Radka Denemarková on translating Herta Müller

If I had to choose a single word, it would be implacability. Her books go down like bitter pills. She saturates her prose with lyrical images. She steers clear of the well-trodden path. She keeps stamping her feet until the material beneath her cracks. Her literature is a world in its own right. Herta Müller's books expose human beings, strip them down to the bone, showing terror with a smile on its face, surrounded by preserving jars, hairdressers, meetings, suicides, blooming orchards, dilapidated parks, and ubiquitous blood-guzzling. In both the literary and metaphorical sense. Her writing touches the subconscious. Like a needle touching a sore gum. Ezra Pound said of Henry James: Artists are the antennae of the race but the bullet-headed many will never learn to trust their great artists. The multitude of wearisome fools will not learn their right hand from their left or seek out a meaning. It is always easy for people to object to what they have not tried to understand. Herta Müller feels the wind even in windlessness.

You can tell a Herta Müller sentence with your eyes closed, recognize it by how it smells. A writer's mind works like an ink cartridge in a pen. It is drained by each book one writes with it and one has to wait for it to fill up again. Herta Müller's "cartridge" is bottomless. Communist Romania is the humus from which the atmosphere of her books springs. Hell is other people. But we, in turn, are hell for other people.

In the autumn of 2010 I attended the International Literary Festival in Berlin just as a piece of news with a whiff of a scandal was the talk of the media and buzzed around the festival corridors: the poet Oskar Pastior, Herta Müller's friend on whom she modelled the main character in her novel The Hunger Angel, had collaborated with the Securitate, the Romanian secret police, in the 1960s. But how can we judge someone who was excluded from society (because of his freethinking, his origin, his homosexuality)? Someone whose life had been branded? Under the communist dictatorship any one of these labels spelled a prison term and a threat to life. Herta Müller's work dissects the system. It examines not just state terror and the suppression of freedom but particularly the atmosphere of distrust, helplessness, and hopeless resignation. She absorbs real-life motives and themes, melding them into the world of literature. She chooses words that fit like a glove. She blends in facts from twentieth-century Romanian and Soviet society. She plants a forest of metaphors to convey a sense of what life in the concentration camps of the twentieth century was like. The result is a powerful, poetic testimony. The time of broken cuckoo clocks. I believe that before you start writing you have to leave the table and brush off the yellow crumbs of digested reality. Only then can you sit down again and begin to write about the inner reality. Herta Müller is not afraid of lyricism, tenderness, a child's point of view (can reality be used to scare children?), her brief chapters are like verses of a poem on a swing. But her prose never loses its brutally realistic edge, it is always brimming with bizarre characters. The deportations are never over. A return from the camp doesn't mean the camp is over.

Herta Müller was born in 1953 to a German-speaking family in Nitzkydorf in the Banat region of Romania. Ever since her first book, Niederungen, her work has been monothematic. Her father was a member of the Waffen SS during World War II, her mother was deported to a labour camp in the Soviet Union after the war. She studied German and Romanian literature at Timişoara University. Thereafter, she worked as a translator but lost her job in 1979 because she refused to collaborate with the Securitate. She became a nursery school teacher. In 1987 she emigrated to West Germany and now lives in Berlin. In 2009 Herta Müller was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

She stretches and explores the language she has brought over from Romania. Hers is a German marbled with the local Swabian-inflected dialect, pared to the bone, dislocated and suspect in the same way as the dislocated and distorted world of characters she depicts by means of this language. To resist its inhospitable Romanian environment, the local variety of German had to become terse, merciless, implacable. Herta Müller X-rays everyday life in the towns and villages under the rule of dictator Nicolae Andruță Ceaușescu (1918–1989) as if she were telling a story of mythological proportions.

Her sentences are like the incisions of a scalpel. She keeps writing one book that runs like endlessly long hair; it sticks in the reader's gullet and can't be vomited up. The father she can no longer seek out, the mother she no longer wants. You can swallow a mulberry or a plum.

I did swallow it. I translated The Passport and The Hunger Angel after finishing my own novel, Kobold. For over two years, while I worked on my book, the difficult themes kept swelling up, infiltrating the language, cementing the banks of the story. When the time of intense brooding was over I was happy to shed the text, like skin. The exhausted writer in me was in dire need of a rest. I had never dreamt of translating. But the translator in me hastened to my rescue, deflecting my thoughts. Translating means capturing the way a text breathes. When I write I assemble words with tweezers. Why am I prepared to devote that most valuable thing, my priceless, finite time, to somebody else's text? And to donate the material that is available to me as a writer, the Czech language, when my own characters are queuing up in my mind waiting for me to tell their story? To be captivated by a book I have to feel that there is "something" different about it. That the book opens up a peephole. Translating means working with the language, the theme, the tone of the text. With Herta Müller you can't just translate individual words; you have to make sure the language evokes the same lyrical images in Czech as it does in the German. Otherwise the translation won't work. I translate the way I hope other translators translate my books—by hugging and caressing them, by putting my finger on the emotion and the rhythm. It is not about literal translation but rather about achieving an effect in the target language that is the same as in the source language. I sometimes think books should be translated only by writers, for they have a different way of seeing things, they see into each other's kitchen, they won't be "bamboozled" and fooled while at the same time they approach the job with humility and respect its integrity. To translate The Hunger Angel I, too, have to lug a cart with coal and quicklime, I also have to carry bags of cement. The author drives me with a willow flute in the corner of her mouth. The obsessive energy has to be palpable. I love the simple, yet surgically precise and lyrical language she uses to describe the paradoxically difficult subject of totalitarianism. Even though this was precisely what literary scholars and critics initially held against her. But it is the same in life—as soon as you pick up a pencil and a sheet of paper, anything is possible. I'm convinced that there are many forms and ways of working with language that remain unexplored. Our internal universes are vastly diverse and this should be reflected in the material I use—i.e. words. I believe that her books haven't yet said everything she has to say, as each of them has only touched upon something she had been through in the Romanian Banat. You can also see this in the way she keeps circling the same topic. As if trying to put off the moment, to avoid the place where a splinter has lodged. I am always reminded of Primo Levi: once he decided he had said everything, he ended up killing himself. For Herta Müller literature is a technique of self-preservation. She is not only an author but also a person who has experienced all those things that she writes about. Hers is not a calculated self-exploration, because as a writer you are trying to flee from yourself, to observe yourself from a distance.


A German village in Romania under communism is a trap. Just because you're in possession of a passport it doesn't mean you have won. You pay for your victory by having your humanity denied. Power is abused by those who represent it. The priest, the policeman, the mayor. The Passport is a novella of quiet helplessness. Poetry in prose.

It's winter as I translate the book. There is snow outside, I eat wrinkled apples. I love rubbing my eyes with my fingers, my index finger brushing against the soft eyelid. I translate intuitively. Like an animal. By smell. Turning sentences on the lathe. Turning Czech on the lathe. The text is a game of dominoes. The last word with the image growing out of it leads to the next word. Herta Müller's hypersensitive perception of her life in Romania makes you feel the "physicality of things" behind the words. Basic human reactions are very simple. Everything else is literature invented by people cleverly manipulating things to make them more complex. Herta Müller has left Romania. But she remains in the country's language, it has stayed under her skin. There is something in her that reminds me of Franz Kafka. It is the sense of isolation in the sea and embrace of another language, Czech in this case, Romanian in hers. What made German literature written in Prague special was its language, the Prague German. In 1921 Franz Kafka wrote to Max Brod from the resort of Matliary that the German of Jewish writers "consists in a bumptious, tacit, or self-pitying appropriation of someone else's property, something not earned, but stolen by means of a relatively casual gesture" and that this language had spawned a "Gypsy literature, which had stolen a German child out of its cradle and in great haste put it through some kind of training, for someone has to dance on the tightrope." Like Kafka, Herta Müller is a bravura dancer. She sifts through words, rearranging them meticulously. Putting a stethoscope to the chest of the text, I listen to her sentences breathing. I peel the plaster off her words. Her German is peculiar. Un-German, condensed. She drives her words into the enclosure of a story where she shears them. It is her way of giving the words back their meaning.


Translating The Land of Green Plums (Herztier) was like swallowing plums. Stones piled up on my doorstep. While in The Passport the characters struggle to emigrate, in The Land of Green Plums the totalitarian state is doing its best to get rid of the "traitors to the nation". It is relentless. In The Land of Green Plums, prose is poetic; the author places self-contained fragments of text one after the other like cut diamonds, out of chronological sequence. These are not straightforward descriptions of objects. The urgency of the writing increases with the amount of information supplied, like a pupa cocooned in metaphors and images from which an uncanny world is about to spring forth, a world of the powerful and the powerless. After graduating from university Herta Müller translated technical manuals, and here she describes the wheels and cogs of the mighty machine that is totalitarianism. Her method is that of a pointillist painter who plans every dot precisely, to the millimetre. You have to take a step back to see the new, complete picture emerge. The text is a plum. Words—as usual with Müller—have ripened around the stone, the autobiographical core. She hauls her past around with her, shedding it gradually by means of a highly stylized literary form, informed by Bertrand Russell's proposition that the world consists of facts that are totally independent of one another. That is why the world is only partly knowable. The only propositions that are meaningful and denote something are empirical propositions—that is, propositions that relate to facts that exist in reality. I know what Herta Müller's "empirical propositions" draw their nourishment from. Her text is a study of the fear that spreads among children and adults like a pandemic, battering friendships, marriages, relations at work. The most insidious is the fear that infiltrates your subconscious. Totalitarianism—the banding-together of the mediocre in order to punish otherness—is always devastating. All one can do is try and extract the best from the plums without biting into the stones.


Leopold Auberg, the narrator of The Hunger Angel (Die Atemschaukel), is seventeen years old in January 1945 when the Soviet army abducts him from his native Hermannstadt (Sibiu) to a labour camp. He returns after five years in Novo-Gorlovka in Ukraine, from places where he saw people die of hunger, exhaustion, and beatings. The poet Oskar Pastior (1927-2006) had been through this hell. When Pastior died suddenly it was left to Herta Müller to process authentic moments from his life. But instead of writing a historical novel she recreated a poetic version of her character's world. The naive Leo initially regards deportation as liberation from another kind of prison: he knows that society would never accept his homosexuality. He gasps for breath but to no avail. As the original title of the book, Die Atemschaukel (literally, the Breath-Swing) suggests, his breath will keep swinging until the end of his days.

Leo captures the world in words, amazed by what our mind is capable of once it has managed to make itself believe something. Words can influence our senses, substitute for smells and fragrances. Herta Müller structures her prose like poetry. Instead of following a plotline it works simultaneously on the phonetic, lexical, semantic, and syntactic level (some passages are composed of the briefest of sentences). I had to figure out how to achieve the same effect within the system of the Czech language (for example, where the original words used the sound "sch" I chose Czech words that included an "r" or "ř" ). The vocabulary of the camps is serene, the words are personified, recurrent, tangible. I had to taste the words to translate them in a way that would bring the objects and words to life. To bring entire sentences to life. Wherever possible, I tried to slip in subtle references to victims of totalitarian regimes in general (for example, the bird name kalandra zpěvná, the calandra lark, evokes Záviš Kalandra, the Czech historian executed in 1950 following a Stalinist show trial). Overall, I strove to retain the mysterious poetic aura of the original that contrasts strikingly with the goings-on in the camp. I also made sure to retain the references to Hermann Minkowski's theory of relativity, Karl Jaspers' philosophy, and Eugen Fink's existentialism and world model theory. I tried to keep the oxymorons, neologisms, and idiosyncrasies of her Romanian-influenced German (for example, terms designating family relations in Transylvania often follow the proper name, e.g. die Fini-Tante; where this didn't work in Czech I used different markers of "otherness"). I also sought to keep the references to the Bible, to Rilke, the heightened sensitivity to colour, onomatopoeia (schaufeln-schweigen-Schaf), neologisms (Herzschaufel, Hautundknochenzeit), Russian/German puns (kušať-kuscheln). Sometimes I inserted the Romanian version of a place name after the German if it had an onomatopoeic quality and was visually interesting, as a subconscious link to places where Leo ended up and to the intermingling of sounds he heard. I wanted to convey a sense of threat that is not just totalitarian but also supernatural. Herta Müller has been criticized for making a gay man the hero of a book about the camps and for using lyrical language to depict his world. For me her novel is a brilliant metaphor for human solitude. The lost years can never be recovered. And who is to tell what is a lost life and what is the life one should have lived? A day in the camps can also be a work of art, asserts Leo, a day spent with slag, with cement, with sand or with death. For me it is a day spent with the word.

translated from the Czech by Julia Sherwood

Click here to read Herta Müller's speech in honor of Radka Denemarková, The Space between Languages, also from this issue.