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
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