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  • World Authorship as a Struggle for Consecration:Christa Wolf and Der geteilte Himmel in the English-Speaking World
  • Caroline Summers

Die tiefe Wurzel der Übereinstimmung zwischen echter Literatur und der sozialistischen Gesellschaft sehe ich eben darin: Beide haben das Ziel, dem Menschen zu seiner Selbstverwirklichung zu verhelfen.

(Wolf, “Selbstinterview” 33)

While many writers from the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) are unfamiliar to readers outside the German-speaking world, Christa Wolf is an author with a “world” presence, whose work can be read in more than thirty different languages. This international profile was established by the publication and translation of Wolf’s Nachdenken über Christa T. (1968; The Quest for Christa T., 1970), a text that impressed one American reviewer with its “earned rather than fashionable” ambiguities and its “disdain of politics” (Pawel), seeming to rise above the political tensions of its context; Wolf’s popularity increased during the 1980s following the publication of Kassandra. Vier Vorlesungen. Eine Erzählung (1983), which acquired what Anna Kuhn describes as “almost cultish popularity” (191) through its English translation in 1984, before the context of her authorship was dramatically altered by German reunification. Her standing within Germany was profoundly affected by the subsequent Literaturstreit that surrounded the troubled publication of her autobiographical narrative Was bleibt, as well as her 1993 revelation in the Berliner Zeitung that from 1959 to 1962 she had operated as an Inoffizielle Mitarbeiterin. However, since reunification, and regardless of these controversies that have (re)positioned her as embedded in a specific literary context, translations of Wolf’s writing have continued to emerge and to circulate, making her one of the most important intellectual ambassadors of the GDR both before and since its collapse: responses to her death in 2011 demonstrated the extent to which she was mourned by readers and critics all over the world as an author of international importance. Wolf’s considerable international success, in spite of the obstacles that may have been posed by her identity as an East German writer, raises questions about how this [End Page 148] identity has been mediated and managed alongside the translation of her texts for an international audience.

Wolf’s established position in what might be described in Bourdieusian terms as an international literary field belies the fact that she did not experience immediate success in translation into English, the dominant language in that field. Her first translated text was not Christa T. but her 1963 narrative Der geteilte Himmel (GH), which appeared in English in 1965. Attracting little response at the time, Divided Heaven (DH) has continued to be overlooked in accounts of Wolf’s writing but in fact reflects significant tensions at the heart of her international authorship: while English-language reviews and marketing consistently suggest that Wolf’s appeal to world literature develops through her engagement with “universal” experience despite the limitations of her cultural context, her writing repeatedly identifies a “tiefe Wurzel der Übereinstimmung” (“Selbstinterview” 33) between “real” literature and specifically socialist society. This connection, explored repeatedly and in detail by Wolf but often marginalized by her English-language translators, editors, and reviewers, problematizes the mediation of Wolf’s East German authorship for an international audience. The East German identity Wolf wishes to embody (that of the self-critical but committed socialist and humanist writer) is not compatible with images of East Germanness that have dominated at various times in the target literary field, and has frequently been subject to mediation. This tension is clearly visible in the translations of Der geteilte Himmel - texts that serve as much to mediate a certain image of the author as they do to render her texts in English.

Published at an early stage in Wolf’s authorial career, Der geteilte Himmel combines the author’s critical engagement with socialist realism and the developing subjective-authentic narrative style that would characterize her later, more successful translated texts such as Christa T. The text’s explicit engagement with its political context subverts the habitus of an international literary field dominated by anglophone literary cultures and has failed to find acceptance, or consecration (Bourdieu, e.g. Field of Cultural Production; Casanova), in translation. The 2013 retranslation of the text, They Divided...


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