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Frankfurt Book Fair: They are must-reads – but who can read them?

Goethe-Institut PekingCopyright: Goethe-Institut Peking
One of 1,001 books (Photo: Goethe-Institut Peking)

14 October 2009

Sinologists, journalists, the chattering classes: they all have something to tell us about China. But only rarely at first hand – for how many people actually speak Chinese in the West? At the Book Fair the Goethe-Institut aims to draw attention to this glaring knowledge deficit with a special initiative. And that’s not all.

For many people it may be no more than a souvenir. When, in these days at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Goethe-Institut invites visitors to take home with them one of the 1,001 books that have been donated to the Goethe-Institut in China, most of them will only admire the picturesque characters, but not understand them. For, in this country, who can seriously claim that they are able to read a Chinese book in the original? Yet there is more to this event that meets the eye.

“The opening up of perception” in the Western visitors of the Fair; putting China haptically into the European bookshelves, emphasising – with charm and without moralising – that we actually know very little about China, this vast land with its 1.3 billion inhabitants. This is the aim. And not least: to point out to the media and publishing world of the West that in the past 30 years Chinese writers, artists and scholars have produced an abundance of works that finds next to no resonance in our regions. A fact clearly reflected in the statistics: of 80,000 new Chinese publications only 11 were translated – this year, due to the Book Fair, there have at least been 80 translations.

So is the Goethe-Institut from now on acting as a broker also for Chinese culture? “I am of the opinion that the Goethe-Institut should not simply be content with imparting knowledge about Germany to the Chinese. Conversely, we should also be imparting knowledge about China to the Germans,” says Michael Kahn-Ackermann, the director of the Goethe-Institut in China.

Hence the idea with the donation: Chinese readers were asked give a book that impressed them to German readers. “It was important to us, above all, that the donor explains why this book is one that will help the reader in the West to gain an understanding of China,” explains Kahn-Ackermann, ”particularly in case the book should be translated later, at some point, into English, German or French.” All the donors were therefore asked to explain why they were making a gift of this particular book and to say how they could be contacted. This short text was translated and placed between the pages of the book – the new owners of the books can then, if they wish, get in touch with the donor.

Writers-in-residence report

The exchange with China is also the focus of other events organised by the Goethe-Institut at the Book Fair. Today a discussion round with Chinese intellectuals and the President of the Goethe-Institut Klaus-Dieter Lehmann is debating the term “Nation” against the background of nationalist trends in China and the new patriotism in Germany.

Tomorrow the discussion Current Issues – Current Views will revolve around the possibilities and dangers of the internet – for the individual and for the state. Panellists in the debate will include Guo Liang, philosopher from Beijing and Stefan Niemann, for many years China correspondent of the ARD. On Friday, under the same title, the sociologists Claus Offe, Qin Hui and Yu Jianrong will be talking about the effects of the global economic crisis.

A further event organised by the Goethe-Institut showcases the connection between literature and migration, language and culture, under the title Around the world with Chamisso . Authors report on special encounters and insights which they gained on journeys commissioned by the Goethe-Institut or other organisations.

Experiences in foreign countries are also the subject of the discussion between German and Finnish authors at the Frankfurt Book Fair. In the context of the writers-in-residence project initiated by the Goethe-Institut, writers from Helsinki and Berlin, as well as from Tampere and Munich talk about what was familiar and what was strange during their sojourn in the respective foreign country.
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