Sunday, August 11, 2013



  • By Michael Roloff

        • I did my first translations senior year in college 1957/58, an Ernst Stadler poem and published it in the Haverford Bryn Mawr Review. Returning from my junior year abroad not only was I much taken with German expressionism but with Brecht and one of the Brecht Lehrstücke was part of my senior thesis – trouble is that memory fails to divulge whether I translated The Measure Taken   or The Exception & the Rule – or both? I know I worked on both… which did I complete? Perhaps Professor Harry Pfund kept the papers? I was also much taken, as of that year by the early Pound, and of the ABC of Reading and wrote an apparently brilliant essay – I turned it in both at a Haverford and Bryn Mawr course - on Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, also much taken by Goethe – a great class with Harry Pfund, and a great essay it appears on Faust – pretty well all of the place in other words, while also getting over a bad case of mono.           
        • The next time I translated was Robert Musil’s The Portuguese Woman, as part of a  Masters Thesis – I really had nothing that urgent to say on Musil but certainly loved the translating work on that great novella – it has a moment the existence of a life, if not the world, hinges on a single comma.                        
        • In New York then, trying to live the life of the ABC of Reading, Burton Pike, a Musil scholar, introduced me to Michael Lebeck through whom I met Robert Phelps who introduced me to Louise Bogan whose Valery translations I then published in Metamorphosis as well as working with her on a challenging Ernst Jünger text, uncompensated but extremely pleasurable collaborative work. For money I slipped into translating and because Roger Klein was so taken with my work on the Musil and the Jünger he gave me three Hesse novels to translate. If you have done Brecht, Musil and Jünger, Hesse is difficult, especially the early Hesse, for being stylistically antiquated. With Demian Hesse’s style loses its antiquarian quality yet in itself turns not into anything especially interesting – Hesse after all was a designer of Rorschach texts. Thus I always admired Ralph Mannheim’s work in keeping Hesse’s style at such a high literate level in his translation that I prefer to read Hesse in translation – not that I am, as you will see, a fan of Mannheim’s translations in every respects.                  
        • Translation work, then, made it possible to stay independent – the object was not to become affiliated with a firm, just as I had not wanted to become part of a University literature department. Eventually I became affiliated with Farrar, Straus, and translated the Peter Handke plays, and as then Suhrkamp agent did the first four Kroetz plays for the director and friend Carl Weber who had done some major Handke productions by then. Kroetz presents unusual problems in that he wrote his plays in Bavarian dialect as well as normal German with inflections of dialect. First I sought to collaborate with Cormac McCarthy for his Orchard Keeper being in the only real dialect in American, what is left of Elizabethan in them thar Appalachians! Unable to talk McCarthy into the task I then compromised and translated Farmyard into my version of American black English, of which I had fair command for having no end of menial jobs during my High School and College years – among which menials however I don’t count the stretches of working as a union tile or marble man or  firefighting and geological surveying in Alaska, and having lived “black” during several stretches. This Americanization process of developing a “common touch” had the advantage for a translator that on the level of ordinary speech he develops an ear – which is what I find sorely missing in Mannheim, an immigrant who then lived most of his life in France. Mannheim, too, is not a great snake-skin modulator of syntactical rhythms when matters of that kind become all important ways of communicating the state of being of a writer, as is frequently the case with a breathing writer like Peter Handke. However, Mannheim, like “the Winstons”, then, is the kind of translator that editors who don’t know foreign languages feel they can trust to turn in what they regard as readable American English. More sophisticated editors, such as Fred Jordan and Richard Seaver of Grove Press and then Arcade, knew how to find a better fit between original and translator and the result does greater justice to the logos.    Carl had wanted to do Kroetz for finding 10 K to do a production – but then Kroetz asked for all 10 k for himself. Thus nothing happened to my translations for a few years. Once they started to be performed in the late 70s Kroetz did not share the translator’s one third share and so I was not too surprised to read Kroetz admitting few years ago that people say that “stinginess” is his major failing! I myself then found a way to get paid. And Google, the conscience of the world, can do wonders in tracking down productions for which you have not been paid.
          •    What I could not have imagined at the time I was doing this kind of work was – and that is the matter that his sketch addresses - is that people would steal the credit to translations, not necessarily for the fairly picayune translator’s share of fees – although that happened to me, too, a few years back, and not insubstantially - but for the credit to their names. Translating, after all, like editing, is a service to the author, to an author generally superior in talent to the translator, and that was how I approached my work, no matter what delights it afforded, especially in the case of Handke’s plays. And as a matter of fact, although it must have and did occur many times before, I myself did not become the credit filcher’s victim until the mid-80s, but then with vengeance – the time of the so well named “Bonfire of the Vanities”, of the celebrity culture, of an upsurge of the manifestation of the inferiority complex dialectically enforced by the powers that be, and thus the most perfect of my thieves is someone who worked at “Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous,” Denise Gordon, to whom I gave co-translation credit for being so nice to work on Michi’s Blood in the Yale Drama grad school, while Jack Gelber and I did the first performances of Farmyard at the old Yale Co-Op around 1974. I then published a book with five Kroetz translation, four my own, with Urizen Books, in 1976, as Farmyard & Other Plays.        Denise’s pretense to be the sole translator, who has not a word of German, of Michi’s Blood did not transpire until 1986 and I probably would never have got wind of it if I had not shown back up on the West Coast at that time. After all, it was a hole in the wall production, but first rate, directed by a kid who had worked his way through Brandeis selling crack. And he then did a fine job of directing my Scenes from a Dental Slugfest – a play if ever there was one to at least upset your orthodontist. Simultaneously a production of my and Carl Weber’s translation of Handke’s They Are Dying Out was being done at a more substantial venue. I had no worries on that score – after all, I had received my translator’s share from the play service. As compared to poor little under-nourished flat-chested Denise, the director had got himself all the proper permissions. Thus imagine my surprise on beholding the director’s name as that of the translator! I introduced myself to the fellow, a German with passabe English who claimed to derive from the crowd that had produced Handke’s Offending the Audience/ Public Insult at the TAT theater in Frankurt in 1966. I asked about the translation, and his reply was “that is something else.” I was astounded, I was standing opposite the thief, and was he mad? And then he did it again while he and his girlfriend were treating me to strawberry sundaes, and with another collaboration of Carl’s and mine, Heiner Mueller’s The Mission where however I did not feel I deserved translation credit, because, say compared to Mueller’s great and demanding Destroyed Landscape, I had only edited Carl’s translation – something I loved to do and have been doing for fifty years since I started to do so for Fred Jordan at Grove Press and did again recently on                   Scott Abbott’s first rate translation of Handke’s long poem To Duration. It is wonderful monkish work, all Pink Panthers have been banished, the last close reading of a text, that most translators could do themselves if allowed to let the text cure for a year or two. Then, of course, there are the forever gloomy grammarians such as  Robert Hullot-Kentor where every misplaced comma on an Adorno text elicits rage.            
          • However, the fellow once again claiming translation credid for work he had not done, and I lowered the boom, and his little troupe disintegrated. So so unnecessary!                          
          •  When happening on the index for now deceased Jack Gelber’s paper, what if he does not claim to be the translator of Farmyard – and there we had remained friends until his end! And what as a visiting scholar at the University of Washington I don’t happen on Carl Weber’s site at Stanford Drama department where he presents himself as the chief translator of Handke and Kroetz, I am barely mentioned with a “with”. – I myself had noticed, over the many years of fine collaborative work that Carl always seemed extremely keen on extra credit, where he had merely read through a text, and so I made it a point to feature him in the translation of They Are Dying Out where his work made a real difference. I then asked the Drama Department to set Carl straight and it took a while for him to get his act together. Look at the far man’s fattest bio ever .The lie still appears in his Wikipedia entry I just noticed.                
          • Here in Seattle another attempted but unsuccessful theft: someone who really knows about theater and used to be a first rate critic, Roger Downey, pretended to VDA  (Verlag der Autoren) a firm I once represented in this country that Heiner Mueller had given him exclusive translation right to that gem Quartet – Roger the unsuccessful jewel thief! The backstabber! Who then did not show up for the Mueller Memorial service we organized at the University of Washington because the thought of meeting the translator of Quartet (I being merely the editor) gave him, the also food critic, a diabetes attack!
          •    However, on the principle of “the worst is yet to come” “now hear this” it blasts on the Good Ship Lollipop” and if I don’t get an e=mail around x-mas a few years ago from Natasha Mytnowych  at the Canadian Stage
          • their new director, Matthew Jocelyn, returned from many years in France, wants to do Tankred Dorst’s Fernando Krapp. I happen to be the translator, I did the translation for Carl Weber around 1994 and it premiered in Seattle around 1997 and what with Seattle critics being as benighted as the rest of the local clod hoppers a fairly unsophisticated play - that addresses the conundrum, the forever fatum of men being consigned to the Goddess/ Whore ambivalence in their relationship to women - drives the final nail into the coffin of the fine AhHa Theater, one of five fine small theaters to go belly-up during my first decade in the Emerald City. It is a good  translation of a not terribly demanding text, and it was published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in an anthology edited by Carl Weber. The Canadian Stage is desperate to get a copy, they can’t find one in Toronto. Can I send them mine? Well, the quickest way is probably to turn the text into pdfs, and as I am doing so they do find a copy. I don’t give the matter too much further thought, but in the back of my mind rests the hope that a production at a major house will call attention to a play that is nearly as much a staple of European Theater as is Duerrenmatt’s The Visit, and based on one of my favorite novellas, Unamuno’s Nothing Less Than a Man, a work I have treasured since first it was published by Grove Press in the 60s.                         Come the following Spring,                   news reaches me that Matthew Jocelyn of the Canadian Stage will premiere his own translation of Fernando Krapp. It appears that Jocelyn, who has never translated, has learned German in three months, and fails to heed the advice of the agent proprietor, Suhrkamp Verlag, not to poach my translation. Although a single healthy potato I suppose can save an Irishman’s life during a famine we are not just “talking small potatoes”,  but, say, maybe $ 1,000 as my share. Jocelyn, who knows the play from Paris, is of course more interested in the credit for his premiere production as the new director of the Canadian Stage. I receive an e-mail from a member of the troupe telling me what’s up and begging me not to make his name public and I make enough of a fuss for CS to e-mail that they would like to talk to me. I e-mail back “sure, send me a copy of Jocelyn’s text and then we’ll talk” and I receive the most perfect of replies: they cannot send me the text for “legal reasons” -  fucking right they can’t. And no one else seems to give a damn. On top of all the other rip-offs, especially from Roger Straus, a man I helped make millions, I have suffered I feel like the sailors on the Battleship Potemkin at the inception of the 1905 revolution. And if matters of this kind happen just to me and in my purview it is a safe guess these detriments are prevalent.

  • Yrs very truly,
  • Michael Roloff
  • Ex-officio P.E.N. Translation Committee
  • P.E.N. Executive Committee

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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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