German Publishing: The Psychedelic Years

Right now I'm translating a document containing a bunch of boring legalese. But I could have it much, much worse. Back in the 1970s, somebody had to translate the poetry (temptation to use scare quotes barely resisted) of Gary Snyder:

Reihe Hanser Gary Snyder Gedichte

OK, I take that back. Snyder's poetry actually isn't all that regrettable, although lots of his poems smell faintly of patchouli oil

But the main focus of this post is the giant batch of Reihe Hanser books that my local antiquarian bookstore just received. The covers take passers-by on a trip back to the early 1970s, when all books were expected to be groovy, even biology textbooks. As you can see, the Reihe Hanser was basically dedicated to New Left social critique and mind-breaking textperiments -- and if the titles ('Mutant Milieu', '3:00 Fear', 'Farabeuf, or the Chronicle of a Moment', 'a-b Glow in the Clover: Psychopathological Texts') didn't tip you off to what was inside, then the book covers surely would. Many more below the fold:

Continue reading "German Publishing: The Psychedelic Years" »

When I Hear the Word "Revolver"...

I came across this interview with Slavoj Zizek last week on Obscene Desserts:

Zizek makes interesting points about the displacement of political conflict over economic interests into anodyne debates about multiculturalism and "tolerance" (Walter Benn Michaels argues along similar lines here). Otherwise, Slavoj is in full-on vieillard terrible mode: advocating the death penalty for rapists, promising to send Peter Sloterdijk to the "gulag," even accusing cuddly, adorable Michael Palin of racism. At one point, Zizek proudly announces that he has "Joseph Goebbels' reaction" when he hears multicultural platitudes: "I draw my guns." 

Zizek gets it wrong, but we won't hold him to that, because it's a live interview. The interesting thing is that everyone else gets it wrong, too. The famous quotation that everyone attributes to Goebbels or Goering is "When I hear the word 'culture', I reach for my revolver." It's even been used as the refrain of a pop song by Mission of Burma, later covered by Moby.

But there's no record of those two officials ever saying anything about revolvers. The quote everyone is actually thinking of comes from the first scene of a 1933 play, Schlageter, by the Nazi playwright Hanns Johst. Schlageter tells the story of one of the first National Socialist "martyrs," Albert Leo Schlageter (g), a NSDAP member who was executed by a French military tribunal for acts of sabotage against the occupation of the Ruhr Valley in the early 1920s. Schlageter later became the focus of a Nazi martyr cult. Streets all over Germany were named after him during the Third Reich, and his biography (see photo above) was mandatory reading for students.

In Johst's play, Schlageter talkes with a fellow student, Thiemann, about politics. Thiemann utters a long rant which ends with the phrase: "Wenn ich Kultur höre ... entsichere ich meinen Browning," which translates as: "Whenever I hear [the word] 'culture'... I release the safety on my Browning!" In the original, Schlageter reacts with shock to his friend's militance. But not the National Socialists: Baldur von Schirach apparently used the quotation in a speech.

But "release the safety on my Browning" isn't half so catchy as "reach for my revolver," which is how the phrase has been received into English. There are two problems here for the translator.  First, German actually has one catchy word for release the safety (entsichere="de-safety-ize"), but English doesn't. Second, Browning used to be a generic word for all sorts of pistols, but that's no longer the case.* Whoever first translated the phrase as "reach for my revolver" did a brilliant job, I would say. The translation preserves the original meaning, and makes the references more resistant to the passage of time. And it struck a chord, appearling both to American post-punk bands and Slovenian philosophers.

* These days, people are more likely to associated the word Browning with the English poet, which perhaps led to the ludicrous suggestion on the Wikiquote page that the reference to "my Browning" might actually be a literary pun. I like the idea of "releasing the safety" on a book of poetry, but that level of playful irony seems almost Wildean, and if there was one thing Nazi playwrights weren't, it was Wildean.


The Dangerously Non-Dangerous Book for Boys

In 2006, a British father and son wrote The Dangerous Book for Boys.  It's supposed to evoke those long-past days when, instead of vegetating for hours in front of glimmering consoles, young boys dreamed of adventure, played outside, and sometimes got hurt.  It had information on Antarctic explorers, famous historical battles, building catapults, tying knots, navigating in the woods.  Plus anecdotes about bone-crushing sports and their heroes.  And some sections on history and honor and loyalty and other old-fashioned virtues. It sounds like a kind of updated Boy Scout manual.  I should note that I haven't read the book.  As will shortly become clear, this post isn't really about the book's contents.

The book was a success in Britain, and soon an American version came out.  Some changes were made -- mainly removing Britain-specific themes like rugby, and adding in more references to American history. 

Now, the German version is here (G).  But wait -- we wouldn't want to make Germany a dangerous place, would we?  No, we wouldn't.  So the entire chapter on historical battles has been removed, as has the "Brief History of Artillery."  The Ten Commandments has been replaced by -- wait for it -- an essay on international human rights.  Any mention of rabbit hunting is also gone.  The first reviewer (G) on the page is disgusted: "[T]he English version was so successful because, among other reasons, it addressed subjects that run contrary to the gobbeldygook of 'peace education', and which boys would actually find interesting, at least in secret."

I'm with him.  These changes do at least two impermissible things.  First of all, they alter the contents of the book.  This is the capital crime, the cardinal sin, of the translator's art. It would be equivalent to me translating a German novel and substituting all the sex scenes with uplifting homilies to chastity, because I personally believed that people like the ones portrayed in the novel shouldn't be having sex.  Second, the 'opinion elite' sense of privilege seems to have struck again.  The changes were not made because the original references would not be understood in Germany (which would be a legitimate reason, given authorial consent), but simply to 'disappear' aspects of the book which might make the average German literary professional uneasy.  The chapter on human rights is especially ludicrous.  What, a reasonable 12-year-old boy might ask, is so bloody dangerous about human rights?

These changes reflect almost unimaginable self-aggrandizement, I would say.  Whatever German literary professional made these changes expressed the unmistakable belief that his values and his sensibilities are more legitimate than those of his audience.  The fact that many people may have bought this book precisely because it's the kind of book that might have information about battles seems to be irrelevant.  The changes also reflect a fundamental distrust of the public -- boys are being denied information about battles presumably because they might end up wanting to fight them.  I rather doubt that would happen, but who am I to question the immortal wisdom of a German editor?

I don't want to be too hasty assigning blame here.  I don't know whether the translator himself was responsible for any or all of these changes.  And if the authors approved them or instigated them, then I suppose we've just got to grit our teeth and accept it.  I have send off an email to the authors to see whether they know of these changes. I'll let you know what I find out.

UPDATE: I got a nice response from one of the authors of the book.  He said that he understood there would be some changes to the book to make it more suitable for a German audience, but that he was not aware of the extent of the changes and did not approve them.  He said he would be complaining to the publishers. 

I should note that negotiating translation rights is a complex business.  It's always good to keep in mind that authors may have less control over translations than the lay public might think.

Hölderlin in English by David Constantine

Hölderlin, done into English by the poet David Constantine (G):

'Another day'

[orig. Wohl geh ich täglich...]

Another day. I follow another path,
Enter the leafing woodland, visit the spring
Or the rocks where the roses bloom
Or search from a look-out, but nowhere

Love are you to be seen in the light of day
And down the wind go the words of our once so
Beneficent conversation...

Your beloved face has gone beyond my sight,
The music of your life is dying away
Beyond my hearing and all the songs
That worked a miracle of peace once on

My heart, where are they now? It was long ago,
So long and the youth I was has aged nor is
Even the earth that smiled at me then
The same. Farewell. Live with that word always.

For the soul goes from me to return to you
Day after day and my eyes shed tears that they
Cannot look over to where you are
And see you clearly ever again.

Sublime.  More here.

First, Dump "Firstly"

Thanks for all the responses to my previous post on common German-to-English translation bugs.  I've already updated the post with some of the suggestions.  I'm thinking of turning this into a Typepad "page," (a sort of more permanent post), but I haven't figured out how yet.

Two commenters have taken issue with my fatwa against using "firstly" and "secondly" to structure sentences. My hypothesis is that Germans do this because you add something to the German words for "first" and "second" when you use them to structure sentences (erst usually becomes erstens), and German assume you have to add something to the English words, too. Or perhaps some German-English dictionary is dishing out this bad advice.

But I'm sticking to my guns. The commenters are correct that there's nothing grammatically wrong with "firstly" and "secondly," and I'm sure you can find them in certain texts.  However, you can find plenty of awkward and clumsy English on the Internet, and buckets of it in books. Not everything that's gramatically OK is stylistically OK.  The sentence "Potentialities in terms of market saturation potentiated by the introduction of the product-facilitation agents in relevant target regions were not achieved" is grammatically correct, for instance.

My audience is non-native speakers who want to write ambitious stuff in English as clearly and elegantly as they can.  In that context, there's never a reason to use "firstly" instead of "first."  Occam's razor of prose style: if a simpler phrase says the same thing, use it. Or the categorical imperative of good prose: Omit needless words. And its corollary: Omit needless syllables. "Firstly," although not wrong, and probably common as late as 1930, sounds pretentious, donnish and twee in modern English.

If you're not willing to accept me as an authority on English usage (fools!), here are some examples found at the blog

"First, according to Ellis, there was almost no serious dispute..." (Sandy Levinson, UT Law Professor and author, most recently, of "Our Undemocratic Constitution")

"I’d been following the South Dakota referendum, first, because it’s in the morning papers, second, because I’m working on a book on Roe v. Wade, and third, because Reva Siegel is a colleague and friend of mine who’s been working on similar issues." (Jack Balkin (.pdf) Yale law professor and author or editor of dozens of books).

As I said, you can probably find "firstly" and "secondly" in various texts, but that just shows you how common inflated prose is. Balkin and Levinson, whatever you think of their political leanings, write good, clear legal prose. Write like a Yale professor (who doesn't 'do theory'), and you're writing better than 95% of English speakers, and 98% of all lawyers everywhere. Given that they were born after 1900, I doubt Balkin or Levinson have ever written the word "firstly" (although some smartass will probably prove me wrong).

Michael Hofman on Translating German Poetry

I recently bought Ashes for Breakfast, English translations of selected poems by prominent German poet Durs Gruenbein. The English poet Michael Hofmann took up the challenge of translating Gruenbein's dense, idiosyncratic poems, which many people might have thought was impossible. In his introduction, Hofmann declares his aim to provide something "harmonious and possible," not "exotic, wooden, pointless and dead."

The result is is smashing. Hofmann takes plenty of liberties with Gruenbein's originals, thereby adding his own tart, colloqiual touch. Apparently it was all done more or less with Gruenbein's approval. It's like getting two poets for the low, low price of one. Here's Hofmann's explanation of his approach to translating a poem:

In fact, the question of "finish" in poetry translation is what macht mir zu schaffen -- does my head in, I would say in English. In fiction it's easy. I put the original away, and fiddle with the English to the point where I start to undo my corrections and put back things I had before. Then it's done. But what to do with a poem? If I "take it away," and work at it the same way, until every line has just enough material and just enough music and just enough interest, then surely it would become one of my own poems. And it might be a long way from the original. Is the secret, then, merely to reduce its exposure to me, "undercooking" it, as it were? Possibly -- but that's precisely my objection to a lot of poetry translations, that they are undercooked. They might be glimmerings and beginnings of poems, but full of clumsiness and dulness, no English poet would dream of offering something so half-baked, so halbgar, so intermittent. But it has to be in some more verifiable relation to the original. It doesn't merely face the reader; Janus-faced, it has to be looking back over its shoulder at the German, too. It's a real problem, and I don't know what the answer is.

Michael Hoffman, Introduction to Ashes for Breakfast, pp. xxiii-xiv.