Nikolaus Stingl
German translator of
A Frolic of His Own
Translating A Frolic of His Own

This short workshop report about my experiences translating William Gaddis's novel A Frolic of His Own can only be a first attempt at showing what problems the novel poses for a translator. By singling out five aspects I would like to demonstrate what makes literary translation attractive but also difficult, what a translation is able and what it is not able to accomplish, at which point the translator has to make compromises, or has to invent things. The five aspects are: dialogue, jargon, parody, quotations, and narrated text.

Dialogue  The novel, whose German manuscript comprises 900 standard pages, is mainly narrated in dialogue form. It is not always clear where the spoken text ends and the narrated text begins or where the spoken text merges into the narrated text. The reader is not told who is talking either and the characters talk colloquially, with sentences left unfinished at times, broken off, started anew. In order for all this to work well, it has to be possible to differentiate the characters precisely by their way of talking, their tone, their diction. In the translation, of course, they have to be equipped with their personal language as well. As long as the language of a character is a matter of what in sociolinguistics is called "class specific," translation of their speech should be no problem. But how would one in German differentiate between British and American English, how the American spoken in the Northern from the American spoken in the Southern states? Or let's take the slightly easier problem of words or phrases that characterize a person throughout the novel and should therefore always be translated in the same way. One example should suffice here: one of Christina's favorite words is 'mess.' She constantly imagines some mess she is in or surrounded by. As long as the word is used in its basic meaning, that is, disorder, jumble etc., things are easy. But already phrases like "my hair is a mess" ("meine Haare sehen verboten aus" [my hair looks awful]) or, talking about Lily's family, "her mess of a family" ("ihre verkorkste Familie" [verkorksen = mess up, botch, bungle]) show that a uniform translation is impossible. One solution is the invention of one or more of such characteristic words and phrases expressly for the German translation, marking each character precisely. I used a little trick: I classed the novel's characters with people I know and whom I could imagine in the particular role and then took over their idiosyncrasies.

Jargon  The documents, files, judicial decisions, the protocol of testimony are all fictive, but all the laws, precedents, procedures are authentic. First of all, this is quite a problem when doing research, research additionally complicated by the fact that the English system of justice rests upon a different tradition, has a different history altogether than the German and therefore also developed different terms and procedures, which have to be made comprehensible for the German reader. Apart from that, the English legal language sounds a bit more archaic than the German, a difference which has also to be taken into account. For the translator it means reading loads of legal literature in order to be able to reproduce the legal jargon in a satisfying way; inventing legal terms that do not exist in German, but do in English law, and making them sound as if they did indeed exist (at one point in the novel the so-called "summary judgement" is mentioned, something non-existent in the German legal system). The invented terms have to describe correctly what the term in the American legal system means, so that the reader is able to follow precisely all the cases presented in the novel; otherwise the satire won't work.

Parody  The novel quotes extensively from the play Oscar Crease has written; the American reader shouldn't have difficulties in recognizing that it is a parody of Eugene O'Neills' Mourning Becomes Electra. But how should one translate an author whom the German reader might only know in translation? The translator, I believe, can only parody a certain quality, he can only emphasize certain strains, exaggerate, lay it on thicker than in the original, choose an even more bombastic tone.

Quotations   Another problem of translating Frolic was a somehow indirect and subtle way of quoting which Gaddis practices in the book. Here is an example: Christina tells how as a child Oscar built a canoe out of birch wood and showed it to his father full of pride; but when it was put into the water it immediately turned over. In building the canoe Oscar reproduces an episode from Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha, and when recounting the episode in Oscar's life Gaddis uses the meter of Longfellow's epic verse. The English language, which usually has short words, can incorporate it far more discreetly than the German can. To reproduce the rhythm in German one has to do violence to the language by leaving things out, using apostrophes, changing the natural word order. The allusion will thus be far more prominent in the translation than it actually is in the original, which strictly speaking is a falsification.

Narrated text This is the gravest problem when translating the book, I believe. As an example I choose the long paragraph which describes the movie The Blood in the Red White and Blue and a few commercial spots that come before it:

—No wait it’s almost time! Turn it on it’s right after the news, I have to go to the bathroom turn it on! as he heaved up and away, leaving them to the vision of a lady in impeccable lingerie stirred by a gentle breeze over phantom breasts smiling serenely on an unruffled landscape of a country morning after a satisfactory bout with an overnight laxative, all of them ensconced in varied degrees of discomfort by the time he reappeared to recover the sanctuary of the sofa where he came down unsteadily aping the writhings of the middleaging arthritic on the screen enduring languorous massage with a heat penetrating unguent and a Florida backdrop Kissing Pain Goodbye when suddenly the room shook with the sound of cannon fire, the screen with a tumult of plunging horses, flaring rockets and the Stars and Bars and men, men —look! (Frolic, 469 ff.)

What we have here is a very long hypotactic construction. Gaddis works mainly with participles enabling a great compression of that which is narrated. The English word order allows things to be listed easily without making it hard for the reader to stay oriented. The participial constructions also allow for a style characteristic of Gaddis; one might characterize it as "overlapping," where parts of the text merge into one another, they can be the end of one part and the beginning of a new part at the same time. But what does this mean for the translator?

In German one has to be far more cautious with participial constructions: this means one has to use far more complete sentences – that are the main or sub-clause – when translating such a passage. What is very compressed in the original is in a way expanded, in that it gets even longer than it already is in the original. In regard to what I called "overlapping" one is far more under pressure in German to decide at which point a narrative unit ends and another begins and thus cannot transport the Gaddisian quality very easily into the German translation. What was a simple list in English is involved in German. And thus, here the translation produces a text stylistically quite different from the original. It looks and reads like this:

--Halt, Moment, es ist gleich soweit! Mach schon mal an, er kommt gleich nach den Nachrichten, ich muß noch mal eben verschwinden, mach an! Er hievte sich hoch, verschwand und überließ sie dem Anblick einer mit untadeliger, von einer sanften Brise über Phantombrüsten bewegter Wäsche bekleideten Dame, die nach einem geglückten Versuch mit einem über Nacht wirkenden Abführmittel heiter auf die beschauliche Landschaft eines ländlichen Morgens hinauslächelte, und sie hatten sich alle in unterschiedlich starkem Unbehagen eingerichtet, als er wieder auftauchte und die Zuflucht des Sofas wiedergewann, auf dem er sich mühsam niederließ, Nachäffung des sich windenden Arthritikers auf der Mattscheibe, der vor einem Floridaprospekt eine ausgiebige Massage mit durchwärmender Salbe über sich ergehen ließ, endlich keine Schmerzen mehr, da plötzlich erbebte das Zimmer von Kanonendonner und die Mattscheibe von einem Getümmel vorwärtsstürzender Pferde, flammender Raketen, der Südstaatenflagge und Horden von Männern – Guckt mal! (Letzte Instanz, 569)
Nikolaus Stingl was born in Baden-Baden in 1952. He has translated works by Patricia Highsmith, John Irving, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, Bernard MacLaverty, Cormac McCarthy, Andrew Miller, Rick Moody, V.S. Naipaul, John Cowper Powys, Thomas Pynchon, Mark Richard, Neal Stephenson, and Cornell Woolrich, and in 2001 received the Stuttgarter Literaturpreis for his translation of Pynchon's 'Mason & Dixon.' With the exception of one long sentence in 'A Frolic of His Own' for which he got help directly from the author, there was no consultation in translating 'A Frolic of His Own" nor was any needed -- after a while, he recalls, he became familiar with the tone and diction, and had acclimatized himself to the dialogue form. For the particular problem of legal jargon and knowledge of law, he is indebted to Claus Sprick, judge at the Federal Supreme Court in Karlsruhe, himself a translator and president of the European Translator Collegium in Straelen ( http://www.euk-straelen.de/).
-- Anja Zeidler

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