Tag Archives: Thomas Bernhard

L1, L2, indirect – and a few more words on translations

When I have some free time, I love to browse blog posts of my fellow book bloggers. It is always interesting to see what the colleagues and friends are doing, which books I missed but should read soon, what they think about books I reviewed recently – and sometimes what they are thinking about other book-related topics.

As I have said several times before, I am much more aware now of the fact that translations matter and are extremely important. Even when you can speak and read five or six languages it will still widen your horizon beyond imagination when you have access to translated books. The availability and also the quality of translations are therefore two of the most important defining elements of an existing book market.

In an older blog post which I have just recently discovered, one of my favorite blogger colleagues, Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, was writing about an interesting book by David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? – Translation and the Meaning of Everything. Among other authors Bellos has translated the Albanian author Ismail Kadare into English – from the French, not the Albanian language. This is called “indirect translation”, contrary to the direct translation from the source to the target language. Depending on the question if the translator translates into his or her native language, or from his native language into the target language, direct translations are differentiated into so-called “L1” or “L2” translations. Many experts view L2 translations with scepticism or reject them completely, while some consider indirect translations as acceptable when there are no translators available for this particular combination of languages.

I think what counts at the end of the day is the quality of the translation, no matter if it is L1, L2, or indirect. Of course, chances that the translation is excellent are much higher with direct translations. When writers are sometimes using a language that is not their native one, why shouldn’t some translators be able to do the same? (Since Nabokov grew up bilingual, I wouldn’t include him in this list of writers, but there are plenty of them and not the worst) –

An indirect translation might be a kind of second-best solution in cases when there are really no translators available for this particular combination. For Kadare it shouldn’t be a problem to be translated directly into English, since there is not one, but plenty of literary translators for that combination.

But Kadare is a special case: he revised and rewrote all his books that were originally published in the time of communism in Albania when he prepared them for publication in France. That means that a translation of the same book from French to English contains a sometimes very different text than when you would make a direct translation from the Albanian version. And for the novels originally published before 1990 Kadare considers the French and not the Albanian version as the “real”, uncensored text. The revised editions of the pre-1990 novels of Kadare in Albanian language were published after the French versions, if I am not mistaken. For the past-1990 novels, the situation is different: as far as I see they are translated directly from Albanian to English because there is no need for a text revision.

There are also other authors we know mainly from indirect translations. The works of Israel Bashevis Singer are usually translated from English – there are even a lot of people that think Singer was an English-language author. Especially in the case of the translations of Singer to German that is a real pity: Yiddish is so close to German, so why not translate the books directly? (The result would be a very different text, much more close to the original, as I can say from practical experience when I made a sample translation of one of his stories once from the original text to German, comparing the result with the “official” translation from English)

Why do publishers choose to publish indirect translations instead of direct ones? One reason may indeed be a shortage of available translators for the respective combination – although this case may be much rarer as some publishers make us believe. But the problem exists: when I investigated for the possibilities to translate a book from Indonesian to Bulgarian, I realized that there is only one person who can do the job – now imagine if he would be not available for some reason: the only option remaining would be to work with an indirect translation. Otherwise the book would be never available for the potential readers whose native language is Bulgarian and who don’t read in other languages. Although an indirect translation might not be perfect, in the best case it could be a reasonable approximation of the original text. And that would be still far superior then the virtual non-existence of a book in that particular language.

Another reason for indirect translations may be that in some cases publishers can save money – it is cheaper to translate from languages where you can find plenty of competing translators than from languages where there are only a very few translators, or where possibly the translation rights might be cheaper to acquire (depending on the contractual relationships between the involved publishers, the author and the literary agency).

Also literary agents can play a role in this process. Agents try to increase the income of their clients (and by that their own income), so they try to redistribute money from other stages of the book value chain – mainly the publishing houses, but obviously to a growing extent also from translators – into the pockets of their writing clientele, by auctioning off book and translation rights, increasing the royalties for the author, etc., and by that forcing everybody else in the book value chain to decrease their income. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, as long as professional and ethical standards are respected, which is not always the case.

A particular vicious example is a recent case in which Egyptian bestselling author Alaa al Aswany and his agent Andrew Wiley (together with Knopf Doubleday publishers) are involved and that was made public by the Threepercent website of the University of Rochester.

A completely unacceptable treatment of a literary translator – and hard to believe but obviously true: a world famous author, the Godfather of all literary agents and a renowned publishing house use their combined power and leverage to cheat on a hard working professional, for reasons that are as it seems of exclusively pecuniary nature.

By the way, I find it very interesting to see the approach of different writers to the question of translations of their works. While some authors take a great interest and discuss details of the translations with their translators, or even organize like Günter Grass (on their own costs) workshops for their translators to ensure a high quality of the translations, others like Thomas Bernhard show the extreme opposite approach. From an interview with Werner Wögerbauer, conducted 1986 in Vienna:

“W.: Does the fate of your books interest you?

B.: No, not really.

W.: What about translations for example?

B.: I’m hardly interested in my own fate, and certainly not in that of my books. Translations? What do you mean?

W.: What happens to your books in other countries.

B.: Doesn’t interest me at all, because a translation is a different book. It has nothing to do with the original at all. It’s a book by the person who translated it. I write in the German language. You get sent a copy of these books and either you like them or you don’t. If they have awful covers then they’re just annoying. And you flip through and that’s it. It has nothing in common with your own work, apart from the weirdly different title. Right? Because translation is impossible. A piece of music is played the same the world over, using the written notes, but a book would always have to be played in German, in my case. With my orchestra!”

And for those of you who are familiar with Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt’s books with the untranslatable titles Quand Freud voit la mer and Quand Freud attend le verbe, it may be not surprising that I am very sympathetic to Bernhard’s opinion. A translation is indeed always a different book, and sometimes – as is the case with the terms created by Freud in the framework of psychoanalysis, the meaning and specific connotation of central words and expressions are so inseparably linked to the particular language in which they were created (in the case of psychoanalysis: German) that each translation is already an interpretation, over-simplification, reduction of ambiguity, and even falsification of the original text. – But I guess I am digressing a bit. The highly interesting books by Goldschmidt would deserve a more detailed review as is possible here.

Translations are a wide field – I have the feeling that I will return to the issue again sooner or later.

Bellos

David Bellos: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? – Translation and the Meaning of Everything, Particular Books, 2012

Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt: Quand Freud attend le verbe, Buchet Chastel, 2006

Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt: Quand Freud voit la mer, Buchet Castel, 2006

Chad W. Post: A Cautionary Tale

Chad W. Post: The Three Percent Problem, Open Letter, e-book, 2011

The interview with Thomas Bernhard was originally published in the autumn issue 2006 of Kultur & Gespenster, the English translation by Nicholas Grindell was published here.

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or 
duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

“And so they are ever returning to us, the dead”

Is it fiction? Is it documentary literature? It’s a little bit of both and the impression of something hybrid is even strengthened by the many black-and-white photos that are inserted into the text without explanation or description. W.G. Sebald’s book “The Emigrants” (“Die Ausgewanderten”) is maybe the masterpiece of this author who came to England in 1966 and who spent the rest of his life as a lecturer and professor teaching at universities in England. His career as a prose writer (in his native German language) started when he was already in his mid-forties.

Sebald1993

The Emigrants” is a collection of four long stories. Dr. Henry Selwyn, born as Hersch Seweryn in a shtetl near Grodno in Lithuania has come to England as a child and has against all odds made a career as a surgeon. The narrator, whose living conditions, opinions and favorite books coincide with W.G. Sebald’s gets to know Dr. Selwyn as a retired doctor leading a secluded life mainly in his garden when he is renting a flat in Dr. Selwyn’s house. A distanced friendship between the author and Dr. S. is developing and finally the doctor is telling the author the story of his life. The marriage of S. with a girl from Switzerland where he studied is not happy, maybe because S. kept his Jewish origin too long hidden from her, maybe because they just lost the love that was between them in the beginning. The happiest period of his life was according to S. his study times in Switzerland, when he used to go hiking with an old Swiss alpinist (who disappeared in the mountains one day). S. seems to be strangely detached from life, melancholic and living for his memories.

After a return from a visit in France, the narrator receives the message of the suicide of S. Years later, during a sojourn in Switzerland, a local newspaper reports that the body of an alpinist was found that was missing since more than 70 years. It turns out to be the missing hiking partner of Dr. S.  

“And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots.”

The story “Unexpected Reunion” (Unverhofftes Wiedersehen) by Johann Peter Hebel comes to mind, an author with whom Sebald was familiar since early childhood because his maternal grandfather introduced him to this Alemannic writer.

Hebel plays also a role in the second story that was inspired by one of Sebald’s school teachers. In the story his name is Paul Bereyter, a “born” teacher who was able to turn every school lesson into something interesting and who was known for his unconventional but very inspiring way to teach. The narrator mentions for example that he introduced Hebel’s “Calendar Stories” to the pupils instead of the textbook lessons that he seemed not to consider as worthwhile for the children.

Bereyter knew already in his youth that he wanted to become a teacher and nothing else and he succeeded to achieve his aim in the 1930s. But as a “quarter-Jew” (one grandfather was Jewish) he lost his position during the Nazi era. After the war (which he survived as a soldier) he was re–installed as a schoolteacher, but something had changed within Paul, as everyone called him.

“The seasons and the years came and went…and always…one was, as the crow flies, about 2,000 km away – but from where? – and day by day, hour by hour, with every beat of the pulse, one lost more and more of one’s qualities, became less comprehensible to oneself, increasingly abstract.”

In his later years, Paul is haunted by memories. After his early retirement he is spending more and more time in France (where he lived for a few years as private teacher in the 1930s). There he makes friends with a Mme Landau who shares his interest in literature (Paul is approaching her after he sees her reading a Nabokov biography). From Mme Landau the narrator receives more information about the later years of Paul – also he was an emigrant, haunted by the ghosts of his past and by the fact that nobody in his small home town pretended that something had happened to the “disappeared” Jews even decades after the war was over.

Also the last two stories seem to be based on the lives of real persons. One is the story of a granduncle of Sebald who emigrated to America and who became a butler in a rich Jewish family. With the son of the family he traveled around the world shortly before WWI and they have obviously had a homosexual relationship. After the outbreak of a mental illness and the early death of his friend, the author’s granduncle devotes his life to the family of his friend until in his last years he is retiring to a mental hospital (without actually being ill in the classical sense – Robert Walser comes to mind), even wishing to be completely annihilated by an extreme form of electroshock therapy that was en vogue in the 1950s.

The last story, about the German-British painter Max Ferber (inspired by Frank Auerbach, whom Sebald met when he was a young student in Manchester – in the first German edition the name of the character was Max Aurach), doesn’t end with the death of the protagonist but since Ferber who came to England without his parents (who were killed in the Concentration Camps in the east) gives the narrator a diary of Ferber’s mother which she kept until her marriage, the narrator decides to undertake a study tour to Bad Kissingen, the home town of Ferber’s mother, which is not really a homecoming but a very disturbing experience.

In the meantime, Max Ferber has made a name of himself in the art world, but he almost never leaves his studio in a dilapidated area of Manchester. Only once he goes on a visit to Colmar to see the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald. The work of this strange man proves to be the intuition of the extreme power of pain in Ferber’s oeuvre.

Beside the already mentioned literary influences, the reader has also to think of Thomas Bernhard (especially when Sebald is describing his visit in Bad Kissingen in the last story), but also of Georges Perec and of Vladimir Nabokov.

The passionate butterfly collector Nabokov is making an appearance in all four stories (in the last one even twice), and here Sebald is in my opinion doing a little bit too much. This “running gag” is not necessary for the dramaturgy of the stories and a bit of a cheap effect. But this is a minor flaw in this extraordinary collection of stories that has great qualities. Sebald is an excellent prose writer that is clearly inspired by Stifter or Gottfried Keller. The hybrid mixture of documentation, diary, photo novel and story seems to be the appropriate form to speak about the fate of these “emigrants” (Goethe’s “Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten” echoes also in the title of the book). And indirectly the book is also a book about the friendship of Sebald with his maternal grandfather because in all four stories a friendship between a young and a much older man plays an important role (Sebald’s relation to his father seems to have been strained in the contrary).

The book received very high praise by literary critics and was also a big success on the German and international (especially English-speaking) bookmarket. Susan Sontag, Antonia Byatt, Michael Ondaatje or Salman Rushdie considered Sebald as one of the most important authors of our times.

Very few critics, like the German novelist Georg Klein have voiced their reservations about Sebald’s books. Klein was speaking about Sebald’s “sweet melancholic masochism towards the past”, which claims a “false intimacy with the dead”. Sebald also seems not to have noticed the changes in Germany following 1968 (he visited the country very rarely after 1966) which made some of his statements regarding his home country a bit out of time and place and for my taste sometimes a bit too self-righteous.

But be this as it may, Sebald was a very important and excellent writer and “The Emigrants” is definitely one of the great books about the historical and personal disasters of the 20th century and therefore I recommend it very strongly.

sebald-emigrants-harvill

W.G. Sebald: The Emigrants, Harvill 1996 (transl. by Michael Hulse); Die Ausgewanderten, Eichborn 1993

A very interesting essay about Sebald’s biographical sources of his work by the American germanist Mark M. Anderson sheds additional light on “The Emigrants” and other works of Sebald: http://www.wgsebald.de/vaeter.html 

Other Reviews: 
Tony’s Reading List 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expresseded and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.