Down the hill from our house, between Douglas fir trees, squat two tubs we fill with fresh water every evening. Birds, insects, and deer (and the occasional coyote) visit and drink, as is this doe. Her fawn watches me sitting on the lower deck while its mother drinks.


Evenings, we often sit on our upper deck, watch the sunset and darkening valley, and as darkness falls watch and listen for the deer that slip in and out for a last drink.


It is hard to see because of the low light, but there is a cat on the white rock above the tubs of water. The cat is looking to the left of the picture at a doe that has had her fill of water and then bedded down in the bunchgrass for the night. She is watching the cat watching her.

Last night, a little later than when the darker photo was taken, a doe and three bucks (a little spike buck, a two-point buck that is the brother of the doe, and a three-point buck came out of the oakbrush and maple grove above the house. They were aware of us sitting on the deck above them and stood watching for a while. Finally the doe made a cautious beeline for the water while the bucks circled around a lower grove. After drinking, the doe moved off in the direction of the bucks.

It grew darker, but we could still see the distinct shadow of a doe and her fawn when they came out of the oakbrush below the tubs. The fawn bounded around a bit while its mother drank and then they moved on.

Next to arrive was a doe with twin fawns. We watched their dark outlines as she went straight to the water and drank while her fawns circled her, ducking in one by one to nurse. The doe was having none of that any more and twisted out of the way each time a fawn butted her, kicking out to emphasize her unwillingness.

Once she had her fill of water, she led her fawns away and must have bedded down because they returned to our meadow, dark shadows against the slightly lighter ground. They were browsing in our flower garden when two much larger shadows drifted down the hill — good-sized bucks, we thought.

The bucks stopped and looked in the direction of the fawns and perhaps up at us (it was too dark to tell exactly). They moved back up the hill just a few steps, browsed a bit, and then, impatient to have the place to themselves, snorted, and snorted louder.

We took that as a sign and left the dark night to get ready for bed.

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Robert Walser: Walking

I’ve been reading a beautiful little book of Robert Walser’s occasional essays on paintings, translated for the most part by Susan Bernofsky and published by New Directions.


A copy of the painting in question is pasted to the page preceding each essay.


This short piece is about a reproduction of the Cranach painting Walser had on the wall of his room while working in a brewery. His landlady took it down from the wall and he wrote her a letter: “Do you consider it indecent? Then I most humbly request that you simply do not look at it.” From then on, he writes, his landlady was sweet to him, even asking him to give her his torn trousers to mend, “this landlady of mine, wife of the cantonal notary.”

Since Zarko Radakovic first introduced me to Walser’s “Der Spaziergang” / The Walk, Walser’s spirit has accompanied me on every walk I take. I see things differently because of his habits of observation and reflection.

On my walk this morning, the air refreshingly cool and still a little humid after last night’s gentle rain — the first in weeks — two things happened that will remain in my memory.

Stepping off the road onto a trail, I slipped past a purple-flowered thistle and brushed a prickly leaf with my arm. That quick pain, I thought, will be my most pointed, potent perception of the day.

An hour later, back on the street leading down to our house, I heard strains from what sounded like Italian opera . . . and someone was singing along with the recorded aria. The music was coming from a boombox at a building site. The tall, fit young man singing along in Italian was wearing a leather framer’s belt holding his hammer and other tools. He sang as he leaned over to measure a board, his voice strong and clear.


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The First Review of our THE PERFECT FENCE

Texas A&M University Press just sent us the following review. Thank you Wayne Franklin.

Annals of Iowa[1]_Page_1

Annals of Iowa[1]_Page_2

Annals of Iowa[1]_Page_3

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Teaching Hegel to Lecture

I’ve been reading the two-volume correspondence between Schiller and Goethe and realize that questions about what constitutes successful pedagogy are eternal and the possible answers infinite. Schiller himself had trouble attracting students after they learned he wasn’t going to lecture on his radical play “The Robbers” but on the history of the Netherlands — and that in Swabian-inflected German. Goethe was in charge of Jena University, along with the theater, road building, and celebratory events — not to mention writing his own plays, poetry, novels, and conducting scientific research on plants, comparative anatomy, clouds, and color. And here they are thinking about Hegel.


[Hegel portrait by Schlesinger 1831]

To Goethe: 9 November 1803

Because I haven’t seen or heard from you, I’m left to wonder why. From several Jena friends visiting here I have learned that you are not seen much there, which is a good sign that you are working well. I am working here as well, letting myself be distracted by nothing, not even going to the theater. If I can keep up this momentum I can finish by March. . . .

I am hearing good things about Jena University, where some of the auditoriums are overflowing. Our Dr. Hegel has, evidently, attracted many auditors who are not dissatisfied by his lectures. . . .


To Schiller: 27 November 1803

. . . I have spent pleasant hours with Schelver, Hegel, and Fenow. Schelver’s botanical work is so good that I hardly trust my ears and eyes. . . . In Hegel’s case, this idea has occurred to me: couldn’t one help him with technical advice on rhetoric? He is an excellent man; but there is so much working against his expression.


To Goethe: 30 November 1803

. . . Lacking distractions and by determined diligence, my work is at least not stagnant, although my whole constitution suffers under the seasonal atmospheric pressure.

Your letter reveals that you are cheerful, and I am pleased to see that you have become better acquainted with Hegel. What he lacks can hardly be given him, but the inability to express himself well is in general a national shortcoming and compensates for itself, at least for a German auditor, through the German virtues of thoroughness and of honest seriousness.

. . . Frau v. Stael is really in Frankfurt, and we can expect her here soon. If she only knows German, I have no doubt that we can deal with her, but to explain our religion in French phrases and then face her French volubility is too hard a task. We wouldn’t escape the way Schelling did with the Frenchman Camille Jordan, who came primed with Locke—Je méprise Locke, Schelling said, and his interlocutor fell silent. All the best to you.

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14 June 2018

Dear Žarko,

I’ve just read Gabriel Josipovici’s new novel, The Cemetery in Barnes. The protagonist is a translator and as I read his descriptions of his work I thought of you sitting in your study in Cologne this very afternoon translating Handke’s Nachmittag eines Schriftstellers / The Afternoon of a Writer. On your table lies the same grey 1987 Residenz Verlag edition of the book I have. It leans against your two-volume Serbo-Croatian / German—German / Serbo-Croatian dictionary. You open it next to a page of notes you have made, prop it under the bottom of your computer screen, and begin to work. Keeping you company, I translate the book’s first paragraph:

Since that time, nearly a year long, when he had lived with the thought that he had lost language, every sentence he wrote and while writing simultaneously sensed the pull of a possible continuation had become an occasion. Every word, written rather than spoken, that led to another let him breathe and reconnected him with the world; only with such a successful notation did the day begin for him and nothing, at least so he thought, could befall him now until the following morning.

And that returns me to Josipovici’s translator:

I liked the sense of peace in the room as I sat at my desk under the skylight. I liked the ritual of sharpening the pencils before I started and then sweeping the shavings into the wastepaper basket, of tapping the pile of already translated sheets until the edges were smooth and clean. I liked drawing up my chair to the desk so that my legs fitted underneath, just so. I liked adjusting the lamp until it shone down on the book at which I was working and on the fresh white sheet I had pulled towards me and left the rest of the room in semi-darkness. I liked the moment when I turned my gaze upon the last sentence and found the words already there, fully formed, as I brought the pencil down on the fresh sheet. . . .

The narrator adds this assessment:

The first hour of work, between seven and eight-fifteen, always gave him the greatest pleasure. Even the most convoluted sentences fell effortlessly into English forms and rhythms, and he would be conscious not so much of the meaning of the words he was translating as of himself as a kind of smoothly functioning machine, rejoicing quietly in his own ability to find the optimum solution to the problems raised by the inevitable lack of synchronicity between any two languages and cultures.

Like you Žarko, and like Josipovici’s character, I know the pleasures of translation. I’ve been wondering, in fact, about perhaps translating Handke’s Vor der Baumschattenwand nachts: Zeichen und Anflüge von der Peripherie 2007-2015. More than 400 pages from his notebooks, including numerous drawings you saw in the Berlin exhibition. There are copious quotations from Handke’s reading of Goethe, including from the Goethe-Schiller correspondence: “without direct observation I can understand nothing” (1796). “And even Goethe speaks once about his ‘hate’ (that he otherwise rejects): To Schiller in regard to his, G.’s, epigrams: ‘. . . unfortunately here too hate is twice as powerful as love’ (June 1796).”

But back to Josipovici, one of my favorite writers in English (and not only because he named Handke’s Gedicht an die Dauer / To Duration as his “book of the year” in the Times Literary Supplement, December 2015: “Peter Handke’s long poem . . . came out in 1986 and has only just been brought out in English, as To Duration, in a fine translation by Scott Abbott”). Lurking under or beside or within the solitary work of the Josipovici’s translator is a series of troubling interactions with women—more than troubling, in fact—events that remain partially veiled by the narrator.

Take heed, Žarko, as will I.

I’ll leave you with Alex’s poem: “Translator: Would you put me into a trans . . . later?”


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“It was a nun they say invented barbed wire.”

Line 154 of episode 8 of James Joyce’s Ulysses in the Gabler Edition serves as the epigraph for Lyn’s and my book The Perfect Fence: Untangling the Meanings of Barbed Wire.

The afterword to our 1986 edition (added by Michael Groden in 1993—go figure) explains the theoretical assumptions that guided Hans Walter Gabler and his team of experts as they produced their authoritative edition. Near the end of the afterword, Groden notes that “Gabler’s loudest and most persistent critic, John Kidd, has since 1988 steadily and relentlessly attacked the edition.”


This morning, reading a piece posted today for the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times, I came across “The Strange Case of the Missing Joyce Scholar,” Jack Hitt’s fascinating account of the eccentric brilliance of John Kidd. Long assumed dead, Hitt discovers Kidd living in Rio de Janeiro where he is working on an impossibly complex and idiosyncratic translation of the nineteenth-century novel The Slave Isaura.

Hitt asks Kidd about his work in Boston to produce his own perfect edition of Ulysses, a project that never came to fruition. Kidd explains that “gaucho” scholars like himself are always trumped by “gauleiter” scholars like Gabler to whom the victory always goes “because of their peevish concern for ‘administrative efficiency.'”

Hitt didn’t know what a “Gauleiter” (yes, Mr. Hitt, it should be capitalized) was, but writes that he learned about their local role in Nazi Germany. And because it is a new word to him and because it is a German word, he helps us understand how it is pronounced:

“(pronounced gow-lieders).”

Hitt’s pronunciation guide looks a lot like “cow-songs” to me. If I had been his editor, I would have explained, as I have to thousands of students over the years devoted to teaching German, that you pronounce an “ie” as a long “e” and an “ei” as a long “i.” Additionally, the “t” in “Gauleiter” sounds like a “t” and not a “d.”

And, as I correct the author of the fascinating story about a man obsessed with producing a perfect Ulysses, I see myself obsessing over spelling and pronunciation and have to note, finally, in the context of Hitt’s suggestion that Joyce waited till 1922 to publish the novel because the numbers in 1921 added up to 13, that the names John Kidd and Jack Hitt share an initial “J,” double letters at the end, and 4 letters for both first and last names.

Here is a link to the NYT piece and, because the error will surely be corrected quickly, a screen shot of the “gow-lieder” paragraph:


gau short





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The Sonosopher

The title is “The Sonosopher.” The poem to the right of the image begins “in my mind.”

The afternoon sun slanting down from a high west-facing window is an illuminating exclamation.


Daily I have the pleasure of living inside the mind of Alex Caldiero.

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Philip Roth

I’ve spent a lot of hours with Philip Roth over the years. Sorry to see him go.

When it was first published, I reviewed The Anatomy Lesson for the Sunstone Review. I compared it to Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship; wonder if that would make sense to me now?

A couple of months ago I read The Plot Against America and found it disturbingly relevant.


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From Mark Jarman’s Epistles:

26. In the Clouds

Simply by thinking I stood among the clouds. They surrounded and passed me, being and becoming. Blood released into clear water. Breath into cold air. Formlessness entering form, forced into form. . . .

Brothers and sisters, consider the taste of cloud in a Sherpa’s mouth, of fog in a surfer’s throat. Consider the flocculent muscle of the cumulus. The icy elevation of the cirrus. But especially the thunderhead, full of zeal, hurrying in with its beveled wind, white slanting rain, its electric personality, its aftermath. . . .

As they change, clouds grow neither better nor worse. They alter because it is their nature to alter.

And on the cover a cloud study by John Constable:


Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not landscape painting be considered a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?” John Constable


From Alex Caldiero (after seeing the original version of this post):

As if out of a memory
This morning your clouds
Brought me this—

Once i followed a
Procession of clouds
Up to the top of a hill—

I could see sky
And earth almost touch
But never meet—

Who was i to think
Such impossible thoughts
But a creature alive—

A cloud left the procession
And started towards me,
Even now towards me—


Blanche McCarthy

Look in the terrible mirror of the sky

And not in this dead glass, which can reflect

Only the surfaces- the bending arm,

The leaning shoulder and the searching eye.

Look in the terrible mirror of the sky.

Oh, bend against the invisible; and lean

To symbols of descending night; and search

The glare of revelations going by!

Look in the terrible mirror of the sky.

See how the absent moon waits in a glade

Of your dark self, and how the wings of stars,

Upward, from unimagined coverts, fly.

William Carlos Williams

[thanks to Richard Gate for this]






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Emily Wilson’s review of Mark Polizzotti’s Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto (in the current edition of the NYRB) makes me think about my own work as a translator.

Should a translation, as Walter Benjamin argued, “be powerfully affected by the language of the original text”? Should a translation impose a “foreign otherness”? Should a translation, as Dante Gabriel Rossetti demanded, not turn a good poem into a bad one?

I agreed to translate a catalogue for an exhibition on the German Army’s role in genocide primarily because of the section on crimes in Yugoslavia.


I worked hard to make this a readable English text rather than a word-for-word translation in which the German original was all too evident. An editor retranslated passages into often awkward English that more closely conformed to the German. And thus the double attribution on the title page.


More interesting were my interactions with the Viking Press editor who commissioned a translation of Peter Handke’s A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia.


He had a keen eye  for detail and a good sense for language and made several suggestions that improved my work. But when he asked that I rethink the common use of the conjunction and to begin sentences and paragraphs, especially as the book approached its end, I pointed out that Handke used and as a bridge between warring parties and in contradistinction to a divisive or. The editor understood immediately.

The German writer Peter Schneider, however, understood nothing as he reviewed the book for The New Republic. His animosity may have been fueled by an earlier interview with Handke in which Handke revealed that Schneider had told him that when he sat down to write he always did so wearing tight pants that stimulated him.

I replied to Schneider’s review in a letter published in the subsequent edition of The New Republic:

The Reader Takes a Hike

Are we reading correctly? Peter Schneider asks in his review of Peter Handke’s A Journey to the Rivers, Justice for Serbia. The answer is no. Schneider may be a writer, but as in his polemical attack on Handke in Der Spiegel, he here again proves he cannot (or will not) read.

At issue are Schneider’s repeated assertions that Handke has denied the atrocities of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Handke’s text says the opposite. Note the following   contradictions:

Journey to the Rivers: What, are you trying to help minimize the Serbian crimes in Bosnia, in the Krajina, in Slavonia, by means of a media critique that sidesteps the basic facts? . . . You aren’t going to question the massacre at Srebrenica too, are you?

Schneider: Handke doubted or disputed . . . whether [the Serbs] really established concentration camps, whether a genocide really took place. . . .

Journey to the Rivers: Isn’t it, finally, irresponsible . . . to offer the small sufferings in Serbia . . . while over the border a great suffering prevails, that of Sarajevo, of Tuzla, of Srebrenica, of Bihac, compared to which the Serbian boo-boos are nothing?

Schneider: There was no genocide? Then prove it.

Journey to the Rivers: When the first photographs, soon photo sequences or serial photos, were shown from the Bosnian war, there was a part of myself repeatedly standing for my whole), which felt that the armed Bosnian Serbs, whether the army or individual killers, especially those on the hills and mountains around Sarajevo, were enemies of humanity, to slightly vary Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s phrase in reference to the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Schneider: Handke is insensitive to the thousands of citizens of Sarajevo [who] were murdered by snipers and grenades.

Schneider: Handke writes about the notorious bandit and war killer Arkan as if his quotation marks suffice to disprove what is commonly known, which is that Arkan was one of the worst butchers of the war in the Balkans.

If Schneider could read, he would notice that when Handke here quotes a rhetorically overblown close chain of denunciations in an article in Le Monde, he puts them in quotation marks, but that when, in the same sentence, he himself refers to Arkan, he calls him a war criminal, with no relativizing marks.

For a man who can write in two languages, Schneider demonstrates a surprising inability to read in either. He quotes my translation, “Doubtlessly really suffering,” and suggests that “it is worth noting that in the German original, Handke’s words were ‘wohl wirklich leidend’ — supposedly really suffering.” He is intimating that Handke here calls the facticity of suffering into question but that my translation covers for him. Schneider might well consult his dictionary. He would find the meaning that exactly fits the context in which the word is used: wohl — to be sure, no doubt (nachdruecklich, was von anderer Seite in Zweifel gezogen wird; durchaus).

Finally, Schneider begins his review by pointing out that Peter Handke’s American   publisher presents him as Germany’s foremost living writer. Is he referring to Viking, the publisher of A Journey to the Rivers? If so, this is what it actually says on the dust jacket: “one of the most popular postwar German language writers.” And if he is referring to Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Handke’s usual American publisher, the assertion must be especially galling, for that is Schneider’s publisher as well.

Peter Handke’s carefully written essay deserves careful readers. And then the discussion can begin.

Scott Abbott, Provo, Utah, 27 February 1997

The long poem To Duration was a pleasure to translate, especially given the chance to work with the editor and designer Philip Baber.

Handke himself is a prolific translator, works from French, Slovenian, English, and Greek. In his translation of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, Handke has Autolycus describe one of the songs he is selling: Eine ganz lustige, zu der Melodie “Mitten in Mobile wieder in der Mangel des Memphis Blues.” I asked him about that and he said: Ja, daß habe ich mir erlaubt. What he allowed himself was the imposition of foreign otherness, a move that makes me smile whenever I think of it.

For PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, I translated Handke’s Voyage by Dugout, a play provoked by the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia and one scene of which was drawn from an experience in Visegrad on the Drina River which I witnessed myself.


More recently, I translated Gregor Mendel’s “Experiments on Plant Hybrids” with geneticist Danial Fairbanks. It was a “Darwinian” translation, incorporating marginalia from Mendel’s copy of the first German translation of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Our translation was joint work in the best sense — a scientist making sure we got the science right and I making sure our English reflected the German. My only regrets with this are the sentences in which we emphasized Darwinian English phrases to the detriment of an English that approximated Mendel’s beautiful German.

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