Read­ing be­tween the lines

Wie über­setzt man Lit­er­atur, und was sind die Sch­wierigkeiten beim Über­set­zen vom Englis­chen ins Deutsche? Wir haben uns mit einem preis­gekrön­ten Lit­er­aturüber­set­zer über seine Ar­beit un­ter­hal­ten. Von INEZ SHARP

Spotlight - - INTERVIEW -

The prizewin­ning lit­er­ary trans­la­tor Dirk van Gun­steren is of Dutch-ger­man her­itage and grew up in Duis­burg. For more than 35 years, he has been trans­lat­ing nov­els and short sto­ries by English and Amer­i­can writ­ers into Ger­man. He has given Ger­man-speak­ing read­ers ac­cess to nov­els by T. C. Boyle, Jonathan Safran Foer, John Gr­isham, Pa­tri­cia High­smith, V. S. Naipaul, John Dos Pas­sos, Thomas Pyn­chon, Philip Roth and Henry David Thoreau. Spot­light spoke to van Gun­steren about his work, his meth­ods and the chal­lenges of trans­lat­ing from English into Ger­man.

How did you come to make this ca­reer choice? The pay is not gen­er­ally very good, the hours are long and the lau­rels are lim­ited.

Dirk van Gun­steren: I never thought about money, fame and hon­ours. I wanted to do some­thing with books. I wanted to play with lan­guage and to be left in peace, which meant sit­ting alone at my desk with­out col­leagues or a boss. That’s how I came to trans­lat­ing. I en­joyed it from the very be­gin­ning, and this sense of en­joy­ment has never gone away — not even in the rou­tine of day-to-day work.

You have trans­lated T. C. Boyle, John Gr­isham, Thomas Pyn­chon and Philip Roth. How does one be­come the go-to trans­la­tor for au­thors of this cal­i­bre?

One thing is cer­tain: you can’t ap­ply for this type of work. You need tal­ent, tech­ni­cal skill and lots of luck. In essence, you need to get the at­ten­tion of the ex­perts — crit­ics and ed­i­tors — by pro­duc­ing a suc­cess­ful trans­la­tion of a dif­fi­cult work. Then it’s about hav­ing the luck that one of these ed­i­tors will sud­denly need a trans­la­tor for a dif­fi­cult book at short no­tice. I was lucky twice: the des­ig­nated trans­la­tor of Vineland by Thomas Pyn­chon was un­ex­pect­edly un­avail­able, and Ev­ery­thing

Is Il­lu­mi­nated by the — then un­known — au­thor Jonathan Safran Foer turned up and the story al­lowed me to re­ally tin­ker with lan­guage.

Do you know any of the au­thors per­son­ally, and does it make a dif­fer­ence to the trans­lat­ing process?

I know few of the au­thors per­son­ally, and I cer­tainly haven’t seen many of them face-to-face. Then, when I do meet them — usu­ally as part of a read­ing tour — there are so many press events that there is lit­tle time for in-depth con­ver­sa­tions. How­ever, when I trans­late books, I’m in touch with the au­thors (if they are still alive) by e-mail. It’s ex­tremely use­ful, be­cause there are cer­tain ques­tions that only the au­thor can an­swer. At the same time, the au­thor can make a cor­re­la­tion be­tween the “qual­ity” of my ques­tions and the qual­ity of my work. As the au­thor can’t speak Ger­man, he or she is com­pletely at the mercy of the trans­la­tor. A close co­op­er­a­tion cre­ates trust.

How does the trans­la­tion process work? Do you read the book, then trans­late page by page? Or do you some­times skip a sen­tence, para­graph, page or chap­ter and come back to that later?

I read the book from cover to cover and make some notes as I go along, and I might be­gin do­ing some re­search, too. Then I trans­late sen­tence by sen­tence, line by line. Only when I’m about 95 per cent happy with a sen­tence, do I be­gin with the next one. Of course, there are pas­sages (po­ems, word­play) that don’t quite “work” at first, and I al­ways go back to those. Ba­si­cally, though, I dig my way through the text. Once I’m done, I print the trans­la­tion out and edit it care­fully on paper. At this stage, I make a num­ber of changes. These are the fi­nal five per cent. Then I add those hand­writ­ten notes into the doc­u­ment and send it to the pub­lisher.

That is one way of do­ing it. Many col­leagues have an­other sys­tem. They cre­ate a rough trans­la­tion, which they then re­work much more ex­ten­sively. Each method has its ad­van­tages. You just have to de­cide which one works for you.

What words or con­struc­tions in English are es­pe­cially chal­leng­ing to trans­late?

There are quite a lot: the po­ten­tially end­less string­ing to­gether of par­tici­ples and ba­sic con­struc­tions in English that in Ger­man quickly leads to a jun­gle of sub­or­di­nate clauses. In English, it can sound highly el­e­gant; in Ger­man, it is mind-numb­ingly clumsy.

Colours are nasty. “Pur­ple” can be more or less any­thing in the red-to-blue spec­trum; there is no such thing, re­ally, as “mauve” in Ger­man. Opin­ion is di­vided over “teal” and so on.

Then there are those mul­ti­pur­pose words, which the pre­cise Ger­man lan­guage would like to have more ex­actly de­fined: “mind” — Geist, Ver­stand, Bewusst­sein? “Pur­pose” — Ziel, Zweck, Ab­sicht? “An­tic­i­pa­tion” — Vor­freude, Er­wartung? The list goes on.

Do you go back and read trans­la­tions you have done and think: I would do that dif­fer­ently now?

Yes, ev­ery time I open up an older trans­la­tion, I find a typo that three peo­ple — the ed­i­tor, the proof­reader and I — have over­looked; or some­thing clumsy, which I would do dif­fer­ently to­day. With books that I am at­tached to, I con­tact the pub­lisher so that it can be cor­rected in the next edi­tion. In­ci­den­tally, no one and noth­ing is per­fect.

You re­cently trans­lated Man­hat­tan Trans­fer by John Dos Pas­sos. Why do Ger­man read­ers need a new trans­la­tion?

Man­hat­tan Trans­fer ap­peared in the US in 1925. The Ger­man trans­la­tion by Paul Baud­isch fol­lowed two years later and was, un­til very re­cently (and sur­pris­ingly), the only one. Up to the 1950s, Baud­isch was a kind of star trans­la­tor for Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture. The list of his trans­la­tions is im­pres­sively long and, con­sid­er­ing that the qual­ity of the dic­tio­nar­ies back then left a lot to be de­sired and that Baud­isch was not ac­tu­ally fa­mil­iar with the re­al­i­ties of what he was trans­lat­ing, his was an as­ton­ish­ing achieve­ment. “Sur­face car” (1920 on Fifth Av­enue) is trans­lated as Plan­wa­gen. He has no com­mand of the slang of the lower classes — and there are many of these in Man­hat­tan Trans­fer — in Ger­man. The writer Kurt Tu­chol­sky rapped him on the knuck­les for

this. Even tough dock work­ers speak like landed gen­try (Wie geht’s, altes Haus?) and say things like: Ich be­sitze keinen roten Heller. Even if you ig­nore the lex­i­cal er­rors and blun­ders, the style is old-fash­ioned, and this makes the trans­la­tion seem very an­ti­quated. So a new trans­la­tion was ur­gently needed. In gen­eral, though, trans­la­tions age dif­fer­ently from the orig­i­nal texts and need to be re­worked or re­done from time to time. I be­lieve this has some­thing to do with the way we see the past to­day. We now have a dif­fer­ent un­der­stand­ing of, say, the 1860s or the 1920s from what the reader had in the 1960s, and this finds its ex­pres­sion in lan­guage, too.

Tradut­tore, tra­di­tore: this Latin ex­pres­sion sug­gests that trans­la­tion cre­ates dis­tor­tion or that a trans­la­tion can­not be true to the orig­i­nal. How do you see this state­ment?

Of course, I can’t con­vey ev­ery level of the orig­i­nal: syn­tax, style, mean­ing, rhythm, tone, to name but a few. I try to get as close to the orig­i­nal as pos­si­ble, though. That will never be com­pletely suc­cess­ful, and for that rea­son, the image of the “be­trayer of the orig­i­nal”, while highly ex­ag­ger­ated, does have an el­e­ment of truth. My per­sonal guid­ing prin­ci­ple is to cre­ate an ef­fec­tive equiv­a­lent: I read the text with the eyes of a moder­ately ed­u­cated Amer­i­can or Bri­ton and try to cre­ate the im­pact for the Ger­man reader that the reader of the orig­i­nal would have ex­pe­ri­enced — while, of course, main­tain­ing the syn­tax, style, rhythm and tone. The most im­por­tant thing is to main­tain the ef­fect. Some­times, it won’t be pos­si­ble to trans­late a lit­tle “I see” with ich ver­stehe; a la­conic aha might work much bet­ter.

Trans­la­tion soft­ware is im­prov­ing all the time. Is your job un­der threat?

It seems that, for tech­ni­cal trans­la­tions, the soft­ware al­ready works quite well. I hope it will take a long, long time be­fore com­put­ers are able to un­der­stand irony; i.e. to un­der­stand that, in fact, the op­po­site of what is be­ing said or writ­ten is ac­tu­ally meant. Or is able to cap­ture the nu­ances of “mind”, “pur­pose” or “an­tic­i­pa­tion”.

What books are you read­ing at the mo­ment?

I am read­ing the poetry of Emily Dick­in­son on the side and in small por­tions. It’s won­der­ful and, in the truest sense of the word, un­usual — and more or less un­trans­lat­able.

Apart from that, I am read­ing A Dif­fer­ent Drum­mer by the African-amer­i­can au­thor Wil­liam Kel­ley. Writ­ten in the early 1960s, the novel is about a fic­tional state in the South­ern US that is aban­doned by all its black cit­i­zens within a mat­ter of days. The story is told from the view­point of nine (all white) pro­tag­o­nists. The writ­ing is mar­vel­lous and in­cludes lots of lo­cal slang. A de­light!

“My guid­ing prin­ci­ple is to cre­ate an ef­fec­tive equiv­a­lent”

Van Gun­steren has trans­lated 120 books — so far

A pot of tea and a choice of good books: van Gun­steren is an avid reader in his free time, too

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