5 years ago

Valediction for Hans J. Vermeer

Valediction for Hans J. Vermeer

His first publication

His first publication fifty-one years ago concerned Portuguese, which this talented polyglot probably mastered the best, out of and into which he interpreted, and out of which he translated a great deal, including literary texts, both alone and working together with Helga Ahrens and Margret Ammann. The second main area in which Hans Vermeer carried out research and published work was German language and literature studies. His first publication in this area also dates back fifty years: an article in a monthly journal for German and Romance languages on the Seuse quotes in a recently discovered manuscript from the mystics. He wrote many more essays on medieval German academic literature in the 1960s. He also wrote articles on the way India was portrayed in the German academic literature of the 16 th century and, later, several reviews on subjects such as the German spoken by Jewish people in Prague, dictionaries like the Wahrig published in 1966 (a milestone in modern German lexicography), Drosdowski’s universal dictionary published by the Duden editorial department in Mannheim and the grammar books of Harald Weinrich and Ulrich Engel. His third area of expertise encompassed linguistics and Indology. This would include his dissertation from 1962 in Heidelberg on the use of adjectival and verbal expressions in Indo- Germanic languages and whether these can be translated or not. We should also not forget his post-doctoral thesis from 1968 on the structure of central south-east Asian languages, where Vermeer discussed a possible Sprachbund (language crossroads). I have not read his work in this area, nor have I ever spoken with anyone who has read it or read any reviews about it. Did this academic spend five years in an ivory tower? Did his carefully researched and presented work on this subject disappear without causing a ripple? Were the only people to read and approve of Vermeer‘s opus magnum his thesis directors in Heidelberg? Was that really the case? Does everything we do end in this way? But I do not think he lived in an ivory tower at all. In the fourteen years between obtaining his degree in interpreting for Portuguese and his post-doctoral degree, Hans Vermeer, in addition to his extensive research, took on teaching posts: first as a lecturer for Portuguese at the Institute for Translation and Interpreting in the University of Heidelberg from 1954 until 1962, then as lecturer and tutor for south-Asian languages (such as Hindi and Urdu) at the South Asia Institute in the University of Heidelberg from 1962 until 1971. In the 1960s, his 2

study trips took him further afield to India, Ceylon and Pakistan, but also closer to home to Portugal and Austria, where he analysed documents regarding Portuguese Creole in Asia and some of the oldest linguistic works by European authors on modern Indian languages. Hans Vermeer remained true to his passion for history throughout his life. This was easily overlooked in the flurry surrounding this very modern translation theorist in the 1980s. No one has examined in depth what, for example, skopos theory owes to Vermeer the comparative linguist and cultural historian. If you were to count all of Professor Vermeer’s publications, you would reach the three hundred mark. And that would be without including his activities as editor for the TEXTconTEXT journal. Out of his three hundred or so publications, more than half fall under Hans Vermeer’s fourth area of expertise, translation studies. It is here that he has had the most impact on developments in academic thought. Vermeer’s foundational work on the development of a general theory of translation can be traced, in my opinion, back to his trial lecture when he applied to Germersheim in July 1970. Others will consider that it all began with his essay from 1978 with the title “Ein Rahmen für eine allgemeine Translationstheorie” (“A Framework for a General Theory of Translation”) published in the journal Lebende Sprachen. Or even in 1982, when he published his article “Translation als ‘Informationsangebot’” (“Translation as an ‘Offer of Information’”), again in Lebende Sprachen. Of course, we should not forget the book published in 1984 in collaboration with Katharina Reiss, Grundlegung einer allgemeinen Translationstheorie (Translation Theory Fundamentals), which is probably his most quoted work, although the quotes tend to focus on one of the central concepts, that of skopos. Hans Vermeer triggered heated discussions in the 1980s with his skopos theory, discussions which have not yet died down. It was “a spectacular entrance” Erich Prunc tells us in Einführung in die Translationswissenschaft (An Introduction to Translation Studies). Vermeer did indeed stir up the translation-and-interpreting-phenomenon hornet’s nest because it was much more than just an academic issue, much more than just terminology and a theoretical concept developed in an ivory tower. It was about the identity of a whole generation of academics: their understanding of their work and of entire disciplines. It was also about the 3

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