I’ll never forget reading Christopher Middleton’s translations for the first time. This was in New Orleans in 1982 or 1983, and the life-changing book that a teacher at the school for the arts I attended had just assigned to us was entitled Selected Stories of Robert Walser and had just come out, with a foreword by Susan Sontag and a jacket cover sprinkled with crudely magnified images of Walser’s microscript handwriting. In her foreword, Sontag described Walser as “A Paul Klee in prose – as delicate, as sly, as haunted. A cross between Stevie Smith and Beckett: a good-humored, sweet Beckett.” He was, she wrote, “a truly wonderful, heartbreaking writer.” And in Middleton’s translations, he really was. I remember how thrilled I felt reading the sentence: “I am thrilled to be writing a report on such a delicate subject as trousers, and thus to be licensed to plunge into meditation upon them; even as I write, a desirous grin, I can feel it, is spreading over my entire face.”
Christopher Middleton is first and foremost a poet, and he goes on writing poetry when he is translating – a circumstance under which it is particularly difficult to do so. His own poems are breathtaking (a favorite of mine ends “with a wicket gate of muscle / to shield from shock his hungers”), and his translations show us, over and over again, how to make the ostensibly impossible look easy. For this I am infinitely grateful.