I’m really not sure how to write this post . . . I didn’t know Michael Henry Heim as well as a lot of other people, such as Esther Allen, Susan Bernofsky, Sean Cotter, and the like, but I did have a number of really amazing interactions with him, and his passing is incredible sad and hitting me pretty hard. We’re quickly organizing a number of events at ALTA to honor Mike, who was definitely one of the greatest translators ever (not a hyperbole), and whose kindness, brilliance, passion, and giving nature have impacted more people than can be named. Simply put, in ways explicit and secret, Michael Henry Heim accomplished more for international literature over the past half-century than probably anyone else in the world. (Read to the bottom for a truly newsworthy revelation. And yes, I know I’m burying the lede, but I have my reasons.)
First off, just look at this incomplete list of authors that Mike translated: Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Danilo Kis, Karel Capek, Peter Esterhazy, Dubravka Ugresic, George Konrad, Bertold Brecht, Gunter Grass, and Anton Chekhov. Yes. All of them.
He also translated Hugo Claus’s Wonder, for which he received a great deal of praise and an award that led to this video filmed at the Flanders House:
I don’t have a complete list of awards here in front of me, but I know Mike also received the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize, the PEN Translation Award, and definitely some NEA fellowships at some point in time. I’m not at all exaggerating when I say that Mike’s translations are among the best ever written. He was a true master.
And part of the reason he was so, so good, was he natural affinity for learning languages, and the curiosity that kept him motivated to continue exploring words and languages and literatures right up to the end. According to this interview, in which Mike explains his system for learning languages, he claims to know ten.
CWL: I’m here with Michael Heim, who is a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at UCLA, and is a well known literary translator and an exemplary language learner. So, I guess I’d like to start by asking you, could you tell us how many languages you know?
Michael Heim: The answer is no and I’m not trying to be coy. It’s just that the concept of what is a language changes with the historical situation. I started learning a language about 25 years ago – a language that was then called Serbo-Croatian, and it’s now called Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin. So did I learn four for the price of one, or is it still only one? That’s an ideological question; a more linguistic question is whether you can consider the three Scandinavian languages as one. I studied Danish but I went the extra mile to learn how to read Norwegian and Swedish as well, but I can’t speak Norwegian and Swedish. I don’t know if there is anybody who can speak all three of them, because they are very very close, so it’s not actually clear. I say that I work actively with about ten languages, and when I mean actively, I mean that I use them professionally.
I think he’s actually hiding the truth behind the word “professionally” and that he “knew” at least 16. One of the last times I spent a lot of time with Mike was on a flight to Salzburg for a seminar on translation. At the time he was learning Chinese by translating a book. Seriously, one of the most amazing men I’ve ever met.
I loved being on panels with MHH. For a moderator, there’s a comfort in knowing that you’re sitting beside someone who loves to share what he/she knows, and can do so in a way that’s entertaining and engaging. Mike was very much that type of person. And one who was always extremely well prepared and could blow your mind with the his most passing of comments.
Once we were on a panel together at the Goethe Institut in Chicago to talk about Gunter Grass. I had mentioned ahead of time that I loved his translation of My Century because of the way each section of the book—one for each year in the century—was written in its own distinct voice, which shifted in dialect and vocab throughout the novel. At the event itself (which sadly is not available online), Michael presented a whole speech on how a translator can invent dialects for translation and thus avoid the trap of relying on Southern or black speech patterns—the two most “obvious” dialects in America. I remember sitting there stunned at how effortlessly he explained solutions to a seemingly insolvable problem, and honored by the fact that I was sharing a table with this genius.
There’s so much more to say about him . . . The first time I met Mike was in Los Angeles at a reading at the now defunct Dutton’s Books. He had told me to “look for the guy who looks like Abraham Lincoln.” So I spent a few minutes searching for a man in a stovetop hat until this person walked in, smiling . . . He always seemed to be smiling:
After the reading, Michael and Priscilla took me back to their house for a lovely dinner, and hours of fantastic conversation. I loved looking through his bookshelves, talking about how he came to be a translator, looking at his office, which was overrun with projects and paper . . .
If you’re ever around a group of translators, you should mention MHH’s name just to see everyone’s face light up and hear all the gushing praise. During his time at UCLA—and his time as an active member of the translation community—he mentored and worked with everyone. I feel like the list of translators indebted to him could take up a post by itself. Translators AND publishers. This ALTA is going to be one massive love fest, which, undoubtedly, would make Mike nervous, since he was such a humble person.
For example—and this is the lede I intentionally buried because I wanted to wax rhapsodic about MHH and his life, works, etc., and didn’t want you jumping past all that—Michael Henry Heim is the secret donor behind the PEN Translation Fund. In 2003, Michael set up a meeting with Esther Allen, and donated $734,000 to establish the Translation Fund—a fund that provides approx. 12 translators a year with $3,000+ grants to work on their projects. (So add all of these recipients, applicants, editors, and the like to the growing list of people whose lives were touched by Mike.)
Until today, the source of this money has been kept a secret, but upon his passing, his wife agreed that this is the right time to share the information with the world. It MUST be noted though that there was no rich uncle, or stock market killing that made this gift possible. Michael’s Hungarian father was a soldier for the U.S. in WWII and the money the family received when he died was set aside untouched for 60 years. During that time, Priscilla and Michael lived a simple, frugal life, adding to the fund when they could, and then giving the whole gift to help future generations of translators share their gifts and passions with the world. And to help prod publishers into doing more to recognize and celebrate literature in translation.
[I’m literally crying right now. I’ve been working on this on-and-off all day, arguing at ALTA people, stressing about the conference, and repressing the fact that Michael’s death is extremely sad and that I may never meet anyone this amazing, this giving, this selfless again my life.]
One last note: Sometime next year, Open Letter will be publishing The Man Between, a book about Michael Henry Heim. It will contain bits of his autobiography, which was published in Romania, along with texts he used in teaching his translation classes, bits of correspondence with famous authors he translated, and essays from some of his literary admirers.
You can read a bit of the “autobiography” section online at The Iowa Review. And please feel free to share your own thoughts, comments, and stories about Mike there at TIR or in the comments below. For everyone who ever came in contact with him, this is a terrible loss, and I’m sure most all of us will want to reminisce. And we’ll definitely raise a toast to him at ALTA. This week, translation lost one of its all-time greats.
Overall, this is a pretty interesting document, both because it helps establish some guidelines for assessing translations in “personnel decisions related to hiring, retention, merit awards, promotion, and tenure.” Seeing that the general line for the past XX years has been that translation could hurt your chances at getting tenure, this is a pretty significant sea change.
Not that it’s my place to speak on such matters, but seriously, it’s about time. I would say more, but I feel like all comments coming to mind are inflammatory, so I’ll let the MLA take over and explain the reasons why translations “should count” as academic practice:
Translation has been an indispensable component of intellectual exchange and development throughout recorded history. Today, the ever-accelerating interaction among cultures and economies in our globalized world is exponentially increasing the need for translation. As more and more postsecondary institutions incorporate translation studies and translator training into their curricula, there is a growing need for faculty members who are scholars and practitioners of translation. Moreover, the translation of a work of literature or scholarship—indeed, of any major cultural document—can have a significant impact on the intellectual community, while the absence of translations impedes the circulation of ideas.
More and more academics are therefore undertaking translation as a component of their professional activity and as a natural extension of their teaching. Whether they translate literary or scholarly works or other cultural documents, they are engaging in an exacting practice, at once critical and creative, that demands lexical precision; detailed knowledge of historical, political, social, and literary contexts; and a nuanced sense of style in both the source language and the target language. It goes without saying that the machine-translation programs available online are woefully inadequate to cope with such demanding texts.
Every translation is an interpretation; each one begins with a critical reading, then expands and ultimately embodies that reading. Given the importance of the endeavor and the expertise required to do it justice, a translation of a literary or scholarly work or another cultural document should be judged as an integral part of the dossiers submitted by candidates for academic positions and by faculty members facing personnel decisions. Institutions thus need to ensure that translations are subject to peer review on the same basis as monographs and other recognized instances of scholarly activity.
What’s really interesting to me is the part “for reviewers.” This is a really complicated situation for most people: if they don’t know the source language, they freak out and believe that it’s impossible to judge the translation; and if they do know the source language, they tend to hone in on nitpicky word choices and freak out. I’m tempted to quote the whole section, but anyone who’s interested can read it for themselves, so instead, here’s the highlights:
All reviewers can to some extent assess the translation’s readability, stylistic qualities, scholarly value, and overall interest to its target audience. In principle (the qualifier is necessary because editors sometimes intervene), every sentence, every word, every punctuation mark represents a deliberate choice by the translator in the attempt to capture not only meaning but also structure, idiom, diction, rhythm, tone, voice, and nuance. A translation must occasionally violate the norms of Standard English in order to convey the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of the source text. Reviewers who are not in a position to compare the translation with the source text can nevertheless consider questions such as the following:
Do the translator’s supporting materials and the introduction and critical apparatus accompanying the published work, if any, shed light on the translation challenges involved and on the solutions adopted?
In a work of fiction, does the discursive register correspond to the context? For example, in dialogue, does the tone shift to represent different characters’ voices?
In a work of nonfiction, is there evidence that the translator has appropriately adapted the work to the frame of reference of its new audience? Has the translator sought out and referred to existing English editions of foreign works cited in the source text?
If the work has been translated before, how does the new translation compare with the earlier one(s)? Does it offer new insights or emphases? [. . .]
Reviewers who read both the source language and the target language can address the complex question of the translation’s “faithfulness” to the source text. A good translation will contain few outright misreadings. Yet success or failure in translation ultimately depends not so much on the literal transposition of discrete meanings as on an interpretation of the myriad traits and dimensions of the source text. Reviewers need to recognize that readability and argumentative comparability at the level of large-scale discursive structures (paragraphs, chapters, entire books) are legitimate objectives that may create the appearance of a departure at the level of words and sentences. Translators use a wide variety of techniques to compensate for structural differences between languages and to minimize loss: expansion, condensation, displacement, borrowing, exegesis, generalizing, particularizing, transposition, and so on. An apparent error or deviation may turn out to be an apt rendering of a provocative or anomalous passage in the source text; just as significantly, it may be an artifact of the translator’s decision to rephrase, reorder, condense, or expand in order to convey meaning more clearly or more idiomatically in the target language.
Now hopefully universities across the country will adopt these guidelines and translation work will be integrated into more personnel evaluations . . .
1 “Acknowledgment. Sections of this document have been adapted with permission from the following sources: a statement prepared in February 2009 by Michael Heim and the academic working group of Salzburg Global Seminar 461; a statement by the American Literary Translators Association, titled “Translation and Academic Promotion and Tenure”; guidelines for book reviewers prepared by Michael Moore and the PEN American Center Translation Committee.”2
2 I was at the Salzburg Global Seminar when Michael Henry Heim presented this. Catherine Porter, the MLA President who decided that 2009 would be translation-centric and the person who e-mailed me about this statement, was also there. As always, he greatly impressed me with his professionalism and dedication to actually “getting something done.” Also very cool that the PEN Translation Committee is getting some props.
I’ve been a huge fan of NYRB for years. I think I even have copies of the first twelve/thirteen books in those very unfortunately designed covers. Every season I drool when their catalog arrives. I’ve been planning a post for weeks entitled “Albert Cossery is Effing Awesome,” which is due in part to NYRB’s publication of The Jokers. (And to give props where props are due, the post is also indebted to New Directions for publishing A Splendid Conspiracy. And to GoodReads for hooking me up knowledge-wise.) I love visiting Edwin Frank and Sara Kramer, and Edwin’s monthly missive about one of their new titles is by far the most erudite and learned of all publisher newsletters. NYRB is definitely one of the best presses publishing today.
The only this that sucks is that, thanks to their Random House distribution agreement, their catalog lists titles that aren’t coming out for another year. (These titles aren’t even on the NYRB website yet.) This is anguish-making . . . yet, the new list is pretty phenomenal, so as an interlude in my ongoing series of forthcoming fall translations, here’s a list of titles not coming out until spring/summer 2011.
Act of Passion by Georges Simenon, translated from the French by Louise Varese. (June 14, 2011)
Originally published in English in the ’50s, this has been out-of-print forever, and sounds like a great addition to the ongoing Simenon renaissance that NYRB has been undertaking the past few years. By the time this comes out, I think NYRB will have reissued 11 Simenon novels, including Dirty Snow, Red Lights, Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, and The Engagement. (Back some time ago, Mark Binelli and I co-hosted a Words Without Borders reading group on The Engagement. a That was a lot of fun, especially since we disagreed about the book—I thought it was pretty cool, Mark found the writing pretty annoying. Anyway.) This novel is about Charles Alavoine—an upstanding, bourgeois citizen haunted by a sense of loneliness—and his meeting with Martine, a “young woman helplessly adrift in the world” who both awakens Alavoine and “sets the stage for his tragic disintegration.”
Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim. (April 12, 2011)
Another excellent reprint. I read this years ago and absolutely loved it. The novel is a monologue from an aged man who tells a group of sunbathing women about his lovers, scandals, adventures. “As the book tumbles restlessly forward, and the comic tone takes on darker shadings, we realize we are listening to a man talking as much out of desperation as from exuberance.” All of Hrabal’s books are worth checking out, especially I Served the King of England, Too Loud a Solitude, and Closely Watched Trains. But this is really one of the best, and I’m glad that eight months from now it will finally be available again.
The Doll by Boleslaw Prus, translated from the Polish by David Welsh. (February 8, 2011)
I feel like this is a book that’s been recommended to me over and over again . . . And finally, come next February, I’ll finally have a chance to read it. From the catalog copy: “The Doll is a classic of Polish literature, a novel that takes in the whole nineteenth century and looks ahead to modern questions of empire, revolution, anti-Semitism, and socialism. [. . .] The rich cast includes the old clerk Rzecki, nostalgic for the revolutions of 1848; the young scientist Ochocki, dreaming of flying machines; the deranged adn manipulative Baroness Krzeszowska; the angelic widow Stawska; the wise dowager duchess; and many more.”
The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin, translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell. (February 8, 2011)
This is an interesting publishing story and situation. Back some years ago, there was a great article about Vladimir Sorokin in either the New York Review of Books or the New Yorker. (Thinking it’s the former, but my memory . . . blah.) Anyway, his work sounded really interesting and super-offensive. For example, his novel Blue Lard includes a gay sex scene involving clones of Khrushchev and Stalin. In fact, his work was so offensive that the Pro-Putin Youth dumped copies in a fake toilet bowl. (I can’t believe that I can’t find a picture of this on the Internet. Events like this are why YouTube exists!) Anyway, NYRB scooped up rights to a few of his books, including Ice, which came out in hardcover back in 2007ish. Ice got mixed reviews (memory serves, again, disclaimer), wasn’t quite as crazy/funny at The Queue (also available from NYRB, and which I would whole-heartedly recommend), etc. Now NYRB is bringing out The Ice Trilogy, of which, Ice is the middle volume. “Bro, the first section of Sorokin’s chef d’oeuvre, relates the mysterious emergence of the brotherhood in the aftermath of a massive meteroite striking Siberia (a historical occurrence known as the Tungus event.)” (I’m personally fascinated by the Tungus event.) “23,000 bring the trilogy to a wildly suspenseful close. All 23,000 members of the brotherhood have at last been brought together and they are preparing to stage the global destruction that will return them to their origins in pure light.” I read Ice when it came out, and although I didn’t love it, I found myself compelled, reading it in just a couple sittings, sucked in for inexplicable reasons. Very curious to see how it reads surrounded by the other two parts . . . .
UPDATE: Special thanks to Lisa Hayden Espenschade for this link to a story (in Russian) about the whole Sorokin controversy. And for these photos:
(Nate and E.J. go away for a day, and I start posting toilet pictures. Suppose it could be worse . . . )
I know E.J. posted Jennifer Howard’s article on translation in the academy last Monday, but because it’s such an interesting—and charged—topic, and because it’s just one of a few cool translation-related articles that came out in the past week.
The recent MLA convention—where the focus was translation—is the starting point for Jen’s article, with the main thrust being about how translation is shunned in the academy. For people outside of academia, it seems to come as a surprise that translation doesn’t play well at tenure meetings. But seriously, I’ve heard some awful stories, especially from young professors.
One of the most famously shocking tenure denials is that of Susan Bernofsky. Granted, I don’t know all the details, and everyone knows how fraught university politics are, but for Susan not to be tenured somewhere? That’s effing unthinkable. Just for her translations of Walser . . . A university would gain so much in terms of expertise, knowledge, and nationwide attention. (Can’t find it now, but I believe there was even a feature on Susan in the New Yorker some time back.)
But there are other stories, such as this one:
Mark Anderson, who is on leave from the Germanic-languages department at Columbia University, has experienced the vicissitudes that beset academic translators. In graduate school, he did a translation of poetry by the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann. Princeton University Press published the book, which won a prize from the American Academy of Poets.
After Mr. Anderson, a Kafka scholar, got a job as an assistant professor at Columbia, he recalls in an e-mail message, “I was offered the chance to translate Kafka’s The Trial and was about to submit a sample when my chair got word of it and advised me, rightly, I think, not to do this until I finished my book and got tenure. Which I did.” He published a translation of Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser while still untenured—but under a pseudonym (“Jack Dawson,” which according to Mr. Anderson is a pun on Kafka’s Czech name and means “son of Kafka”). “We had a celebratory lunch after I got tenure at Columbia, and I told the story and got a good laugh,” Mr. Anderson says. “But it’s a real issue, and I think my chair gave me excellent advice.”
So, just to get this straight, universities—which exist to educate and enlighten the world—are indirectly (or occasionally directly) for preventing certain great works of literature (Kafka! Bernhard!) from being accessible to the monolingual, English reader? That’s brilliant.
It seems that the main problem is in getting people to accept the idea of translation as scholarship. Which is weird to anyone actually involved in the production or promotion of literature in translation. (And by “weird” I mean “fucking incomprehensible.”) But I’ve heard from a number of people about how hard it is to justify this activity in a system that favors the production of slender monographs that are read by a couple hundred scholars. Not that readers of this blog need any justification, but here’s Catherine Porter’s explanation of the scholarly activity inherent in translation:
Ms. Porter talked on the subject of “Translation as Scholarship” at a seminar organized at Brown University last summer by the Association of Departments of English and the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. In the talk, which will be published as an essay in a forthcoming ADFL Bulletin, she discussed the complex analyses and decisions that a serious translator must go through to bring a text from its native language into the target language. It sounds at least as rigorous as much of the critical work recognized as scholarship.
For instance, Ms. Porter notes, a translator must ask, “In what contexts—literary, rhetorical, social, historical, political, economic, religious, cultural—was the source text embedded, and what adjustments will have to be made to transmit those contexts or produce comparable ones in the translation?” Complicated questions of genre, literary tradition, and target audience must be dealt with. “Once these initial determinations are made—subject to revision and refinement as the translation progresses—the translator can begin to engage with the text itself: word by word, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence.”
Or, as translation superstar Edith Grossman puts it:
In a forthcoming book, Why Translation Matters (Yale University Press, to be released this March), Edith Grossman describes the process this way: “What we do is not an act of magic, like altering base metals into precious ones, but the result of a series of creative decisions and imaginative acts of criticism.” The celebrated translator of Cervantes and many Latin American authors, she calls translation “a kind of reading as deep as any encounter with a literary text can be.”
I’m often overly optimistic when it comes to the possibility of world change, but I do get the sense that things are evolving . . . Just look at the number of translation and translation studies programs that are starting up (like, well, the one here at the University of Rochester) or becoming more and more prominent. Attitudes are changing . . . I hope. Nevertheless, I like Michael Henry Heim’s idea:
“It’s not only the deans that need to have their consciousness raised,” Mr. Heim says, remembering a call from a fellow professor who had to do a bit of translation and was surprised to discover how hard it was. “It is something that we’re still battling with, not only on the administrative level but also on the level of our own colleagues.”
He describes himself as a “silent partner” in a plan to put the official weight of the MLA behind translation as scholarship. He’s working to help draft an MLA-approved letter, to be signed by Ms. Porter, Ms. Perloff, and Mr. Holquist, that could be sent to administrators and evaluators. “It’s not a matter of a few translators speaking in their own interest, it’s a matter of the MLA, a national organization, coming up with a position paper,” Mr. Heim explains. “What we hope is that people—like deans who may be microbiologists, say, and have really little idea of what translation is—will accept what the MLA says.”
And although ALTA isn’t necessarily focused on the academic side of a life in translation, they
could should probably help with this as well. If we’re going to have a vibrant book culture that incorporates works and voices from other cultures, we’re going to need a system by which all players—publishers and translators—can exist. And teaching at a university (or, yeah, having a press located at a university) is one fantastic option . . . Especially considering the normal terms of translation contracts and the general sales level of books in translation . . .
I might be wrong about this, but it seems like Hugo Claus is one of those authors well-read Americans have heard of, but maybe never read. Or maybe they’ve read The Sorrows of Belgium, which is by far his most well-known work. (And the reason why he was always rumored for the Nobel Prize.) Wonder, in all its strangeness, may well bring a whole new group of readers to his work though.
Before getting to the book itself, it’s worth touching on Claus’s life for a moment. As Archipelago writes in its author bio: “Impossible to pin down, Claus was eclectic and in constant motion; his work is kaleidoscopic.” He was 18 when his first book of poems was published, and then he went on to write six novels and a number of plays.
He was also a painter and was affiliated with the CoBrA group (I love manifesto-driven groups with abbreviations resulting in quirky capitalization a la the OuLiPo . . .) a collection of artists that—at least according Wikipedia, the World’s Greatest Short Form Information Source—shared “a unifying doctrine of complete freedom of colour and form, as well as antipathy towards surrealism, the artists also shared an interest in Marxism as well as modernism.” Claus died of voluntary euthanasia in 2008.
I can’t do half the job Michael Orthofer did in describing Wonder so I’m think I’m just going to crib his review . . . The focal point of the novel is Victor Denijs de Rijckel, a schoolteacher who is a bit mental before the story even starts. And the novel progresses along two major tracks: a series of entries de Rijckel makes in a notebook he’s keeping at the institution where he currently resides, and a chronological description of earlier events.
The plot is set in motion when de Rijckel attends a masquerade ball, falls for a woman (isn’t it always the case?), and then meets a young student the next morning who knows the woman and where she lives. Michael can take it away:
The woman lives at Almout castle, in Hekegem, and they go there. Taking a room at a local inn the teacher passes the boy off as his nephew, but eventually they suspect him of being a paedophile; rather than turn him in, however, they want their silence to be bought — typical, it turns out, for this morally compromised nest. Reaching Almout de Rijckel is mistaken for someone else, the Dutch delegate to a meeting taking place there.
Wonder was first published in 1962, and the shadow of World War II is still a very strong presence. The meeting at Almout is of those sympathetic to the Nazi cause, the figure that looms over the meeting and town that of Jan-Willem Crabbe who distinguished himself during the war and about whose fate many theories swirl. De Rijckel is shown a picture of Crabbe: “being decorated with the Ritterkreuz by Hitler himself and you can see the admiration on Hitler’s face.”
Obviously, de Rijckel is in way over his head — led around by a boy barely in his teens (“my messenger and guide, who has led me from disgrace to scandal”), considered a paedophile by the townsfolk and a Nazi sympathiser by those at Almout. Things spiral somewhat out of control, but in a book where the central character has never been in much control it seems the obvious course.
And to get a sense of the prose, here’s a bit from de Rijckel’s notebook, which is more jumpy and linguistically playful that the descriptive sections of the book, but demonstrate Claus’s talents (and Michael Henry Heim’s):
Just now I nearly fell asleep as I wrote. And of course I was writing that the teacher fell asleep. There’s not a soul in this dump. Nobody can whisper the answers the way they did at teacher’s-college exams. The fastest years of our lives. Classes. Cheating, masturbation, pimples. Film. Over. So fast: a father, a mother, Elizabeth, the Principal.
She didn’t want a child. Mostly finger fumble. A wife who still belonged in school. Criss-cross spider webs. Crossword puzzles. One day she crossed out the word “marriage” in nearly all my books. In red ink. Every morning she combed and combed her hair. Then she left me. No big deal. The first thing I thought was, I’m going to wallpaper the apartment to my taste. But she kept the apartment: her mother saw to that. The pattern on the wallpaper came from a junk shop: crinolines and fiacres from French woodcuts—that sort of thing.
I felt more at home in my hotel room. Anonymous as a classroom. I wish I could get today’s paper. Or—I’ve asked that bastard twenty times by now—a dictionary. I want to dazzle Korneel (who will never read this notebook, may he die of cancer) with adjectives. I was good at composition. I once wrote a composition about spring.
Echoing another of Michael’s observations, the narrative is a bit disjointed, non-linear, and hazy. But it also has a very classic, very capital-l Literary feel. This is a book that’s going to be read for years, which is a testament to the great work Archipelago is doing.
I’m going to leave off here with an awesome quote from Claus himself that’s on the back of the book: “We cannot accept the world as it is. Each day we should wake up foaming at the mouth from the injustice of things.”
Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been gorging myself on Gunter Grass novels in preparation for the panel I’m moderating tomorrow with Krishna Winston (Crabwalk), Breon Mitchell (The Tin Drum), and Michael Henry Heim (My Century, Peeling the Onion)—arguably three of the best German-English translators working today. And Grass, having received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, is arguably Germany’s most important post-War German writer.
(This event is part of the 2009 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Symposium, the subject of which is “Interpretive Perspective and Translation.” The symposium is only open to translators, scholars, and the like, although German lit/translation enthusiasts are encouraged to contact Lisa Lux lux at chicago dot goethe dot org for more information.)
To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Tin Drum, the novel—which, to continue the trend started above, is arguably Grass’s greatest achievement—the novel is being published in new translations around the world. Not that the initial translations were always bad, but the book is a bit racy (and difficult), and a number of the original translations omitted lines, paragraphs, etc., or just didn’t quite capture the nuances of Grass’s unique style.
Breon Mitchell puts it best in his afterword to the new translation:
The most common question I was faced while working on this new Tin Drum was, “What was wrong with the old one?” This question reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of literary translation. It is precisely the mark of a great work of art that it demands to be retranslated. What impels us toward new versions is not the weakness of existing translations, but the strength and richness of certain works of literature. The works that are never retranslated are those we only care to read once.
We translate great works because they deserve it—because the power and depth of the text can never be fully revealed by a single translation, however inspired. A translation is a reading, and every reading is necessarily personal, perhaps even idiosyncratic. Each new version offers, not a better reading, but a different one, one that foregrounds new aspects of the text, that sees it through new eyes, that makes it new.
More on Breon’s new translation in a minute. But following on last week’s extremely long series of posts on BEA, and my “confrontation” with Pantheon editor Erroll McDonald, I found this anecdote in Grass’s intro to the new translation a pretty inspiring picture of what publishing used to be like:
In the summer of 1959, I completed my first novel, The Tin Drum, in Paris. I had just corrected proofs and created an image for the dust jacket when a letter arrived from the legendary publisher Kurt Wolff in New York. Wolff, who had left Germany in the thirties, asked me to meet him at a hotel in Zurich. He strode up to me in the hotel lobby, a tall gentleman, with his wife and colleague Helen Wolff beside him.
“I’m thinking of publishing your book in America,” he said. “Do you think the American reader will understand it?” “I don’t think so,” I replied. “The setting is provincial, not even Danzig itself, but a suburb. The novel is filled with German dialect. And it concentrates solely on the provinces—” “Say no more, “ he broke in. “All great literature is rooted in the provincial. I’ll bring it out in America.”
I’ve only just started reading Breon’s new translation (I first read My Century, a brilliant novel of voices with one short chapter for each year of the twentieth century, with some chapters being political, some historical, and some just plain fun, and Crabwalk, which is also quite compelling, although a bit more novelistic in conventional ways), but from the opening statement (which is the same in both translations)—“Granted: I’m an inmate in a mental institution”—it’s a rather brilliant book.
And the translation is pretty dazzling, and does jazz up Ralph Manheim’s—at least in the instances Mitchell quotes in his afterward, such as this:
I also saw that activities such as thumb-twiddling, frowning, looking up and down, handshaking, making babies, counterfeiting, turning out the light, brushing teeth, shooting people, and changing diapers were being practiced all over the world, though not always with the same skill. (Manheim)
And I saw too that activities like thumb-twiddling, brow-wrinkling, head-nodding, hand-shaking, baby-making, coin-faking, light-dousing, tooth-brushing, man-killing, and diaper-changing were being engaged in all over the world, if not always with equal skill. (Mitchell)
Mitchell’s is more in keeping with Grass’s original text in terms of rhythm and “semantic effect.”
This isn’t to say that Manheim’s translation is bad—both Grass and Mitchell go out of their way to say what a great job Manheim did. But he was a young translator under some tight time constraints, and Grass’s novel isn’t easy for anyone.
And he didn’t have the benefit of one of Grass’s translator gatherings. For the past thirty years, every time Grass releases a new book, he arranges a meeting of his translators, spending three or four days going over the new text page by page, talking about major problems, explaining certain lines, answering questions, etc. I’m excited to hear from all three translators about this experience, especially Mitchell, since he recently spent a week with Grass in Gdansk going over The Tin Drum and even visiting places in the novel . . .
I’ll report back later this week about this panel and the symposium as a whole.
Day In Day Out was Terézia Mora’s debut novel, and it won the prestigious Leipzig Book Fair Prize in 2004, the year of its release in Germany.
At the beginning of the novel, Abel Nema lives with his mother in an unnamed Balkan country. His father has abandoned them, and after a fruitless search, his mother resigns herself to the fact of his disappearance. Time passes, and as a teen Abel confesses his homosexual attraction to his best friend Ilia. He is spurned and shortly thereafter Ilia disappears in turn, which drives Abel to travel the countryside, where he resumes his mother’s search for his father.
Abel manages to find one of his father’s former paramours and is invited to stay the night, where he nearly dies of carbon monoxide poisoning. Hospitalized, he wakes up a changed man, with an incredible facility for learning languages and an attendant disability for just about everything else, including any semblance of a sense of direction or a desire to talk. When war break out in the Balkans, Abel flees and manages, utilizing his linguistic abilities, to create an academic life in Central Europe, where his bizarre, child-like manner drives everyone he meets to either fall in love with him, unaccountably, or hate him for no reason.
Habitually wandering the streets, and with little volition of his own, except for studying or drinking at an all-night sex club, where he never manages to get drunk, Abel falls in with the underbelly of refugee society, living for a time with a half-sane collector of the broken down and abandoned, Konstantin, and later living in a debauched and carnivalesque atmosphere with an even less sane woman, Kinga, and the band of musicians for whom she alternately serves as muse, lover and mother. Eventually, Abel finds some version of normalcy in the person of Mercedes, whom Abel marries to acquire legal status, and her pre-pubescent son Omar, whom he tutors in Russian, until some of Abel’s less savory secrets come to life and everything is thrown into disarray.
Terezia Mora chooses to tell the story of Abel from the perspective of everyone who comes into contact with him. That perspective changes from moment to moment throughout the story—sometimes shifting from a third person narration to a first person narration in the middle of a sentence—and doesn’t give the reader much aid in coming to understand her main character, who ends up as a cipher. He wanders from place to place aimlessly, and, because he has no apparent will of his own, much of the story moves forward through coincidence, he lives with this person, he lives with that person, he runs into trouble while he’s lost in this and such a place, or he simply disappears from certain situations with no explanation.
Perhaps Mora intended for Able Nema to serve as a stand-in for the rootlessness and desperation of existence as a Balkan refugees, or the refugee life in general, but the character she has placed at the center of the story is unable to bear that symbolic weight. His psychic absence leaves a large hole in the center of the narrative where our concern for him as a character, as a being inhabiting this created world, should be.
It isn’t until the final pages of the novel that we are allowed to peek behind Abel Nema’s curtain, and then it happens in a borderline hackneyed section where he takes psychedelic drugs and travels through a psychologically revealing dreamscape.
All in all: I have nothing to complain about. Not that I understand what it means, but most of the time I was: happy. Apart from the ruptures—I don’t know, can one say: in time?—when it suddenly became intolerable, neither life nor death but a third thing man was not made for, when a flood of repulsion, of fear overcomes you and carries you off not to pain, no, not even that, but into nothingness, nothingness, nothingness, until at a certain point, like water, it slows down and passes into an idyllic splish-splash, and I, the flotsam and jetsam, remain behind on the shore.
Brief pause to allow me to utter the following words—which in their entirety, not one by one, are for various personal reasons holy to me—with the requisite space: Sometimes, I say, I am filled to the brim with love and devotion, so much so that I practically cease to be myself. My longing to see and understand them is so great that I wish to be the air between them so they can inhale me and I sink into their every cell. Then there are timers I am so overcome with repulsion when I see them before me, their cadaver mouths eating and drinking and talking, and everything in them turns to muck and lies and I feel that if I have to see and hear them one second more I’ll give the next face I see such a drubbing that there won’t be anything left when I am through with it.
By this point in the story it’s too late. We’ve already spent more than 300 pages with a character we know very little about and for whom we have been given little reason to empathize. Day In Day Out is an ambitious novel—Michael Henry Heim’s translation is incredible, as usual—and Terezia Mora has thrown a lot of writing at it, but it falls flat in too many cases to realize its goals.
Day In Day Out
By Terézia Mora
translated by Michael Henry Heim
$14.95, 432 pgs.
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