A Platform for Open-Mindedness: On Interculturalism, Languages and Translation in ‘Merkur’

Merkur [Mercury] is a cultural journal that was founded 75 years ago, in 1947, and still exists today. For many years, it was also called the ‘German Journal for European Ideas’. According to Merkur, its main goal was to publish works on topics within the broad field of culture. This included connecting nations, disciplines, ideologies, and generations, and, as such offering a metaphorical “bridge” to bring them together. The journal wanted to prevent any kind of narrow-mindedness such as nationalism. Merkur was set up to be a room for discussion and a platform for many different voices, opinions, perspectives, kinds of text, and topics.

During my research on the journal, I realized that it was very open-minded towards the aspects mentioned above – and the large number of translated articles reinforced this impression. From 1947 to 1965, the journal published 337 translated articles. An impressive number of 137 translators translated these articles from 20 different source languages (see pie chart below) into German. Most of these translators were or are German native speakers, male, and writers themselves – some of whom even published their own works in Merkur.

A special feature of the journal in the period mentioned is that a few pages are devoted at the end of each issue to giving further information on specific articles. These passages often also indicate the authors’ names and their nationality (or nationalities) as well as the translators’ names. This way, Merkur was able to flag up those works written by foreign writers published in the journal. In doing so, the journal presented to its readership many varying points of view developed in the context of their historical, political, cultural and personal background. It thus suggested to German readers that they look beyond borders and gain different perspectives on the topics discussed. One might say that the journal created a frame that was international rather than national – more European than German.

The pie chart below illustrates the source languages’ share (in %) in all the translations found in Merkur for the given period. English, which is divided into American and British English, and French make up the largest part. The extensive use of texts originally from the French might be explained by the fact that the journal was founded in the French occupation zone and its founders were connected to France and the French language in one way or another. English as by far the greatest share could, for example, be the consequence of the French occupation zone being surrounded by both Anglophone occupation zones. Italian and Spanish are the third and fourth ‘major’ source languages to be translated for Merkur.

Furthermore, articles translated from comparatively ‘minor’ source languages were published in Merkur. These were, for example, Swedish, Norwegian, Hungarian, Romanian, Hebrew and Japanese. Even though in most cases their share is considerably smaller than that of the ‘major’ source languages in the period under focus, their publication was very significant – for the respective nations, the foreign writers, and the communication of culture within Merkur itself.

One example of those ‘minor’ source languages is Czech. There are four Czech articles in Merkur in the period of analysis: in 1950, 1955, 1960 and 1964. All of them were translated by the US-American Germanist Peter Demetz, also known as Peter Toussell, who is of German-Czech origin. In forewords to three of his translations, he discussed the role of Czech poets in the Czech Republic (formerly Czechoslovakia), in Europe or in exile. He introduced the readers to the poets’ biographies and focused on their political engagement, personal styles of writing and influence on Czech poetry. By using translation and the forewords as a medium, Peter Demetz gave his German readership a valuable insight into the historical, cultural and literary background of the poems. He emphasized that translations were necessary to make Czech poetry more visible, as there were various reasons – mostly political in nature – as to why few people were familiar with it. Thanks to Peter Demetz’s translations, those four poets and the Czech culture were introduced to German readers and their voices were heard.

Considering its manifesto, its use of translation and its conveyance of background information, one could say that Merkur managed to (re)unite the European nations. In a figurative sense, it also helped to overcome borders within a divided post-war Europe. Thanks to its publication of a vast range of cultural and political perspectives as well as translations from many different languages, Merkur made an important contribution to healing deep ‘wounds’ of distrust, nationalism and narrow-mindedness caused by the Second World War. In this context, translation can be seen as an important strategy to appreciate other cultures and opinions and foster respect and understanding towards the nations of Europe and the rest of the world.

Selina Miltner

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