Karl May Friends

A German author - translated into English - by a Swiss - in Australia
By Roland Isler, October 2010, for the December 2010 issue of ‘Edelweiss’, the publication for the Swiss Club of Victoria, Australia; www.swiss.org.au/swissclubvic

I found the profile of Marlies Bugmann on the SwissCommunity.org website. It caught my attention because she lists Karl May (1874-1912) as her main interest. I thought: “How unusual for a girl to be interested in that subject matter”. I remember names such as ‘Winnetou’ and ‘Old Shatterhand’ from my childhood, all definitely ‘boys stories’. I contacted her to find out more:

Editor: Marlies, as you are not familiar to Swiss Club members, can you tell us a little about you?

Marlies: Before I answer that question, I’d like to make a wee adjustment; Karl May’s adventure stories are not just boys stories; the feminine side of Winnetou is most definitely also for girls; it’s a yin-yang thing.

Editor: Fair enough Marlies, I just had the ‘Cowboy and Indian’ theme in my mind.

Marlies: To answer your question: during the translation of ‘The Inca’s Legacy’, I found my own roots going back to the mid-1500s. The first Bugmann came to Doettingen from the Black Forest. I have a large family, which is extending into the New World, but mostly to Chile and Argentina. After schooling in Doettingen and an apprenticeship as an architectural draftsperson, I immigrated to New Zealand in 1977, where I attained dual citizenship.

Editor: When and why did you move to Australia?

Marlies: I met my then husband-to-be, David, in New Zealand and subsequently came to Australia together with him in 1985. I worked in beautiful Sydney for a large architectural firm until we moved to Tasmania in 1988. We have lived on Australia’s island state ever since.

Editor: Let me get straight to the point: Where does your fascination with the writings and the person of Karl May come from?

Marlies: Happy childhood memories, and the wish to have a long term challenging hobby to keep my grey matter well-oiled. Researching an enigma like Karl May, as well as translating his works – reading the tracks he left behind – is more rewarding to me than the unravelling of SMSs or the workings of Wikipedia. Besides, when Pierre Brice, the French actor who became the silver screen Winnetou in 1963, a role which he retained until this day, signed his autobiography for me in 2004, something, from somewhere, pointed directly towards Karl May and the translation of his works. There are things in life that cannot readily be explained; my fascination with Karl May is one of those things.

Editor: Many ‘boys’ of my generation would remember titles like the ones I’ve mentioned above but know little or nothing of Karl May himself. Who was the man?

Marlies: My biography ‘Savage To Saint: The Karl May Story’, gives a good insight into Karl May’s life and essence; it is the first English biography of Karl May, and I’ve written it especially to answer such questions. The boy Karl May grew up under harsh conditions: poverty, starvation, civil unrest in Germany and the deaths of many infant brothers and sisters – something Karl May carried with him all of his life. He trained to be a teacher, and attained qualification; although the desperate circumstances, with starvation being a constant bed fellow, caused him to make a few mistakes – and he ended up on the wrong side of the law – and in prison, several times. Then, when he was released from prison, a lucky incident gave him the chance of a life time: the printing industry underwent a complete overhaul, and the readers of the weekly serial publications demanded stories from far away lands, adventure, exotic tales, and so forth, a demand fuelled by the mysterious, large, still-blank areas on the map of the globe, and by stories like how Stanley found Livingstone (1871), for example. The second lucky incident was his teaming up with Fehsenfeld, a publisher who saw May’s potential. After the publishing of the Winnetou trilogy, May became wealthy. Encyclopaedia Britannica lists Karl May as one of the most successful fiction novelists of all time.

Editor: I always wondered whether Karl May ever visited America to research the American Indians and the ‘Wild West’, or whether he was relying on others to write his stories?

Marlies: May travelled to the Orient for the first time in March 1899 for several months, and to America in 1908 for a couple of months. He was a very efficient researcher and as an editor in various positions he had access to the latest publications from overseas as well; he successfully combined current affairs with his own fiction, and found inspiration in the writings of his contemporaries.

Editor: Many readers, including myself, only know Karl May’s adventure stories. Was that his genre or does his work include more serious writings?

Marlies: May wrote in many different genres. Winnetou, for example, belongs to the travel fiction oeuvre. He began his writing career with short adventure stories set around the world; he was soon contracted into the pulp fiction world for which he wrote his now famous romance novels under pseudonym. Those were his colportage works. Then, of course there were the uniquely placed eight adventure novels, of which ‘The Treasure In Silver Lake’ is the most famous, which he wrote specifically for young readers. Some say they were the most innovative and progressive texts for young readers of his time; after all: he was a teacher at heart. Later in his life, from about the time when he penned ‘“Weihnacht!”’, or ‘“Holy Night!”’, he entered what is known as his ‘Spätwerk’, the works of the aged writer. He also wrote ‘Heimatromane’, novels set in his home country, music, poetry and even a stage play.

Editor: Are you the first person to translate Karl May into English?

Marlies: No. A very small number of Karl May’s works were translated into English during his lifetime already, some with his blessings, others were pirated; both ‘Winnetou’ and ‘Waldröschen’ (the most popular pulp fiction work of its time) were published in America, with different titles and under the translators’ names. Since Karl May’s works passed into the public domain in 1963, an increasing number of English translations have become available, some quite drastically censored and/or abridged. However, in 2008 I became the first author/translator to have translated and produced the entire unabridged Winnetou trilogy from Karl May’s last authorised version of 1909; it is the first publishing of the unabridged trilogy as a homogeneous work by a single translator in English.

Editor: Karl May is not your only passion I believe. On your profile on SwissCommunity.org it also says that you produced illustrated children’s adventure novels set in the Tasmanian wilderness. Tell us about that please.

Marlies: I take a great interest in Mother Nature; both in the environment that is around me and life on the planet in general. I have titled the series of six Childrens’ adventure novels ‘The Green Heart Books’, as Tasmania has the shape of a heart. The children from Sassafras Creek Valley are involved with Tasmania’s unique furry and feathered creatures on a daily basis and experience some nail-biting adventures. But the real heroes are KD, Tazzie, Lucky, Goldie, the parrots, dragons, and other animals that exist nowhere else on this planet. I’ve seen the disappearance from my backyard of the Tasmanian devil, the quolls, some wallaby species and others. It offends me greatly to see Tasmania being portrayed as the ‘clean green state’ when in effect its natural resources are plundered and exploited.

Editor: Any other books that you have produced?

Marlies: I continue to research and translate Karl May; I also have a small penchant for fairy stories and am going through the finishing stages of a Tasmanian fairy story book. But my favourite project at the moment is a small book of good-night stories for my youngest nephew in Switzerland. I wrote it in ‘Schwiizerdütsch’.

Editor: Are your books available through bookstores or should people be contacting you?

Marlies: My books are available in paperback via Amazon.com; the Karl May hard covers are only available from the Karl May Bookstore online: www.karl-may-friends.net; my Tasmanian children’s adventure stories are also available from my Tasmanianartist online facility: www.tasmanianartist.com.

Editor: Thank you very much Marlies for this interview. We wish you success with your writings and hope to see you at the Club one day.


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