Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

​Like most other translators, I’m plagued by the feeling that it can be done better, though not by me, not here, not now.

This week we bring you the sixth installment of 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 allows us to peek into the translation process, including the anxieties of the translator. You might like to revisit the first, second, thirdfourth, and fifth installments to follow his progress.  

Same Thomism, Different Place: Last month I wrote from Ghent, New York, where ten translators had gathered for a week of all-day workshop sessions. Warm thanks to Shelley Frisch and Karen Nölle for their expert guidance. Now I’m in Straelen, Germany until late June, at the European Translators’ Colloquium, meeting colleagues from all over (Turkey, Japan, Italy, Albania, Canada, and more) and free to concentrate on Strudlhofstiege. That’s just as well, because I’m at a very difficult place, working even more slowly than usual. My colleagues keep saying, “Es wird schon”—“It’ll turn out fine,” but it doesn’t feel that way.

And while I want to get back to specifics of Doderer’s novel, I’m finding more to say about Thomism, since I’m starting to consider the influence of Aquinas more and more central to my understanding of what happens in Strudlhofstiegewhat happens and how it happens.

The Word Made Flesh: To a Thomistic-minded creative writer, every use of words is an incarnation (capital ‘I’ included), an exercise in logos. All creation came about through God’s words: “‘Let there be light’: and there was light” (Genesis 1:3-5). No gap, no sequence, no first and second steps. Logos makes the word and the deed, the name of the thing and the thing itself, indissolubly identical. From the moment God gave Adam the power of naming the animals, a shadow of logos (Genesis 2:19-20); in the rapture empowering Coleridge’s Kubla Khan simply to “decree” a pleasure dome and make it rise; in the all-encompassing mythic vision of the America Hart Crane created in The Bridge; in the hermetic compression of Paul Celan’s late verse—threatening to enter a black hole of linguistic density—the dream of all writers has been to make the utterance the actuality, to make the word flesh. (The opening of John’s gospel is a kind of refresher course.)

This Thomistic view turns writing into a sacrament, an action in which the physical object at once enacts what it symbolizes and symbolizes what it enacts; as such, it fuses humanity with divinity and elevates mortals to participation in God’s work. This view is obviously at the opposite pole from theories proposing the death of the author or the meaninglessness of any interpretation. These widespread ideas minimize and finally delete human agency, whereas Thomism assesses the creative act of the writer as a renewal of Creation itself. Doderer’s readers certainly don’t have to be Catholic believers, but they would need to lend themselves to the presuppositions that seem to explain his work best as surely as they have to give temporary assent to Mörike’s troubled Pietism or Brecht’s doctrinaire Marxism or Lampedusa’s pessimistic ahistoricism without endorsing those viewpoints.

Logos confers full sovereignty on the writer as an unconstrained creator mirroring the order and structure of the universe. Incarnation ensues when language is made to come alive through unexpected juxtapositions for their own playful sake, tweaking the telic straight line of denotative communication into a balletic flourish through verbal choreography. But the freedom that allows the writer to touch the stars leaves the translator weeping and wailing and gnashing their teeth.

Pity the Poor Translator: Or better yet, don’t, at least not this translator. I signed on voluntarily, after all; nobody forced me, and my work is a labor of love, with all the good, the bad, and the ugly, all the “for-better-and-for-worse” that goes with it. Whenever I feel sorry for myself (often), I think of a point Harry Mathews made: “Maybe writing is never anything else but translation—ultimately, a translation which cannot be identified.” The popular imagination pictures the ‘real’ writer grappling with the void, staring despondently at the blank page, tortured by the search for form, wrestling form out of primal chaos, as opposed to the translator, who breezes through the unabridged dictionary or thesaurus, not under all that much strain, since the work being translated has already been composed. The author’s done the hard part; the translator is essentially transcribing. Mathews hints, though, that the translator has to grapple as fiercely as the author of the original, that both processes are elusive, mysterious, all-consuming. (He should know, being both writer and translator; some of his prodigious work is described in Georges Perec’s Avez-vous lu Harry Mathews?—“Il y a dans les romans d’Harry Mathews quelque chose de féerique.” [There’s something enchanting about Harry Mathews’ novels, my translation]) So all of us here at Straelen keep urging one another around the kitchen table to keep on keeping on; our Albanian colleague who’s translating Rilke has dark circles under his eyes from trying to find the right word in his language for “Klage.” The best we can do for him is to tell him we’ve got his back, as he has ours.

Knowing for certain that I will never, ever, ever get off the page I’m now on in Strudlhofstiege, having just revised a paragraph for the sixth time, I need to remember how often I’ve been in despair before. It helps my current misery (and increases my current joy), then, to look back over a couple of passages that seemed utterly impossible at the time but out of which something came.

  1. Two characters meet again thirteen years after having arranged a date to which neither showed up; now they’re working hard not to voice the awkward memory: “Nie unterhält man sich so lebhaft wie wenn es darauf ankommt, nicht auf das zu kommen, wovon eigentlich alles herkommt.” For better or worse: “People never converse more vivaciously than when they tacitly set out to offset whatever had set them off at the outset.”
  2. A naïve young woman has an appointment at a movie agency and has for months been fantasizing a triumphant screen test (in an office!) followed by instant stardom: “ … und ihre für diesen Tag bevorstehende Vorstellung bei der Film-Agentur; was in Theas Vorstellung wirklich schon so etwas bedeutete wie eine Vorstellung, welche sie zu geben haben würde, den Einsatz ihrer ganzen Person zur Eroberung einer Vor-Stellung, von wo aus eine große Laufbahn erst beginnen sollte.” My best effort: “ . . . her scheduled appointment to show up at the film agency, which her imagination was showing her to be something like a fully staged show she would be asked to put on; her passion and talent would make such a triumphant showing as to show up all the rest and raise the curtain on a great career in show business.

​Like most other translators, I’m plagued by the feeling that it can be done better, though not by me, not here, not now. How wise of Hilde Spiel, who translated English so outstandingly and even wrote in English herself, to remark that the translator, by the very nature of his or her endeavor, can never be satisfied.

Neither au revoir nor Goodbye: This is not my last posting; the editors have asked me to continue as long as I want (hope they won’t regret it!). Before I go on, though, I realize in looking back over the last couple of entries that I’ve come to an understanding of a problem that’s plagued me for over fifty years. I first encountered Doderer through The Demons, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1961, before I knew any German. This big, two-volume novel bowled me over, and I expected it would do the same to other readers. Far from that, it flopped so badly that Knopf himself, after a period of initial excitement, referred to the venture as “our colossal failure,” one that extended to Every Man a Murderer and The Waterfalls of Slunj, to name only the novels brought out by major trade publishers up to 1966. Doderer has so far never made a real dent in English, and I’ve been able to work out why, at least to my temporary satisfaction, through the space the editors have granted me here. From the start, Doderer has been a square peg pounded into a round hole by false comparison to Musil and Broch, and I hope my comments in the last two or three posts have contributed to a more accurate history.

For helping me develop those insights, however gradually, I thank many who have talked with me over the years: first the editors of Asymptote for their support and encouragement; Rosemary Cowler of Lake Forest College; Edwin Frank, my publisher at NYRB; René Krenn, author, treasured friend and Lebensmensch; Stefan Kutzenberger, vibrant writer, teacher, and scholar; my colleagues at Ledig House and now at the Europäisches Übersetzer-Colloquium—patient listeners as I made a complex problem more complex.

Next month I want to study some cultural contexts, beginning with the fact that Austrian German and standard German (I won’t even get into Swiss German) are at least as different as British and American English. When you start sneezing and coughing, are you “erkältet” or “verkühlt”? Do you call your Brussels sprouts “Rosenkohl” or “Kohlsprossen”? Do you sleep under a “Decke” or a “Tuchent”? Doderer is forever playing up these differences, right from the first page of his novel. Does it matter? What does the translator have to know to avoid serious errors?


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