Jonas Engelmann about "In China" Certified translation. A productive misunderstanding in China
‘Looking back at the past fills us with pride. Looking at the future fills us with passion. Shangsheng Sports appears on stage with a dream and a confident call to the world’. It takes the graphic artist, Sascha Hommer, to China. In 2011, he spends four months in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, where he helps his friend Karl and Karl’s wife Linda in bringing out Citylife, the only English-language magazine about Chengdu. To keep himself afloat, he records commercials for Shangsheng Sports and other companies – texts produced by ‘certified translators’: ‘The sports industry is greatly more beautiful because of Shangsheng Sports!'
With skewed images and language that is always slightly off the mark, these ‘certified translations’ reflect just what Hommer is trying to achieve, namely to focus on the cultural misunderstandings that could arise as one approaches the ‘other’, the positivity and the creativity of difference.
"I think my books are always about the question of identity and about challenging subjective perception", he said in an interview.
His view of Chengdu is defined by expectations, projections and misunderstandings, with the city itself receding into the background of the drawings. In no way does Hommer try to draw a realistic picture of the megacity, to present his Western readers with what appears to be an authentic picture of China, but focuses instead on the interpersonal encounters that shaped his time there.
His alter ego wears a cat mask, marking him as the foreigner in the city, but also protecting his status in a way. It hides his identity as a German, yet the clothes are always an indication of what lies behind. And so Hommer wanders as a foreigner through a city that has 14 million people and as many cultural offerings as the small German town of Tübingen.
Sascha Hommer has prepared well for the journey, his theoretical and literary tools range from Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Straus to The Blue Lotus by Hergé. Books, which like Tristes Tropiques, describe the issues associated with approaching an alien culture, the limits and stumbling blocks of such encounters, and others like The Blue Lotus that may approach the unfamiliar seamlessly, yet there are projections and stereotypes behind the scenes.
In his book "The Research Report", Hubert Fichte asks his travelling companion and partner: "Do you get the feeling that the bartender is trying really hard to play the fauve because that’s what he thinks we expect of him?" Fichte, the writer from Hamburg, has always made a guest appearance in Hommer’s work; here he is also asking the very question that lurks just beneath the surface throughout In China: How does one look at a different country, the people living there, their culture, their daily lives, and how is one viewed in turn?
This is reflected in the question with which Hommer is confronted by a potential flatmate who has an image of him as a West European: ‘I imagined you to be completely different. Are you really also a German?’ Elsewhere, he enacts the difficulties he encounters when attempting to fully erase the eye of the tourist. Asked about his impression of Chengdu, he answers: "Plenty of rain and many construction sites. The traffic is atrocious, the food great. But these are after all just clichés. As a local, you must have a completely different view of the city." "But I don’t", says Ms Yun, "I am also not from here, but from Shanxi."
Hommer’s slow-paced, black and white graphic novel knows how to transfer the confusion felt by the protagonist to greyscale that threatens to swallow him time and time again. He is guided by the books that structure the graphic novel with each chapter being preceded by one or two titles. In addition to the daily experiences, they form the basis of what is narrated and how.
Arriving in a foreign country, for example, is based on "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu. The city is illustrated as a hostile environment, crowded streets, the grey house walls, rain. A survival strategy is called for and, as is often the case, is found in books that are translated into pictures by old Chinese warriors. Elsewhere it is Lao She’s novel, Cat Country that melds with Hommer’s view of the country; Herge’s The Blue Lotus is interpreted anew and the interpretation is revealed as a projection with the help of Lévi-Straus.
Hommer plays a game with the familiar and the unfamiliar, which forms a symbiosis in the graphic novel. Culture, as he shows, is a complex, ongoing process of negotiation. It can accommodate differences without establishing hierarchies, offer space for constructive misunderstandings and for new ways of looking at the other and at oneself.
“In China”Graphic Novel, 176 pages, ISBN 978-3-95640-057-5, Reprodukt, Berlin 2016.