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Kieu© Nha Xuat Ban The Gioi

"The girl Kieu" by Nguyen Du
How Irene and Franz Faber came to write a German adaptation of "The girl Kiều"

The book Das Mädchen Kiều, the German adaptation of the verse epic “Truyện Kiều” by Nguyễn Du (1765-1820), was first published in 1964 by Berlin-based publisher Rütten & Loening, one year shy of the Vietnamese national poet’s 200th birthday. It was the first translation from classical Vietnamese literature in the former GDR and in the German-speaking world in general.

Trương Hồng Quang, Berlin-Biesdorf, 02.06.2020

In the international context, the German adaptation is one of the first complete ‘Kiều’ translations alongside numerous French translations, the first of which was published in Paris as early as 1884, with twelve others to follow. It is remarkable that the German translation is the world’s second lyrical adaptation after René Craissac’s French translation from 1926. Two other noteworthy facts: The German adaptation was translated directly from the Vietnamese original (albeit with the help of a special bilingual Vietnamese-French edition from 1951, which will be discussed in more detail below). Also, the German adaptation took seven and a half years (1956-1964) to complete, which likely makes it the most time-consuming endeavor among the approximately 60 different ‘Kiều’ translations into more than 20 languages.
Irene und Franz Faber 1942 © Hồng Quang Trương A succession of lucky and highly unusual circumstances led the couple Irene and Franz Faber to become the creators of this adaptation. Irene Faber, born into a Sorbian family in Senftenberg near Cottbus, worked as a foreign language correspondent in a trading company in Berlin before the end of the war. She was an exceptionally talented linguist who was proficient in five foreign languages (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian). Franz Faber, born in 1916 to a middle-class family from Düren (North Rhine-Westphalia), also enjoyed a thorough humanistic education in his childhood and youth, including six foreign languages: Latin, French, Greek, English, Arabic, and Hebrew. From 1938 until the end of the war, he served as a soldier, first on the Western, later on the Eastern Front, ultimately in Russia. In 1941, while Franz was still stationed in Normandy, he got to know Irene through the “front-home” letter post. The two subsequently corresponded exclusively in French. One year later, they got married in Senftenberg. Their first son was born in 1944. Towards the end of the war, Franz was taken prisoner by the Soviets and was not released back to his wife’s hometown until 1952. Following a rather accidental encounter with the later writer Erwin Strittmatter, then editor at the district editorial office of the “Märkische Volksstimme”, Franz Faber practically became a journalist from one day to the next, first working as district editor in the Uckermark. Two years later he was promoted to head of department for the “letter to the editor” section of “Neues Deutschland”, the major daily newspaper in the GDR.
Franz Faber und Präsident Ho Chi Minh © Hồng Quang Trương In this role, but in particular being the only editor at “Neues Deutschland” who spoke French, Franz Faber travelled to Vietnam in the fall of 1954 at the invitation of President Ho Chi Minh. His original mission was to cover the battle of Điện Biên Phủ alongside renowned international authors such as French writer Madeleine Riffauld and Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett. This mission failed, however, since Faber was not able to leave China for Vietnam until October after the battle was over. Nevertheless, his first stay in Vietnam provided the decisive impetus for what was to become his and his wife’s life’s endeavor, the German poetic adaptation of Kiều. As a farewell gift, Ho Chi Minh presented Franz Faber with the 1951 bilingual Vietnamese-French ‘Kiều’ edition by scholar Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh, along with a subtle hint: “Perhaps you can do something with it.”
Before Franz Faber received this Vietnamese-French Kiều version by Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh, he had already come across another prominent French edition of ‘Kiều’ while he was in Hanoi, René Craissac’s 1926 lyrical translation. However, he quickly became convinced that the French poet had actually ended up “making a Marianne out of Kiều”, which contradicted his idea of a congenial translation of the epic. Back home, Faber initially intended to base the German translation on the French prose version and explanatory notes by Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh. Irene Faber, however, rejected the notion of translating via a third language. And since both of them did not know any Vietnamese whatsoever at the time and had only a rudimentary understanding of Asian-Vietnamese cultural traditions, they put the translation project on hold for the time being. That changed in 1956, when a language teacher from Vietnam came to Humboldt University to teach Vietnamese. Irene Faber then began to learn the language, mostly in private lessons, which Franz Faber would sporadically join, as well. It was mainly up to Irene to directly unlock the original language-version of the work. The fact that the translation process ultimately took more than seven years was due to Irene Faber’s diligence and deep respect for the original, the poet and the people who had generated such literature. During this long period, she not only compiled thousands of index files on key words, phrases, or classical metaphors of the original, but she and her husband also studied the foundations of Far Eastern culture and history, especially Buddhism. Many years after his wife’s death, Franz Faber wrote that the adaptation was met with such great acclaim “not only because of Irene’s linguistic accuracy, but also her special sensitivity for foreign worlds and lifestyles, for the philosophical thought world of other cultures.”
In two other contributions - a short German-language sample analysis of the prologue of the epic, and a longer essay in Vietnamese - I tried to interpret how Irene and Franz Faber’s joint efforts are reflected in the textual form of their adaptation and how a specific form of poetry emerged from it. Let me conclude my brief account of this origin story with the following considerations. On the one hand, there is the seven-year joint effort by Irene and Franz Faber, with Irene doing the actual translation work with the highest standards of philological meticulousness, and Franz as the creative writer of the German lyrical poetry. Beyond this specific project, their union was a marvelous encounter of two remarkable German biographies: Franz, the Francophile Wehrmacht soldier from the Western German town of Düren; Irene, the polyglot foreign language correspondent from the Eastern German town of Senftenberg. It is a great love story set in the turmoil of 20th-century German history and thus not unlike the immortal love between Kim Trọng and Thuý Kiều in the classic verse epic “The Girl Kiều” by Nguyễn Du from the late 18th century. The fact that the project became their life’s endeavor and at the same time the most profound and significant monument to the linguistic-cultural bond between two previously foreign peoples, is a story worth telling, especially at a time when it seems that almost any certainty and self-evidence may crumble from one day to the next.