Iowa Review Interview with Thomas Pletzinger
Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog (translated from the German by Ross Benjamin) has been getting a ton of great attention recently. It was praised in the New York Times and a Powells.com Review-a-Day. The mysterious forces behind the iBookstore chose it as the “Book of the Week.” We’re going to be discussing it in my class next Tuesday. And Ross and Thomas will be here in Rochester on Wednesday, April 27th for the final event of this season’s Reading the World Conversation Series.
And, as the reason for this post, an interview by Diana Thow with Thomas and Ross is now available on the newly redesigned Iowa Review website. It’s such an awesome, fun, fascinating conversation, that I’m going to quote a huge chunk of it (hopefully all at the Iowa Review are down with this . . . BTW, everyone reading this should subscribe) that’s related to the translator-author relationship:
Diana Thow: Can you give me an example of some of the questions you would ask?
Ross Benjamin: While translating I find that when I want to ask an author a question it rarely consists of wanting to know what a word means. A dictionary can tell you what something means, but if you’re able to talk with the author the most important material you can gain is at the textural level. How the author is using language and what they are doing with that language that is new and unexpected. This is perhaps not completely penetrable upon a first read, not without a more involved discussion. It took a lot of time for Thomas to address all my questions.
Thomas Pletzinger: The question about Heimwehtourismus for instance.
RB: Yes, that one was never really resolved. The word is Heimwehtourismus, which is used in a specific way in the novel, and it has a specific meaning that’s difficult for anyone who’s not familiar with the German context. A Heimwehtourist is a tourist, literally a homesickness-tourist—it’s one word.
DT: You translated this as “nostalgia tourist,” if I remember correctly.
RB: In one place I did, yes. The word describes somebody who travels to their former or their ancestral homeland out of nostalgia, and it’s often closely associated with tourists who visit their former homes in what was once east Germany but is now Poland or the Czech Republic, but it has an even broader application than that. In Thomas’s novel there is a scene in which a character travels back to a former home in the east, and the word is used there, but there are also places in which the longing for home is used more metaphorically. There are characters who are searching all over the world for a sort of home, and they are called Heimwehtourists as well… so “nostalgia” doesn’t really capture it. Often I used a contextual solution, and occasionally I think I might have added allusions to clarify. But yes, that was one question that went on forever.
TP: While we’re talking, I’m looking at my e-mail folder and in this folder it says: Ross Benjamin, 714 e-mails.
RB: Right. And some of those e-mails contain a hundred questions each.
TP: Or when we started this whole process and had the issue with the Badeinsel?
RB: Right, that’s never been adequately resolved. So, when you’re swimming in a lake sometimes there’s a wooden thing with a ladder on it that you can swim out to climb on and jump off.
TP: And there’s Astroturf on it sometimes…
RB: Yeah, sometimes there’s Astroturf. Everyone calls it a different thing. What do you call it?
(a pause, Thomas laughs)
DT: A dock? A swimming dock?
RB: Yeah, a lot of people start with dock, but when you look up these terms it gets problematic. Some people call it a raft, which I think of something that floats away, or a float, or a floating dock, but docks are always attached to the land. The definitions aren’t very precise, and then websites that sell these things call them all sorts of different names. Everyone still disagrees on what the right solution is. We ended up with floating dock. And I think that’s because the copyeditor was really convinced. But I was on one of these things on Cape Cod a few weeks ago, and I was talking to my mother about it and she said, “We called that the raft all throughout my childhood.” There’s a book called A Yellow Raft in Blue Water with a picture of one on the cover….
TP: You see how he works. His whole family is involved. He’s in a bathing suit on vacation and he still thinks about it. Everyone around him is involved. The issue with the Badeinsel was one of the first things that my editor at Norton heard about the book before reading it, and he was thinking, “Oh god, here we go.” It’s on the second page of the novel and we’re already e-mailing fifty times back and forth about that damn thing in the water.
But I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a translator to have someone like me who can read the English translation. Maybe it’s useful, but I can think of better things than having someone looking over your shoulder. But I was so interested to watch Ross at work on my book, so for me it was amazing for me to see how—what’s the word for akribisch, Ross?
TP: Yes, this is the word precisely. Akribisch, meticulous. I always thought I knew my book. I thought I knew what I was doing, and of all the people in the world, even my own editor, even myself…. I think Ross knows the book better. Maybe he doesn’t know the back story as well as I do, but of all the people in the world, he knows the actual text on the page best. And I find it fascinating that someone who hasn’t written the book would be able to find so many mistakes, or slight mistakes, logical mistakes….
RB: These were tiny, tiny, tiny things.
TP: Yes, tiny things. But Ross would spot everything. For instance, in the hardback German version of the book a woman buys a pizza and it comes in a plastic bag. New York pizza isn’t delivered in a plastic bag, it comes in a box. I am an idiot, how could I have thought that pizza is delivered in a plastic bag? And then she hangs it on a Türklinke!
RB: A door handle.
TP: Right, a door handle?! There are no door handles in New York! They’re doorknobs. So we rewrote the whole thing.
RB: There’s also the problem of hanging the pizza….
TP: Yeah, yeah.
RB: But all of these things a reader wouldn’t notice, they would read right over it.
TP: Right. My editor didn’t catch this, but you did. While Ross was translating the book into English, I was working on editing the German paperback (btb-Random House, 2010). So now the paperback is totally different from the hardcover book.
RB: What’s happened is that the paperback consists of a translation of my translation of his book. So the paperback is actually Funeral for a Dog translated back into German by Thomas Pletzinger.
TP: And it’s much better than the first edition.