Kakehashi Literature Prize: A Bridge to the Work of Arno Schmidt

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany has been building a bridge between Japan and Germany by way of the Kakehashi Literature Prize since 2014.


Japanese German philologist Jun Wada and the Arno Schmidt Foundation won the Kakehashi Literature Prize in 2014 for the translation of the story “Seelandschaft with Pocahontas” (Lake Scenery with Pocahontas) and service to the legacy of Arno Schmidt.

Pornography and blasphemy — "Seelandschaft mit Pocahontas" was the scandal of the book world in autumn 1955. The legal complaints were taken seriously and the prospect of a three-year prison sentence loomed. The author of this controversial work, Arno Schmidt (1914 – 1979), was already contemplating exile in Switzerland or the GDR, but he finally decided to simply flee from the Catholic judicial district of Trier to the more liberal one of Darmstadt. He expected to receive greater understanding for his Wortkunst there, and he was justified. The case against him was dismissed in summer 1956.

“This scandal was one of the aspects that interested me most,” said the 28-year-old scholar of German language and literature Jun Wada. It took him more than three years to complete the first-ever translation of this story into Japanese. Except for a number of essays, there had previously been no Japanese translations of works by Arno Schmidt, the eloquent author of modern classics. “The translation of his works into Japanese poses a number of real challenges,” Wada adds. He can hardly take his eyes off the original manuscript of the story, which Bernd Rauschenbach, the director of the Arno Schmidt Foundation, has just placed before him.    

Jun Wada holding the original “Seelandschaft with Pocahontas” manuscript with Bernd Rauschenbach in front of Arno Schmidt’s former residence in Bargfeld. Jun Wada holding the original “Seelandschaft with Pocahontas” manuscript with Bernd Rauschenbach in front of Arno Schmidt’s former residence in Bargfeld.

Bernd Rauschenbach (left) and Jun Wada in front of the entrance gate of Arno Schmidt’s former residence in Bargfeld. Wada’s translation is based on the commented facsimile edition of the original manuscript, which he is holding in his hands.

A kind of love story

Since October 2014, Rauschenbach and Wada have shared not only their passion for this author, whose original texts are sometimes hard to understand even for German readers, but also the Kakehashi Literature Prize. “Kakehashi” is the Japanese word for “bridge building” — and that is exactly what translators, and the foundation, are doing.

The work that has fascinated both Japanese and Germans is a kind of love story. Two former fellow soldiers, one of whom embodies all the characteristics of the author Arno Schmidt, spend a few days on the banks of the picturesque Lake Dümmer in northern Germany. In a guest house, they meet two women and fall in love with them. Two couples soon form, but they go their separate ways at the end of the holiday. The final line of the story is “My head was still hanging full of her clothes, and I didn’t answer.” 

Between the beginning and the end of the story are excursions, thought experiments, and mind games. There are satirical attacks on the conservative republic under Adenauer’s chancellorship (“... CDU — I’d rather eat my hat...”) and on religion (“the bigoted Rhineland: Even the wind can hardly wait to leave when it blows through Cologne.”). And there are passages that some condemned as pornography (“We sped away, riding each other...”). 

All of these elements are connected with numerous literary and historical allusions. The natural surroundings appear to be alive, as they are in Expressionism. And woven throughout the work is the story of the Indian chief’s daughter Pocahontas, who married a white settler in 1614; one of the two female characters is described as looking like her. Quotations from popular songs and advertisements underlie the text, which is written with a seemingly casual disregard for correct spelling. As a result, even contemporary German readers find passages of the text puzzling. Some people joke that the text should first be translated from its initial German into contemporary German. And someone has now managed to translate it into Japanese?    

Seelandschaft mit Pocahontas’ was one of the aspects that interested me most!

jun wada

Japanese German Philologist

Fascinating humor

"What fascinates me about Schmidt is his humor, his writing style and, yes, the difficulty of translating his work," said Jun Wada in retrospect. As he was translating the story, he conducted in-depth research into the history of West Germany and scrutinized almost every word to discover its double meanings, secondary meanings and connotations. After that, he tried to convey this wealth of ideas and forms with the help of the three Japanese writing systems Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana. In addition, some elements of the story had to be explained in footnotes. For example, Schmidt often uses homonyms, which cannot be translated directly — for example, the German word "Heide," which can refer to either a plant, a landscape or a heathen. Elements like this make the work of translation both difficult and fascinating.

Arrogance as a mask

Wada first read the story during his year as an exchange student in Vienna ("I went to Austria because I like coffee!"). He was already fascinated by Schmidt as a writer and a human being. He believes that Schmidt was a warmhearted man who was interested in others, a vivid contrast to the scornful and arrogant expression he assumes in many photos. "But to me that expression seems only a mask, because in conversations he showed exactly the side of himself that Jun Wada has identified in his texts," says Bernd Rauschenbach as he remembers his meetings with the author. In 2013, Wada, encouraged by his professor, the translator Miho Matsunaga, wrote his Master’s thesis at Waseda University on Arno Schmidt’s writing technique ("photos"). After receiving his degree, he was hired by the Tokyo city administration and since then he has been working in the urban planning department. ("It may sound unusual, but it works for us," he says.)

Nevertheless, his fascination with Schmidt persisted and he eventually published initial excerpts from his translation of "Seelandschaft" in professional journals. This attracted the attention of the Goethe Institute in Japan, among others, to this highly gifted translator and his tremendous perseverance when it came to traversing difficult texts. Wada considers the Kakehashi Prize not only a prestigious award but also an obligation to translate other works of Arno Schmidt. So it is no surprise that in autumn 2014 his honeymoon trip with his wife Aya, who is also a German philologist and an expert on Rilke, first took them to Lake Dümmer, the setting of Seelandschaft mit Pocahontas. 

The next stop on their journey was Cordingen, which Schmidt chose as the setting for "Schwarze Spiegel" ("Black Mirrors"), a somber and prophetic Robinson Crusoe story that takes place after the human race has been almost completely destroyed by nuclear war. "This story, as well as ‘Leviathan,’ will be my next translation project," Wada says. During his trip he was a guest in Bargfeld, a village that was Schmidt’s last place of residence and is now the home of the Arno Schmidt Foundation. Here the author’s literary executor, Bernd Rauschenbach, took his fellow prizewinner on a tour of Schmidt’s house, which has been preserved in its original state, and finally to the block of stone under which the ashes of the author and his wife are buried. "Herr Schmidt, what do you intend to write next?" Jun Wada called out to him under the broad sky of northern Germany.    

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany: A tradition of promoting literature

In addition to the Kakehashi Prize, Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany presents a number of other literary awards. “He had a gift for making apt and incisive judgments,” wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe about his friend Johann Heinrich Merck (1741 – 1791). The EMD company has honored this tradition since 1964 with the “Johann Heinrich Merck Award” for literary criticism and essays, which it presents annually together with the German Academy for Language and Poetry in Darmstadt (the award is endowed with €20,000). 

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany has also presented the “Merck Tagore Award” for the promotion of German-Indian cultural exchange since 2012 in India. The Tagore Award is named in honor of Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature. Some of Tagore’s works were translated into German by Elisabeth Wolff-Merck, a member of the Merck family, to make them available to German readers.

Since 2003 the company has also funded the Premio Letterario in Italy, an award that recognizes authors who build bridges between literature and science. Through the Kakehashi Literature Prize, which was first awarded in 2014, the Goethe Institute in Tokyo and the EMD, which sponsors the award, jointly honor an author (or his or her literary executor) and a publisher or translator for building a bridge between Japan and Germany. The prize is endowed with €10,000 for each recipient.

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