Posts featuring Samuel Johnson

Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

Vocabulary and pronunciation, and even spelling, mark larger histories of settlement and local adjustment

We return with another installment of Translator’s Diary where Vincent Kling, winner of the 2013 Schlegel-Tieck Prize, takes us through the nuances of translation. Today he discusses the intricacies of vocabulary and pronunciation and how history and geography combine to fashion complex, unique identities. 

Hoagie? Hero? Sub? Some weeks ago I was staying in the Rhineland, near the Dutch border, where I developed a pesky summer cold. When I told a close friend who lives in the area that I was “verkühlt,” he grinned and said my Austrian side was showing, since a German would say “erkältet.” This reply reminded me of those popular posts on social media that ask if you drink “soda” or “pop,” if your sandwich is a “hoagie” or a “sub” or a “hero,” if you call those luminous insects “lightning bugs” or “fireflies,” if you drive around a “rotary,” a “roundabout,” or a “traffic circle.” Then there are the arguments about pronunciation; do you wade in the “crick” (like brick) or the “creek” (like meek)? Vocabulary and pronunciation, and even spelling, mark larger histories of settlement and local adjustment, which might explain why amature language lovers also enjoy reading about Samuel Johnson’s vs. Noah Webster’s lexicography, or about the perceived level of crudity or finesse in this or that regional expression (quick disdain for Southern “y’all” or “might could”).

Translators from German likewise need to be aware of geographical and cultural forces; I confine myself here to differences between standard German in Germany (Bundesdeutsch) and Austrian German. (Swiss German is fascinating but outside our framework.) I know from experience through making my own mistakes (some of them in print!) what bloopers can arise from ignorance or inattentiveness. Of course, one approach to this topic would be to list variances in grammar and syntax, vocabulary (especially food), idioms, and the like; I’d rather recommend Robert Sedlaczek’s fine book Das österreichische Deutsch to readers of German and move on to a more comprehensive insight, one that traces a truly characterizing difference.

L’Académie allemande. German novelist Martin Mosebach reviews pertinent history about the German language in an essay about Doderer warning readers not to overlook vital cultural differences. Regrets are occasionally expressed, he remarks, that there was never an institution in the German-speaking world comparable to the norm-setting, regulating Académie française. But in fact there was, he claims: Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible regularized and unified German. Aside from its religious import, the Luther Bible is one of the essential documents in the history of the language, reconciling divergent regional usages, harmonizing dialects, fixing idioms, introducing needed abstract neologisms, and creating a normative language balanced between literary derivation and colloquialism and accessible to all German speakers. What we know as modern “High German” derives very largely from this one book; as Mosebach says, “German [meaning “High German”] is a Protestant dialect,” and “The Reformation was the German Academy.”

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Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

Understanding narrative structures in their historical context has a direct impact on a translator’s word choice, tone, and register of diction.

We’re starting the week with the fifth installment of the Translator’s Diary, a column by Vincent Kling, winner of the 2013 Schlegel-Tieck Prize. As Kling translates the 909-page  Die Strudlhofstiege by Heimito von Doderer for New York Review Books, he is allowing us to peek into the ebb and flow of his thought process. Here is Kling’s dispatch from the prestigious Omi International Arts Center. (Intrigued? Don’t miss the first, second, third and fourth installments.) 

Abstraction Meets Craft: My dateline this month is Ghent, New York, where I am writing from the idyllic Ledig House at the Omi International Arts Center. Ten translators, five from English to German and five from German to English, are presenting work in progress during a week of close reading and feedback. I’m grateful for the practical comments about the part of Strudlhofstiege I presented, especially suggestions for bringing out more fully the playfully interwoven levels of the narrator’s voice. That’s crucial, because he’s not only the main event, he’s the only event, the sole governing sensibility, digressing and freely associating as eccentrically as the narrator of Tristram Shandy. He loves the drollery and irony of shifting registers, creating variety by deft incongruities in elevating or lowering the diction. An example: two characters challenge a third character’s plan, because they know from experience it will miscarry. The passage I brought to the workshop said that they were “stubbornly resistant,” but the native German speakers found my rendering one level too high. I had mistakenly retained the narrator’s formality from the beginning of the sentence to the end, even after he had adroitly switched gears. We entertained “they nixed the plan” or “they put the kibosh on the plan”—both now a level too low, we agreed—until I settled on “they balked” or “they dug in their heels.” General endorsement; on to the next refinement.

Meanwhile, my efforts in earlier posts to trace the ancestry of that narrating voice as an aid to grasping its full scope and range—thank you, readers, for not logging off—made me afraid I was straying too far from the practicality of craft. However, the group showed me how a seemingly abstract concern, which I feared might be taking me away from the text, was in fact leading me back to it, since understanding narrative structures in their historical context has a direct impact on a translator’s word choice, tone, and register of diction.

“Learned Wit,” Scholastic Universality, Baroque Elaboration: One participant ratified my search by encouraging me to read Albert Vigoleis Thelen’s German novel The Island of Second Sight (published 1953, translated into English by Donald O. White in 2010). It’s a wonderful discovery in itself and eye-opening in its kinship with Doderer. Thelen subtitles his book a volume of “applied recollections,” a term applicable in moderation to Strudlhofstiege as well, since the narrator is likewise the sole presence and presents a mammoth set of memories that lie decades in the past. Vigoleis, Thelen’s alter ego, similarly glories in asides, digressions, parentheses, addresses to the reader, convoluted backtracking and remote tangents, filigree, pyrotechnics, set-piece lyric rhapsodies, and meta fiction, proclaiming his joy at leading us on wild goose chases and detours around the mulberry bush. These narrators even digress to explain why they’re digressing! Same associative approach, then, but Thelen hews closer to linearity than his Doderer “cousin,” who reconfigures the narrative line into curlicues and zigzags of the kind Sterne draws in Tristram Shandy. Thelen develops from the base line of a story in straight chronological order; Doderer skillfully blends and blurs two time periods, 1908–1910 and 1923–1925. In both cases, the distance in time between the incidents themselves and their accounts creates reflective irony as the basic mode of observation.

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