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.