Today, we are thrilled to introduce a new monthly column by past contributor
No translator’s dream is worth much unless it’s a nightmare as well. The craft requires compromise, meaning necessary loss. Those who argue for the intrinsic untranslatability of literature have a point, but it’s valid only in part and never seems to stop anyone. A rule of thumb (or maybe thumbscrew, considering the toil), is that if the effort doesn’t both drain and recharge at once, it’s probably not genuine. Still, Klaus Reichert’s extensive experience has taught him that the eureka moments and the rare flashes of just-right rendering compensate for the drudgery and frustration. Remembering that makes me stop my pity party and resume work after praying to my patron saints—Constance Garnett and Jean Starr Untermeyer; C. K. Scott-Moncrieff and Archibald Colquhoun.
A door to my current project opened again when a major award, the Schlegel-Tieck Prize, came my way unexpectedly a few years ago. I’d been translating for decades and had been working on Heimito von Doderer’s Die Strudlhofstiege oder Melzer und die Tiefe der Jahre (The Strudlhof Steps or Melzer and the Depth of the Years) in the early 1990s, only to have the publisher go bankrupt. (The title names an elaborate, beautiful public staircase in Vienna that becomes the novel’s main objective correlative.) Half of the long novel (909 pages, about 360,000 words) was finished, all ready to go but no place to go to, since Doderer’s disastrous reception in the early 1960s (Alfred A. Knopf called The Demons “our colossal failure”) made him publishers’ poison. But Edwin Frank of New York Review Books must be immune; his passion is the antidote, here as in so many other cases, so he sought me out in 2014 and asked me to finish my translation.
I had some idea what I was getting into, but not really, since most tasks look easy before we start. My particular challenges are subsets of an apt general summary by Klaus Nüchtern. He calls Doderer’s style in Die Strudlhofstiege “ornamentally digressive, ironic in an archaizing way, piled up with layer on layer of syntax” (my translation). More specifically, and I would like to discuss these elements in turn, I single out: lyrical passages, both actual poems and heightened prose; word play of several kinds; language itself as a narrative device—made-up words and regionalisms; levels of diction and formality; sentence form, especially length; odd lore, or the “baseball-novel” effect; and finally, “musical” narrative development.
On translating lyricism
Lyrical elevation in both verse and prose comes to the fore immediately in Strudlhofstiege; the novel opens with a poem:
Wenn die Blätter auf den Stufen liegen
herbstlich atmet aus den alten Stiegen
was vor Zeiten über sie gegangen.
Mond darin sich zweie dicht umfangen
hielten, leichte Schuh und schwere Tritte,
die bemooste Vase in der Mitte
überdauert Jahre zwischen Kriegen.
Viel ist hingesunken uns zur Trauer
und das Schöne zeigt die kleinste Dauer.
When the leaves upon the steps are lying,
from the old stairs is heard an autumn sighing
of all that’s gone across them in the past.
A moon in which a couple, holding fast,
embraces, lightweight shoes and heavy footfall,
the mossed urn at the middle, in the wall,
survived the years between the wars and dying.
Much is now past and gone, to our dismay,
And beauty shows the frailest power to stay.
Another example in a moment and a polemic later, but it’s interesting to note in passing that while many novelists incorporate already famous landmarks (Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris; Henry James, Washington Square; Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz), Strudlhofstiege may be the only novel that elevated a previously obscure or disregarded feature to fame. Accordingly, the poem just quoted is on a plaque at the top of the first landing on the stairs.
There’s a triple-decker, too. At a family dinner party, a guest praises the wine by reciting a quatrain from a Goliardic song:
Vinum bonum et suave
bonis bonum, pravis prave,
cunctis sapor dulcis, ave
The host, eager to show his son’s talent, asks the boy, René, to translate, and he spontaneously renders the Latin as follows:
Wein voll Blum’ und Duft
Gut dem Guten, bös dem Schuft,
Der du uns den Schlaf versüß’st –
Heiterkeit, oh sei gegrüßt!
Here is the English:
Wine so mellow of bouquet
good to the good, the bad’s dismay,
you who sweeten sleep and rest—
cheerfulness, be ever blest!
(This episode replicates a similar moment in Doderer’s life when he was sixteen.)
If I have my saints, I also have my devils, and if I call Vladimir Nabokov the arch-fiend for the massacre he perpetrated on Pushkin, you’ll see where this polemic is going. There is a long, reputable history of eliminating the rhymes when translating—most renderings of Dante don’t even try terza rima, for example. The first translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets into German (1787, Johann Joachim Eschenburg) was in prose, as is a much more recent version by Klaus Reichert. But where oh where is the sonnet part of the sonnet if it’s in prose? I consider such renderings automatically inadmissible, no matter how distinguished the translator. Anthony Hecht made the point well in objecting to Galway Kinnell’s omission of rhyme when translating François Villon’s ballades. The exacting form varies three rhymes across twenty-eight lines, and if the poet’s “deftness of deployment of words appointed to appear at rhyming positions is surgically removed by the translator, we are being given something very diluted, and, from my point of view, unsatisfactory” (quoted from Hecht’s letters, 314). If anything, Hecht is being too generous; a vertebrate can’t have its skeleton removed and live. (Who remembers Phyllis McGinley’s great “Ballade of Lost Objects”?)
Two points of rationale here. Firstly, in a work of art, sound and sense, content and form, can’t be separated. Many apologists argue that a non-rhymed translation at least gives us an idea of the content, but that reduces translation purely to “meaning,” to a trot having nothing to do with form, structure, shape, or nuance. German: “Spieglein, Spieglein an der Wand, / wer ist die Schönste im ganzen Land?” English: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, / who’s the fairest of them all?” The charm, the magic of the incantation, the soul of the meaning vanish into nothing if the rhyme is not observed.
Secondly, plausible-sounding arguments against translating rhyme are proved rationalizations by the existence of outstanding achievements that don’t tinkle or jingle or force changes of meaning to replicate an “arbitrary” sound. Start with James Merrill’s breathtaking poem “Lost in Translation,” which incorporates a rendering of Valéry by Rilke. Go to Stefan George’s translations of Shakespeare, to Walter Benjamin’s versions of Baudelaire, to Emily Dickinson in German translations by Walter A. Aue or Gunhild Kübler. Read Yeats’s “When You Are Old” and go back to the original by Ronsard or Hecht’s “Le jet d’eau,” a great translation of Baudelaire. Then tell me how transmitting rhyme forces compromises that ruin the subtlety of the original. What’s needed is talent, which simple but painful fact often gets buried under palaver.
So who do I think I am, at least in regard to this topic? An answer next month, when I also talk about lyrical prose in Strudlhofstiege.
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