Posts by Vincent Kling

Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

If it’s true that every translation must inevitably fail, this passage would be Exhibit A.

In this final installment of Vincent Kling’s translation column, En Route, Up Close, Kling discusses the difficulties of translating complicated works and considers whether one should remain loyal to meter at the expense of feel and fluidity. Kling explores translation in all its layered complexity, demonstrating with characteristic erudition and generosity the reasons why literary translation as a form resists the confines of any universally accepted code.

Two Hurdles for Translators

1. The Relatively Easy One. Two newly acclaimed releases, Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey and David Ferry’s of the Aeneid, have prompted some discussion about what elements can and should be reproduced as closely as possible and what should—or indeed must—be altered. Reviewers are mainly concentrating on meter, because it is usually agreed that Homer’s and Virgil’s dactylic hexameters come across awkwardly in English; even a technical virtuoso like Longfellow couldn’t always make six-beat dactylic lines work in Evangeline. Both Wilson and Ferry have opted for blank verse (beautifully rendered in both cases), and even strict Augustans like Dryden and Pope knew better than to espouse a line that’s too long for flexibility in English. It was Dryden, after all, who adopted the idea of “imitation,” of the need to respect the nature of the target language. Later, Richard Wilbur shrewdly recast Molière’s alexandrines into pentameter, a decision that finally made the French dramatist’s work performable, even palatable, in a meter that best follows the contours of English accentuation. Anthony Hecht similarly forged vigorous, muscular heroic couplets out of Voltaire’s six-stress lines in his “Poem upon the Lisbon Disaster,” an idiomatic, fast-moving translation that is at its most ‘faithful’ in changing six beats to five.


Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

Purism itself could be in turn labeled fuddy-duddy timidity considering how much adaptability translation requires in practice.

Here is another installment of our long running Translator’s Diary by Vincent Kling, winner of the 2013 Schlegel-Tieck Prize. Today’s column is a beautiful meditation on how words hold memories, nostalgia, and traditions hidden within them. Kling ponders the difficulty of translating the cultural weight of the untranslatable. 

How many international airports have a distinct look or layout of their own? What upscale shopping street lacks a Gucci or a Prada store, a Cartier or Bulgari, no matter the city? It’s easy—and largely accurate—to deplore increasing sameness everywhere, including the false belief that everybody speaks English. Yet consumerism still hasn’t quite flattened everything. Take food, for example: American childhood is unthinkable without peanut butter, as much an emotional as a physical nourishment; most Europeans find it seriously disgusting. My Australian friends are crazy for Vegemite; elsewhere, the taste for it is baffling. Or sports: try even explaining baseball to Europeans, let alone inducing them to watch a game. Have any of Goodreads’ list of the 103 Best Baseball Novels of All Time been successful in translation? An American colleague taught a course in the baseball novel as a guest professor in Germany at the students’ request; the students dutifully acquired some technical knowledge of the rules, he told me, but they never began to grasp the emotional weight, the quality of ritual, the glory and the heartbreak, the sense of pastoral innocence.

Naturally, these cultural differences plague translators, who are sometimes confronted with the lack of a word for a thing because the thing itself doesn’t exist in their target language, at least not in any recognized form. The Wikipedia glossary of baseball terms would stagger the inventiveness of even a Georges Perec or a Harry Rowohlt. Never mind explaining the suicide squeeze­­—even finding a name for it would defeat most efforts.

Holiday customs might seem to present a lower barrier from country to country where Christmas is celebrated, but one of my colleagues from our workshop at Ledig House last June (see my earlier post) has found out differently. Yes, we all share sleigh bells and Christmas trees and mangers and a festive meal and some version of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus bringing presents. In fact, Santa Claus is rapidly catching up with the Christ Child in the German-speaking world as the bringer of gifts. The process may have started in 1947, when, as a small sign of Germany’s alleged vulgarization through Americanization, Erich Kästner translated Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” as “Als der Nikolaus kam,” complete with reindeer and all of Santa’s trappings, making no adaptation to German traditions.

Even with increasing overlap, however, Regina Rawlinson told our group at Ledig House about notable cultural differences when translating Jeanette Winterson’s delightful collection titled Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days. Think of the great overlap between English and American Christmas traditions: we Americans have holly, but not ivy, the latter familiar only from knowing the carol. Our fruitcake is a cousin, at least, of plum pudding. Many of our Christmas carols that are not German (“Silent Night”) are English. Yet how many of us Americans associate Christmas with robins, ubiquitous in English celebrations? We may have read about Christmas crackers, but we don’t have them here. Boxing Day is a concept, but not a practice in the United States.

Now, compound the unfamiliarity by transposing robins and crackers and holly and ivy and many other Christmas items and objects to the Continent, and you will be met with blankness. As if it weren’t enough of a challenge to find equivalents or explanations without resorting to footnotes—often the bane of translators—the stories in Winterson’s collection are interspersed with recipes for delicious British Christmas specialties mostly unknown on the Continent. Mince pies? You can find them in gourmet grocery stores, but you’d have to know what they are in the first place. Custard? No real equivalent. Sherry trifle? Practically no correspondence; tiramisu isn’t the same thing. Of course it’s a fairly mechanical operation to translate a recipe by changing ounces to grams and so on—Regina’s translation will surely yield just as yummy a mince pie—but how to explain all the associations, the nostalgia, the memories, the comfort of just-like-grandma-used-to-make? And from the other end, how could someone not from Central Europe experience the impact of tasting a Vanillekipferl, those crumbly crescent-shaped cookies with vanilla powdered sugar? Or Kletzenbrot, the dark country sweet bread with dried fruits and nuts is as powerful a stimulant as Proust’s madeleine. Recipes for all these are easy to download, but the cultural weight, the ethos and the pathos, the tropes of memory aren’t in the recipes. Good luck, Regina.

Similarly, single words often require glosses or paraphrases in Die Strudlhofstiege. More than one scene takes place in a Heuriger. If you go with your children, you can order them a Kracherl as a special treat. No Austrian or South German would ever have to be told what a Heuriger is, and to say it’s a semi-rustic inn on the outskirts of the city that serves wine grown from grapes on the property doesn’t begin to capture the flood of happy associations, images of cool air and arbors and relaxation. A Kracherl is a very sweet lemon- or raspberry-flavored carbonated soft drink, but until you’ve seen a kid’s face when one is served, you can’t know what it means to a delighted youngster. Several characters in the novel eat at their favorite Beisel, a kind of unpretentious, no-frills restaurant serving good, plain food that’s also a tavern but might be likened to an American diner (my Austrian friends find this comparison blasphemous).

A term for something unfamiliar cannot evoke its connotations, a feat that lies beyond the translator’s task; still, the simple terms themselves require explanation. But imagine a reader of Doderer’s novel having to consult three footnotes or endnotes. However conveniently placed, they slow the pace. One expedient is to embed clarification within the text; when Doctor Negria is planning to take Mary K. to a Heuriger, the single word suffices in the original, but I added an in-text explanation and referred to “one of those secluded little coun­try taverns called Heurige.” Out near the Stangelers’ country house lives a miller who hobbles and can’t walk easily. For comic contrast, the narrator quotes the first line of a famous (though not all that famous) Schubert song cycle—but only the one line, knowing that any German-language reader would immediately make the connection, whereas only lovers of the Lied would probably recognize the source. That led me to another in-text expansion: “forget about Schuber­t’s Die schöne Müllerin and its first line, ‘Das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust’; ‘Roaming is the miller’s joy’!—because this miller walks all crooked; his left leg is shorter, so he hobbles.”

I haven’t yet found out how Regina proposes to transmit similar cultural information. Footnotes or endnotes are often considered preferable, since what I’m calling “in-text” expansions aren’t in-text at all. They could be judged as clumsy intrusions, in fact, efforts on the part of an ancillary person, the translator, to set himself equal to the author. Purism admittedly isn’t best served by this sort of hidden expansion, but purism itself could be in turn labeled fuddy-duddy timidity considering how much adaptability translation requires in practice. Translating has little in common with the meticulous art of establishing a definitive text, such as A. E. Housman did for Juvenal or Manilius. I haven’t yet seen actual fisticuffs in the debate over footnotes versus “in-text” expansions, but accusations of pedantry on one side (the “footnoters”) and brazen intrusion on the other (the “in-texters”) are always being traded. (Readers from the general public: did you know it could get this acrimonious?)

Familiar quotations from classic literature also require some context in English they never need in the original. One of Schiller’s most famous ballads, “Der Handschuh” (“The Glove”) tells the story of a knight treated so contemptuously by a lady that he rejects her sneering thanks for a deed of gallantry. Every German-speaking school child in Doderer’s time would have known the relevant line (“Den Dank, Dame, begehr’ ich nicht”) from memory with no context needed. The narrator of Strudlhofstiege puts that line to ironic use, aware that it could function as a quick, free-standing “zinger,” whereas I needed to set up a whole framework: “He could have quoted in reply that line from a ballad by Schiller, ‘Such thanks, fair one, I do not crave’ (‘Den Dank, Dame, begehr’ ich nicht’), but with the accent on the word ‘such,’ meaning ‘Don’t do me any favors.’” I’m not about to suggest that I “improved” the original, which would be preposterous, but I hope to have given enough surrounding information to make the passage intelligible. I sigh in agreement with Klaus Reichert, however, who says he’s always astonished at how much gets lost—odd that a loss results in this case from my adding.

The most formidable cultural challenges of all come from Doderer’s witty practice of using an idiom in its most literal meaning, extending it through whole paragraphs of character analysis. Picture taking English idioms about dogs—dog in the manger, raining cats and dogs, the Southernisms like “that dog won’t hunt” or “I be dog if . . . ”—and holding on to their literal meanings so that they have to be rendered as is in German, even if the language can’t accommodate them.

Next month, how “wo der Hund begraben ist” and “Sie kommen mir spanisch vor” kept me awake at night.


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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.”


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.)


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.


Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

this dehumanization excises the heart of the crime story, its exploration of community, of which language is the most unmistakable evidence.

This month Vincent Kling gives us his take on what Die Strudlhofstiege isn’t—detective fiction—and its main protagonist, language.

“a collection of scenes, dialogues, and portraits,
humorous or affecting, intermixed with much wit,
and with much learning, original or borrowed.”

—Walter Scott on Laurence Sterne

“to the highest excess rambling, excursive, and
intermingled with the greatest absurdities.”

—Scott on Rabelais

What Strudlhofstiege Isn’t. It doesn’t take long for a motivated reader of Strudl­hofstiege to develop cognitive dissonance. Does any other novel so totally thwart the “Apparent Narrative Rationale”—George Saunders’s name for “what the writer and reader have tacitly agreed the book is ‘about’” (The Braindead Megaphone)? Behind the three-pillared façade erected by realist-minded readers and upheld by Doderer’s impish misdirection—the intricate plot, the memorable characters, the vivid settings—stands a novel shaped from vastly different models and traditions.

Strudlhofstiege is brilliantly plotted; all that’s missing is a plot. The novel undercuts rising action by “building up” to a horrible accident that was announced in the very first sentence. Other elements are patchworks of trite set pieces and inane crime-story devices requisitioned with such overt irony as to throw the very foundations of narrative into question—an unsuspected twin, an inept plan to smuggle cigarettes, an elopement foiled by an irate father. Doderer himself wrote, “A work of narrative art is all the more successful the less one can get an idea of it through a plot summary.” As early as 1928, Ronald A. Knox had drawn up a tongue-in-cheek “Decalogue” of “thou-shalt-nots” for detective fiction; number 10 forbade twins or doubles, but Doderer treats us to both.

The characters are striking, but as dexterously elaborated variations on ancient types or stock figures, not as individuals like those found in Dostoyevsky or James, Proust or Mann. Herr Stangeler is the classic peevish old man, the senex iratus, for instance: Scheichsbeutel the cunning servant, the servus callidus; Editha Pastré the strumpet ormeretrix; Eulenfeld the blustering soldier, miles gloriosus; and Thea Rokitzer the innocent young girl, the puella delicata morphed into the Viennese “süßes Mädl.” These unforgettable characters function as vehicles, not ends in themselves, just as Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus in Ulysses are symbolic recreations of Odysseus and Telemachus as well as brilliantly plausible modern Dubliners.


Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

No German-speaking city has been evoked... with quite the same topographical love and care.

This installment of Vincent Klings translator’s diary takes a closer look at the multiplicity of integral components in Doderers work. From plot to setting to characters, Kling praises the complexity of Doderers masterpiece.

“If you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience
would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself.”
Samuel Johnson on Pamela

Muriel Spark claimed she never revised; the first draft was always the one she submitted. As a translator, a fellow writer, that is—though one spared the burden of original, “from-scratch” invention—I wonder. Not every writer need agonize for hours over le mot juste, but if exhausting revision was an intrinsic part of the process for Yeats (“stitching and unstitching”) or Nabokov (“the strain and drain of composition”), then I can’t help doubting Spark. Yeats’s image pertains especially well to the translator, whose process requires extreme concentration; the craft of petit point is an apt comparison as the translator moves closer in to the text than perhaps any other reader, using a mental magnifying glass to study and replicate every tiny stitch of the original while keeping the whole design in view. I cannot be the only translator who wakes up from nightmares of having produced a dangling modifier or an ugly jangle of sound the Elizabethans would have called “too close chiming” or a tremendous blooper, like the famous translator—anticipating in reverse one of Oliver Sacks’s patients—who mistook a bowler hat (“Melone” in German) for a melon. I don’t believe it’s an overgeneralization to say that revising and revising again, second- and third- and fourth-guessing, reading aloud over and over for rhythm, intoning litanies of synonyms (miffed, peeved, irked, irritated, annoyed, etc. ad infinitum) are among the translator’s besetting obsessions and occupational hazards.

It’s this very extremity of painstaking scrutiny, though, that has solved to my satisfaction a persistent mystery, illustrated by the quotation above, about readers’ responses to Die Strudlhofstiege. I’ll spell out the mystery later, but it has to do in general with the discrepancy between what Doderer’s novel appears to be and what it actually is, between the surface features for which it’s constantly lauded and strata lying just below and configured very differently. First, then, a summary of positive assessments—which can’t account for many readers’ puzzlement and rejection—and then a look next month at what the magnifying lens reveals.

Doderer’s emphatic advocacy for the conventional novel with a beginning, middle, and end was an effective camouflage. Along with his resolutely tradition-minded critical writings, the novels themselves testify to a seemingly antiquated approach; many readers misjudge Strudlhofstiege as having been published decades before it was (1951). Nor was Doderer shy about disparaging Joyce, Proust, and above all Musil for essayism and showy-offy modernism. Partly at his encouragement, his plots, characters, and settings have all been read in the deceptive light of a solid, old-fashioned esthetic, especially in Strudlhofstiege.

As for plot, Doderer carefully sketched the extremely complex, interlocking events on a drawing board (pictured above), enabling him to achieve the virtuosic feat of having his vast array of characters all step out independently of each other onto the same square at the same moment, when the climatic action occurs. Across three hundred pages he has given precise indications of time and location in every scene to chronicle this astonishing convergence with such skill that readers never even see it coming until it’s upon them, which places them in the situation of the accident victim whose mishap forms the climactic disaster—Doderer’s plotting is almost unrivalled.

The characters range across the whole spectrum of society. From aristocrats to working people, from incorruptible civil servants to petty conmen and schemers, from happily married couples to sexual adventurers, from small shopkeepers to business moguls and banking plutocrats, with solid, educated upper-middle-class people predominating, every last character has his or her distinctive idiolect. Doderer lays out a panoply of types worthy of Chaucer or Balzac or Dickens (or Joyce)—droll or menacing, devious or naïve, brilliant or plodding, real deal or wannabe. The main character, Melzer, is often considered bland, but that may be only because others are purposely heightened, colorful Viennese “originals.” After meeting them, there is no forgetting Zihal, the Pastrés, Eulenfeld, Paula Schachl, the Stangelers, “the Tick,” “the Mosquito,” “the Red Field Ant,” or “the Soggy Dinner Roll” (these are nicknames for characters).

The settings are a particular glory. Buildings, neighborhoods, streets; panoramas and pathways; parks and palaces are portrayed with a mastery that is uniformly praised. Last month I cited Paul Ellbogen; here is Ivar Ivask in the same vein: “No other German-speaking city has ever been evoked . . . with quite the same topographical love and care . . . as Vienna by Heimito von Dod­erer . . . Doderer’s Vienna is as ‘really real’ as the Paris of Proust, the Dublin of Joyce, and the Yoknapatawpha County of Faulkner.” A visitor could literally be guided from place to place by the descriptions in the novels alone. (This has been field-tested by myself and many others).

So what’s this about hanging ourselves? Wouldn’t readers flock to a novel with such engaging attributes? After all, Strudlhofstiege enjoys cult status, enthralling readers who treasure its droll humor, irony, and vividness. Yet even passionate admirers often admit they initially become bogged down and had to restart several times. And those are the advocates! There is probably no other novel—none, not The Man without Qualities, not The Death of Virgil, not Ulysses, not The Sound and the Fury—that so many have hopefully started but soon abandoned. I wish there were a way to measure that assertion quantitatively, but I have met an unusually large number of alert, intelligent readers who said they couldn’t get beyond the first hundred pages, if that many. Rambling, self-indulgent, formless, maddeningly digressive: these are frequent responses, often made in an offended or even indignant tone by people who act as if they’d somehow been hoodwinked. Whereas readers who abandon other novels often feel mildly shamefaced about not finishing, many who give up on Strudlhofstiege react irately. “Why am I being told what I’m being told?” asked one reader, a friend with keen literary discernment, after encountering early on a long passage about how men in 1910 generally wore suspenders but by 1925 (the two time periods of the novel) had taken to wearing a belt. The long passage is capped by a series of mock-sententious remarks about how the wearing of suspenders or a belt is a reliable indicator of a man’s character. “That’s when I lost it and put the book away, literally tossed it aside,” said my friend.

The assessment of Strudlhofstiege as a kaleidoscopic portrayal of people, places, and things—grippingly social, documentary, almost photographic, a realistic achievement on the grand scale (and it is all that, to be sure)—has encouraged misleading but persistent comparisons with Musil’s The Man without Qualities and Broch’s The Sleepwalkers. These comparisons create expectations that will inevitably be thwarted, because the pedigree is false. Musil and Broch draw on modernist technique but remain essentially realist at heart—even The Death of Virgil is largely a sequential narrative, though interiorized. By contrast, Doderer’s method is realistic on the surface but highly and unexpectedly experimental underneath.

Next month, then, my effort to sketch more pertinent ancestry and kinship, to show how far from conventionalism Strudlhofstiege is. Its dynamic is the same one Marjorie Perloff ascribed to Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March: “ . . . the ostensible realism of the narrative is itself a form of irony, designed to draw the reader into the hall of mirrors of this deeply ambivalent and complex novel.”

Stay tuned for more from Kling’s translator’s diary next month!
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Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

Reader response... almost always borders on amazement at the intense, authentic poetry of these “mute” scenes...

Herewith, the second installment in our newest monthly column by past Asymptote contributor Vincent Kling, winner of the 2013 Schlegel-Tieck Prize. As he translates the 909-page Heimito von Doderer’s Die Strudlhofstiege for New York Review Books, he’ll take us along for the inevitable twists and turns of his process. If you didn’t have a chance to read his first installment, check it out here!

“Peru.” Honesty begins at home. I balance my vehement defense earlier about preserving rhyme with a set of true confessions now, acting as my own devil’s advocate by pointing out choices that could be seen as fudging, padding, patching, cheating—all of which might argue against translating rhyme.

“Peru” in a bit, after working to it from another clarifying example. In one of his novella-length stories, Doderer has a character attend a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio, and he includes a few lines from Leonore’s great solo in Act 1.

So leuchtet mir ein Farbenbogen,
Der hell auf dunklen Wolken ruht.
Der blickt so still, so friedlich nieder,
Der spiegelt alte Zeiten wieder,
Und neu besänftigt wallt mein Blut.

In me there gleams a shining rainbow,
Rests on gray clouds above the flood.
It looks down placidly, serenely,
Mirrors the old times’ image keenly;
With new-found calm now flows my blood.

Ludwig Wittgenstein or Karl Kraus would have my head for tautologies alone: clouds are of course above the flood—where else?; there’s nothing about a flood in the original anyway (but something had to rhyme with “blood”); can an image be “keenly” mirrored, instead of “sharply”?; doesn’t the displacement of the subject in the last line make the word order cheesily “poetic”?

The examples from last month are wobbly as well. In the poem about the Strudlhof Steps, I added a word (“dying”) that’s nowhere in the original—it fits the spirit but strains the letter; the choice of “footfall” corresponds to “Tritte” in the German, and each word duly ends with an unaccented syllable, but the real need was to find a rhyme for “wall.” As for the Latin quatrain about the wine, I may have perpetrated an impossibility of usage. An adjective as generic noun is common in the plural (“The meek shall inherit the earth”; “The rich get richer”), but can that construction even exist in the possessive? Am I cheating with “the bad’s dismay” for “bös dem Schuft” = “pravis prave”? As a final example, consider my metrical change in a couplet from another novella: “Gewalt-Tat gegen Unbekannte / Löscht Feuer ehe es noch brannte” becomes “Violent deeds against men you don’t know / Extinguish a fire before its first glow.” The German four-beat line has an additional beat in English, and feminine end-rhymes become masculine. (As for that, what about the sexism of “men you don’t know”?) If I demand retention of rhyme, why am I allowed to change the meter? (NYRB, don’t fire me, please!)


Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

In a work of art, sound and sense, content and form, can’t be separated.

Today, we are thrilled to introduce a new monthly column by past contributor Vincent Kling, winner of the 2013 Schlegel-Tieck PrizeMaking his way through his current project—translating Heimito von Doderer’s 909-page Die Strudlhofstiege for New York Review Books, he generously shares with us some thoughts on the process from up close. In this first instalment, he tells us how he got started—and restarted—on this translation, and gives us a taste of the entanglements to come.

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.