Tuesday, March 20, 2012


My résume @:
provides my background - as translator, editor and publisher of numerous translations - and for what I am going to say.

 I believe the first text I translated was a poem by the German expressionist poet Ernst Stadler that had caught my fancy as a senior at Haverford College and that I published in the Haverford Bryn Mawr Review. I believe, to the best of my recollection, that paramount for me was that the poem came to exist as an American poem. Thence I translated one of Brecht's LEHRSTUECKE as part of my senior theses. Accuracy as much as what I considered literary quality at the time were equally important. Then I did not translate anything until I started to work on my Master's Thesis at Stanford, Robert Musil's THE PORTUGUESE WOMAN, which I then published in a magazine that Fred Jameson and I had in the early 60s,Metamorphosis. That was hard work, at least a dozen drafts until I felt I got it right, and it is a novella where a life depends at one crucial moment on a single comma, a matter in whose respects I can still be  nonchalant. At that point I was in New York, trying to stay as independent as possible, worked as an outside reader for numerous publishers and starting to translate, and  to edit translations, e.g. of Uwe Johnson's A THIRD BOOK ABOUT ACHIM, an extraordinary text; Alexander Kluge's LEBENSLAEUFE, nearly as demanding, both authors now nearly entirely unknown, from whom American prose writers still have much to learn.

I am not sure if anyone but Robert Giroux, aside myself, at Farrar, Straus, where I found steadier employ, at that time, had a foreign language. However, translations were judged by the editors' sense whether it was readable, immediately accessible American. Thus the employ of the like of "the Winstons" and Ralph Mannheim who could be depended to deliver readable American texts in need, at most, of minimal editing. An exception to that rule in American publishing was Fred Jordan at Grove Press who made it a point to seek out translators who responded more originally to foreign language texts.

At Farrar Straus I employed Christropher Middleton [Thinking about Christa Wolf], Michael Hamburger, Ruth and Mathew Mead,  Christopher Home and myself for my edition of Nelly Sachs OH THE CHIMNEY - the 65 poems I did for that book wiped me out emotionally for half a year and I did not
participate in the second selection of Sachs poems that Farrar, Straus published. I employed Michael Lebeck for two Hans Erich Nossack books,
I played around with the Handke plays I had bought to see who might be the right translator for them, and found it to be so much verbal fun that I decided to do it myself [see: ] and worked with a troupe to make sure that the texts also played in contemporary mouths. By that time I had translated Edgar Hilsenrath's NIGHT and some commercial things I just as soon not have to think about again; in the mid-sixties, three Hesse novels for Roger Klein at Harper & Row, and always felt that Ralph Mannheim did far better with Hesse who, stylistically, did not inspire me, but for DEMIAN. 
 That is how I am and still am: I need something verbally to chew on to gradually let the original speak in a new language, it is a process much closer to sculpting than anything else I might compare it to. The most demanding text I ever translated was Handke's WALK ABOUT THE VILLAGES [Ariadne Press, which specializes
in Austrian literature],
it left me a husk, gasping for air.

 Even during my two years as Suhrkamp agent in NY I was overseer of translation of Suhrkamp texts, e.g. Joachim Neugroeschel's Celan translation, whom I then uses frequently as publisher of Urizen Books. Joachim was efficient, multi-linguial, although he translated Ilja Ehrenburg's THE LIFE OF THE AUTOMOBILE from the German and not the original Russian, he occasionally needed a fair amount of editing. I myself am pleased with the work I did with Handke, Franz Xaver Kroetz, Erich Wolgang Skwara [The Plage of Siena], Rolf Hochhut [Tell 38], Werner Schwab [My Liver is Sick], and Josef Winkler [Flowers for Jean Genet], the 2009  Buechner Prize winner, and only author I would continue to translate at this point: for the linguistic challenges that he poses and that I feel I am very much on his wave length. Oh yes, if an American publisher can be found who wants to do Albert Stifter's WITTIKOW he ought to consider me. On a few occasions I also took on books that I ought not have, and then couldn't do them because I developed an aversion: e.g.: a collection of Botho Straus stories - the author's narcissistic style, and I did two drafts, and then realized I couldn't do it.
Because I did the Nelly Sachs I then got lucky as editor at Continuum Books when a fine translation of a selection of Gertrud Kaethe Chodziesne {Gertrude Kolmar} showed up on my desk and I found Cynthia Ozick to do the introduction.

I much appreciate most of what Lawrece Venuti says, despite the fact that the ABC of Reading was also one of my early teachers, although I never thought it feasible to translate the great German poets of the middle ages, e.g. von der Vogelweide. I appreciate Venutis' dissatisfaction with what he describes as "impressionistic," which bothers me far more in the manner in which reviewing is conducted.
Theory means thinking about the text and is of course far more interesting and various when the text is ancient and has been translated variously into a variety of languages. Theory and practice go hand in hand. Perhaps the most
thought I gave to a text  was to the translation of F.X. Kroetz early plays that existed in German in two versions, one in Kroetz's original Bavarian dialect and in standard German. I thought to enlist the Cormac McCarthy of the Appalachian THE ORCHARD KEEPER, but did not suceeed, and
so I used what handle I had on African American ghetto language to create equivalents of the broken language in which Kroetz has his Bavarian country folk speak. I am not sure whether something along the lines of a "translation culture" exists anywhere, it evidently did I suppose during times of extensive Biblical translations. As a member
of the PEN translation committe I have a distinct recollection of that committee struggling over the commas of its own mission statement for some weeks, and the two publishers on that committee, Helen Wolf, rather  more experienced than I, and I at some point of the utter madness of these ditheres then looking balefully at each other at one at the same moment. Perhaps we were also thinking of the German expressionist poets famous formulation, "When I hear the word CULTURE I reach for my revolver.

Meanwhile there exist a number of firms, Dalkey Archive, Europa editions, and the appriately named 3 PERCENT at Cornell, to take up the never tautening slack. German is a suppler language to translate into, it is also a gateway language for Skandinavian and East European literatures, but veven so I doubt that as much 10 % of the literature there published are translations.

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MICHAEL ROLOFF exMember 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


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