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?”


About Scott Abbott

Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University, 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I'm Director of the Program in Integrated Studies and former Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade), and translations of a book by Austrian author Peter Handke and of a catalogue of an exhibit called "The German Army and Genocide." More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as a watershed scientist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a corrections officer, as university students, and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett and our yellow dog Blue. Some publications at
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4 Responses to Translation

  1. Philip Garrison says:

    Wow! Marvelous!


  2. roughghosts says:

    Wonderful reflection. Cemetery in Barnes is a book I’ve been trying to get for months now, it has proved oddly elusive, though it looks like Amazon is now an option. Thank you for this piece.


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