(Updated!) Tagung der Internationalen Robert-Musil-Gesellschaft 2020: «Musil (wieder) übersetzt – Musil (à nouveau) traduit – Musil translated (again)», Université de Lausanne (2.-4. April 2020)

Hans-Georg von Arburg's picture
Call for Papers
August 31, 2019
Subject Fields: 
German History / Studies, Literature, Languages, Intellectual History, Humanities

Even though none of his books were translated during his lifetime, the texts of Robert Musil (1880–1942) are now available in over 40 languages. At this rate, the number and quality of Musil translations represent an international reputation commensurate with his significance for the German-speaking audience. “The writer,” as Musil anticipated in 1916, “has become better known in translation than in his original language.” Yet, many in the German-speaking world are unaware of either this transformation or its effect on Musil’s international reception. This is, of course, an ironic situation for an author like Musil—a representative of “World Literature”—who has never been read in German by other international writers, such as J.M. Coetzee, Bora Ćosić, William H. Gass, Milan Kundera or Kenzaburō Ōe. Their access to Musil was mostly possible only through translations, which often had to bridge linguistic and cultural discrepancies. Nevertheless, or perhaps precisely because of this, such writers were able to successfully orient their writing and refine their own work in reference to Musil’s stimulus. Indeed, the irreducible differences between languages and the disruptions and interruptions that obtain amid texts in different languages can themselves function as productive irritants—aesthetic stimuli for creation.

Musil himself counted on this. He was well aware of the circulation of various works of literature in translation and their success through translations. He discussed the problems of translation intensively with his multilingual wife, Martha, and evaluated translations as either felicitous or problematic in his reviews and reading notes. As a reader who depended on translations throughout his lifetime, Musil realized that even in his own language, a writer is always communicating in a foreign tongue: “The relationship between speaking and understanding, translating from and into a foreign language is found in one’s own language. The writer, in relationship to his reader, writes in a foreign language”. He thus formulated an insight into the concept of all “understanding as translation” long before George Steiner’s After Babel, and even earlier than Walter Benjamin, who, in his Task of the Translator, wrote that translation was a process by which the translator brings the foreign text to maturity in his own language. Musil’s writing, therefore, despite its monolingualism, can also be interpreted within the paradigm of translation.

If this assessment is accurate, Musil’s literary significance can only be gauged through a precise examination of his diverse reception outside of the German-speaking world and particularly through a meticulous comparison of Musil translations in other languages. By extension, such comparisons will be all the more enlightening and informative, the more translations into one or into various target languages of any given text can be found. For example, in 1988, in a well-known sample analysis of a passage of “The Portuguese Lady,” Peter Henninger consulted fifteen translations in twelve languages in order to demonstrate how, at semantically “unstable,” i.e., unclear passages, the challenges of translating accumulate, thus revealing a “hidden meaning” in the source text. In 2007, Peter Utz took this one step further in the most recent book on this subject, by bringing various translations of The Man Without Qualities into an emancipated dialogue with the original text, a dialogue that both opens a way into and beyond the “original”. In general, it seems to be a special quality of Musil’s work that makes passages of semantic surplus or vacancy in his texts become more readable precisely in translation—as if exponentially accumulating meanings. Seen from this perspective, “transgressive” Musil translations and theories about Musil translations merely continue a mode of inquiry which Musil’s own texts already contain and suggest. Comparative translation study thus genuinely opens up a dimension already present in Musil’s own poetics. Therefore, it seems reasonable to utilize the transgressive potential of existing Musil translations for a broader general exploration. The area under investigation would be extended accordingly and encompass a larger body of text and a wider variety of languages. However, comparative studies of translations that include more than three languages and take into consideration both existing research regarding the process of translating or of literary studies of these translations are not yet readily available for Musil’s work. Thus, it seems that the time is right and ripe for this undertaking, considering further that, since the expiration of copywrite, we are observing an increase, not only in the intensity, but in the frequency of uncontrolled translation activity.

For the IRMG conference 2020: “Musil (wieder) übersetzt—Musil (re)traduit—Musil (re-)translated” in Lausanne, we have set ourselves the twofold objective of expanding the field of both text-immanent and of multilingual analysis of the theoretical and practical realms of translation work. The conference builds on problems and insights in this area, which hitherto have remained marginal in Musil research, in order to place them in a wider text context and move them into the center of methodological reflection. Thanks to the Klagenfurt edition and Musil Online, we now have optimal access to the materials necessary to do this work. The large number of translations and particularly multiple Musil translations and re-translations provide an excellent basis for research into translating, comparative macro-analyses as well as large corpus analyses. This work will make possible further evaluation of extant translations within the context of new quantitative and empirical processes in the digital humanities. Ideally, the results produced by translation studies in Musil research will have an impact on the field of translation studies in general, and will encourage and inform future Musil translators and their work.

Last but not least, the Lausanne conference hopes to improve networking conditions for the international Musil community outside of the German speaking world and to expand the Musil Online Portal into a multilingual Internet platform. In this respect, the conference considers itself a research initiative that puts current translations into productive dialogue with earlier examples of translation and reception and that eventually makes this dialogue easily and generally accessible in text and images. In addition to its geographical proximity to Musil’s last place of residence, Geneva, Lausanne offers an ideal cultural and academic environment. It is here that the third volume of The Man Without Qualities was published in 1943 by Musil’s widow Martha, as the first posthumous Musil publication. In addition, Philippe Jaccottet’s early French translations were milestones for the international Musil reception, from which further translations (e.g. into Portuguese) have been derived. With the Centre de traduction littéraire (CTL), the University of Lausanne also has a well-established centre for literary translation and its reception, practical, and aesthetic research with a wide international reach, thus offering the optimal conditions for the aforementioned conference goals.

Possible topics and questions are, i.e.:

  • Musil translations during his lifetime: (forestalled) European and international reception;
  • International contemporary Musil reception;
  • Musil’s position in current education and publishing institutions;
  • Musil in ‘small’ languages and literatures (Musil as an insider tip);
  • Re-translating Musil: Multiple translations as a hermeneutic challenge and economic reality (peculiarities of national markets);
  • Close Reading and Small-Scale Analysis: Translations and their post-structural analysis possibilities
  • Distant Reading and Large-Scale Analysis: empirical first steps and oeuvre studies;
  • Translational derivatives: Which Musil texts are missing in which languages and why?

Conference languages :

German, French, English.


Publication :

A peer-reviewed publication of selected contributions is planned in Musil-Forum (De Gruyter).



Paper abstract of 500 words max. until 31 August 2019 to all three organizers (email).


Contact Info: 


Bernhard Metz (Universität Bern/Internationale Robert-Musil-Gesellschaft IRMG), Hans-Georg von Arburg (Université de Lausanne, Section d’allemand), Irene Weber Henking (Université de Lausanne, Centre de traduction littéraire)



Université de Lausanne, Section d’allemand, Bâtiment Anthropole, CH-1015 Lausanne.

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