Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: August, 2014

Vancouver : the end of the line

Vancouver is “the end of the line” in several ways. It was the end of the line for the Canadian Pacific Railway. It was the metropolis at the end of Canada’s expansion westwards. It’s where Canadians look out to Asia (I mean that metaphorically, of course, because Vancouver Island is in the way). It is also where Asia comes to meet us. Could it be the end of the line for the hegemony of Western man?

In a famous poem Keats wrote about the Spanish conquistadors standing “silent upon a peak in Darien”, when, having made it across the Atlantic, they looked over the other side of Central America and saw a whole new ocean that they would have to cross if they wanted to get to Asia. It is the greatest shock for Empire-builders to discover that the world is just too big for them to conquer. Hadrian built his Wall in the North of England to keep out the barbarians he could not subdue, and there must have been a melancholy feeling to it: “ne plus ultra” – thus far, and no farther. The Roman Empire kept expanding till it could expand no more, till it met the stranger peoples who would eventually overrun it.

Remember the entrepôt ports in Asia, and the European Concessions in the 19th century? Vancouver seems to me now to be an entrepôt port in reverse, a concession in reverse. It has become a foothold of Asia in the Western world.

There was always a large Chinatown in Vancouver. Chinese workers built the Western section of the Canadian Pacific Railway. But long ago the Chinese-Canadians burst the bounds of their historic quarter of Vancouver and spread to the suburbs. Now new waves of Chinese-Canadians have come, the biggest one being after the return of Hong Kong to China in 1999, but there have been more every few years. The newcomers are remaking the city in their own image.

Vancouver seems to me to be the place where, already, even now, we can see the East overtaking the West. I sensed it when I arrived there as a young stranger nearly forty years ago – I got as used as any native-born Vancouverite to the sound of Cantonese being spoken on the street every day – but I did not realize what it meant. I realize now.



Journalism and translation

I often have to do journalistic translation. I translate from French, German and Italian into English, most often for Swissinfo (, where there are always articles to be translated from the national languages of Switzerland.

Indeed, I have done all kinds of translation in my time, by with journalistic translation you have to do much more than just translate word for word. You have to adapt. You may have to explain things that are obvious to readers of the other language. In particular, you may have to explain concepts peculiar to a particular country that do not have an exact equivalent in English.

But most of all, you realize that doing journalism is different in different languages. It is a matter of style and rhetoric rather than content. It has to do with the way you write a newspaper article, in particular. In English, the meat of the story has to be at the beginning; you cannot expect the reader to read a couple of paragraphs before he knows what the article is about. In other languages, this may not be the case. Again, some languages are more rhetorical, in that the writer may pose rhetorical questions. This is hardly done in English. The way of writing a headline is very different too.

Why is the way of writing an article so different between languages? It is not that there are even explicit rules. It is just that people imitate what they have read. New journalistic articles are modelled directly on existing articles. Budding journalists copy the style of these articles, because that is how you “sound professional”. And of course they are only likely to read journalism in their own language.

All too often, translated journalism sounds lifeless. You need to make it attractive for the English reader – while resisting the temptation to vulgarity. Anglo-American journalism now has a characteristically breezy, flippant tone about it that is getting increasingly hard to dispense with when you write in English.

There is something else to this business, too. If you anglicize (adapt culturally) too much, you will rob the reader of the chance to read something really different from his usual fare. When you think of it, there is no necessity for English-language journalism to be the way it is. It has just got that way. If we homogenize other voices in journalism when we translate them into English, we lose the opportunity to let these other voices influence English mainstream journalism.

When you read journalism in other languages, media from other countries, you realize how much variety there is out there. The goal of translation should be to preserve that variety, or at least give some reflection of it. At the same time, translation makes you reflect on the nature of journalism – which is why I am glad to do it.

Morning Land and Evening Land

We talk about the East and the West, the Orient and the Occident. We forget the images or metaphors that are enshrined in those words. The Orient is the land of the rising sun, the Occident is the land of the setting sun. This is of course the way Europeans see the world. For them, the sun seems to come out of Asia, and it seems to go down into the ocean on the other side of them.

It all depends on where you stand, of course. The Japanese like to call their country the Land of the Rising Sun, because they are the first in Asia to see the sun rising out of the Pacific due east of them. And it is only natural that they would use a phrase like the Setting Sun to refer to something sad or catastrophic, namely Japan’s war dead.

German calls the Orient das Morgenland, namely the Morning Land. It sounds fresh and optimistic, and it is. Hermann Hesse often wrote about Morgenlandfahrer or journeyers to the Morning Land, meaning Europeans going to the East in search of new spiritual wisdom. German similarly refers to the West as das Abendland, the Evening Land. There is always a potential for sadness in that metaphor. Amid the appalling destruction of the last war, another German poet, Hans Carossa, wrote an elegy beginning with the words: “Has evening come over us, o Evening Land?”

Of course, the last war only meant the temporary destruction of Germany and of Japan. Both of them rebuilt from the ashes. Meanwhile Europe recovered, gave up the idea of nation against nation, and became as prosperous as it had ever been. But two world wars had fatally weakened it, and the leadership of the Western world passed to America. Europe had become “Evening Land” after all.

There is a special poignancy about the metaphors now, when the West as a whole is gradually being eclipsed by the East on the world stage. Europe and America are more and more “Evening Land”  – one might even be tempted to say “the Setting Sun”.

The two Hermanns

This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Hermann Gundert. Hermann who? Well, he is best remembered today as Hermann Hesse’s grandfather. The author of Steppenwolf and Siddhartha wrote several times about his grandfather, who made a great impression on him as a boy and stimulated his interest in Asia. In fact, when he went on a sea voyage in 1911 to visit India and Ceylon, he was following in the old man’s footsteps.

Who was Hermann Gundert? He was a missionary who went out to India in the mid-nineteenth century to work in what is now Kerala and spent most of his working life there. German academic linguists were already busy exploring Sanskrit as the key to the Indo-European family of languages. Gundert learned some Sanskrit at university, but when he went out to the South of India he was confronted by something completely alien. The southern Indian languages were all related, but not to Sanksrit; they were not Indo-European. A formidable linguist, Gundert set about mastering them. He first learned Malayalam, then he went on to Telugu, Tamil and the rest. In fact, he produced the first modern grammars and dictionaries of Malayalam and some of the other languages, drew up programs for their teaching in the new Western-type schools being set up by the British, started publishing newspapers and books in them, and of course, as a good missionary, translated the Bible into them. This was all the beginning of what is now called Dravidian studies.

In Kerala and the south of India they have not forgotten about Hermann Gundert. There as well as in Germany they are currently honouring his 200th birthday. As for his grandson, Hermann Hesse was pleased late in life to hear that Siddhartha had been translated into Malayalam. He thought that, in a strange way, his book had come home.

The young boy Hermann Hesse knew his grandfather just as an old man living in retirement in Germany. But even then he remained a powerful and mysterious figure. In fact, the picture of Hermann Gundert that emerges from his grandson’s scattered reminiscences is of an old magician, a trickster-teacher. He was like the statue of dancing Shiva that he had among his library of books in strange languages. It seems clear from all of this that Gundert, though a Christian missionary, had learned a lot in Asia, maybe even more than he had taught. To this extent, he was an early Morgenlandfahrer – voyager to the East – a member of the brotherhood that Hermann Hesse wrote about and called into existence.

Switzerland for Chinese

Rumour has it that is about to get easier for Chinese visitors to travel to Switzerland. This is not out of kindness to the Chinese, according to reports in the newspaper NZZ.

It seems that Swiss hotels have been getting a lot of fake bookings from China. When the guests don’t show, they can’t collect any penalties from Chinese credit-cards. The reason why this is happening at all is because European consular offices in China have been insisting on people having a hotel reservation before they issue a visa for the Schengen travel area, which includes Switzerland. The visa from one Schengen country is good for all the others. Chinese like to go to Swiss consular offices for their Schengen visas, it seems, just because the Swiss have the reputation of being quick and efficient in handling the applications. But to get the visa from the Swiss, they are supposed to have a hotel reservation in Switzerland. The Chinese will therefore book a Swiss hotel, any hotel, just to get the Shengen visa, even if they are not going to Switzerland at all.

So there! The Swiss hotel industry is nudging the Swiss government, and it seems that the government is going to respond by getting the European countries of the Schengen area to drop the hotel reservation requirement.

Meanwhile lots of Chinese visitors are in fact coming to Switzerland. They come for the scenery and most of all to shop – for chocolate, Swiss army knives, watches and other luxury goods. What else? One can assume that they know as little about the country as Swiss or other Westerners going to China. They can’t speak the language(s) and have only the vaguest and most stereotyped notion of the history or the culture of the places they visit at lightning speed, shepherded by efficient tour guides. Asia-Europe and Europe-Asia tourism is a growing thing, but alas, it is still a “dialogue of the deaf”. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were people to receive you in the country you were visiting who spoke your language – spoke the other language too – and really could initiate you to understanding the place and the people? Then tourism might lead to international understanding.