Sonntag, 1. November 2009

Karl May - From Savage to Saint

Walter-Jörg Langbein introduces:

Marlies Bugmann –

Some time in her early twenties, Marlies left Switzerland for a new life in New Zealand. She chose to acquire New Zealand citizenship and is proud to be able to call herself a Kiwi. In 1988, together with her Australian husband, David, she moved to Tasmania and has lived on Australia’s island state ever since.

Her passion about the rare and threatened Tasmanian fauna and flora inspired a series of illustrated children’s adventure novels set in picturesque Tasmanian wilderness, titled »The Green Heart Series«. Her own Bernese Mountain Dog, Bertie, inspired Swiss Tradition In »Black And White«, a compact work about the history of this Swiss icon.

The author Marlies Bugmann became the translator. In 2004 she began the translation of the Karl May novel “Holy Night!”. The book, followed by more of Karl May’s works, was published in English. His novels, which are so often set in the Wild West, are, thus, made accessible to an English speaking readership. In the meantime, more excellent English translations of Karl May’s works have become available (incorporating some interesting resarch results), created by Marlies with scholarly skill and loving care: for example the Winnetou trilogy or the Old Surehand saga.

With the fundamental Karl May biography Savage To Saint: The Karl May Story, Marlies Bugmann erected a monument to possibly the most successful German language writer. No true Karl May aficionado can afford to be without it!

I, myself am reading Karl May, and have done so since my earliest childhood. Karl May kindled my curiosity about the ‘big wide world’, about adventures and treasure hunters, about other cultures and ancient ritual structures of long-since vanished eras. I was honoured when I was permitted to write a short review for what I regard as one of the most important books about Karl May’s life and work.

In my review, I wrote:

»›Savage To Saint‹ follows Karl May’s development, his seemingly unbelievable progression from the child who grew, through bitter poverty, into a young man who failed as a member of society…from the young and desperate lawbreaker to the old philanthropist and philosopher who already more than one hundred years ago formulated surprisingly modern thoughts about the great human conundrum.

Savage To Saint‹! It is a book about being human, deeply philosophical and as full of suspense as an adventure novel! It is one of the most important books I have ever read!«
Marlies Bugmann opened a wide gate for Karl May and his work—for the English speaking world. Her website: enjoys great popularity!

(Translation/Übersetzung: Marlies Bugmann)

Karl May - »Savage to Saint«
Karl May. There is a very distinct and certain set of sentiments, or emotions, that surface inside every European, who has ever seen a Karl May movie or read a Karl May novel, when they hear or read the name Karl May. Do any Karl May readers truly realize why this is so? After 1962, and ‘Der Schatz Im Silbersee’, my life changed, very subtly, minutely, but it did. I looked at my surroundings in a different light; at my fellow human beings with different eyes, and gave my games a different meaning. I was 8 years old at the time, however, I still remember that impact. Forty-seven years after ‘Silverlake’, I began to translate Karl May, and, to my surprise, sense the force behind that ‘change’.
Karl May in front of the Niagara-falls
The motivation for writing a book differs from author to author, but one thing remains constant: each book a writer writes (each painting a painter paints, each sculpture a sculptor sculpts) is suffused by his/her own essence—by default. It is also a direct two-way dialogue; between the artist and his/her work because the work itself speaks to its creator and furnishes the prompts for the next step in the evolution of the work as well as the artist. That was true for Karl May, that is true for me and ought to be true for everyone who creates art in any way, shape or form; if it isn’t, it’s not true art.

Savage To Saint, the micro-biography of Karl May and show-case of his works (focusing solely on Winnetou and May’s Wild West works), was a bare necessity for my translation work. Translating Karl May, as I soon found out, wasn’t a straight-forward two-way street between the creator of the translation (myself) and the final product (the translation); by definition, it is a triangular relationship, and each partner in the relationship, Karl May, the translation of his text, and myself as the translator, is equally dependent on the other two for authentication of all three. By charting his life, his philosophy, his work—or rather, the slice that represents his Wild West work, as well as Winnetou and Old Shatterhand’s relationship—I not only gave a new audience a glimpse into the paradox that is Karl May, which might explain why especially German-speaking Europeans approach native Americans differently, with a greater capacity to open dialogue, but also realized that, as a translator, I have an immense responsibility to correctly portray and interpret the original creator of the work.

Savage To Saint came into being because of a need to ‘understand’ Karl May’s chaos, as that is what I encountered when I tried to put pieces of his puzzle together. As much as writing Savage To Saint was a logical extension of my translation work, it was also a very personal journey. Karl May held up a mirror in front of me and asked: Can you live with my chaos? Can you respect my mindset? Can you represent me as I am? Can you understand what I am trying to bring across? Once I understood the questions, it was a matter of finding the answers. It was I who had to give the answers: ‘life IS chaos; I wish my own mindset to be respected by those around me; I abhor pretending to be something I’m not; I detest being misrepresented’.

Those and many other questions surfaced and, by retracing the steps of May’s life, the answers also arose—some effortlessly, some with great soul-searching. I’m surprised at the many times I now reach for Savage To Saint in the course of my translation work to refresh my memory about a detail, be it of historical importance, part of a plot or of a biographical matter and have, in that sense, achieved my objective—on one hand that of having created a living work with Savage To Saint, and on the other that of having answered the question implied in the opening passage: ‘Why does Karl May evoke such deep and undeniably polarized emotions and responses?’ Because he was honest—regardless of the fictional cloak of his parables!

Writing Savage To Saint was a simple confirmation for me that the adventure of writing a book must be accompanied by the ‘baring of one’s soul’, by the act of being ‘honest’—being yourself—only then will it ‘speak’ to the reader because a book is, obviously, a piece of communication, a dialogue, not a monologue. To borrow Karl May’s sentiments: a book written by a writer with a ‘buttoned-up coat’ might be a promotional success, but will have no spirit. Savage To Saint presents Karl May’s soul, in the guise of Winnetou—as I interpret it, which, in turn, also reflects my own spirit, which isn’t unlike that of Karl May.

Marlies Bugmann, Tasmania, 2009

Australian Friends of Karl May


  1. Thank you for the opportunity to give an insight into May's and my journey through 'Savage To Saint'. Writing about the life of someone so complex as Karl May was a tremendously enlightening experience.
    Marlies Bugmann
    Author/Translator: Savage To Saint: The Karl May Story

  2. Thank you for »Savage To Saint«. Reading it is indeed an enlightenig experience and does help to understand Karl May...better than any other book! Thank you! - Walter-Jörg Langbein


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