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Hans Erich Nossack Translating and Being Translated Translated by Sharon Shan

Hans Erich Nossack Translating and Being Translated Translated by Sharon Shan It is a great honor for me as an amateur to be allowed to speak to experts, for me as a writer to speak to translators. In order to justify choosing me as a keynote speaker, the organizers of this conference could use the argument that every writer is in fact a translator, since his occupation is to transfer facts, experiences, thoughts into an­other reality—that of language. A nice argument, and certainly ac­curate, but one that does not concern us here. What concerns us at this conference is limited to translation from language to language, or rather the costume change of a given character on a stage—and the stage in this case is reality. I call myself a nonspecialist, although it so happens that I have translated a few books from English into German and am very proud of two of them, actually prouder of them than I am of the books I have written myself. I translated these books, however, not as a translator but as someone who loved them. And if I should ever translate again, it would be for the same reason. At the time it just seemed more important to me to translate a foreign book than to write one myself. My identification with this particular book was so complete, that I imagined myself the only person capable of translating it properly. Or to put it another way, perhaps a bit more emphatically: I had heard another's voice and was convinced that I could never say what he said as well as he did—at most it would have led to an unnecessary repetition. This is also an interesting phenomenon, and one that both lit erary scholarship and sociology, which live on such phenomena, should be aware of. There is, for each individual writer, something that seems to exist that could only be called a feeling of national solidarity with other members of the literary community, a feeling of citizenship in literature as a supranational and antinational and, one might add, ahistorical community. In certain moments this feeling of solidarity intensifies—most often as a defense against the recurring historical tendency to be dominated and controlled by one single ideology. It then becomes more important for the indi­vidual writer to advocate literature as a whole than to offer his own individual contribution to literature. Without this instinctive feel­ing of belonging, how can we explain that we often receive—across all temporal and linguistic barriers, from a single sentence of an author, even occasionally from an insignificant comment about the author—the message: aha! that's one of us speaking. Or to put it more sentimentally: that's a brother speaking. There is then still a language or a means of expression that can be understood without translation—even today in a highly bureaucratic world—and therein lies a great hope for humankind. But being an aficionado of something does not guarantee qual­ity. May heaven preserve us from such an idea, because that would only result in a dreadful, pretentious piece of work. It would be ideal, however, if every translator were in a position to love what he translates, if he had to translate only what appealed to him. We writers, who want to be translated, greatly depend upon this emo­tional, human element of translation. We assume that through this mode of translation more of ourselves and the intentions of our books will be communicated to the foreign reader than through a philologically exact translation. Indeed, the writing of a book is not only an intellectual process but also borders on a biological neces­sity for the author, and it is crucial that this be apparent in a vivid translation. No actor would normally be expected to attempt a role that is in opposition to his character, physical appearance, or age. Memorizing the part is not enough: what fascinates the audience and makes the role believable is the barely perceptible tension that comes from the attempt, always to no avail, to assimilate oneself into the role, that is, to give oneself over completely to the role and to be totally in love with it. Of course, considering the current economic conditions of the literary marketplace, I know that the ideals I demand from a translator are Utopian. But can a person exist without Utopias? To repeat once more: a translated book that is merely gram-matically correct is hardly more than a mannequin draped in the colors of the foreign country. There is no breath of life. I know of a recent German novel that has been translated into classical French. The novel was strangled by this translation; it was neither written nor conceived in classical German, but in a clean, contem­porary, colloquial German that any one of us might use on the street without sounding strange or appearing affected. Nobody could believe any German today who tried to explain his problems to us in the language of Kleist. One would prefer to interrupt him impatiently and say: "Could you please make sense!" We are, of course, very much aware that the French language has not changed—or, as the purists maintain, deteriorated—to the same extent as, for instance, English or German. We are envious of the power of that French tradition, which prevents language from de­teriorating to the purely utilitarian. However, a translator is in no way forced to resort to Franglais or military slang, since there has been a written nonclassical French language at least since Celine. How did the transformation into such a classical costume come about for the above-mentioned book? A professor emeritus of German studies was engaged to produce the translation; his Ger­man proficiency was certainly better than the average German's but was also very much a textbook German. The professor lacked a certain instinct for the rhythm and atmosphere of the language, and above all for its current pulse. Reality or, let's say, truth is today no longer directly expressed either in life or in novels; a sense of shame and an instinct for self-preservation has driven it into the spaces between unimaginative and noncommittal sentences, into a realm that cannot be explored with grammar alone. Unfortunately, critics often make a great fuss when they discover three or four mistakes in a book of five hundred pages, causing the entire trans­lation to be seen by the casual reader as an immediate failure. This is a gross injustice, and to put it bluntly, an unseemly pomposity with respect to their own language proficiency. Mistakes should by no means be defended, but let us not forget that often so-called mistakes in translation are matters of interpretation that could be debated for years. In the transferral of unusual metaphors, this is almost always the case. I admit quite openly that as a reader I would much prefer to accept a couple of insignificant mistakes, which I possibly might not even notice, than a falsification of the entire atmosphere of a book, which I cannot help but notice, even if only because the book is a lifeless jumble and bores me. Thus I know today, for example—because I was enlightened by the phil­ologists fifty years after my first reading of Hamlet—that the word "nunnery" in the English text was no longer used in its original sense even during Shakespeare's time and that the famous line "Ophelia, get thee to a nunnery," correctly translated into German, would have to read: "Ophelia, geh in ein Bordell" ["Ophelia, get thee to a bordello"]. In spite of this piece of scholarly information, Schlegel's translation, through which Hamlet has become a living character for the German public over the last one hundred and fifty years, survives. Nothing against philology, but a philologist who is not prepared to discard the results of his cumulative research for the sake of another living being is like the attorney who considers his marriage perfect because he strictly follows the relevant para­graphs of the law. When I was young, no one told me that, more than anything else, translating would require being able to speak and write in one's native language. Evidently this is considered an obvious state­ment; however, that assumption is unfortunate and, as everyone knows, misleading. Again and again one comes across translations considered to be authoritative simply because they were done by language experts who can actually prove that they know all the nuances of the other language and speak it as fluently as a native since they have lived and worked in the country for twenty or thirty years. But to master a foreign language at the level of a certified simultaneous translator by no means indicates the ability to prop­erly serve the native tongue. One can destroy a work of art from a foreign language much more decisively with awkward and incor­rect English—or whichever other target language might be appro­priate—than with one or the other translation error. The task is to put a readable book in the hands of the reader, not an amateurish rough draft in which one stumbles at every turn over Anglicisms, Germanisms and other "isms" from Romance languages in parti­cipial phrases and other similar syntactical constructions. It is sometimes so bad that while reading one experiences the involun­tary urge to go to the trouble of retranslating a translated passage back into the original source language in order to get closer to the sense of it. Just to mention a small, rather absurd example of this: dialogues translated from English into German—and not only from detective novels—are consistently translated using the phrase "ich schätze" for "I guess." No German would ever say "ich schatze" in such conversations; he would be considered extremely odd. Depending on the pace of the dialogue, a German would probably say "ich nehme an" or "vermutlich." Detective novels in particular have a pace that is incredibly fast, so it becomes especially important that the pace not be broken by unwieldy idioms. How­ever, in the dictionary one finds "I guess" for "ich schatze," so the expression is technically correct. Unfortunately though, the dic­tionaries and lexicons are never sufficient when one attempts to render a dynamic situation. I have gained a valuable insight from the few translations I have done, and I always try to pass it on to younger writers. I advise them—most probably in vain, who pays attention to advice, anyway?—that they should try translating at least once, without any intentions of becoming a professional translator, just for the discipline it requires. One does not necessarily learn more about the foreign language but rather learns to use one's native language more precisely. In order to find an equivalent in one's own language for a foreign metaphor or to communicate a foreign linguistic ges­ture with a corresponding expression, one is forced to use words that do not belong to his normal vocabulary. The translator's work­ing vocabulary exceeds his personal vocabulary by more than double. Seen in this way, translation is practical training for every writer in the use of available material; he learns to recognize the riches of his own language and to make use of its flexibility. As I have mentioned before, writing in itself is, after all, already trans­lation. But you are aware of all these things—excuse me for even bringing them up. I only do it in order to satisfy my obligation to the title given my remarks in the program, "Translating and Being Translated." A great many relevant comments have been made about the splendor and the misery of translation, and whatever needs to be said again about translation—in order not to have the art of translation degenerate—does not belong in a speech such as this, but to commissions and committees of experts. Nevertheless, I would like to draw your attention to the relatively new appear­ance of a very objectionable practice related to the misery of trans­lation—the tendency of foreign publishers to seek to exploit the success of a book that has just become a "bestseller" in the original language by insisting on an all too hasty translation. There have been a few cases in recent years in which the translations were so horrible that the original writers felt compelled to file legal suits to prevent a second printing of these thrown-together translations of their works. We should all be on guard against such practices that discredit literature as a whole. As much as we all like to earn money, we should remember that literature is not practiced to produce consumer articles. For that we have more profitable industries, in­cluding unfortunately the military. Yet even this topic falls within the purview of commissions. Please allow me then to present my own translation of the title, "Translating and Being Translated," in order to transfer it from the level of professional translating onto a much more important level where translating is a moral activity or, in case that adjective is suspect, where translating is a human activity that has wide-reaching effects outside the narrow realm of literature. It is said that the Germans translate a great deal, much more than other peoples. I do not know the exact statistics, but I tend to think the claim is accurate based on the fact that, when I was young, my education consisted more of foreign literature in trans­lation than of that of my own country. This fact can be seen as both an advantage and a disadvantage. It is an advantage to the extent that interest in foreign literatures indicates an open-mindedness and can result in a continuous revision of one's own literature, pre­venting a lapse into a self-complacent nationalism or stagnating provincialism. It is a disadvantage to the extent that a one-sided, snobbish admiration of foreign literature reflects an inherent weak­ness: an insecure society and oppressive, overcompensatory feel­ings of inferiority. The image in the mirror is unsatisfying, so one primps and preens in foreign feathers. As a result, in current dis­cussions of German books, for example, pedantic judgments such as "Not as good as Camus" or "Huxley said that much better" or "This author doesn't live up to Faulkner" can often be read. What a nonsensical standard! Maybe the writer had no intention of living up to Faulkner. Besides, it is just cheap name-dropping. The read­ing public learns how widely read the critic is, which was not even in question, but learns nothing at all about the book, the writer, the writer's intentions and whether or not they have been realized to some or any degree. A French attorney in Bordeaux asked me once, as we were discussing Europe and de Gaulle, "Would you please explain to me why it is that the Germans are always either Marxists or Americans? Why can't you just be yourselves?" An ex­tremely sensitive and painful question, which touches on our his­torical ambivalence. However, this might be considered a purely German affair, which we must cope with alone. Being German is not always easy and is everything but a recommendation. However, what matters here is that in today's world the act of translating carries out a mission—a mission that is erroneously considered unproductive by the established communication media and censored or even completely repressed as undesirable by the presumptuous world of politics. It is probably vanity that makes it impossible even to admit that there could be other needs besides political or economic ones. For this reason translation represents a means of exchanging news between one human being and another, a kind of underground radio station used by partisans of humanity throughout the world to send news of their endangered existence, almost without hope of being heard because the jamming signals are so much stronger. The retreat into the life of the partisan is not a political act—that would only be seeing the situation superfi­cially. Quite frankly, politics has not been humanity's main enemy for a long time now. Political and ideological differences are inter­changeable pretensions that mask a much more dangerous ten­dency. The real enemy of humanity today, all over the world, is an all-consuming abstraction, which is a product of something called the system: the system is a means to its own end, independent of political affiliation, and reduces the human being to a well-oiled cog of the system in his every waking moment. It was once possible to revolt against social orders or dictatorships; even if the revolu­tion itself failed, it still made sense. Rebellion in this historical sense is not possible against the dictatorship of the system, how­ever; revolutions are a planned part of the system and are simply diverted into demonstrations of manageable proportions. A me­thodical and calculated change in the machinery is accomplished, yet the system remains the system. In this inhuman situation, which has only recently become so absolutely inhuman, there is just one thing left for a person to do if he wants to preserve the fiber of his being and escape the reach of the machinery—to wear the cloak of compliance with the system: that is, outwardly follow the sys­tem's prescribed behavior in each situation and inwardly retreat into the exile of silence. Just satisfy the system, give it what it wants, and everyone will leave you alone! People all over the world instinctively act according to this principle in the hope that, through the total separation of humans and system, the machine will run itself into nothingness, overheat out of its sense of futility, and in some absurd way destroy itself. An incredible risk, but since when has humanity not been a risk? It is the task of all who attempt to create literature, whether they be writers or translators, to make this silence perceptible. Let's consider for a moment exactly what it is that appeals to us about a book written in another country, in another language—even in an­other time. It is not the folklore or the exotic elements. That is all at best interesting, and like everything interesting, magazines and travel agencies will jump at the chance to make a profit from it. It is not the foreign way of dressing that we simply accept as a cos­tume. It is not the foreign living habits that differ from our own. It is not the foreign religions, foreign ideologies, foreign institu­tions. As I said before, that is all very interesting and informative material for comparative studies. But, like everything that is merely interesting, it is subject to fashionable trends and is quite transitory. However, we as readers immediately understand something over and above these superficialities: to use a hackneyed phrase, we rec­ognize that things are no different anywhere else, which relieves us momentarily of our sense of isolation as human individuals. We recognize that human conflicts are the same everywhere, however perfect or however strange the façades of our institutions are. We recognize that behind the polished platitudes of the megaphones, which we obediently respect in order not to stand out in the crowd, there is another means of communication, one much more realistic than the "realism" of the system. In other words, another language does exist beyond that of official jargon—one that alone remains human. It is the great chance of today's translators to transfer this language and thereby preserve and strengthen the supranational and supraideological community of human beings. In order to avoid being abstract myself about such a passionate appeal, let me demonstrate what I mean with two short and con­crete examples. Examples should always be as simple as possible if they are to be valid. There are a few cases (the actual number is irrelevant, thank goodness) in which former prisoners of war have corresponded with their captors, in which these so-called enemies have exchanged invitations and visited one another, even become godfathers of each other's children. They do not visit only the country in which they were held prisoner, or the people or the nation that caused them so much suffering, but instead they visit a person, a human being, who was their enemy due to the circumstances at the time and, yet, whom they spontaneously recognized as a human being with exactly the same existential desires as their own. And it is important to point out that all of this happened without even understanding the foreign language, perhaps through just one single human gesture, which remains unnoticed in the political arena. Supposedly, if one can rely on the trial tran­scripts, there were even cases in the concentration camps where SS guards inconspicuously dropped cigarettes in front of a prisoner. This is not meant to minimize or sentimentalize the atrocities. However, these vestiges of human response in an inhuman situa­tion are indications of a silent language whose significance cannot be overestimated, because it can be understood without translation and gives us the hope that a place does exist where resistance is possible, where the phraseology of the system is not a viable com­modity in the market. The second example has to do with a book that was written by a Japanese doctor, Dr. Nagai, and has the German title Wir warm dabei in Nagasaki [We Were There in Nagasaki]. When something catastrophic like the dropping of an atomic bomb happens, we read about it in our daily newspapers around the world, far away from the actual occurrence, and we feel alarmed and shocked. We ask a neighbor or a co-worker at the office, "Did you read about. . . ?" but his reaction at best is to babble something incoherent to hide his shock. Something has happened that words cannot convey. A few days later we see a news report showing us the extent of the destruction—it seems like a nightmare. We hear the death count and how many are wounded. The statistics swell with pride at their own exactness, and our registration of their cold-bloodedness in­creases our own feeling of impotence. Reports from doctors come, telling us about the new way of dying that radiation has brought with it and warning us about possible future genetic damage. All of this cannot simply become reality for us; it overtaxes our imag­ination and experience. The numbers are too large; what we hear about genetics is too abstract. The actual experience of having only one single personal acquaintance who died in the catastrophe would be sufficient to give us a better understanding of what hap­pened than statistics and expert opinions could ever communicate. That is the function of the Japanese doctor's book: he gives us a report from personal experience rather than a series of so-called facts. He lets ten of his relatives—simple people who by chance survived the catastrophe—tell their stories, among them his own five-year-old daughter. The child's story begins with the words, "Suddenly the crickets stopped singing," and concludes with the line, "In the afternoon the crickets began to sing again." There is hardly anything more moving than this naive observation. This is not literature, this is not a sensational report, this is the message of a helpless human being. What is characteristic of these ten people, or rather what it is that they have in common, is that they have no words to describe the facts; they have no idea what to do with the accident of their survival, so they simply blame themselves for it. Their narratives are like a porcelain cup with a crack so that it no longer rings when it is tapped. Each of us who has seen a large city after it has been totally destroyed—like the one in which we are guests today—understands this type of toneless language immedi­ately. We understand the absolute helplessness and the guilt of hav­ing failed, which cannot be comforted by conventional means. The experience does not consist of the number of dead or the destruc­tion of cities, but of the completely new fact that in a matter of seconds all of our habits and securities can prove insufficient to survive this experience. No religion, no ideology, no previous truth up to now, not to mention governments or police, are capable of helping a person in the face of a suicidal experience of absolute destruction; if it happens that he does survive in spite of it all, then it is more than likely because of a careful kind of sleepwalking. And no reconstruction is capable of erasing the complete meaningless-ness of the reality of the experience. Humans the world over seem to have developed a new form of Resistance against the negative reality. Respect for humanity requires literature to be silent about it yet convey the silence perceptibly between the lines. But how would I have ever known about this Japanese book if it had not been translated? I mentioned earlier that I was brought up with literature in translation, with Strindberg, Stendhal, and, of course, Dostoyevsky, who influenced my entire generation. These masters were long deceased when they taught me; I have never been able to thank them personally. However, I owe the fact that they could influence me so vitally to their translators, who were still living as I was growing up. Yet, I never thanked them either. I was too young and just took it for granted that books would be translated. I know now that translating is more than just a way to earn a living, that translating is a demanding occupation, which benefits some person out there who is lost in the labyrinth of the system. Above all it benefits those persons who are as young as I was then and searching for their own way. Today I would like to make up at last for my earlier omission by publicly extending my gratitude to all translators.

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