Translating transculturality: Disentangling the entanglements of John Rabe’s identities across time and social space

Yingjie Zhang (University of Mainz, Germany)

“Meaning arises from becoming. Those processes which are usually called interaction arise from interaction. Among them is translation.”

Hans J. Vermeer. Versuch einer Intertheorie der Translation. Berlin: Frank & Timme, 2006, p. 35.

According to Hans Vermeer, translation is a catalyst “for the formation or dissolution of groups and societies” (2008/2009, 84), which means “there are no fixed borders” (2008, 7). Due to migration in which process translation is inevitable, interconnections of local and foreign components in language and culture have become common. Hence, translation studies needs new approaches, beyond the dichotomies of source and target languages and cultures, to the fuzzy linguistic and cultural forms today. One such case originates from the Nanjing Massacre, which occurred in Nanjing, then the capital of China, during WWII. The foreign residents who stayed established the Nanjing Safety Zone and elected German businessman John Rabe to be chairman of its International Committee. Occupied Nanjing created an ambiguous space where Rabe’s national and political identities, a German and a Nazi, helped to better protect the Chinese civilians from Japanese atrocities, as Imperial Japan had a closer relation with Nazi Germany than with Allied Powers. Rabe’s humanitarian efforts in Nanjing eventually won him a special cultural identity, “the living Buddha of Nanjing”.

This article focuses on John Rabe’s Nanjing diary (1937-38), Berlin diary (1945-46) and their Chinese and English translations in the late 1990s. It first presents a new research approach to narratives of linguistically and culturally interconnected history and their translations. It then uses this approach to disentangle the entanglements of Rabe’s identities across time and social space. How were his identities as a German, a Nazi and a living Buddha of Nanking perceived during the Massacre? How were these perceptions “translated” in 1945 and 1946 in Berlin? How did translation mediate Rabe’s entangled identities in the late 1990s? This article will show with John Rabe’s case that meaning created in a transcultural context tends to undergo selective mediation every time it is translated.


Mitter, Rana (2013): China’s War with Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival. London: Penguin Books.
Doff, Sabine/Schulze-Engler, Frank (eds.) (2011): Beyond ‘Other Cultures’: Transcultural Perspectives on Teaching the New Literatures in English. Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag.
Welsch, Wolfgang (1999): ‘Transculturality: The Puzzling Form of Cultures Today’, in: Featherstone, Mike and Lash, Scott (eds.): Spaces of Culture: City, Nation, World. London: Sage Publications, 194-213.