Wolfgang Hilbig was once “one of German literature’s best kept secrets”, but that needn’t be the case any longer. Thanks to Isabel Fargo Cole’s translations, every bit as “enchantingly brilliant” as the original texts, Hilbig’s work is now available to English readers—including Asymptote Book Club subscribers.
In our monthly Book Club interview, Isabel Fargo Cole talks to Asymptote’s Josefina Massot about the challenges of preserving Hilbig’s “music” in English, and discusses her own journey across borders and languages.
Josefina Massot (JM): Wolfgang Hilbig’s prose has been described as lyrical, and your translation of The Tidings of the Trees certainly is. Part of what makes it so is its cadence—I often stopped to re-read passages out loud. How did you go about translating these? Did you allow yourself to play with sentence structure, for example, in order to preserve the “music” of the original? How do you feel about occasionally straying from the letter of a text in order to preserve its spirit?
Isabel Fargo Cole (IFC): There’s an element of cold analysis—is he using short or long words, terse or convoluted syntax, alliteration, assonance, similarities or contrasts in sound and structure? But often it comes down to an intuitive sense of where the key emphasis in a sentence or passage lies, and how to produce an equivalent in English. I try to preserve Hilbig’s sentence structure as far as possible in English, because that’s what creates much of the music and rhythm. His sentences can be fragmented or elliptical, or unfold into a whole cascade of clauses; the shifting syntax produces shifting rhythms, but also crucially reflects the narrator’s mental state. So the “music” isn’t a distinct element that can be separated out. In general, I’m not sure there’s a hard and fast distinction between the letter and the spirit of a text. It’s a matter of making judgement calls in each particular instance and deciding where the emphasis lies or what motivates the use of a certain word. If I sense that he’s using a word mainly for its sound value and less for its literal meaning, I might feel free to change it. But sometimes the sound value resonates with the meaning, so ideally the English word has to convey the same synthesis.