An interview with Michael Hofmann

Henry Ace Knight

Photograph by Thomas Andenmatten

Michael Hofmann’s arch figurations of the translation process seem almost as prolific as the nearly 80 books he has rendered into English from the German. For him, the act is imagined as: literary carbohydrates; the Rubik's cube; a chocolate contaminated by its manufacture in a facility hosting peanuts; an immigrant ("the need to 'pass'"); shaking a little ball from A to B; “turning out my pockets, Schwitters-style, a bus ticket, a scrap of newspaper, a fag packet, a page torn out of a diary”; (or, in the case of a poem) “the bundled-up corpse of an insect that’s got caught in a spider’s web, an overzealous parcel, attached by a thousand threads to the thing that will wait for it to die and then eat it.” The practitioner conjured forth as “noble coolie” (via Enzensberger); bacillus; “a passenger, riding in relative safety (and deserved penury) in a vehicle that has already been built … [preferably] a passenger of the bobsled kind.” 

As a collage these images bring into focus and dramatize the existence of the translator, that oft forgotten camera operator of the literary world left uncredited on dusk jackets and in reviews, kept always in the shadows, at arm’s length. They assert an identity in contradistinction to the prevailing “angry impatience with the idea of there even being a translator,” against which Hofmann registers his own sharp impatience in an essay subtitled “Notes From a Guilty Business.”

The opening passage of that essay, from his 2014 collection Where Have You Been?, discloses that translation is a compromise for Hofmann, a gifted poet with six collections to his name, for whom “one page is usually plenty.” In the beginning, at least, it was a day job, not dissimilar in function to the post at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia held down by Kafka, a volume of whose translated stories Hofmann put out in May (Investigations of a Dog & Other Creatures, New Directions). But to Hofmann, born in Germany and brought up in England, his forty-eight-page first book of poems “felt like an airmail letter,” and translation became essential both “to repair a deficit of literature in my life” and to knit together his two primal languages.

This interview was conducted by email, which Hofmann ostensibly accessed from a vacationing neighbor’s computer.

Are you particularly selective at this stage of your career about what you translate? How do you choose which books to undertake?

You have to begin somewhere, of course, and you begin by being biddable. But it’s always important to have that little word “No” somewhere around. Your parachute. Not everything deserves to be translated. Not everything should be translated. Not everything is served by being translated. In a world with superfluous books (is it all right to say that?!), there are superfluous translations which are somehow twice as bad, because they have had two lots of labor (mis)applied to them. I used to think it was one of the glories of English that there hadn’t been any translations of, say, Martin Walser. I hope I’ve earned the reader’s trust, not just for how I approach books, but for what books I think are worth doing in the first place. 

I think I was always pretty selective. Whatever the contracts say, I like to think I’m not “labor for hire.” I never learned to park my opinions outside like a pair of shoes—I kept my likes and dislikes. There are things that interest me, and things that interest me less. To translate a book is an immense effort of affection. There are stories and sometimes entire writers that seem important to me, and others that really don’t. After, as German says, having “baden gehen” once or twice (though not more!), and winding up “in the drink” as I guess British bomber pilots liked to say—translating books for editors that they thought, or perhaps were told, were a good idea—it seemed all the more advisable to try to follow my own hunches or limitations pretty strictly. In most of the ways that matter, you’re likely to be on your own anyway.

Over time you of course lose some of your freedom. First, you can’t escape your backlist; eventually, you become your backlist. If you do five books by X, how can you turn down the sixth—you’re happy even to be asked. In one way, it’s the greatest thing you can do as a translator—be the voice of X in your language. And so there are writers, many or most or even all of whose books I’ve translated. In those cases, I’ve ended up following an author: whether it’s Kafka, Koeppen, or Roth. You are the consequence or the aggregate of your agreements. In my case, it’s meant that I’ve ended up translating a great many books from the 1920s and ’30s, and that in turn made me approachable to more: to Döblin, to Fallada, to Blood Brothers. But I see a reason for that too: “literature,” not “fiction”; books with a political or at least a social dimension; a time when authors still wrote scenes, used complex (or even complete) sentences, had vocabularies and used them; before German was poisoned by its ghastly unhip slang and misunderstood terms borrowed from adspeak and English and tawdry international sports and computer metaphors.

On the other hand, if everything I do is prescribed, is based on historic choices once taken, of course that’s no good either. Because the other great motivation in all this is to learn something new, stretch yourself. Do something the like of which you’ve not done before, surprise your reader, surprise yourself. There is the continuous translator, and the discontinuous translator. Once I did five World War books in a row. I’m thinking: should I have somehow tried to get in a bid to translate Charlotte Roche’s Wet Zones?! Next year I’m hoping to translate a Kleist novella—that’s at least a hundred years older than anything I’ve done yet.

How do you, in your translations of Kafka, manage to preserve a sense of the “Kafka-time” discussed in your preface to the Penguin Classics edition of Metamorphosis and Other Stories—an effect which seems so dependent on the way he orders and calibrates and stacks his clauses: “exquisitely geared sentences in which complex events are shown to be made up of diverse things happening at different speeds, with different motivations and effects, at the same time,” as you put it. 

That’s Kafka’s invention, and has little to do with me. All I have to do is not break up his sentences, and not see out of the story too often, not turn things into mere dramatic irony. Stay inside the machine. The significance will take care of itself—it doesn’t need my help. 

By “Kafka-time” I meant the sense that things are ongoing but at the same time over. Something like the sensation of being able to plead your case in court, while all the time the judge has a little piece of paper in his pocket, telling him what to do. That’s what gives you as a reader the faith that everything so fastidiously detailed in Kafka is important, is more-or-less symbolic, but only somehow accidentally, or deniably. The blend or the coincidence of hope and hopelessness, of perspective and its lack. Determinism and free will. The man before the law ends up begging the fleas in the soldier’s fur collar to intercede for him. Probably, one could do worse. Karl in “The Stoker,” “repeatedly pushing down a little pair of scales, for sheer delight”—isn’t that also fiddling with the law, even as his friend the stoker’s case is being weighed? Everything has meaning, everything denotes effort. After Kafka, you get the Absurd, and then things get chilly. There, I miss the Frantic and the Entertaining, both.

What else is uniquely fun or strange or challenging about working with Kafka?

One difficulty, one pleasure. The difficulty is that he seems to do it without words. He is not a vocabulary or a thesaurus writer. (I don’t know what to do with all my words!) It sometimes seems not to matter what the words are, so much as the way they move, to and fro, from side to side, back and forth. I was reminded of translating Latin at school, a dead language. You are basically unfamiliar with what’s at issue, but the structures are overpowering. I really felt Kafka’s “dry and papery” German, as Klaus Wagenbach called it. Terribly perverse, especially in English, which is always out for juice and personality.

In the first paragraph of “The Judgment” there’s a reference to Georg’s study “on the first floor of one of the low, lightly built houses that ran along the river bank in a long row, varying only in details of height and color.” (“ . . . varying only . . . ”: but what else is there! These things are higgledy-piggledy, and the description is typically Pyrrhic, given and straightaway taken back.) But then it was that “lightly built”—“leicht gebaut”—that killed me. What does it mean? Wood, not stone? Decrepit?! Is this a waterfront slum?! I so badly wanted to animate it, I wanted to call these houses “flimsy” or even “Jerry-built,” but then I didn’t. There’s this personal, judgmental (no pun intended) voice that comes out of English so readily, but it’s just not wanted in Kafka. English is dying to give you an implication or a sneer or an off-the-record personal view.
Button it! Be toneless! Back to Caesar or Cicero or Tacitus: the siege-engines having been made ready, at first light…

And the pleasure is the opposite—trying to fit everything in a Kafka sentence into one in English, and beginning and ending it well, and setting up some kind of link to the one that comes after. The Rubik’s Cube. The jiggling. Where to put the dashes. It’s all a bit like what Kafka describes in the charming little one-page story in Investigations of a Dog called “Once Upon a Time There Was a Game…” about shaking a little ball from A to B—and then Kafka goes and thinks about what the ball does in its spare time, when it’s not on duty, “with its hands,” as he says, “behind its back”!

It’s the knowledge that he’s not what he’s taken for but so much better and brighter and stranger, and trying not to get in the way of that. He’s a wonderful master.

You wrap up that preface to the Penguin Classics edition by expressing hope that your translations convey some of Kafka's humor. David Foster Wallace once wrote on the impossibility of getting his students to see Kafka as funny: “The fact is that Kafka's humor has almost none of the particular forms and codes of contemporary U.S. amusement.” Was this something you had in mind in translating Kafka for a largely American readership?

I’d heard of that, and I got Penguin to send Mr. Foster Wallace a copy of my translation, hoping he would enjoy it, and it might help him make his case. I was sorry he died not long after—I’m sure he’s right. It’s a hugely impressive piece that I’ve now read for the first time—thank you!—not least because he has such awful, really dooming things to say about the readership. Whether it’s qua poet, or as the believing son of a tardy novelist who was not a household name, I hardly ever think about readers, only about books; if something’s in a book it will sooner or later be found by someone. That’s as far as I’ll go. If you see the virtue in a piece of writing, and the virtue is really there as described, then surely everyone can be made to see it eventually. Perhaps Americans will one day discover the pleasures of understatement. 

When my children were growing up, I used to read aloud to them, and often funny things. I read them Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome—Klapka!—Jerome, a contemporary of Kafka probably better known in England, and more an English than an American taste. We rolled about, the berserk little dog, Montmorency, the character “who went to sleep in a bank” et cetera, et cetera. But occasionally we’d be thrown, because the knockabout stopped and we came to these passages that were actually quite dull, and in my role as parent having to explain the flawed world, I said there was a kind of humor in the denial or the postponement of other humor. Children being children, it worked, and we sat through page-long descriptions of oak paneling with subtle smiles on our faces. Perhaps, in addition to all their other troubles, Americans are also insufficiently children. But Kafka will prevail.

In your essay on translation subtitled Notes from a Guilty Business, you write, “If you want someone to look after your sentences for you, who better than a poet?” How has your translation practice, conversely, informed your poetry?

Well, I suppose it’s the Nietzschean thing—whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. For a long time, translation did kill me (as it was also meant to do!)—I wrote very little of my own, and I had that funny, desperate feeling, putting forth all these millions of words, on behalf of other people! I have a book of poems about ready now, but it’s been twenty years or something since the last one. I always liken a poem to a piece of orange peel: you take off what you can in one go. Some of the poems are longer—over the page!—and also many of them are one sentence—that’s a piece of orange peel within a piece of orange peel. That suggests wider caliber. “Now for a large-mouthed product,” as Pound says, more or less! 

Elsewhere in that essay you suggest that your translation work serves the English language as much as it does the original texts you're translating from. The piece has been called “a kind of manifesto for ‘mongrel’ translations.” When you use more eccentric language in your translations, do you ever consider what the author of the original might think of it, i.e., whether or not a particular expression in English suits their sensibility? 

I like that, “a kind of manifesto for ‘mongrel’ translations”! What a good thing to have done!

Yes, because I don’t think about the reader—except inasmuch as I translate anything at all—I think about my original, and perhaps unusually strongly about a kind of ecology of English. What English likes, what English doesn’t have, what can be made to go in English.

The principle isn’t to foist natty language on my originals, willy-nilly, but to do the kinds of things my originals do, though, more likely than not, in different places. Occasionally, too, there’s a sort of semaphore going on, signaling: this is a translation. That can take different forms: in one translated novel, I have this silly pun (they’re called Kalauer in German): “Who’s a big Neubau, then.” In Roth’s Legend of the Holy Drinker, I have a piece of Palmerston, I think it is, about the drunk Andreas getting to his feet, “if with a little local difficulty.” Or I might translate something not into English, but into a French or Latin tag. Here, with Gottfried Benn: “Take sheepherding,/ an entire continent lives by it,/ then along come synthetic fibers/ and the mouflons are foutus.” A reviewer might say—probably has said—is this word French in the original. Well, of course not, but to me it’s a no-brainer. Benn is like that, and I don’t have the least doubt that I have his approval. The mistake would have been not to do that! Translating is not exactly hard enough, but unpleasant enough, or joyless enough, without these occasional rhinestones or bits of jet.  

We’re talking about translations, imitations, copies, things everyone knows are copies, they are not fourth wall illusions, and these moments are like occasional winks at the reader. I’m not sure I would do them now in every case, but I think there is something impulsive and maybe even unrepeatable about translating, the way I do it. At the same time, of course, everything is absolutely considered and there for the ages . . .

“Eccentric language”: well, I like interest in language, and sometimes I think, why shouldn’t the processes of a translation, or a translator, be at least as complex, or getting on for as complex as those of an author? And yet, as I say, this isn’t foisting, it’s something more modest. I’d call it: anti-depletionist. Besides—and this goes back to your question about choosing what books to do—I am drawn to the Cavalier in literature more than the Puritanical. And some of my Cavaliers I think might be surprised: not just Benn and Koeppen and Markus Werner, who are obvious and glorious over-writers, but also the likes of Roth and Brecht (who to me is a dandy, not a Communist monk). That’s the challenge of translating a writer like Peter Stamm, who is not often difficult, but, like an illusionist, apparently straightforward. It all happens in plain sight. A well-chosen, or even a well-placed word is very much in his interest—my interest—our interest.

How would you like your own poetry to be translated?

Not every word—diminishing returns—with plausibility, with fun, with brio. Avoid bloat—English has shorter words and more unfussy constructions, and is usually quicker. In my book of Durs Grünbein translations, I talked about going for the sense of “poems that want to be poems.” I think that’s an important category, or criterion, and not one much heard from. Perhaps you have to establish a sense of the speaker before you can render what he says.

It wasn’t until I was translated into German, by (see your next question!—the poet and novelist) Marcel Beyer, that I appreciated how devious I was in English. Deviousness, for me, is a prime quality of English—English English, that is. I don’t know that Americans do devious, and if they do, then it comes out different. Maybe high-energy devious.

Would you consider a translator who doesn’t moonlight as a poet or a novelist or an essayist a writer? Do you feel there’s a condescending ethos in the literary world toward translators, a notion that those who can’t write for themselves translate?

I think perhaps translators have themselves to blame for that. There’s that wonderful mot of Randall Jarrell’s about no one thinking this Professor of Lithuanian in Seattle or somewhere wrote Anna Karenina, but everyone thinks he’s just the man to translate it. I don’t like the sociological or anthropological disjunction. Writers ought to translate. Pavese translated. Pasternak translated. Enzensberger translated Vallejo and Lewis Carroll and Ashbery, to name just three or four or five. I can’t help finding Tim Parks or Jamie McKendrick or George Szirtes or Lydia Davis or Richard Wilbur endlessly more consoling figures than, say, William Weaver. But these days, they—or we—are in the minority. As a result, translation has acquired a reputation that’s more technical than creative or exploratory. Faithful, accurate, blah blah . . . There isn’t much give or sophistication in the ways we think about it.

In the end, you can’t legislate, though. National Service and the post-World War II generation was the last time we produced linguists in any systematic way. Ralph Manheim, the Barbaras Wright and Bray, Michael Henry Heim, and, yes, William Weaver. Now there are one-offs. The vagaries of the market, and of personal ambition and dedication. I expect the best ones are accidents of migration and biography, who’ve come through the trauma of bilingualism. It’s always better not to have learned a language, the way the Greeks say better to have not been born.