Conversation: Anthea Bell & Doris Orgel
Dear Anthea, much admired fellow translator,
Given your vast output, I’ve fantasized that there must be at least a dozen of you, all busily working on many varied, often lengthy and demanding projects. And now I’m honored and delighted to be in touch with the real, so gifted and prolific Anthea Bell, of whom there’s only one!
Let me start facetiously by asking: Does your day have 48 hours, or what? Seriously though, I really do wonder: To what do you attribute getting such prodigious amounts of fluent, deft translating done. And is English your native language? If so, how did you acquire German and French and make those languages your own as well? And lastly, what made you want to translate?
Much else comes to mind to ask. But these questions may already be too many for a start. Please don’t feel obliged to answer ones that don’t seem pertinent to you. Except, I’d dearly love to know how you felt about The Child From Far Away. We both did that one! I remember it dimly as quite sentimental.
I look forward to hearing from you, and will answer anything you ask.
With best regards, sincerely,
Hello Doris—how good to be in touch with you. My mother tongue is English, but I know that you were born in Vienna, so German will have been yours—although you probably acquired English at an early age, making you truly bilingual. It’s a huge advantage to have that linguistic window of opportunity open at an early age.
As a child, I was fascinated by words and language, and when I saw rows of books in languages that I couldn’t yet read in my school library I was so frustrated that I had to find a way into them. It was a boarding school, not the cheerful Harry Potter type, definitely no magic about it: all organized team games, edifying talks, discipline, an all-girls outfit but on the pattern of the classic British boys’ public schools (meaning the opposite of public schools in the U.S.), and I loathed it. My escape was into books. I was happy to get a grip on the grammatical principles of French and German (the modern languages on offer at my school) so that I could start reading real books, not textbooks, in those languages. The first genuine book in another language that I could really read was Théophile Gautier’s picaresque novel Le Capitaine Fracasse. I smuggled it up to my dormitory and read it under the covers with an illicit flashlight. It was as good as being able to read your first book in your native language. Well, probably better.
Once the child can read, “why then, the world’s [his] oyster,” as Shakespeare more or less put it. And make a second language available, and there’s another oyster ready and waiting to be consumed, and so on. If kids don’t have the opportunity or aptitude to learn other languages, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have the chance to read books in those languages. Hence people like us, hence the point of translation.
Oh, how I wish there really were forty-eight hours in every day! It helps to be a lark and not an owl, to be a naturally early riser. I work best for a long stretch in the morning, take a break in the afternoon, then get back to my desk. But please, tell me about your own working methods—and what made you a translator? With me it was accidental. Maybe more of that later.
And meanwhile, yes, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Nutcracker and Mouse King and The Strange Child / The Child From Far Away / Das Fremde Kind. It was ages ago that I translated an already abbreviated version of that one, illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger in her early, romantic, Rackhamesque style. And I was asked to abbreviate the text yet more. As it happens, I plan to come back to the story, for Pushkin Press. We plan to make a Christmas book in 2010 of the combined Nutcracker and Strange Child, both entirely unabbreviated. Pushkin [Press] doesn’t aim at the children’s market, though I am sure they’ll find a good jacket picture.
How did you deal with the pronoun for the child? As we know—and maybe I should mention this—because it’s a neuter noun in German, das Kind, the pronoun is es, it, and of the two children in the story, the little boy Felix thinks the strange child is another boy, his sister Christlieb takes the child for a girl playmate. We do not commonly call a child “it” in English, we use “he” or “she”. I simply did not have the time to avoid any pronoun at all in English in the early North-South edition, the text was wanted in such a hurry, but I would really like to have a shot at it again. How did you feel about the “it” question?
That’s quite enough for one missive, and more than enough of me. Do tell me how you came to translate and write.
Yes, German is my mother tongue. I spoke it till my family left Nazi Austria, I was nine at the time. And yes, I started learning English early (from nursery rhymes sung in an English kindergarten I went to when I was four or five). That must have been when the learning-language window got opened in my brain.
In Summer ’38 we fled from Vienna to Zagreb where we stayed till Spring ’39. Kids in the school I went to there all knew German, and said they’d beat me up for not knowing their language, Croatian, which spurred me on. I learned it pretty fast.
Next stop in our emigration was England. We stayed there for almost the whole year WWII began. But it was a very happy one for me for many reasons: I knew enough English to get along; and there was a library nearby with books like Water Babies, and fairy tale collections with brownies (!) in them (I wasn’t sure if those were magical, or real-live junior Girl Guides—which?); and best, though bewildering, Alice in Wonderland. I remember sitting on a bench in Primrose Hill or Hampstead Heath, trying, and failing, to find words like “mimsy” and “borrowgroves” in my unhelpful pocket dictionary.
Yes, now I’m bilingual, though for a while I wasn’t. We arrived in the U.S. in winter ’40. Trying hard to become Americanized, I spoke English with my family, also with my fellow-refugee friends. So my German grew rusty. I all but forgot it.
When I got to college, I realized what a loss that was, and threw myself heart and soul into German literature courses. Doing the reading and writing the required papers won me back my mother language, and much else I’d left behind in Nazi Austria. These courses led me to the sources of stories I later retold. I never consciously missed Vienna, but these courses stirred a sense in me of coming home. Quite possibly that was the start of my wanting, and yes, needing, to translate.
Translating affords me the comfort and pleasure of feeling as much at home in German which I’d nearly lost, as in English to which I’d switched, and made my own.
Other good things about translating vs. writing my novels: no blank pages, no stumbling blocks. It’s so much easier than writing from scratch! No need to invent, flesh out, give shape to characters and plot. An author already did all that. All I need do is carry it across the language gap.
Yes, but isn’t inventing more fulfilling, despite, or because of how hard it can be? I pondered this while working on my first translations. It re-awoke my childhood wish to dream up stories, to be doing my own inventing, writing stories of my own …
There, that’s surely enough navel gazing. Next time I’ll get to that troublesome German article, “das,” and how I pussyfooted around it when I translated the E.T.A. Hoffmann story (which Addison-Wesley, long defunct, published with fairly hideous illustrations, and hardly anybody read). I’ll also tell how being “das Dorli” (diminutive for Doris) felt when I was little, back in Vienna.
Meantime, I so enjoy our exchange, and look forward to more.
All best to you, sincerely,
Many thanks for your reply. It rings so many bells with me, no pun intended where names in themselves are concerned.
A dear friend of mine has a family story close to yours in some respects; she and her three siblings came out of Nazi Germany on one of the Quaker-organized Kindertransport missions. Their parents, alas, could not follow and perished. My friend stayed in England, her brother went to France, one of her sisters ended up in the U.S., the other in Israel. And when they all met up at last, decades later, they had no one language in common; the brother refused ever to speak German again, one of the sisters knew no French, and my friend, a high school teacher of German and French, had to act as family interpreter. Perhaps I set too much store by the value of language in itself, but it seems to me a terrible indictment of the Nazi regime that it could not just destroy families, but also disrupt their means of linguistic communication.
I am so interested in your early experience in Zagreb. Last year my translation of a first novel in German, by Saša Stanišic, came out on both sides of the Atlantic: How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, a literal translation of the German title. Stanišic had to learn a new language. Coming out of Bosnia with his parents (one Muslim, one not) to get away from the impending massacres in 1992, he arrived in Germany with not a word of the language and taught himself at the rate of 10 pages of the dictionary a day. (Assuming his narrator is semi-autobiographical.)
In 2006 his first novel in his new language was short-listed for the German Book Prize, set up in 2005 to emulate the Goncourt and the Booker.
But I mustn’t stray from our subject. I get asked if I adopt different approaches in translating for children and translating for adults: answer, definitely not. One adopts a different approach in every book, I find. Unless it is part of a series by the same author, a new voice is needed for every new translation. And children deserve to be taken seriously.
Unlike you, I don’t write creatively myself (well, now and then a short story goes into the desk drawer!), but I do agree about the advantages of not having to tackle writer’s block. A few years ago, from a mailing list that I happened to be on, I gleaned the weird phrase “pro-active translatology,” part of the jargon from which few specialist subjects are immune, in this case the field of Translation Studies. It was hard to work out what “pro-passive translatology” might be—perhaps staring at a blank page? That would do neither author nor readers much good. (I have a nasty suspicion, in fact, that the perpetrator of this piece of jargon meant injecting political correctness into the original text.) I suppose the nearest we get to translator’s block is when there is some crux that is really, really difficult to the point of being insoluble, but in the end something has to go down on the page.
My colleague and I had one of those years ago in an Asterix the Gaul story, Asterix in Britain, where in the original the ancient Britons speak hilariously bad French with an English accent. It wasn’t possible to reproduce that when they were speaking real English. The semi-solution was to give them the slang and stylistic manner of an Englishman of the early twentieth century, someone we’d now call a chinless wonder, the kind who appears in the pages of P.G. Wodehouse, with much: “I say, jolly good, old fellow, what!” and so on. René Goscinny, whose own English was excellent, said, “Ah, I wish I’d thought of that one! Vieux fruit,” he murmured to himself. But it was only a semi-solution, and I have never been happy with it. However, that story sold particularly well in the U.K., just as the German version of the Asterix story about the Goths sells especially well in Germany.
Not all authors suffer from writer’s block—Cornelia Funke definitely doesn’t. A couple of years ago she and I were at a conference on children’s literature in Vancouver, and another author was lamenting the horrors of writer’s block; Cornelia leaned towards me and whispered, “Not my problem!” Which is very true; the stories just come to her. She is also a hard-working reviser, drafting everything several times until she has it right. At the moment I am reading the penultimate version of her next book. Like her last, Inkdeath in English, it crosses the Atlantic (she lives in LA) in instalments of several chapters at a time. As I told her with Inkdeath, I feel like those American crowds in the 19th century who lined the quayside in New York as the transatlantic steamer came in with the latest instalment of a Dickens novel, anxious to get their hands on it—only now text can travel instantly at the touch of a key. Wouldn’t Dickens have loved the speed of e-mail!
I love the idea of you as a child hopefully looking up Lewis Carroll nonsense words. A few years ago I translated some Morgenstern verses and had terrible trouble with editors saying in a worried kind of way, “But this doesn’t make sense!” Er, no, I said, he’s a nonsense poet; think Lewis Carroll, think Edward Lear. I had a mighty struggle to explain my thinking; it took a five-page single-spaced letter to keep most of the phrasings I wanted.
Did your friend and her siblings who fled to different countries where they spoke different languages ever grow close again? Their story is the kind that risks being kitschified into a Holocaust-exploitation YA novel. There already are too many such. Let’s hope that that if someone takes the story on, she or he stays true to it.
Language barriers making strangers of those siblings made me think of an old German movie in which Klaus Maria Brandauer yearningly declared, “Ich brauche die deutsche Sprache!” It’s a need I sometimes have too, and translating satisfies it.
I’d love to read the novel by the amazing man who learned German so fast and well, unlike me, struggling with Croatian back in Zagreb. The little I learned too slowly didn’t make kids at the school stop teasing and threatening to beat me up.
After Zagreb we luckily went to England. Speaking English fairly well (I’d been tutored), I got along all right in the London County Council school I went to for about a month.… Then, with war seeming imminent, the Quakers were active getting refugee kids out of London. (I never knew till I read your letter that they’d also organized the Kindertransporte.)
Anyway, my sister and I were sent to Much Haddam, Hertfordshire, went to a small, congenial school, which in many ways was the opposite of rigid English “public” schools. We boarded with one of its teachers, a somewhat finicky, forbidding woman, but she had a pretty garden we liked playing in, and a russet Irish setter named Rufus. I doted on him.
That summer before WWII the Quakers arranged for our parents to leave London, too, and for the four of us to be together as a family again on the grounds of a riding school. There were horses all around us with whom I promptly fell in love, most of all with Midnight, a mare as gleamingly black and beautiful as Anna Sewell’s. The riding-school owners let me help curry her, muck out her stall, and—oh, bliss!—ride her, though not very often.
A pack of hounds loudly, sweetly baying lived there too, in a doghouse near a brook for wading in. Like the one in Wind in the Willows, it meandered through fields and meadows, and had small animals making their homes inside holes in its banks.
And friends I’d made in school came by to visit, and we’d play …
Was I “straying” from our subject, rhapsodizing about that summer? No, really not, because feeling so happily at home back then was the start of feeling at home in English, which in time led to becoming a translator.
I still want to respond to much you wrote to me. About the smug new-speak bit of jargon, “pro-active translatology:” yes, it does sound as though it has to do with injecting super-conscientious political correctness, which is happening in lots of children’s books. “Vieux fruit” made me laugh out. And reading how you “semi-solved” your Asterix “translator’s block” was funny, too. Good that the story sold so well, and so do Cornelia Funke’s exciting, well-crafted books, deservedly. (But most children’s books by other authors from abroad do not, which often is the reason why I can’t convince publishers here to take on German books I’d gladly translate.) Oh, and I share your liking Christian Morgenstern poems, though have translated only the sly, clever one about the Easter Bunny (for Cricket, a children’s magazine).
Your mentioning E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale, Das Fremde Kind in a previous letter made me reread my 1971 version, The Child From Far Away. I still like parts of the story. But to be honest, much of it strikes me now as overwritten, antiquated. And that the child is meant to symbolize imagination’s pure, perfect realm seems heavily romanticized. Besides, most children won’t catch on, it’s way over their heads. As for Kind having the neuter German article “das,”I tried to get around that by referring to it as “the child” almost throughout, and only once resorted to “it.” I felt I had to. If I’d used “he” or “she” instead, I would have been negating the [fact] that the child’s gender remains ambiguous, which I believe was the author’s intent.
And now I’d really better stop—but not without saying again that this exchange of ours gives me pleasure, and I look forward to more.
All the best,
Back to two subjects: E.T.A. Hoffmann and jargon, not that Hoffmann himself was a man for jargon; among all his other talents, he was an excellent music critic. But I was interested to remember, looking at your comments on Das fremde Kind, that Emer O’Sullivan, professor of children’s literature at Lüneburg University, in her big book on Comparative Children’s Literature, lauds Hoffmann rather than Andersen (as one might have expected) as the inspiration behind the whole Kunstmärchen or art fairy tale phenomenon.
I guess that every academic field has its own vocabulary. I was once translating a short book about reception theory which was a cross between psychology and lit. crit., and the term Konkrertisierung kept cropping up. “Do we have to say ‘concretization’?” I plaintively asked the author. She was highly amused—yes, we did, it was the accepted term. Ever after she referred to it as “the word you hate so much.”
I sympathize with your childhood love of horses, though I was thrown off a pony aged eight and, although you are supposed to get straight back on, I had concussed myself so I couldn’t, and never tried again. But I still devoured pony books!
Are you working on anything for young people at the moment? I have just been going through the copy-editing of Antonia Michaelis’s next book, a YA fantasy adventure set in Nepal, and I always like refreshing my memory of a translation I enjoyed. Otherwise I have to admit that I am on adult books just now, except for the exciting project with Cornelia’s next book.
I’m looking forward to reading A.S. Byatt’s novel The Children’s Book, and from all review coverage it seems that her main character is more or less based on E. Nesbit, whose books I adored as a child. Apparently Antonia Byatt has written pastiches of the children’s stories of the time, just as she wrote Victorian poetry for her Booker-winning Possession 20 years ago. Did you read it? I thought it was brilliant, and the poetry very interesting; the man’s work was more or less straight Browning with an admixture of William Morris in Norse mood, but the woman poet’s verse was extraordinary, as if the author had thought: What if Christina Rosetti were crossed with someone of real stature (as she is now seen) like Emily Dickinson?
Time to send this off now, anyway, in case something awful happens to the computer tomorrow morning …
I love your expression “concussed myself” (for when you fell off that pony). May I borrow it, and use it in the early-middle-grades novel I’m revising, The Truth About Twins? Toward the end, one twin falls off a seesaw and may have a concussion, though I leave open whether she “concussed herself,” or whether her twin, intending to, or not, made the seesaw bounce her off …
And thank you for reminding me of the handy word “Kunstmaerchen.” I’d forgotten it. Can’t think of a comparably neat, succinct word in English designating quasi folk- or fairytales artfully created by authors like Hoffmann, Andersen, and other authors, among them Clemens Brentano, long a favorite of mine.
I’ve loved his strange, disturbing Tale of Gockel, Hinkel, und Gackeliah since I was a child, and in 1962 translated it. That the three title names sound chickenish and eggy, it’s because the human family in the story shape-shift from human father, mother and little girl to cock, hen, chick, and back again. There’s also Alektryo, unambiguously a rooster, prized for what he holds inside his gullet — wise King Solomon’s magical ring! Three cruel thieves rip it out, thereby killing Alektryo, but he comes back to life and the thieves get their comeuppance. The family’s woes are over, they’ll stay human, and everything is happily resolved.
Except for one thing, namely that those three bad, ugly thieving villains were Jews! Such anti-semitism was widespread, part of the 19th-century Zeitgeist, present in much that Viennese-Jewish kids like me read, notably in the Grimms “Legenden” as well. Those quite rabidly pious tales have lots of despicable Jews.
I guess I learned to tune it out, especially when I didn’t want it to spoil my pleasure in Gockel, Hinkel, and Gackeliah. And it didn’t.
But in 1962, translating it, I freely left the anti-Semitism out. In the foreword I accounted for this change I made, and would make again if I were to retranslate this story now.
No matter how firmly committed we are to our sources, don’t all translators make changes every now and then? I believe that we do, and that we must, when common sense and conscience tell us to.
I’m happy to know there’s a new A.S. Byatt novel, and that it uses children’s stories and E. Nesbit. I, too, loved that gifted writer’s books when I read them to my kids (now grown). And like you, I admired Possession, got very caught up in that so accomplished, satisfying novel—plus, it took me back to college days when I had a big crush on the handsome, youngish professor who taught the Victorians.
Reading what you wrote to me, “I have to admit that I’m on adult books just now,” I thought, “admit” makes it sound like that’s something to deplore, but it’s just the opposite! Please know that I can well imagine how distinguished it is, and how fulfilling it must be to work on children’s and adult books, both!
Time to stop and send this off.
With many good wishes,
Dear Doris—Oh yes, how worrying the automatic anti-Semitism of the nineteenth century is. And even later, in people like G.K. Chesterton, otherwise a favorite writer of mine, of my (half-Jewish) sons, and of my late father. The latter used to recite “Old Noah he had an ostrich farm” at meals—“And Noah said to his wife, said he, / As he sat down to dine, / ‘I don’t care where the water goes / If it doesn’t get into the wine.’” Result, we can all three of us still chant large chunks of GKC off by heart; my sister and I used to lie in bed at night reciting “The Battle of Lepanto” to each other. Yes, the unthinking anti-Semitism is dreadful. There is no excuse, although I suppose with many it was automatic and they never did think. It seems so unfair that Wagner, undoubtedly a great composer, was also a particularly unpleasant human being. Would we prefer not to have had his operas at all? (I honestly don’t know—it is seldom that musical genius and an attractive character go together, as in Haydn, whom we celebrate this year. All the same, I do applaud Daniel Barenboim’s initiatives in Israel.)
Have you read the recent book by Volker Weidermann of the Sunday FAZ, Das Buch der verbrannten Bücher—about the books the Nazis publicly burnt; thanks to the Internet, he managed to track down and read, as well as listing, many of them. Erich Kästner was one who stayed on in Germany and actually watched his books being burnt … although the story goes that Hitler told Goebbels not to have Emil and the Detectives consigned to the flames: it was just too popular. I am very glad to hear that there is at last a modern translation.
Yes … what else can one say? In the face of book-burnings, all else falls silent.
So let’s get back to the children, who matter so enormously—and so does the way they grow up to think. Yes, in answer to what you said, I am sure translators make changes, and so do some editors, not always telling translators first, let alone original authors. I recently had an e-mail from a Finnish student looking at Christine Nöstlinger’s books and their translations. She wanted to know if certain cuts had been made by me or by the publishers. One was of a very pro-feminist (and funny) passage which I would never have cut of my own volition—so it must have been an editor. But this was a book of some 25 years ago, when I suppose sensitivities were different in different countries.
I told you, I think, that I am working on Cornelia Funke’s new book at this moment, and love it. Coming in English, both sides of the Atlantic, in fall 2010, and I can assure everyone that Cornelia, her British publishers and her new U.S. publishers, and I as translator, will all have seen everything, and no undisclosed sweeping cuts (see above) will have been made. One thing that always fascinates me is the genuine storytelling instinct, in adult and children’s literature alike, which can never be faked, or concocted out of other people’s ideas, like the many hopeful Harry Potter clones. Just out in the U.K., and I think on the point of publication in the States, is Rafik Schami’s vast Syrian family saga The Dark Side of Love, a mixture of Romeo and Juliet love story, a kind of modern 1001 Nights, with the historical and political background of twentieth-century Syria, which Rafik left in the early ’70s. He can never go back to his beloved Damascus, settled in Germany and started writing in German—another émigré writer, like Sasa from Bosnia whom I mentioned to you. This one is an adult novel, though Rafik has written YA books and picture book texts as well, and each of the over 300 chapters, though they all make a pattern like a mosaic, can be read almost as a short story on its own. I remember Cornelia telling me that she had been in correspondence with Rafik by e-mail, which did not surprise me a bit: born storytellers both.
About our late fathers, they both had fun reciting things. Yours quoted the clever Old Noah verse, and mine, in perfect Viennese intonation, liked quoting bits from Rosenkavalier.
About geniuses and character: D’you think that when some behave deplorably, we need to go easy on them because their work enriches our lives? Even if their character flaws get in the way of what they create and diminish or distort it? All I know is, I deplore that Wagner was a blatant anti-Semite. But this doesn’t bother me when I’m caught up in, say, Lohengrin, or Dutchman, or Tristan, or any of his operas (except Tannheuser, which I’m not fond of).
Speaking of Wagner, I loved A.N. Wilson’s new novel, Winnie and Wolf, about Winnifred W. and Hitler, he’s Wolf. It’s factual, based on research, and what’s made up is fanciful, and thoroughly imagined, so it’s believable, too.
About Das Buch der verbrannten Bücher, I haven’t read it, just saw a review. That Hitler saved Emil and the Detectives from the flames, should please benighted people who want to see him as less monstrous than he was.
Speaking of Emil, May Massee’s translation probably might not seem that modern anymore. And speaking of Massee, it was outrageous of B&N to “diss” her and not credit her translation of their Emil edition. I got “dissed” like that too, in a very minor way:
Years ago, I translated a short, simple story from French for Cricke. More recently, Ladybug, a spin-off from that children’s magazine, wanted to reprint it (for a pittance). I said, Okay. And they reprinted it, with no translation credit. I complained. They said, Sorry. And no pittance came. Months went by. I asked when it might, and someone from Carus Publishing (those magazine’s parent corporation) replied, Not any time soon, We’re having cash flow problems, sorry!
Back to Kästner: I came upon his witty Gestiefelte Kater retelling. It’s a gem, illustrated by Walter Trier. I asked about translation rights. They were available. I went ahead, translated it. It was pure pleasure, more like playing than like work.
I sent it to an editor I’d worked with before. She couldn’t decide—and still has not. Meantime I’d tried it on someone who had a much less sparkling Puss in Boots on his backlist, and didn’t want another one. Oh well. Translating on spec is worth it when it’s as much fun as Kästner’s Gestiefelte Kater.
I’ve rattled on for pretty long, and had better stop, or I might stumble back into the thicket of things that linger in my mind, like: What leeway we and our editors have about making changes; and how can we be sure that we’re avoiding ones that would undo the authors’ meanings?
Just one more thing I want to say: I wholeheartedly agree that “children matter so enormously—and so does the way they grow up to think” (your words, so clear and eloquent).
I did not mean to leave your very interesting letter of last month unanswered. It’s been sheer pressure of deadlines—you know the feeling! I agree with you about Wagner, very important in opera indeed, though I have to confess that I am not such an ardent Wagnerian as my elder son. For pure opera-going pleasure I’m a Verdi woman. By the way, have you read any of Helmut Krausser’s novels? Last year, Puccini centenary year, he wrote an interesting documentary novel or work of faction about the composer—who, with his womanizing and his love of what passed for fast cars in the early 20th century, has always made me think of a musical Mr Toad (well, not that Toad is a womanizer in The Wind in the Willows, but I bet he would have been in real life). However, Krausser had me quite liking him.
I’m put in mind of that by our editorial committee meeting for the journal New Books in German last week (it’s intended to interest English-language publishers in new German, Swiss, and Austrian publications). Krausser’s latest, short stories, was offered, but his translator Mike Mitchell read it and didn’t like it. The short story may well not be his genre.
We had a comparatively small bunch of children’s and YA books to consider for the Frankfurt Book Fair issue, though two sounded to me very promising: Hermann Schulz, who writes little, but that little is good, and always about Africa, which he knows well. And the new Kai Meyer fantasy. I liked the sound of it, although it took our reader seven pages of A4 to sum up the plot! When I was young, I was taught how to write a précis, which seemed very boring at the time but has proved invaluable in my reading for publishers over the years. In fact I could sum up Kai’s latest, Arcadia Awakes [Arkadien erwacht], in a five-word nutshell: “The Mafia meets Ovid’s Metamorphoses”. Or is/are the Mafia plural? No, I think singular—cosa nostra is, after all, a singular noun.
Let me say how very much I have enjoyed our correspondence. It’s been a great experience to exchange opinions with someone who knows what our odd profession is all about. Unlike the man who, when I said I was a translator, replied, “Ah. Tell me, why is all translation so bad?” Turned out he was talking about the multi-lingual instruction leaflets that come with electrical gadgets. That was all the word meant to him.
Again, warm good wishes—I hope we will not lose touch entirely—and all the best for all your future work.
Thanks for your wonderful PENultimate (?) letter of July 16. And I believe, along with you what we’ve written to each other qualifies as “letters,” e-mail being just the way we sent them. Anyway, as all of yours, your latest gave me much to think about and respond to:
Is your elder son, the Wagnerian, a musician? (I think I already mentioned that my eldest is a pianist.) And speaking of opera, I’m “a Verdi woman” too, also love Puccini, especially Manon Lescaut—poor thing, she ends up “sola, perduta, abandonata” in the desert of Louisiana! How’s that for “realismo”?
The journal New Books in German whose the editorial committee you’re on sounds like soemthing I’d like to read. Does it include books for children and YA’s? Could I subscribe to it?
From your clever 5-word précis (I agree that “Mafia” is singular), I’d guess that Meyer’s Arcadia Awakes would be a hit here. Greek mythology is “in” now, mainly due to Rick Riordan’s very popular Percy Jackson series. Those books which bridge mythic times to the present are built on the premise that Olympian deities’ affairs with humans have kept right on producing demi-god kids. Percy Jackson is one. I read The Lightning Thief, first in the series, and quite liked it for not desecrating source material too much.
Your musings about musicality in toads made me laugh, and think of Arnold Lobel’s much loved I-Can-Read book, Frog and Toad. The latter might be musical, who knows, though not a womanizer, probably.
To end this letter on a serious note now that our correspondence will soon end. That you enjoyed it means a lot to me. I did it, also, as you know. Being in touch with a fellow translator whose work I’ve long admired has been a privilege, both humbling and inspiring. (I typed “aspiring” by mistake; was that a Freudian slip?)
I, too, hope we’ll not lose touch entirely.
Sincerely wishing you and your work the best,
I’m very fond of the Freudian slip. When Penguin retranslated Freud using so-called literary translators instead of psychologists, my title was The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, all about the assorted varieties of Fehlleistungen. Whenever I perpetrated one myself, I felt like calling him back in Vienna a century ago: “Here, Professor, another for your collection.” I feel that if Freud had been a touch-typist, he would have added another category to slips of the tongue, the pen, etc., describing slips of the keyboard. I have several that I regularly type by mistake, like “prety” when I meant to type “prey”. I suspect my unconscious mind is rejecting the idea of hunter and prey, nature red in tooth and claw, and trying to prettify it.
So as this is my last letter in our correspondence, let me say again what fun it’s been. I suspect that only a translator fully understands exactly what another translator is doing, and the nature of the problems and pleasures of the craft. Hearing your views on our profession has been a particular pleasure.
All very best wishes for your future work.