important to maintain the balance of facilitating this process through providing finance, skills and services and at the same time by challenging the motivation and urge to improve one’s life. Free money is needed only in emergencies, otherwise it is detrimental. Gifts harm the self-confidence and pride of poor people, and they do not activate the participatory role of the poor. They must always be involved and be made thinking partners. The “donors” must be constantly prepared to learn from the poverty alleviation process and to make adjustments as they go along. The dignity of the poor can so easily be bruised. But the reverse is true as well: Also the giving side is made of people who are vulnerable. The poor are indeed capable of emotionally exploiting others.


5.  Among the philosophers that you are interested in, Swami Vivekananda seems to occupy a prominent place and it is obvious that this abiding interest on your part prompted you to translate his works into German.  He played a prominent role in the process of globalization of Hindu Religion and also paved the way for the formation of Vedanta Societies. In your book titled Svami Vivekananda: Wege des Yoga (Verlag der Weltreligionen 2009) you have translated his important works into German. What is the vital role that Swami Vivekananda can play in this globalized milieu?

Indeed, Swami Vivekananda is important to me. He has demonstrated in his lectures the possibility of a “universal spirituality” that can be accepted by all irrespective of their own religious beliefs. He calls it Modern Vedanta. As a Catholic Christian I have immensely learnt from Vivekananda about the essence of mystical religion and its role in active life. Mine was not the first German translation of his works, but the first one with exhaustive notes and a scholarly introduction. Vivekananda’s impact in the western hemisphere would have been stronger if he had been more consistent and coordinated in his writing. His fiery temperament often got the better of him.


6. In your article Das indische literarische Dilemma, published in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine (25.05.2016), you have enunciated the cardinal issues of  Indian literature produced in the numerous regional languages and the kind of dilemma that translators find in translating such works into diverse Indian languages and into European languages. What are the inherent difficulties that translators find in translating such a diverse corpus of literature in equally diverse languages?

One major difficulty is that the global book market is but vaguely interested in literature from the Indian subcontinent. Its society is too complex, too multi-lingual and strange for non-subcontinental readers. Even though the literature may be superb, it is difficult to draw out its qualities in translations because they are from languages which have embedded in them cultures and societies so vastly different from the ones in European countries. Language carries the baggage of cultures, of religions, of history, of life-styles, of social classes. All this is expressed in a work of literature. How to transport all this into a language from another continent? Well, we must continue to try. I hear that the books that German publishers of literature produce are about 80% translations. This is a sign how open-minded and curious about the world German readers are. Indian literature, however, has only a tiny part of the book market. Sadly, no large mainstream publisher takes it upon himself/herself to promote the literatures of one of the important literature countries of the world.


7. In your article entitled Der Hinduismus als Denkweise – Hermann Hesses Beziehung zu Indien, you have extensively dealt with Hermann Hesses’s relationship with India and Hinduism as a way of thinking besides it being a way of life. How important is it in understanding Indian culture and also in understanding Hermann Hesse’s delicate relationship with India?

Very important question! It is little known and accepted that Hinduism incorporates not just a set of theologies based on sacred scripture, but a mentality, a way of thinking. This mentality is difficult to grasp and describe – here lies the problem. This mentality is strongly based on emotion and intuition. It prefers to view the world from ever shifting perspectives. The world never appears the same. The “objective world” that we grasp with our senses, is forever relative and escapes our cognitive powers. Hermann Hesse understood this existential mode of being and, perhaps unconsciously, tried to emulate it in his novels Morgenlandfahrt (Journey to the East) and Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game).


8.  You have extensively translated Rabindranath Tagore’s original Bengali works into German. This resulted in books such as Rabindranath Tagore: Das goldene Boot (2005) and Rabindranath Tagore: Gedichte und Lieder (2011). How important and relevant is his corpus of work in this digitized milieu and in understanding his deep philosophy of life?

Rabindranath Tagore will remain important especially in the digitized world. His deeply felt emotions and his cosmic consciousness remain precious in a more and more anonymous world where communication is via Twitter and Facebook and WhatsApp but rarely face to face. Don’t we see in Europe the yearning of ever more young people to have a real life of closeness with others? A yearning for friendship and partnership? A yearning for service among the needy? Look at the enormous response especially of the younger generation to the influx of refugees into Germany. Such overwhelming emotions are bound to be partly irrational or impractical, but the superbalanced people of today are the ordinary, the average, the uncommitted and those without imagination. Rabindranath showed how with an excess of emotion you can still have a life of duty and practical social commitment.


9. Apart from being a translator and cultural critic you are also a fiction writer and your collection of short stories such as PfefferkörnchenErzählzyklus aus Indien and Ghosaldanga and your novel Das Geheimnis des Flötenspielers portray Indian life in diverse parts of the country and you have vividly realized the diverse aspects of urban and rural life in India. In your novel , you have dealt with the social conflicts between city and village personified by the two main characters of the novel, the ambitious, educated Sona and the joyous daily-wage-earner  Bimal. Your comments?

I have not been successful as a writer of narratives. My novel was reprinted once and then disappeared. My short stories have appeared in niche publishing houses and fetch limited interest. I have longed to be a good fiction writer more than I wished to be an essayist and a cultural critic. My last attempt has been the story Ramu, the mountain boy for young adults about the children Ramu und Tara who grow up in a remote mountain village of Nepal. I am grateful that Ceylon today has serialized this story on its cultural pages in 2014. Soon it will be published as a book by Ponytale Books in New Delhi.

I emphasize narrative writing about the Indian subcontinent because it has such a rich primeval narrative tradition starting with the epics in Hinduism and the Jataka tales in Buddhism. Especially the simple folk breathe stories. They learn and imbibe the lessons of life through stories not by “commandments”.

To know the Indian subcontinent deeply, we must delve into its narrative literatures.


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