In translating Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, Sophie Wilkins and I had great trouble finding equivalents for the infinitely subtle and nuanced gradations of title and talk in the old Austrian Empire with which Musil had such satirical fun. We could follow Musil when he riffed on the official rank “kaiserlich-königlich”: (imperial-royal) being a quite different category from the rank of “kaiserlich und königlich” (imperial and royal). However, each of his characters speaks in the idiolect of his or her social class and background—with the amusing result that when they are talking to each other they are talking past each other. Thus General Stumm von Bordwehr talks like an Austrian general, but we couldn’t have him talking like an American general, since the cultural effect would be totally out of place—it wouldn’t be at all equivalent. So we translated the dialog straightforwardly, giving little linguistic pushes to the idiosyncrasies of the characters where we could.

The title of the character Graf Leinsdorf presented a great problem. “Graf” is “Count” in English, but the social and cultural differences in rank between old Austria and England and America turned out to be insuperable. Although nominally a Count, Leinsdorf was a feudal lord, and one of the highest and most influential people in the Austrian government, whereas a Count in England is of a much lower order, and in the United States these aristocratic titles are all conceptually meaningless—we have no equivalents for them. For the British, “Count Leinsdorf” would not indicate Leinsdorf’s high authority. I looked everywhere, and even consulted a number of friends and colleagues in England. We finally settled on calling him “Count Leinsdorf” but having him addressed as “Your Excellency”, which (I was told) would indicate in England that he was a foreign aristocrat.

In this, one of its many dimensions, The Man without Qualities is a satiric valentine to the old Austrian Empire, which lasted from around 1300 to 1918. Fortunately Musil was a writer of genius, and his satire of the Empire’s paralytic status quo is brilliantly limned in ways that can be brought across in translation in other dimensions. He was also a writer of the greatest precision, so when we had a problem it was immediately apparent what the problem was.