Handke Translators in the Austrian Embassy in Paris

Yesterday, this email from Zarko Radakovic. He wrote it in German, his second language. It wasn’t perfect. It was perfect.

My Dear Friend,

We’re home again.

It was remarkable in Paris.

The evening in the Austrian Embassy: Incredible. Intimate.

The Ambassador wanted to organize a large reception for Peter [in honor of his recent 70th birthday]. Peter declined. He agreed to an evening for his translators and most intimate friends. There were about twenty of us.

Of the translators, four of us were present: Eustaquio Barjau (Spanish), Claudio Groff (Italian), Anne Weber (French, plays) and I (Serbian). Olivier le Ley (Handke’s French prose translator, a bright young man I met in the Sierra de Gredos [an earlier convocation of Handke translators], was ill, and G. A. Goldschmidt [translator of earlier novels into French and himself a novelist whose work Handke has translated] didn’t come (who knows just why?).

The Translators: Eustaquio Barjan and Zarko Radakovic

The Translators: Eustaquio Barjau and Zarko Radakovic

It was, as I said, a remarkable evening. Peter greeted each of us personally. He was dear and tender and attentive.

Peter und Zarko[4]

The writer and his translator

Although he was dressed formally, I thought he seemed dressed for one of our trips. As if ready for a hike.

He was a splendid host.

As was the Ambassador (a giant woman, blonde, courteous, eager and yet laid-back, wearing a kind of mini-skirt that made me think, repeatedly: now she’ll jump up and begin to dance).

Sophie was dear and charming, now and then very funny.

Anne, in her new dress, discreet as always, and yet always right there.

Sophie Semin Handke and Anne Kister Radakovic

Sophie Semin Handke and Anne Kister Radakovic

We all sat at a large table, each at a place determined in advance. Peter and Sophie together, like a double Jesus. I, to the right of Sophie. Anne Weber to the left of Handke. Next to her Eustaquio. To my right a congenial Italian woman (a friend from the theater). Left of Eustaquio, Anne, and next to her Louis, Sophie’s son. And so on.

The evening meal proceeded slowly, ceremoniously, and yet dynamically.

The evening of translators.

First a word of greeting by the Ambassador, her original thoughts for the evening and then Peter’s own wishes.

Peter spoke. His voice soft, beautiful. He laid out the course of the evening. He asked that we translators read from our translations. And he announced the order of readings.

We read between the courses.

And what we read seemed like additional courses of the meal.

Was the order of readings based on our ages? Or as the appropriate spices for courses? Or as pairings for the drinks?

As appetizer: a kind of fish-gelée with vegetables and potato puffs and a white wine. Eustaquio’s contribution to the course was a section of his translation of Don Juan, a recent publication. I have never heard the Spanish language so light and sweet and mild, and I immediately asked the waiter for a second glass of the exquisite wine. And I needed it, for I was the reader following Eustaquio.

I read from my recently published translation of The Moravian Night. I read with a quiet voice, paradoxically loud, trembling and powerful. And I sensed my language as another, never-yet-heard foreign language and yet so near — and my own. And it seemed like a good wine and like the finest music from the Balkans, World-Music as well, and I felt like a musician in tune with my beloved and reliable instrument. In the music I heard Peter’s voice in the distant background and the two of us played Peter Handke’s notes and played them and played them.

At some point we quit playing . . .

The main course followed: goulash with dumplings, paired with a good red wine. And we ate and ate and ate.

And then Claudio read his Italian translation of The Moravian Night. He sang it so melodically that it had the effect of a canzone with Peter’s and my voices in the background. It tasted spicy! And it made us feel happy. It was funny and witty, sometimes thoughtful, then open for discussion, ready for disputation.

The cheese plate followed. Another new wine, a white — full-bodied, perfect. And, to go with the wine, Anne Weber read from the “Essay on the Stillness of the Outhouse.” And now not a translation, but the original, Peter’s native language that tasted so perfectly dry. We, all the translators, immediately thought: “I’ll take this recipe home and prepare this tasty dish as soon as possible.”

At the end there was apple strudel, coffee, and yellow-plum brandy.

Peter took a piece of paper from his pocket that seemed like a leaf he had found on his last hike. It was a letter from a young reader, a sixteen-year-old girl named Dragana Nikolic from Vienna, obviously of Serbian descent. Peter read from the reader’s letter, he read the moving words of someone who had read The Moravian Night intently and intimately and we all, moved by Peter’s magnetic voice and his emphatic commentary, wanted to read that book, The Moravian Night, again and again and again.

We sat quietly at the end. We sat there tired and satisfied. Then we laughed. Then we spoke quietly. Then we fell silent. Etc.

That’s how is was, my dear friend, in the Austrian Embassy in Paris, in the building in which at one time someone worked whom Peter visited often and then described as a press-attaché in his book A Moment of True Feeling.

The following days in Paris were wonderful.

Another lunch with Sophie and Peter.

Then a fine exhibition of paintings by Edward Hopper.

Then the film Django.

Then the opera David and Jonathan by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. After the evening meal in the Embassy, this was the most important event in Paris.

During the performance of Charpentier's opera this painting was what I often saw. (Z.R.)

During the performance of Charpentier’s opera this painting was what I often saw. (Z.R.)

Then a Salvador Dali retrospective.

And always good food and drink.

And again and again a glass of wine for you, dearest friend.

All the best,



[photographs by Anne Kister Radakovic or Zarko Radakovic]

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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4 Responses to Handke Translators in the Austrian Embassy in Paris

  1. mikerol says:

    Where Handke comes across as the kind of darling i never encountered while he was Keuschnig, and the Austrian Embassy serves the kind of meal that shows why Austrians ctd. fat, and enough to kill a horse. Zarko does a darllng job of describing the party. I’d like to talk to him about Moravian en detail one of these days – i suppose on the http://moravian-nights-discussion.blogspot.com/2012/06/moravian-nights-discussion-blog-will-do.html
    in sprong 2014 although it is already getting quite a few hits.

    xx m.r


  2. mikerol says:

    On second thought: nice as it is and nice and interesting as it has been to translate Handke and have his language “take you by the elbow” and have his support and suggestions, events such as the one at the Embassy of course are also celebrations of the author – which in this instance, since it is a sharing celebration , are no skin of me nose – for once! As to Arthur Goldschmidt’s absence – I thought he was in the grave, he is that ancient, a good enough explanation, and he is no longer translating but has a German translation prize named after him.


  3. Chuck says:

    Reading this I felt like the proverbial fly on the wall. Thanks for translating and posting it.


    • Scott Abbott says:

      Must have been an interesting evening.

      There’s a good essay on translating in the NYTimes today. He gives an example of an untranslatable phrase — Groucho Marx’s “You’re only as old as the woman you feel.”


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