Scholars & Intellectuals

Hermann Bohner

I wrote this post while on a postdoc at the Trier Center for Digital Humanities at the University of Trier from 2017 to 2019 and edited it for accuracy and clarity on January 26, 2022.

A red folder containing a typescript manuscript translation of Zeami’s Ongyoku kuden (1419, Oral instructions on singing)

Trier, Germany Living in Germany and working at the University of Trier, I dream of the chances I had in Japan for coming into contact with archival material. In October and November 2009, for example, my advisor at the University of Tokyo Prof. Matsuoka Shinpei organized an exhibition of the Kanze collection of manuscripts that included many by Zeami in the Komaba Museum. Now I don’t have many opportunities here to hold archival material pertinent to my field of research in my own hands. For a lot of my work now, I use digital archives of primary materials, such as the Kanze Archive, and I have to travel to Japan to look at rare documents that are only available in physical form.

However, I am also interested in translations of pre-modern Japanese texts into European languages. It was through translations that I first encountered Japanese literature. Those early encounters gave me an incentive to stick to my studies. I wanted to read the originals. It’s through that personal experience that I came to understand that translations foster awareness of and curiosity for literature beyond language barriers.

In German, two translators have grappled with Zeami’s treatises. Oscar Benl (1914-1986) produced the more famous translations of seven treatises published by Insel in a beautifully bound volume in 1961. In working with such a popular publisher, Benl edited his translations for clarity to appeal to the market and, in the process, sacrificed some precision found in an earlier version (2). The second translator was Hermann Bohner (1884 ‑ 1963). The German Society for East Asian Natural Studies and Ethnology (Deutsche Gesellschat für Natur- und Völkerkunde Ostasiens) published Bohner’s translations of seven treatises (3-9). Watanabe Kō notes in a short biography of Bohner that he translated all sixteen treatises available at that time (10). That comment made me wonder, where were the rest and what were they like?

Therefore, I was excited when I discovered six entries in the University of Trier library online catalogue that I had never seen anywhere else. They were marked Ms. for “manuscript,” but had no signatures, which means they were not readily available on the library shelves. Librarian in charge of the Chinese and Japanese collections Dr. Klaus Gottheiner was able to give me more information. These were not original manuscripts, but photocopies of typewritten translations by Bohner that he had corrected and edited in pencil. The photocopies were from the estate of Thomas Immoos (1918-2001), a Swiss Roman-Catholic missionary and Sinologist, who also lived and taught at universities in Japan.

Dr. Gottheiner showed me the photocopies, each in a red folder bound with metal clasps like the one in the image above. It appears to me that the penciled corrections were written onto the originals by Bohner rather than onto the photocopies by him or someone else. Some parts are difficult to read because the originals appear written on the back of paper with various headers such as for telegrams from Hamburg to Osaka or for the K.K. Irisu Shokai Group. The contents look as meticulously crafted as the seven published translations. Some penciled notes are difficult to decipher, but might be identifiable from contextual information.

Translations such as this show how texts were interpreted at a particular time in history. Many of the manuscripts include introductions by Bohner. In the introduction to Go’onkyoku jōjō, he writes that in this text Zeami first established the notion of five-part program of noh plays. (This is a reference to the modern five categories of noh plays and cannot be confirmed as a standard program in Zeami’s day.) Bohner also claims that in the development of this structure it’s possible to identify Zeami’s “basic genius” (Grundgenie), where he later crossed out “genius” and inserted “theme” (-thema). Can this claim be explained on the basis of the Hegelian idea that an artist shows his genius by imbuing a work of art with a central an idea that works to bring it together in a cohesive whole? This idea was certainly a topic of debate with regard to noh and Zeami in early 20th century Japan.

I still have many questions about Bohner and his work: Where is his estate archived? Did Bohner really translate sixteen treatises, and if so where are the remaining four? Did he refer to manuscripts and Yoshida Tōgō’s first publication or only to Nose Asaji’s annotated edition? What was Bohner and Immoos’ relationship and did they exchange other manuscripts?

But at the same time I hope that other scholars will continue to experience this pleasure of discovery when they come across archival materials. Of course, once digitization makes such materials more accessible, scholars will be have to look in other areas beyond the digitized canon of literature if they want to make archival “discoveries.” (I put that word into quotation marks because archived materials are clearly already accounted for.)

  1. Benl, Oscar, trans. Die geheime Überlieferung des Nō. Frankfurt am Main: Insel-Verlag, 1961.
  2. Benl, Oscar, trans. Seami Motokiyo und der Geist des Nō-Schauspiels : Geheime kunstkritische Schriften aus dem 15. Jahrhundert. Abhandlungen der Klasse der Literatur / Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur Mainz. Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1953.
  3. Bohner, Hermann, trans. Blumenspiegel. Bd. 1. Die sechs Motto. Deutsche Gesellschaft für Natur- und Völkerkunder Ostasiens. Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 1953.
  4. Bohner, Hermann, trans. Blumenspiegel. Bd. 2. Die zwölf Themen. Deutsche Gesellschaft für Natur- und Völkerkunder Ostasiens. Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 1954.
  5. Bohner, Hermann, trans. Buch von Der Blume. Deutsche Gesellschaft Für Natur- Und Völkerkunder Ostasiens. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1985.
  6. Bohner, Hermann, trans. Buch von der höchsten Blume Weg: = Shi-kwa-dô-sho. Tokyo: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Natur- und Völkerkunde Ostasiens, 1943.
  7. Bohner, Hermann, trans. Der Neun Stufen Folge : Kyû-i-shi-dai = 九位次第. Tokyo: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Natur- und Völkerkunde Ostasiens, 1943.
  8. Bohner, Hermann, trans. Nō-saku-sho = Buch der Nō-Gestaltung. Deutsche Gesellschaft für Natur- und Völkerkunder Ostasiens. Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 1954.
  9. Bohner, Hermann, trans. Shū-dōsho. Kyakurai-kwa. Schriften d. 3. Schrifttumsperiode d. Meisters. Deutsche Gesellschaft für Natur- und Völkerkunde Ostasiens. Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 1961.
  10. Watanabe, Kō. “Hermann Bohner (1884-1963): Einer der ersten deutschen Japanologen.” In Brückenbauer: Pioniere des japanisch-deutschen Kulturaustausches, edited by Inge Hoppner and Japanisch-Deutsches Zentrum, 236–43. München: Iudicium, 2005.