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The novel that dwarfs ‘Game of Thrones’

TIAN YING | 2017-11-30
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


German sinologist Eva Schestag spent six years in translating the complete German version of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.


The complete German translated version of Romance of the three Kingdoms was published by the S.Fisher Publishing House in Germany early this year. In an article in the German newspaper Die Welt, following the publication of the first complete German translation of the classic by sinologist Eva Schestag, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms was described as thus: “It is as if the Song of the Nibelungs in the form of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings had come upon us; Game of Thrones is Kindergarten when compared to this.”

The translation of this Chinese masterpiece was an arduous mission. Entrusted to translate the German version of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Schestag described her feelings when opening the first page of the over-2000-page classic as losing her breath as if looking up from the foot of a high and steep mountain up to the peak. Having studied Chinese language and literature in Germany, Switzerland and China for more than 35 years, Schestag stayed for a long time at Looren Translators’ House in the mountains in Switzerland in a period beginning in 2011, to retreat from almost all burdens other than translating. “During that period of deep seclusion, I kept very little connection with the outside world,” she said.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, acclaimed as one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, is set in a turbulent history across the second and third century when lords of three kingdoms scramble for the rule of China following the decline of Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE).

“I am always obsessed with things that radiate ever-lasting glamor. They are elegant and transcend beyond time. Literary classics are exactly like this,” Schestag said. “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms was probably one of the most important Chinese classic novels and  it was an honor to have spent six years translating this masterpiece,” Schestag said.

“I was most impressed by several independent stories that shine like diamonds in the novel. For example, a seemingly absurd episode at the end of chapter 78 describes a scene of Cao Cao’s deathbed farewell to his beloved wife and concubines. Cao Cao apportioned the rare perfumes he collected to them and told them to devote themselves diligently to needlework and make plenty of silk shoes, the sale of which will support their lives.” Details like this were common in this labyrinthine novel, full of humor, wisdom and rhetoric, she said.

“There are numerous impressive figures in this novel and, Cao Cao was the most complex one. He was treacherous, deceitful and headstrong. Meanwhile, he showed respect to his competent rivals, Schestag said. “Influenced by Confucian ethics, the author Luo Guanzhong portrayed a more positive image of Liu Bei, a descendant of the royal Liu family and founder of Shu Han Kingdom while deprecating Cao Cao. However, Cao Cao was probably a more independent, powerful and realistic figure,” she said.

To Schestag, the motif of this Chinese classic is the clash between tradition, order and values as inherited from the forefathers, and pragmatism, necessary to adapt to the changing requirements of the modern world. This clash also exists in all cultures of all peoples, she said.