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Sharp Biscuit — Some Thoughts on Translating

Notes from a guilty business.

A handful of lucky or gifted poets fill their lives with poetry. I’m thinking of the likes of Ashbery, Brodsky, Ted Hughes, Les Murray. They write, respectively wrote poems, it seems to me, practically 
every day, the way prose writers write their novels. The date at the bottom of Mandelstam poems. Plath poems. It’s a question of the force of the gift, the pounds-per-square-inch of the Muse. Heaney, too, comes close. The rest of us strike compromises, do something else “as well,” mostly teach, in a handful of cases, do other, unrelated work, have “a job” in the “real world.” The job is the enemy of the poetry, its successful, favored rival (the job is everything, the poem nothing; who wants the poem, and who doesn’t want the job?), but may also be the dirt from which the poetry grows. Such, anyway, is my hope, translating.

Meetings with remarkable translators. To coin a phrase. The first was Ralph Manheim (translator of Grass and Handke, then as now the two most prominent living German authors, but also of Brecht and Céline and Danilo Kiš and any number of others — Mein Kampf, anyone?), who invited me to drinks at his flat in Paris. A native of Chicago, if  I remember, and one of the great generation of American translators that was produced by the war. 1980, 1982, something like that. Six o’clock. Yard-arm time. I turn up, meet him and his charming wife, who has suffered a stroke and whom he is looking after. 
I feel a bond with him: the unusual, “thin” spellings of our names, he has only one n in his, I have only one f in the same place, plus he is exactly fifty years older than me, born in 1907. We talk about the vexatious Handke, who is also living in Paris, and with whom he says, in a gallant adaptation of the German idiom (which exists in the negative form), “ist gut Kirschen essen,” you can share a bowl of cherries, i.e., a companionable and generous and uncomplicated sort. I demur, but he says it, and he may after all be right. (Years later, I am with friends in Paris. Very late, long after supper, there is a knock on the door, it is Peter Handke, who only ever walks everywhere, 
unannounced, with his hat full of  mushrooms he has picked. They are straightaway cooked and eaten, and I am surprised by Handke, who is tanned and strong and kind, and has a firm handshake, and I think about the cherries, and the Manheims.) I drink a beer, they both have whiskey. Ralph has come from his office in another building. The sense, then, of  it being a job, that he keeps regular hours, locks it up and comes home. Doesn’t allow it to sprawl greedily or disfiguringly over his life. I think, if  I think at all, of  my father who writes at home, giving dictation — furthermore — to my mother, in what passes for our living room. His writing is everywhere, fills the airwaves, fills our family space, governs our lives like national economy.

Then Joseph Brodsky, some time later in the eighties, in the Tufnell Park flat of a friend of  his. Espresso and Vecchio Romano in a somewhat redundant, spotless kitchen. (He wrote about Auden’s “real library of a kitchen” in Kirchstetten, but I guess that for him and in his life, most of the action will have been in, so to speak, the real kitchen of this or that library. As he said, “freedom is a library”; it isn’t a kitchen.) “Circumcised” cigarettes. The practiced fingers pull out the sponge, pull out the fluff, discard the fluff, return the sponge. Only then is it safe to smoke. He is translating Cavafy, whom he loves. The classicism, the history, the anonymity. Into Russian. He has brought with him from New York a Russian portable typewriter he is using. Greek into Cyrillic. In bourgeois north London. A bizarre, Conradian phenomenon. The translator as bacillus.

Maybe one more. A rare (for me) gathering of translators in New York City, perhaps some awards ceremony, I don’t remember. We fill the front stalls of a theater somewhere, feeling unusually 
effervescent, like a gathering of missionaries, or spies on day release. Optimistic. Righteous. Both full of ourselves and among ourselves, unter uns. Ourselves alone — Sinn Féin. The charabanc effect. To make things better/worse, Paul Auster is brought on to address us. Then someone announces that Gregory Rabassa is of the company, somewhere right and front of  us. A slight, stooped figure rises, bows. From the stage, a beam tries to pick him out, to try and somehow give him some plasticity. I don’t think I would recognize him on the street. The first translator I was aware of, I read his Marquez when I was twenty, and doorstepped his London publishers. (Remember Marquez’s praise for him as “the best Latin American writer in the English language”?) A little pencil mustache, maybe? An imperial? I doubt myself, and think probably I’m making it up, extrapolating, literarizing. We applaud frantically. Such are the heroes of a secret business, a guilty business, even.

I translate to try to amount to something. When I first held my first book of poems in my hands (the least extent acceptable to the British Library, forty-eight pages including prelims), I thought it would fly away. To repair a deficit of  literature in my life. My ill-advised version 
of Cartesianism: traduco, ergo sum. Ill-advised because the translator has no being, should neither be seen nor heard, should be (yawn) faithful, should be (double yawn) a plate of glass. Well, Kerrang!!!

Many, if not most translators, operate with an acquired language, or languages, and their own, which is the one, according to Christopher Logue, they have to be really good at. (I never trust people who translate both into and out of a language: isn’t there something unsanitary about that, like drinking the bathwater?) That brings a certain dispassion to their proceedings, a lab coat, tweezers, a fume cupboard. But both my languages are “my own”: German, my so-called mother tongue, and English, which I have no memory of  learning at the age of four, and was the language I first read and wrote in. Both are lived languages, primal languages: the one of family and first namings, and now, of companionship and love; the other of decades of, I hope, 
undetectable and successful assimilation in England. Which should I be without?

I was happily bilingual till my mid-twenties, when I began, by economic necessity, to translate. The matching of my two languages is an inner process, the setting of a broken bone, a graft, the healing of a wound. Perhaps it can even be claimed that in me German is in some way an open wound, which is soothed and brought to healing by the application of  English. Translation as a psychostatic necessity. Look, there is no break in my life, no loss of Eden, no loss of childhood certainties, no discontinuity, no breach, no rupture, no expulsion. English, then, as a bandage, a splint, a salve.

Late on in my translation of my father’s novel of small town Germany in the thirties and forties, The Film Explainer, about his grandfather, my great-grandfather, you may read:

Anyone who now saw Grandfather on the street, under his artist’s hat, with which “he shields his thick skull from others’ ideas” (Grandmother) no longer said: Hello, Herr Hofmann! He said: Heil Hitler! Or: Another scorcher!

Yes, this one is ontologically and humorously important to me, it’s a family book, the hero’s name is Hofmann, and I identify with everyone in it, because they’re all a part of me: the vainglorious oldster (like me, a wearer of hats), the acerbic Grandmother, the anxious-to-please small boy — but even beyond that, the expressing of that history, its domestication in English, gives me immense satisfaction. Where is the rift, the breach, if it is a matter of chance whether you say the Terry-Thomas “Another scorcher!” or the truly villainous “Heil Hitler!” It could just as well have happened to you, it implies, and: look, I am making a joke of it, and: how can you think I am different. I am putting together something in myself, and in my history.

Hence — though of course no one likes a bad review — the way 
I react unusually badly (it seems to me) to mistakes (I do make them) and to readers’ or reviewers’ rebukes. It interferes with my healing, my knitting-together, my convalescence. It tears off a bandage, and scrapes open my hurt, or my heart. Don’t disturb my circles, I think.

Translation is the production of words, hundreds of thousands of words, by now many millions of words. I prefer short books, I am lazy, I am a poet, one page is usually plenty for me. But even so, the long books have snuck up on me, and passed through me. The Radetzky March perhaps 140,000 words. Two long Falladas, two hundred thousand apiece. Fallada short stories, another hundred thousand. Ernst Jünger 130,000, and with a bunch of other war books — how did I get into that? — comfortably four hundred thousand. Sixty books, millions and millions of words, like millions and millions of numbers, like π, an unreal number. Once I notice myself starting to repeat (    . . .    3141592    . . .    ), I promise myself, then I will stop.

This is all distraction on an industrial scale, the “still small voice” of poetry decibelled over, my puny resources vastly overstretched, the six-stone weakling unhappily running amok with a chest expander. 
In the Nietzsche  /  Jünger way, it will either kill me, or make me strong. Again, how did it happen? Out of fealty to my novelist father: prose. Out of my German nature: Tüchtigkeit, energetic production, industry, diligence. Out of dissatisfaction with my own slow, wool-gathering, window-gazing methods: all-consuming tasks in unbroken 
sequence. Out of a desire to make more — and heavier — books: translation. Given his druthers, what does moony Narcissus take upon himself? — Why, the labors of  Hercules!

If you want someone to look after your sentences for you, who or what better than a poet? If you want someone to regulate — enterprisingly regulate — your diction, cadence your prose, hook a beginning 
to an ending, jam an ending up against a beginning, drive a green fuse through the gray limbs of clauses — a poet. If you’re looking for prose with dignity, with surprise, with order, with attention to detail. That’s why the first item in Tom Paulin’s book of electric free translations, The Road to Inver, is his version of the opening of  Camus’s The Plague. Prose. Well, up to a point.

And the resources, the tools? Well, they can be anything at all. Sometimes, when I’ve liked certain figures in German — most 
especially when they weren’t things I knew, and that therefore gave me the sense that not everyone would know them in German — 
I let them stand. Uncommon in German, why not new in English? In Each Man Dies Alone, there’s this: “The actor Max Harteisen had, as his friend and attorney Toll liked to remind him, plenty of  butter on his head from pre-Nazi times.” There is a footnote to this, but it’s none of my making: I’d have let it go without. Butter on the head — isn’t it an adorable expression?! Or this, from a new novel, Seven Years, by Peter Stamm, a scene in which two architects are exchanging career advice: “Berlin is an El Dorado, he said, if you’re half-presentable, then you can earn yourself a golden nose.” Nothing easier than to have said “really fill your boots” or “earn silly money” or “a shedload of money,” but I didn’t want to: the golden nose — what a perfect expression of the wealth gap: such a futile, practically syphilitic protuberance! — had wowed me too much.

So, things let stand from German — but also the opposite. Things fetched from every corner of English. Someone told me something in my Wassermann is Australian (I spent hours looking, but couldn’t find the reference, though I do remember trying to use “Esky,” from “Eskimo,” the Australian term for a coolbox, and not being allowed to). Another expression — “a kick in the slats” — is from a Dublin-born civil servant I used to know. This is translation not quite as 
autobiography, but maybe as “auto-graphy”: turning out my pockets, Schwitters-style, a bus ticket, a scrap of newspaper, a fag-packet, a page torn out of a diary. The words are not just words; they are words that I’ve knocked around with; they reflect my continuing engagement with Lowell, with Brodsky, with Bishop, with Malcolm Lowry; words that have had some wear and tear, there is fade in them, and softness, and history, maybe not visibly so for every reader, but palpably, to some.

I use English and American more or less as they come to hand; it used to be I thought I knew the difference, and even imagined 
I could deliberately switch between them, I’m no longer sure. Is it the hood or the bonnet? The boot or the trunk? Does something take “the biscuit” or “the cake”? Is it “the shoe” that drops or the “penny”? Am I “pernickety” or more “persnickety”? Inevitably, and increasingly — it’s a function of my life and reading, as well as of having employers in London and New York — things in me will come out mixed, in a style you could call “universal-provincial.” 
A molten, mongrel English (which I happen to believe is the genius and proclivity of the language anyway). What I find most resistant (and least simpatico) is the authentic and the limited and the local (but what translation is going to sit happily with those qualities: they are each the antithesis of translation). Everything expressive is possible. I fight hard for British expressions in my us translations (“on the never-never” is one that comes to mind — surely the American economy would be in a different shape if that jolly warning as to the dangers of excessive credit had been understood!), and I like introducing British readers to American expressions as well. Eight 
boyhood years in Edinburgh — I thought they had left no trace — find a belated upsurge in a welter of Scottish-isms: “postie,” “wee,” “agley,” “first-footing.” (The main beneficiary/ sufferer was Durs Grünbein; if   I thought anything by it [by no means sure], perhaps that I was mapping provincialisms, Saxon on to Scottish, eighteenth-century capital on to eighteenth-century capital, his Dresden childhood on to mine in the self-styled “Athens of the North.”) Words I’ve used in poems myself, “bimble” and others, get in on the act. It’s not just that — as I’ve thought and said previously — translation takes away all your words, it’s more insidious than that, more neutron-bomb-like: it takes away all my words. Again, once I find myself repeating myself, or see a certain predictability and mannerism in the use — without much sanction from the original — of a slightly dandyish, comical, rueful register, say 888888 recurring, it’ll be time for me to stop.

But that’s the problem: whose words are you going to use, if not your own? Reprising Buffon, Wallace Stevens said: “A man has no choice about his style.” Why shouldn’t it be just as true of a translator as of  John Doe, author? Is it imagined that you take a dictionary to an original, and make fifty or hundred thousand hermetically separate 
transactions, translating, in effect, blind, and into a language not yours and no one else’s? Is that a book? Every word taken out of its association-proof shrink-wrapping? I don’t see how a personal vocabulary and personal grammar and a personal rhythm — at least where they exist, in anyone evolved enough to have them — are to be excluded. Chocolates carry warnings that they may have been manufactured using equipment that has hosted peanuts; why not translations too? But then not just “has written the occasional modern poem” but also “likes punk” or “early familiarity with the works of Dickens” or even “reads the Guardian” or “follows the Dow” or “fan of P.G. Wodehouse.” (Yes, dear reader, these are all me.) But we are all contaminated. I have awe but not much respect for people who translate 
with a contemporary lexicon to hand, so that a translation of an old book is “guaranteed” to contain no words that weren’t in existence — albeit in the other language — at the time of  writing. It is ingenious, yes; disciplined, aha; plausible, sure; but it’s entirely too mechanistic. Even if you use eighteenth-century vocabulary, chances are you won’t manage a single sentence that would have passed muster in the eighteenth century. (There’s a difference between a pianist and a piano-tuner.) Meanwhile, your twenty-first century reader reads you with what —  his eighteenth-century parson’s soul? On his Nook?

I want a translation to provide an experience, and I want, as a translator, to make a difference. I concede that both aims may be felt to be somewhat unusual, even inadmissible. I can see that the idea of  me as writer leans into, or even blurs, the idea of me as translator (after all, I don’t need someone else’s book to break my silence: I am, if   you like, a ventriloquist’s ventriloquist). Translating a book is for me an alternative to or an extension (a multiplier!) of writing an essay or poem. A publisher friend of mine did me the kindness of dreaming of a world where books were thought of not by author, but by translator (who is after all the one who comes up with the words on the page): so, a Pevear/Volokhonsky, not a Tolstoy; a Mitchell, not a Rilke; a Lydia Davis, not a Proust.

But where is the fidelity, you may say, where is the accuracy, the self-effacement, the service!? For me the service comes from writing as well and as interestingly as possible: it comes from using the full range of Englishes, the different registers, the half-forgotten words, the tricks of voice, the unexpected tightenings and loosenings of grammar. (I serve my originals, as I see it, but I am also there to serve English, hence the importations, the “finds,” the dandyisms, and the collisions.) I am impatient with null or duff passages of writing, cliches, inexactitudes, even, actually, the ordinary inert. (I don’t know that I would find anything more challenging than a book where the characters only ever “went” to places, and only ever “said” things: I’d find it stifling — and have done.) In his sweet-mannered but 
extremely interesting Is That a Fish in Your Ear? David Bellos characterizes translation as liable to produce a sort of moyen language, clipping the extremes of an original, tending toward the 
accepted and the established and the center, the unexceptional and the unexceptionable. I don’t mind much where my extremes come from — whether they are mine, or my authors’, but I want them to be there. Extra pixels. The high resolution of a fourth or fifth decimal place, I once put it. It’s the expectation of poetry: brevity, pitch, 
drama. The right word, or phrase or sentence — and thereby too, something you mightn’t have got from someone else. Yes, a translator is a passenger, riding in relative safety (and deserved penury) in a 
vehicle that has already been built, but I would still rather he were a passenger of the bobsleigh kind — a converted sprinter, someone who at least puts his own bones and balance and reactions into his work.

And so one ungrateful reader sees fit to complain: “He uses words not commonly seen in books and occasionally his grammar is clumsy” (which only seems to get more hilarious the more I look at it: the wonderfully aggrieved, positively denunciatory tone; the gorgeous — 
imitatively clumsy — hitch, a kind of comma-less splice; the absurd implication that more words may be used in speech [i.e. that written English operates a rather French system of vocabulary restraint]; the rather gray little sentence that flaunts its two mealy adverbs). A 
reviewer describes me as “the usually reliable” (which in some moods I would see as a slur), and goes on to grumble about my use of “inelegant non-words” like “chuntering” (to talk in a low, inarticulate way) and “squinny” (from squint, obviously) — both of them seem not just perfect but perfectly good to me (and since when is there a universal edict on elegance, or on frequency of use?) — and intimates he would rather (sight unseen) read eighty-year-old versions by my predecessors, the wonderfully named Cedar and Eden Paul, who sound like the grandsire and grandam of the Tea Party: perhaps I should counter by denying him any of my other, “usually reliable,” translations? The novelist A.S. Byatt drew up a little list of words she thought ought not to have appeared in my translation of  Joseph Roth’s last novel The Emperor’s Tomb (first published in 1938): 
“a ways,” “gussied up,” “sprog,” “sharp cookie,” “gobsmacked,” and (rather ruthlessly, I thought), “pinkie.” The action of the book straddles wwi; only the first of Byatt’s terms comes from “before,” the others are all “after the deluge,” which I think matters. Four times I shrugged my shoulders. I inclined my head a little at “sharp cookie” — 
if English had offered “sharp biscuit” I might indeed have used that — but the only one that had me scrambling was “gobsmacked,” which is a vulgarism not in my repertoire in speech, never mind books, or so I thought. When I looked it up in Roth, I saw it was spoken by a character called von Stettenheim, a con man — von man — who is described as a “Prussian vulgarian.” Even that, then — reaching for a word I don’t use — doesn’t seem wrong to me.

What all these have in common, I think, is a neurotic impatience with the idea, even, of there being a translator. In their cars, as they conceive of them, there is but one steering wheel, and an author is at it (in fact there are dual controls). Such readers and critics will sometimes, rather in spite of themselves, read a translation, but with an edge of apprehension, almost already under protest or under notice. 
Their palette of expectation is all negative: impossible to imagine such people amused, struck, impressed, or surprised by a translation. (“Translation?!” I seem to hear, almost like Lady Bracknell’s “a handbag?!”) Rather, woe if the translation should happen to show itself, to obtrude. There is only disfavor forthcoming. Their wrath will be terrible to behold. A translation is only possible — only bearable, one thinks — so long as it remains meek, clothy, predictable, a little old-fashioned. It should wear its inadequacy on its sleeve. Whereas, to me, to sit over something professionally disappointing, necessarily doomed, and perennially half-empty would be a waste of my life (which who knows, perhaps I have wasted). Yes, it is impossible, but that is where we came in, it was the fall of the Tower of  Babel that gave us our ground plan. Just because I am the translator of a book doesn’t seem to me to rule out finesse, pleasure, initiative, even provocation. Hans Magnus Enzensberger — who has dedicated one of  his books to translators, to the “noble coolies” of poetry (and what a bizarre and wonderful collision of words that is, “noble coolies”!) — still thinks we should have fun. Or does it always have to be like in Pope, “and ten low words oft creep in one dull line”?

Something simple on method. It used to be I wrote out a draft by hand, usually at night; then the next day I would look up words (irritatingly, they were almost always words I knew, but at that stage I felt I still needed the corroboration: the people who don’t look things up are usually the ones who don’t know them), and type up what I had; in the afternoon I would go swimming, and at night I would rough out — or rough up — the next few pages. When I’d got to the end of a manuscript, I would make a large (A3) photocopy of it, and scribble on it, working only — or almost only — with the English. Word processing has greatly simplified and run together these stages. What remains the case is that I get some sort of draft out as quickly as possible, put the German away, and revise, endlessly. Ten times, twenty times — more. If   I can get someone to listen, I like to read a book aloud. I re-read old translations of mine long after they’ve 
appeared, long after they’ve disappeared again. I can see that it is possible for an original to get away from me, but think that on the whole that doesn’t happen: all my instincts — even working at speed — are accurate and loyal. I know that in this piece I’ve dwelt on difference and play and irresponsibility, but I am overwhelmingly a careful and dutiful worker. Further, there is a benefit to working with and from English, which is that a translation doesn’t get involved in a sort of linguistic tug-of-war. There’s not a struggle to be born, just a fairly quick and clean separation, and the English understands that it’s on its own, as it has to be. (It’s self-evident but needs saying: I translate for people without German, rather than those who have the doubtful good fortune of  knowing it.) When I’ve translated poetry, which is in the last ten years or so, the presence or threat of a parallel text has protracted negotiations with the German; I’m not sure it’s always been to the benefit of the translation, but clearly it’s bound to happen that way. A poem-translation can feel like 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: not a comfortable feeling, and not recommended.

Over time, I’ve become more sure of myself, and more taken with myself. I’m not sure either of these is a good thing, but again they’re both likely to happen. Over their careers, a doctor or stockbroker 
or airline pilot will have gone the same way. Partly it’s generalized experience, partly a long association with particular authors and epochs — the twenties and thirties; Stamm, Roth, Fallada, my 
father — but it has given rise to a sense of “this is how I do things” and even “this is how I want things to come out, and you should be satisfied with that.” There’s nothing so exhausting as sticking up for yourself, but I can do it when put to it. I back my feel for words against just about anyone’s, I know I have a degree of impatience — 
I don’t like fussing — and then there’s something impetuous and 
unpredictable in me as well. That’s what you get. I wouldn’t want it as a sort of generalized characterological dispensation, but I think in my own case it’s probably ok.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Poetry magazine

  • Poet, translator, and essayist Michael Hofmann was born in Freiburg, Germany, and moved to the UK at age four. When his family returned to Germany, Hofmann stayed behind, first at boarding schools and later Magdalene College, Cambridge University, where he earned his BA and MA. His first book of poetry,...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Sharp Biscuit — Some Thoughts on Translating

Notes from a guilty business.
  • Poet, translator, and essayist Michael Hofmann was born in Freiburg, Germany, and moved to the UK at age four. When his family returned to Germany, Hofmann stayed behind, first at boarding schools and later Magdalene College, Cambridge University, where he earned his BA and MA. His first book of poetry,...

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