Wednesday, November 05, 2008


I thought possibly a piece from a practitioner
might of interest to the
translation forum.

I did my first translations during my
senior year ['58, Haverford], of
some German expressionist poem, Trakl,
Heym and then of one of Brecht's
Lehrstücke for my senior thesis -
I had spent the second half of my
Junior year abroad in Berlin and was
smitten by the Berliner Ensemble.
At the same time, with a double major,
I did a first rate piece on
Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberly and an essay
on the three Fausts. I was
also the Haverford editor of the
Haverford/ Bryn Mawr Review.
I did not translate again until
after graduate school, Stanford, and
being smitten with Musil's
Die Portugiesische Frau and never completed
my master's thesis on Musil, I
had an abhorrence then and still do of
the way scholarship then ends up
writing in such, mostly ugly language,
about beautiful texts. Doing the
translation of The Portuguese Woman,
cutting my teeth,I realized that
a whole text a whole life seemingly can
hang in the balance on a single comma,
but that was the only instance
where I encountered that, otherwise:
gloomy grammarians be gone. I
published The Portuguese Woman in a magazine,
Metamorphosis that Fred
Jameson and I had in the early to mid-sixties,
and also published some
magnificent Louise Bogan Valery translations,
and collaborated with her
on a Jünger text that interested her.
Wanting to stay independent I fell
for about five year into a life of translating,
editorial consulting,
editing of translations. First came three
Hesse translations that proved
to me that on a textual level Hesse quickly
proved something of a drag,
he did not, as Handke [who translates from
the ancient Greek,
Elizabethan English, French, Slovenian and
contemporary American] "lift
me up by the elbows". Editing rewriting
translations of Uwe
Johnson's The Third Book About Achim
and Alexander Kluge's
Lebensläufe proved to be fascinating
puzzle work. Next came
Edgar Hilsenrath's Night - one month and first draft
and I had the money to get married in 1966!
The only time it was easy. A plain
straightforward style, simple dialogue for a grim book.
With marriage came the first permanent job,
as outside editor for German books with
Farrar, Straus. One morning I woke up and realized
hat I had an option on the work of a Nobel Prize winner,
Nelly Sachs. I quickly translated
about a dozen of her major poems - I had drafts
I think since I had been thinking how to convince
the powers at the firm to take on an unknown if
great German Jewish poet. Doing about 65 poems of
Nelly Sachs during the next six month proved emotionally
exhausting mourning work for the next six months
while I enlisted Michael Hamburger and the Enrights
to tackle the rest of myselection that was
then published under the title Oh the Chimneys.
The name of the fine British translator of her
play Eli keeps eluding me.
Then came all the early Handke plays a
process I describe in detail at

. All I want to say here is that
what came in handy? mouthy? was that
I had also lived an anything but
academic life, one reason I dropped out
of graduate school after two
years was that much as I liked the individual Germanist,
I felt myself going dead in such a department, that's me,
and some year as a visiting scholar at the University
of Washington did not disabuse me of my early
decision to be more activist or whatever you want to call
my itinerant by and large free lance life.
Even then I knew the tongues that
"ordinary" Americans speak in variety
of walks and regions. So
to whatever linguistic acumen and poetic
talent I possess is added the
dimension of the common touch and I regard
that as invaluable, and it
became so in doing four early Krötz plays
for Farmyard and other Plays.
I then found myself supervising some wonderful translators,
Christopher Middleton's of Christa
Wolf's Thinking about Christa T. ;
Michael Lebeck' translation of two
H.E. Nossack novels, etc. Even while I
became the literary representative of
some German publishing houses
toward the end of the 60s I kept overseeing
translations, most notably I
think Neugröschel's of Celan's Sprachgitter.
Doing Kempowski's Did You
Ever See Hitler
for Peter Mayer at
Avon proved most enlightening. Back
in publishing in the early 70s, with
Continuum Books, the stakes grew
tougher with editing Adorno and Horkheimer,
Gadamer, and Gertrud Kolmar
translations; I myself only continued with
Handke's Innerworld and
Michael Schneider's Neurosis and Civilization
which I took on and
translated also to find out what the heck
the German New Left had up its
sleeve. During a six month stint between jobs
I translated two volumes
of H.M. Enzensberger's nearly overly brilliant essays,
they kept my mind
sharp while I read several steamer trunks
worth of books when the
Hellenic Splendor was at sea, and I then
published them also at
is brother Christian's Essay on Smut remains one of my favorite
publishing experiences.

As co-publisher of Urizen Books from 1975 to 1981
I edited a lot of
translations from various languages which you can
see listed on my resume but did no
translating of my own; this activity resumed in
the early eighties with
two truly extraordinary experiences in that field:
namely, Handke's -
this is the heart of Handke - Walk About the Villages
[Ariadne Press]
and Rolf Hochhut's Tell 38 [Little, Brown]
while doing an extremely
thorough analysis of my battle-scarred soul.
The postscript to W.A.T.V.
describes that process in some detail,
the accessing of resources that
become available during the back and forth between
regression and coming
back up for air, schöpfen indeed it can be.
Handke was so happy he clear
forgot that he had written the original,
and observed, accurately, that
"it was cutting, in the good sense",
I was indeed in a cutting mood, the
text neutralized its less admirable
aspects. Doing the Hochhut proved
absolutely torturous because I entirely
empathized with his subject, the
Swiss Seminarian Maurice Bavaud who
had been caught trying to
assassinate Hitler in 1938 and tortured
for some years before being
guillotined - the text consists of Hochhut's
preface and two trial
transcripts and Hochhut's sometimes
rather lengthy and important notes.
Why it proved torturous had family
reasons going far beyond empathy, the
Dritte Reich does leave its marks.
My fine editor at Little, Brown was
happy with the work except with
the preface where he felt I wasn't doing
the author any favor by finding
a way in American to be just as awkward,
which point to a translator's
ability need, at least mine, to be overly
anaclytic, anschmiegend ; and
I found way of obliging his wishes. I had
vowed for W.A.T.V. to be my
swan song to translating and only do my own
stuff. But I had one more
uncompleted translation on my desk one of which
I had done two drafts, a
story collection by Botho Strauss, which I came
to detest at that time,
I found it the work of a super aesthete, and so
I failed there. I had
failed once earlier, in the 60s, on another book
that I ought not to
have taken on! It was a great pleasure to edit
he first volume of Carl Weber's Heiner Müller
translations, however I never felt I ought to take more than
editorial credit, except for his
Destroyed Landscape, which took yeoman's
work to get in shape.
As circumstances would have it, I then took on some
further translations, and mention only the
pleasant experiences, in the
early 90s, Erich Wolfgang Skwara's The Plague of Siena,
a wonderful Don Juan tale
, and his Ice on the Bridge, less wonderful,
and editing of someone
else's translation of another Skwara;
nd Josef Winkler's extraordinary
Flowers for Jean Genet; and
I also found out that I could find the voice
for Adorno in about a dozen of his essays.
And even for languaged smeared as it is
in Werner Schwab's work. Tankred Dorst's Fernando Krapp
based on Unamuno's
Nothing Less than a Man after that was child's play.
A forever chance for the chameleon to extend it's color scheme.
I turn them down now, except when a text
comes along as it did this summer,
Winkler's short text Buttercups, for the
Salzburg Festspiele Catalogue [Residenz Verlag] which
proved once again that I had been right
about his extraordinary use of
language, and, to me, that I "still had it."
The learning on the run as editor,
translator, publisher reminds me much of
one of my favorite commissars,
the Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky.
However, trying to place foreign
books with American publishers is also
somewhat the work of a cuckoo
who leaves them in various nest as he/ she moves on.
Had it not been for
Helen Wolf, at Harcourt Brace, Fred Jordan and Grove,
and itinerant
me far less of postwar German literature would be
available in American.

A couple of last observations and two anecdotes.
Anecdotes first: As
a member of P.E.N.'s executive committee in the 70s
I then found myself
on the "translation committee" and with Helen Wolf.
There came a time
when the committee discussed for months
on end its own statement of
mission, dickering over every every comma
as only translators can do,
and Helen Wolf a truly great publisher,
and I a small one, turned toward
each other at one and the same moment
and looked in each other's eyes,
raised them heavenward and sighed; an incident
I associate, analytically
now, with a scene in front of a soccer goal
and all the other forwards
dithering with the ball and my screaming to
pass me the ball so
that I , who had the best shot, could score;
which is why I prefer to
play left outside forward most of the time.

The other anecdote concerns the time that a
doctoral candidate at the
University of Washington, making a
presentation of a book by her
favorite author, needed to cite Walter
Benjamin's pathos-drenched
statement about untranslatability, and
for just the simplest of
titles. Winnicott, in my other field,
has the notion of "the good enough
mother" - if you have truly carried a
translation to term and mothered
it well enough, kick it out into the world.
This, after all, is the age
of some spectacularly good translating.
And as one can learn from
psychoanalysis, everything after all is a form
of translating, and there
are some great essays on the subject in that field, too.


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MICHAEL ROLOFF Member Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute and Society this LYNX will LEAP you to all my HANDKE project sites and BLOGS: "MAY THE FOGGY DEW BEDIAMONDIZE YOUR HOOSPRINGS!" {J. Joyce} "Sryde Lyde Myde Vorworde Vorhorde Vorborde" [von Alvensleben] contact via my website