Reading Austrian Contemporary Writers in India:
Debates and Controversies

Amrit Mehta

If one publishes a literary magazine that brings out only translations from foreign languages, one has to deal with a readership of a different kind. The quarterly magazine Saar Sansaar, which I have been publishing for the last ten years, caters mainly to intellectuals from the Hindi-speaking belt. Though these readers are acquainted with the literatures of other countries, which they know through translations of the originals from English, the fact remains that they are starved for modern literature from other, mainly non-English-speaking countries. Elfriede Jelinek, for instance, was an unknown entity, when she received the Nobel Literature Prize, even to the English-speaking reading public in India.

Saar Sansaar publishes more texts from Europe than from any other region due to the shortage of translators of non-European languages. German has a special place in the magazine, with the highest number of texts published from this language. If translations from other languages are not available, then I have to fill all 64 pages of the magazine with my own translations from German.

The number of texts by Austrian authors is much greater than that of German and Swiss authors. I like to translate Austrian literature first and foremost because of the element of the “absurd” present in most of the Austrian literary works. The other major reason for my love of Austrian literature is the multiculturality of this literature, which can be gauged even from the names of many leading Austrian authors, such as Peter Turrini, Radek Knapp, Thomas Glavinic, Milo Dor, Zdenka Beckerova, etc.

There are numerous realistic reasons as well. The Austrian agencies responsible for the dissemination of their literature abroad, e.g. the Federal Chancellor’s office, the Austrian Society for Literature, Kulturkontakt, etc. are conscious of the fact that a translator is the most important link binding two cultures at people’s level. They always express their gratitude to the multiplicators of their culture in other countries. Even the Austrian bureaucracy goes out of its way to honor and thank those who translate Austrian literature. A translator gets his honorarium with all respect, and for this purpose the red tape is reduced to the minimum. In short, the Austrians are really an easy lot to deal with, and Vienna is a relaxed, multicultural city.

I have had unpleasant experiences with German agencies responsible for the spread of their literature in other countries, viz. the Goethe Institute and Inter-Nationes. They expect their translators to be thankful to them for getting an honorarium. Their system of disbursing honorarium to their translators is humiliating. In India, German literature is translated into Indian languages through a filter language, viz. English. The German cultural diplomats in India prefer to get their literature translated by their personal friends, who have no or little knowledge of German. No self-respecting translator in India likes to translate for Germans. I have refused to do it a number of times.

Since most of the texts I translate are very contemporary – from a few months to 2-3 years old –, their lasciviousness sometimes astounds Indian readers, as they are not exposed to the latest literature from German-speaking countries. The first irate communication I received was, surprisingly, against the use of certain obscene expressions in Günter Wallraff’s Ganz unten, which has been serialized in the magazine for a long time. The reader, a well-known Hindi writer from Ambala, was so vexed that he called me licentious, accused me of spoiling Indian culture through importing “decadent” Western culture via my magazine, and asked me to stop sending him the magazine in the future. Later on, a number of readers – mainly editors of literary magazines, writers, critics and college and university teachers – found prose by Austrian writers like Margit Schreiner, Margit Hahn, Monica Wogrolly, Zdenka Becker, Gustav Ernst, etc. too offensive to find a place in a literary Hindi magazine.

While Hindi writers like Rahi Masoom Raza, Saadat Hasan Manto and Mahendra Bhalla, etc. have faced the hostility of the common folk for using explicit expressions and situations in their prose, they were still accepted by the intelligentsia, but the latter-day intelligentsia seemed not to expect such things from a literary magazine. Even though Rajendra Yadav of Hans and Shailendra Sagar of Kathakram have also published texts with sexually explicit expressions and situations, the argument given in their favor is that the obscenity in the texts published in their magazines had some significance, as they conveyed some social message or other, whereas the Austrian authors were just pandering to the basic instincts of their readers. I thought to ascertain directly from some Austrian authors whether this was indeed so.

In June 2004 I visited Austria at the invitation of the Austrian Society for Literature and talked to and interviewed authors on this subject. On my return I presented their views to the readers of Saar Sansaar in order to provoke them into an open debate on the issue. The magazine then published selected readers’ letters in the issues between October 2004 to January 2006: 23 of these readers are writers, nine are academicians and another nine are editors of literary magazines. The reactions came from nearly every region of India, from Ahemadabad to Orissa, and from Himachal to Hyderabad. The majority of readers did not find the texts in question offensive and expressed the view that one should not look for one’s own culture in another culture. What follows is an analysis of the opinions expressed by some contemporary Austrian authors and the reactions of Hindi readers of Saar Sansaar to these opinions.


The authors interviewed were Andreas Weber, Gustav Ernst, Margit Hahn, Margit Schreiner, Marianne Gruber, Wolfgang Fischer and Zdenka Becker. Of them, only Fisher’s work has not been published in Hindi, whereas Marianne Gruber, Margit Schreiner, Andreas Weber and Zdenka Becker’s books, and Gustav Ernst’s and Margit Hahn’s short texts are available in Hindi. The readers of Saar Sansaar already know them through their work.

The succinct reaction of Wolfgang Fischer was that “Sex has never been a taboo in Europe; hence it would be a futile exercise to discuss the imposition of limits on an author in this particular context.” Marianne Gruber believed in the freedom of the author to choose his/her language, words and situations – even if they were pandering to the basic instincts of their readers – and in the freedom of the readers to read or not to read such literature. Margit Schreiner also subscribed to this view. Andreas Weber thought that one had to keep the demand of the story in mind when deciding to use such material: “If it becomes crucial in a situation to use expletives or describe a sexual act, then one has to become direct. Sex is life, and intercourse is a basic need of life, and this cannot be kept out of literature.” According to him, literature is a mirror of society, and there is no society in any part of the world that is free of homosexuality, lesbianism, incest, etc., and no reason why a faithful translation should appear weird to readers in another culture. Zdenka Becker was of the opinion that an everyday routine cannot be diluted; sexuality, eroticism, vulgarity, obscenities, etc. are routine matters for ordinary people in every culture. Margit Hahn went a step further and said that for the advancement of society it was essential to write sexual literature. Ernst was even more radical in his stance, declaring “Sex is life, and a writer writes about life.”

On the social aspects of presenting sex in literature, Becker talked of exposing the brutal side of humans, and especially of men. This feminist storyteller, in her own words, deliberately presents a sexual situation in a brutal manner, where sex is used for insulting or oppressing fellow humans. She sees it as necessary to unmask the reality of women being exploited physically owing to economic reasons. Gustav Ernst was of the view that sex distracts people from criminality, whereas Hahn had an elaborate reason to offer: “Every human has an aggressive streak in him/her; it is better that one tries to sublimate it through some less aggressive hobby, e.g. sex, which is also violence, but sublime violence.”

Some of the authors admitted that sex and/or obscene words should not unnecessarily be brought into narration. Becker said that she avoided using the ‘f’ word and did not portray situations graphically, and believed that other authors should not do so either. She found Hahn’s writings repulsive, as, according to her, “she only wants to shock people; in her stories there is more pain than euphoria; her only aim seems to be sexual arousal.” Weber also did not favor lasciviousness in a text if the story did not demand it. Talking of Monica Wogrolly, another erotic writer, he said, “What she writes is not literature; she belongs to a separate school of ‘erotic writers,’ that is the reason she has received prizes for ‘erotic writing,’ and not for ‘writing.’”

Ernst and Hahn did not agree with the toning down of graphic descriptions or obscenity in literature. Their argument was that, since they write only erotic literature, they would rather present the undiluted form of this to the reader.

Strangely enough, readers did not find Margit Hahn too offensive, but 80% of them wished that Ernst’s text, which was an extract from his novel Via Condotti, should not have found a place in the magazine. This novel is about a middle-aged married couple that go to Rome on vacation, secretly nurturing a desire of having an extra-marital affair there, in which they finally succeed. Only a Muslim reader, Tariq Aslam ‘Tasneem,’ an academician and the editor of a literary magazine, praised Ernst for his bold story. Others opined that Ernst’s depiction of sex for the sake of sex amounts to pornography. When Ernst and Hahn were asked whether critics accepted their literature, their reaction was that some conservative critics did not like their books, but by and large they did not get bad reviews.

In this debate the distinction between Austrian and European literature was at times blurred; hence the authors were specifically questioned as to whether they saw any difference between literature from Austria and other European countries. Andreas Weber’s view was that “This trend prevails in the whole of Europe, most of all in France. In fact, Austria lags far behind France in the graphic depiction of sex.” Ernst also agreed that, in comparison with French erotic literature, the Austrian variety seemed to be extremely backward. He elaborated further that his novel was very Viennese, very common from the viewpoint of the Viennese, who are very direct, know what they want, and are practical in life; if they want to experience something immediately, then their expressions would be sudden – also in sexual situations.

Five of the seven authors were asked whether they considered the possibility of their books not getting translated into some of the languages of Asia and Africa due to cultural reasons. Andreas Weber shrugged his shoulders and said, “I am not bothered in the least.” Margit Schreiner and Zdenka Becker said they had not thought of it, but in future would keep it in mind. Margit Hahn’s response was: “Two of my books have already been published in Japanese. I care for my readers, but I write what I like.” Gustav Ernst’s reaction was, “No problem. I don’t have any ambition of becoming a best-selling author worldwide.”

A brief analysis of the statements made by the seven Austrian authors show that all of them consider sexuality to be an essential part of life, which cannot be wished away, or out of literature. With the exception of Ernst and Hahn they all agreed that sexuality and obscenity should not pointlessly be incorporated into a literary text. A majority of the interviewees did not see any major difference between European and Austrian literature, but Weber and Ernst affirmed that, whereas generally there was not much difference between Austrian and European literature in this respect, they still thought that in the depiction of graphic sex Austria was much behind France. Ernst also admitted that everything in his novel Via Condotti was very Viennese. Two of the male authors did not care about the non-translation of their work into other cultures, whereas two female authors said they would think about this question for future writings. Margit Hahn’s answer was that she cared for her readers, but she would write what she likes.


After having ascertained the views of these well-known Austrian authors, who may generally be considered to represent the literary ideology of the German-speaking world as far as the theme of sexuality, sensuality and obscenity in their literature is concerned, I presented these undiluted views to the readers of Saar Sansaar with the objective of starting a debate. The total number of responses received was 66, out of which 51 significant viewpoints by intellectuals were published.

The response of the readers was mixed, but a majority supported the non-imposition of any censorship – self-imposed or otherwise – on any literature. A few went to the extent of dubbing those who talk of the bad influence of Western culture on Hindi readers “hypocrites,” who enjoy reading this literature in privacy but mouth platitudes for the consumption of others.

The letter of a Muslim writer from Ambala initially set me reconsidering whether Saar Sansaar should carry texts with explicit sexual words and situations. The more interesting part is that only one Muslim intellectual was a part of the debate, and he was the most vociferous opponent of the so-called “moral brigade” that insisted on the non-inclusion of certain explicit texts in the magazine. He even dubbed the whole of Indian society hypocritical, especially the Hindi-wallahs, who do not object when their children mouth obscenities in English but find Hindi expletives despicable. He remained the solitary supporter of Gustav Ernst in the whole debate.

The number of female contributors was about 10%. While three objected to the publication of explicit texts citing Indian traditions and culture, two agreed with the viewpoint that words and situations can be chosen according to the demand of the story.

Impetus to the debate was provided in a long letter written by noted Hindi poet Venu Gopal, who cited many works and authors to buttress the point that Hindi readers have been used to reading so-called “adult” literature for a long time. He mentioned Krishna Sobti’s story “Yaaron ka Yaar,” in which a lowly placed clerk’s frustrations find expression in choicest expletives, Jagdamba Prasad Dikshit’s novel Murdaghar, Kashinath Singh’s Assi, Rahi Masoom Raza’s Andha Gaon, in all of which the socially oppressed characters hurl obscenities at society in order to vent their ire on an unjust system. The leftist poet focused mainly on the use of cusswords in literature; and the quintessence of his observations was that the ruling classes, who want to define the norms of decency in language, should understand that they are responsible for the rage of the exploited. He also professed that a translator must take into consideration the sociolect of the target-language communities.

The most strident argument of those opposed to the portrayal of sex or the use of obscenities in Saar Sansaar had to do with the cultural differences between Austria and India. They argued that the norms of vulgarity in German-speaking countries and India were different. If European literature reflects European life, then European readers do not have a reason to be offended, but the translated European morality would certainly offend Indian sensibilities. Another argument was that perversions should not rule in literature.

A professor of Hindi from Goa offered a strong argument that the oppressed characters of the legendary Hindi writer Prem Chand never uttered any obscenities but still made their points forcefully. He also warned of the dangers of according respect to licentiousness by its inclusion in literature.

Referring to the comments made in the magazine’s editorial before the start of the debate that one should not look for one’s own culture in a foreign culture most of the opponents of lasciviousness offered three suggestions:

  1. The translators should follow the process of elimination when selecting source texts. They should opt for texts which conform to Indian culture.
  2. ‘Vulgar’ portions can be precluded. If need be, a whole paragraph or even a whole chapter could be left out.
  3. One could under-translate the offensive words by using milder equivalents in the target texts.

Gustav Ernst’s text from his novel Via Condotti found only one supporter in Dr. Tariq Aslam ‘Tasneem’; otherwise even those who had argued against tampering the precise semantics of the original expressed their disapproval of the inclusion of this text in the magazine, which, according to most, was unadulterated pornography. In contrast, Margit Hahn was spared of any strong criticism.

60% of the analytical readers favored the publication of undiluted translations of literature – with offensive words included with their untainted meaning. The reasons they gave were:

  1. A translator should have an open mind while selecting a text for translation. Censorship imposed by despotic regimes may thrive in dictatorships, but a translator living in a free democracy should not resort to self-censorship under the pressure of any self-appointed guardians of morality.
  2. A translator is not allowed to tamper with the intention of the author; every word or expression has to reflect the nearest precise equivalent in the target language.
  3. A translator should not succumb to the politics being played by any political party to foster any hidden agenda.
  4. Dr. Kamal Kishore Goenka, a well-know expert on Premchand and a professor of Hindi, essayist and critic, who subscribes to the ideology of the conservative Bhartiya Janata Party, pointed out that if our culture were different from the West, then there would not have been a plethora of obscene words in our languages, which could, in this perspective, perhaps, surpass any other language of the world.
  5. A translation faithful to semantics is always beautiful.
  6. All the ruckus raised in the name of culture is nothing more than the hypocritical posturing of those who support the moral policing of literature.
  7. All windows to the world should be kept open, even if there is the chance of cultural mutation in a society. In today’s globalized world one cannot live in a cocoon. Some have argued that the inclusive nature of our society assures that it will assimilate what it needs without changing its basic Indian character, which, in fact, has been happening over thousands of years. Some even went to the extent of suggesting that, if a culture can be spoiled by reading erotic literature, then that culture has lost its right to exist. Gustav Ernst had also expressed this opinion.
  8. If obscenity is the demand of the source text, then there is no reason why it should be shunned in the target text.
  9. Dr. Tariq Aslam ‘Tasneem’ urged Indian writers to learn something from Austrian authors like Schreiner, Weber, Hahn and Ernst, and become bolder in their approach to sexuality. In his opinion, closing one’s mind to such an important aspect of life can be dangerous for a society. Comparing Margit Hahn with South Asian Bangla writer Tasleema Nasreen, he asserted that, while Hahn is a natural, Tasleema is indecent and perverted because, due to the lack of erotic writings in Bangla, she has not been able to differentiate between eroticism and pornography.
  10. One has to translate a language belonging to different social groups, their sociolects and idiolects, which enhance the interest of a narration, in order to remain faithful to the intention of the original author.

The results of the debate were, to some extent, unexpected because before the readers were specifically asked to give their opinions the only opinions received on this theme were negative in nature. With 60% of the intelligentsia, including 40% of woman writers and the lone Muslim participant, supporting and giving cogent reasons for retaining the literary content of the magazine, this empirical exercise has borne out that the readers of Hindi literary magazines are prepared to accept undiluted literature from Austria or other German-speaking countries without any irrational reservations.

The reasons for the reservations of a comparatively large number of readers against sexuality in Indian/Hindi literature and their existing conservative morality can be attributed to the early influence of ascetic Buddhism and traditionalist Islam. Even the Western influence on India, viz. British rule and its Victorian period, led to a conflict between the ideals of eroticism and asceticism. The English-speaking middle-class aped blindly the once prevalent Victorian morality, since in its eyes Western thought was more enlightened. The temples of Khajuraho and the caves in Ajanata and Ellora bear enough testimony to the fact that in ancient India sex was not looked down upon as a taboo. Indian thought, which encompasses all the philosophies known to it and also permits various streams of thought to exist side by side, conferred the status of philosophy even on Carvaka, which is a sublimated form of the practice of ancient Tantra. Tantra itself is considered a spiritual practice, the meaning of which is to expand and liberate, and which through the use of Yoga and meditation opens a person to cosmic and physical love. It stimulates the inner masculine (Shiva) and the inner feminine (Shakti) to form a sacred union. In Tantric lovemaking sexual arousal becomes the meditation, and the orgasms are supposed to take one into a state of no thought, where a person becomes one with the universe. Even the Sanskrit word Maithuna means union, and becomes sexual union in Yoga. The Carvaka system of philosophy is also known as Bhutavada, i.e. the doctrine of world-elements, and bases its faith only on the material world consisting of air, fire, water and earth, the basic physical constituents of all living beings; in Tantra the Maithuna is one of the five prescribed essentials for all humans.

The great patriarch Bhishama of the Mahabharata defines the sexual relations in four “Yugas” as Samkalpa, Samsprasha, Maithuna and Dwanda, which are connected respectively with Krita, Treta, Dwapar and Kali. The Samkalpa union means totally free sexual intercourse between those who consent to it, where no social and personal constraints exist. In Samsprasha sexual relations between direct relatives were forbidden. In the case of Maithuna, man and wife were free to commit adultery with each other’s consent. In fact, Dwanda is the monogamous pair of Kali, the modern Yuga, where a woman is subordinated to one man. Going by this hypothesis, the world has become sexually regressive in contemporary times because Krita is supposed to be the most ideal era for mankind, whereas Kali stands for everything calamitous.

Ancient Indian literature puts sensuality and sexuality on a fairly high pedestal. The erotic works of Bhakti movement extol the union of Shiva with Shakti and Krishna with Radha, and Victorian morality has been unable to make inroads into many of the old indigenous tribal communities of India. For the Murias of North Bastar, where a dialect of Hindi is spoken, Ghotul is an institution which allows the pre-Kali unrestrained sex before marriage. Ghotul is a type of dormitory where, under the sanction of their elders, unmarried boys and girls establish free sexual relations. Murias have a phallic deity called Lingo Pen, who is their God of love and is said to have founded Muria Ghotul, where sexual partners are constantly changed until a boy or a girl decides to settle down with a permanent partner.

Ancient Indian culture was not straitlaced, but rather much more open-minded in matters of sexuality. The present generation of Indian readers is generally unaware of the fact that the old Indian scriptures on sexuality dealt with the physical nature of sex hundreds of years before Masters and Johnson wrote anything about it. Freud also did, in the last century, but he dealt only with the psychological aspects of sexuality. When Hermann Hesse was about to begin writing Siddhartha, he needed the Kamasutra to understand the erotic love-play between Siddhartha and Kamala. Those who were opposed to the depiction of sexuality in the Austrian texts published in Saar Sansaar had a bizarre notion about importing a “Western” ethos to India; the fact is that the West and German-speaking countries still take inspiration from India and ancient Indian literature in the matters of sexuality. Hermann Hesse’s novel Der Steppenwolf, in his own words, was a “homage at the altar of sensuality,” in which the main protagonist Harry Haller, on his way to ultimate enlightenment, to a state of merging with the cosmos, reads an inscription in the “Magical Theater”:

Unterricht in der indischen Liebeskunst (Lessons in the Indian Art of Love)
Kurs für Anfänger: 42 verschiedene Methoden der Liebesübung (course for beginners: 42 different methods of lovemaking)

Amrit Mehta, CIEFL, Hyderabad