Tuesday, 30 April 2013


"Sometimes I look at my children when they are asleep. Their faces seem utterly strange then, hardly recognisable, and I see that they are strange people from a time that is yet to come and that I will not experience... Sometimes it seems that it's the cruelty of their time, of the future, that overcomes the children in their sleep. I don't want to experience that time!"

"Yes, yes!" said the captain.

(Joseph Roth, Radetzkymarsch, 1932) 

A friend once told me about a (French? German? Polish?) writer who translated a page of prose a day as a way of keeping his literary muscles in shape. I'm not going to be that ambitious, but I'll occasionally be translating short passages and bits of dialogue from books that strike me as worth sharing.

I'm nearing the end of Radetzkymarsch; the more chapters I read, the slower the progress, probably because I suspect it's going to end badly and I can't bear it. It's the faces of the dead emerging behind a ghostly roulette table in the middle of the book. Whichever way I look at that particular symbol, it just doesn't bode well.

And yet there is surely a chance Carl Joseph will get out of his alcoholic, 90-proof hole, make up with his father and find happiness in a friendly and worthwhile profession such as, say, book-binding.
Isn't there? There must be.

Also: how was Joseph Roth able to write the above passage in 1932?

PS - here's the final passage of the chapter I just finished. You might understand why I'm terrified of reading on, and at the same time desperate to know what's next:

He did not know, old Mr von Trotta, that fate was spinning bitter sorrows for him as he slept. He was old and tired, and death was already waiting for him, but life did not let him go. Like a cruel host it kept him at the table, because he had not yet tasted all the bitterness that had been prepared for him."


Sunday, 14 April 2013

Spring Awakening

I saw the sun today. But for those who are still trapped by fog, rain or permafrost, here's an uplifting thought: great literary treasures lurk beneath the freezing point. Dickens, Tolstoy, Proust, H.C. Andersen, Mary Shelley, Byron and many others wrote their most famous novels/poems/stories under trying meteorological conditions. So: is bad weather great for fiction? (Piece for the Huffington Post).

Speaking of seasons: Jonathan Franzen translated Spring Awakening (Fruehlingserwachen, a play by Frank Wedekind about sexual awakening) into English a few years ago. I knew Franzen spoke German but didn't know he spoke it well enough to translate from it. Does anyone know if he's translated other plays or stories?

A friend once told me about a writer who translated a page of prose a day as a form of literary gymnastics. It makes sense: translation forces you to obsess over the precise meaning of each word as well as entire phrases and passages, and find the right balance between accuracy and beauty. It's such a hard exercise and I don't do it nearly often enough, certainly not in a literary context. Poetry is, of course, even more difficult to translate. Earlier this year I tackled Das Blaue Klavier ("The Blue Piano") by Else Lasker-Schueler. I could feel my brain stretching and reaching towards the right words just as I stretch my fingers towards my toes in yoga class. The results were about as elegant as a downward dog.

Consider the first line:

Ich hab zu Hause ein blaues Klavier
Und kenne doch keine Note

The literal translation would be "I have a blue piano at home /  and don't know a single note". Not very satisfying. The music is lost, and in a poem about a piano, music is everything. I tried out lots of different versions and looked up some existing translations, but in the end, I gave up. I basically decided that it was better not to translate it at all than to come up with something unsatisfying. What do you think? Should we even bother to translate poetry or simply tell readers to go and learn more languages?