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?