photo by Isolde Ohlbaum
German translator of
and co-translator of
|Translating Gaddis: an animal of the emperor|
The process of translating has two parts, the analysis of the English original and the creation of the German version. But there is a small, inconspicuous move between analysis and creation, which for me has become the touchstone for any translation. I call it "digitalisation." There is always the problem of the English sentence getting in the way, interfering with the wish to produce a German version ready for the printer. So I have to delete any memory of the English phrase, I have to create an abstract of the phrase, which should take into account all aspects concerning form and content without taking over the specifically English form and rhythm or the feeling of the whole. In the process of digitalising a sentence in this way I turn it into a non-sentence, into pure information. What is important is the following: there is no metamorphosis without destruction. Digitalisation is the translator's declaration of independence and the toughest part of the job.
Such a declaration of independence is unavoidable for the translation of Gaddis' prose in particular. It's not so much the dialogues which drive the translator crazy, but more the lyrical passages in between – I call them arias – chunks of text characterized by octopus-like hypotactics of great complexity, always slightly beyond grammar. One isn't able to literally translate these. These chains of participial constructions (the German should really and properly use a dependent clause in each of these cases) ask too much of an analog strategy, especially in regard to The Recognitions, Gaddis' most inexorable and merciless novel in a sense. Three translators are said to have given up on the novel, though no one will really be specific about what happened. I can only speculate about the reasons. Maybe they simply lacked the courage to come out of the defensive and boldly remix the text in places where nothing else could be done. Sometimes the courage of despair does lead to useful results.
I have, of course, given a name to the syntax typical for Gaddis, "hypertoxic," because that's exactly what it is, and anyone taking in too much of it gets seriously ill. At the very beginning I had tried to find a skeleton key, some kind of magic formula with which to defuse the hypertoxic constructions. But there is no universal strategy. You have to find some way through all of it. The German language at least has some useful constructions which English doesn't have. Chances to get through are good after one has become fairly well acquainted with the author. And translators, I believe, know "their" author better than any agent, or reader, or critic, because they have to weigh every sentence, have to follow every colon, every adjective. There are no more or less important parts for a translator. They're stuck with the entire opus, from A to Z.
And thus, page after page, translators learn more about their authors' strong and weak points. Gaddis, for example, has an incredible sense of the dramatic situation. The most difficult thing in writing is to deliver information via dialogue only, without the help of an omniscient narrator: this asks for a tremendous, an almost superhuman, foresight. At the same time Gaddis is a very bad essayist: his commentaries in The Recognitions are sophomoric and an embarrassment. Of course one would love to follow him anywhere, but not to be sillier than necessary. When the novel came out in the 50s, one unsympathetic critic remarked that here was an author very obviously trying to write a masterpiece. Harsh words and, looking back, of a grotesque and comic quality. But as a translator I have to say: he's right. After a while the intended masterpiece jumps at you out of every sentence. Gaddis wanted to show what he is able to do and more. That's how it is being 30 years old and working on a thousand-page novel: it's either do or die.
However, the relationship between translator and author is ambivalent. The translator knows the author too well to be able to admire him totally. Even if the translator is nothing but one of the emperor's animals, he at least knows how the king's mind works. In the end he is even convinced he knows what the author is after — what makes him tick. The issue of the author's intention is eyed suspiciously by literary critics. I can live with it, because knowledge of the author's intention enables me to communicate on behalf of the author, even when it comes to utterly obscure passages with no discernible intention whatsoever. As the great translator Karl Dedecius said: ". . . No theory will help here." Lovers of literature find the translator has gone too far when merely mentioning weaknesses of the original. But what is one to do in passages that obviously won't do in German, a problem one frequently comes upon in Gaddis? Good readers are less sensitive and may advise: just write something else. This is a practical way of looking at things which I wholly share. After all, the worst that can happen to a translation is a reader throwing the book away, unable to get through the mess of the German version.
In the first chapters of The Recognitions I tried to dissolve Gaddis' meandering sentences in a classical manner. The unexpected result was that the German version made the point of view of an omniscient narrator even stronger, and also a bit more elegant and ironic than in the original. The German text flows well, but it does feel different. Right or wrong? And what would have been the alternative?
But any translation necessarily changes the original text. Both J R and A Frolic of His Own (translated by Nikolaus Stingl) are relatively kind to the reader, at least nicer than the American original. The funny part is that the critics disliked those passages, where we preserved Gaddis' queer, cubistic perspective, a more or less literal translation into German being possible in those cases without too many contortions. Those Gaddis sentences above all that sound somehow wrong or strange are characteristic of the typical Gaddis tone. He will often create these ambiguous creatures. However, the translator as communicator can show some mercy to the reader.
And there are those typical authorial whims: in such a case a dispute goes on between translator and author as between two prisoners chained to each other: on one side there is the craftsman, on the other side there is the artist, and they are far too different to really like each other, but they must nevertheless cooperate. This battle sometimes requires a strength I don't have. Take Gaddis’ freely floating body parts in J R. According to the Gaddis norm it reads, "He put an arm around a shoulder" and not, correctly,"He put his arm around her shoulder." The puppet-like dissociation at work here is a method and goes back to the Empedoclean creation myth and also gets on my nerves after 2000 manuscript pages. And so I find myself smuggling a possessive pronoun into the text, not always but more and more often.
But in fact, translating is a banal business, because it's always concrete:
slave work done by the king's beasts of burden. Readers and critics
may leave a question unanswered at times; not so the translator. And
he has to decide fast — time is money. It is not so much the great
parts which are really difficult, the difficult parts are more like
product information on the back of a frozen pizza, or a limerick which
should fit smoothly into the text: it's difficult to translate technical
jargon or puns, especially if one is no fan of the notorious "translator's
note" which is always a flirtation with failure anyway. At one
point in J R, Cates mentions a telephone number ("local
eight-o-one"), a number everyone involved is familiar with it seems,
except the translator of course. In these situations it's good to have
a small but effective circle of informants who keep their ears open.
After a couple of hours and in a roundabout way, the decisive hint came
to me from Ed Ward, former editor of Rolling Stone. "Local
eight-o-one" is the New York Musicians Union. That made sense.
I would never have guessed it, but that was the solution.
Marcus Ingendaay translates American literature, including David Foster Wallace, and, currently, William H. Gass' The Tunnel. He has translated The Recognitions (and received the Helmut M. Braem translation prize in 2000 for it), Agapē Agape, and, with Klaus Modick, J R, which was occasionally problematic because of their very different philosophies of translation. He is winner of the 1997 Heinrich-Maria-Ledig-Rowohlt Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes for translation in Germany. In 2003 he published his first novel, The Taxidriver, which, he says, if influenced by his translating work owes more to Wallace than to Gaddis. However, after four years of translating nothing but Gaddis, dialogues comes more easily and he grants that he surely must have profited from that part of his Gaddis experience. He has written about the work of translating in German literary magazines such as TransAtlantik and Schreibheft, and the latter has since 1984 regularly published essays about Gaddis' novels as well as excerpts from them.
-- Anja Zeidler
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