The Colgate Scene
January 2004

Fireworks going off in a cemetery

W.E.B. DuBois [Special Collection and Archives, W.E.B. DuBois Library, University of Massachutes-Amherst]

Hans Jürgen Meyer-Wendt, professor of German, emeritus, remembers clearly his reaction when he first read W.E.B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk more than 30 years ago.

"I was excited by the complexity of the mind that could write such a book," Meyer-Wendt recalled. "This man was a philosopher, a sociologist, a historian, and a great human being."

From the early 1970s until his retirement in 2001, Meyer-Wendt taught a general education course that included The Souls of Black Folk. He reread the book for each class and his admiration for Du Bois and his masterwork continued to grow. A few years ago, Meyer-Wendt decided it was time that someone translated the book into German. The German translation of The Souls of Black Folk, which Meyer-Wendt completed with the assistance of his wife, Barbara Meyer-Wendt M.A.'85, was released last April, the centennial of the book's original release. It was important to translate the book into his native tongue, he said, partly because of the two years (1892-1894) Du Bois spent as graduate student in Berlin, and because "this is a text that has a universal message."

The 1903 release of The Souls of Black Folk was "one of those events epochally dividing history into a before and an after," historian David Levering Lewis wrote in the first of his two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of Du Bois. "Like fireworks going off in a cemetery, its 14 essays were sound and light enlivening the inert and despairing. It was an electrifying manifesto, mobilizing a people for bitter, prolonged struggle to win a place in history."

The dawn of the 20th century was a time when lynching of African Americans went unpunished and the attitudes of mainstream American society toward the aspirations of its black citizenry were neglectful at best, but more often outwardly hostile. One of the notable books of the day was even titled The Mystery Solved: The Negro a Beast. "The national white consensus emerging at the turn of the century was that African Americans were inferior human beings whose predicament was three parts their own making and two parts the consequence of misguided white philanthropy," wrote Lewis, who delivered the 2003 W.E.B. and Shirley Graham Du Bois Lecture at Colgate in October.

Du Bois's analysis of the condition of African Americans a century ago is a major reason why The Souls of Black Folk remains relevant, asserted Charles (Pete) Banner-Haley, associate professor of history.

"This book is very important because it is a watershed document in American and African American intellectual history," Banner-Haley said. "On the one hand, it helps to define what America was about at the turn of the 20th century. On the other hand, it is a defining concept of the African American condition. It is important for the curriculum because it provides students -- many of them for the first time -- with an exposure to the way in which race as a social and ideological construct operates in American history. It also gives them a chance to see how modernity in America cannot operate unless the reality of race is taken seriously."


A century after W.E.B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk was first published, Professor of German, Emeritus Hans Jürgen Meyer-Wendt and his wife, Barbara Meyer-Wendt M.A.'85, completed the first translation of the book into German. [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Max Weber's letter
The noted sociologist, economist, and political scientist Max Weber initially proposed translating The Souls of Black Folk into German shortly after its publication. Nearly two decades before the publishing of his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber wrote to Du Bois about arranging for a German translation and even offering to do the introduction to the "splendid book." An especially exciting moment for the Meyer-Wendts during their work was being shown the original Weber letter by Du Bois's son, David Graham Du Bois.

"Can you imagine? The greatest sociologist of modern day says in this letter (dated March 30, 1905), `Your splendid work . . . ought to be translated [into] German," Meyer-Wendt said. "When I read this, I said `Wait a minute, I don't need any justification for the translation of this book.'"

Weber had suggested that the wife of a colleague, a Mrs. Elisabeth Jaffe von Richthofen, translate the book, Meyer-Wendt explained. In a letter to Du Bois in 1906, von Richthofen wrote of obtaining permission from the book's publisher for a German edition, but also of the difficulty of the task before her. "It will not be at all easy to do justice to your work and to succeed in bringing the German reader even close to the impression of vividness and, at the same time, charming simplicity of your language," she wrote.

"After mentioning her poor health, she wrote that she would send Du Bois a progress report on her work," said Meyer-Wendt. "I can only guess that either her health failed, or the difficulties in translating proved to be an obstacle. We are not aware of any further communication on the matter."

But in 1906, Meyer-Wendt added, the famous Archiv für Sozialwissen-schaft und Sozialpolitik (Archive for Social Science and Social Politics), which was co-edited by Weber, published a Du Bois article titled, "Die Negerfrage in den Vereinigten Staaten" (The Negro Question in the United States). This article, written in German, contains aspects of the sociological ideas examined in some of the essays in The Souls of Black Folk, Meyer-Wendt said.

While he may not have needed further justification for his project, Meyer-Wendt didn't have a publisher. Most publishers in Germany weren't interested in a century-old tome by a controversial African American intellectual who had been dead for 40 years. Meyer-Wendt's break came from Martin Baltes, who had taught in Colgate's German department as the first Max Kade Fellow during the 1993-94 academic year and now owns a publishing firm in Germany called Orange Press.

The actual translation took the better part of a year, with the Meyer-Wendts doing most of the work in their home in Colorado. His wife, Meyer-Wendt said, was his greatest help.

"I believe you should never translate a text into a language that is not your native language -- the one with which you are truly intimate," he said. "But even so there are obstacles. Fine tuning is needed. That is when you need someone who has an intimacy with the language of the original."

"I think the way we did it was the greatest way to translate. His main root is in the German language and my main root is in English," Barbara Meyer-Wendt said. "We know each other and each other's languages well enough that we can sit down and have a knock-down, drag-out battle about how to get this particular nuance into this phrase, without getting really mad at each other."

The reaction to the translation in the German media has been very positive, Meyer-Wendt said, with glowing reviews in publications such as Der Speigel and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and on the German television networks ARTE and SAT3.

"This has been my most satisfying experience since I retired," he said.

Lewis said that the "publication of a German-language edition of The Souls of Black Folk is a fine testimony to the enduring importance of Du Bois's splendid meditation on democracy, race relations, and the power of the pen to move society."

"One hundred years after Max Weber called for its translation, the appearance of Souls in German has struck a deep chord for the good reason, as Weber understood, that Du Bois's book transcends its American audience and speaks almost as saliently to the German cultural spirit," said Lewis. "The `folk' in the book's title can readily be construed as resonating with the sense of `Volk' imbibed by the young Du Bois as a graduate student in late 19th-century Germany.

"As his biographer, I would wager that Du Bois would consider that one of his most urgent wishes has been realized with the appearance of Professor Meyer-Wendt's German translation of The Souls of Black Folk."

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