17 June 08 | Chad W. Post

A few weeks back, I mentioned the Reading the World/Words Without Borders Book Club featuring Robert Walser’s The Assistant. At the time the discussion was just getting underway, and all that was available online was Sam Jones’s excellent introduction and Susan Bernofsky’s translator’s afterword to the book.

Recently, the Translator’s Roundtable went live, including pieces by Tom Whalen, Mark Harman, Millay Hyatt, and Damion Searls.

This is one of the features of the new book club revamp that I really enjoy. Each of the four translators respond to the same set of questions (how did you first encounter Walser?, what are your favorite Walser pieces, etc.), making for an interesting series of vantage points. In particular, I really enjoy the responses to “Are there unique challenges that Walser presents, and how do you resolve them?”

From Tom Whalen:

Rhymes and puns, of course, are especially difficult. For her translation of “Letter to Edith” I had tried to help Susan Bernofsky with the following: “Ich wankte in eine Konditorei, und trank im Wanken sogar noch Kognak. Zwei Musiker spielten mir zuliebe Grieg, aber der Chef des Hauses erklärte mir den Krieg. . . .” What we came up with was “I swayed now into a pastry shop café and, reeling, if I may, put away some cognac. For my benefit two musicians played Grieg, but the proprietor declared war on me….” A few years later, after Masquerade and Other Stories had appeared, Susan made the following welcome improvement: “I swayed now into a pastry shop café and, reeling, if I may, put some cognac away. To please me, Grieg was played by two musicians, but the proprietor brought out his munitions . . .”

From Mark Harman:

I have translated—among other German-language authors—two novels by Franz Kafka with whom Walser has, of course, been linked. We know that Kafka read Jakob von Gunten, which he praised, and that he also read some of Walser’s short prose. While I found little trace of Walser while rendering The Castle, I could overhear certain Walserian tones in Amerika: The Missing Person (forthcoming in November from Schocken Books). Kafka himself spoke of his conscious use of “blurry” Walserian metaphors, and I could sense, especially in the first “Stoker” chapter, parallels between the attentive but naïve voice of Kafka’s young hero Karl Rossmann and that of Walser’s clerks. Having said that, though, Robert Musil was surely right to insist that Walser was an unique case and best not imitated. What is unique about Walser is that virtually all of his writing is composed in the same voice. While this observation may sound limiting, it is not, since his voice is capable of endless modulation. The chief task of the Walser translator is to capture that flux. [Ed. Note: Can’t wait to read this new translation of Amerika.]

From Millay Hyatt:

Walser’s wily neologisms, making full use of the elasticity of the German language that allows words to be strung together ad infinitum, are delicious in the original and something is always sacrificed in translation. Compounding the nouns or the adjectives in his unexpected, even startling way creates a whole slew of meanings the translator has to disentangle and, sadly, sift—there are never as many left when they’re put back together in the second language, speaking for myself anyway. I tried to spell out as many of the intimations as possible so that I had plenty to choose from when I made my choice, doing my best to preserve as many as I could.

And from Damion Searls:

I find Walser quite easy to translate: I read and re-read him until I get into his voice and then sit down and write it out in English. The specific tics of his German style—the neologisms, the Swissisms—are far less important than the overall wide-eyed battiness of his point of view (an outsider observing the world from such strange angles; intervening in society from such strange positions). And you can’t capture dialect in translation anyway. Translating other writers is a much more plodding and scrupulous process for me, but Walser invites free translations. I don’t mean “free” in the sense of distant— as with all great stylists, I’ve found, with Walser you always improve the translation in the revision stage by bringing it closer to the weirdness of the original—but in the positive sense that words like “free” and “loose” have in contexts other than translation.

All of their responses are interesting (the section on their favorite Walser pieces is a good starting point for someone interested in reading Walser), and I hope more people post responses at the Discussion Board. We need some legit readers to run people like “Emma,” with her 5000 poems and short stories (like “Prisoner of Love,” which begins “Sure I’m a prisoner, but I don’t mind / I’m the happiest jailbird you’ll ever find!”) off the message boards . . .


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