Translator, Meet Thy Author!

Much of my career as a translator has revolved around the work of the incredible Swiss-German modernist author Robert Walser, who has been dead since 1956, but I’ve also had the good fortune to work with lots of authors who are alive and kicking. Usually it’s good fortune, anyhow. Occasionally, living authors can be unspeakably annoying, especially if they know a little English and want to “check” your work. “Why did you translate Haus as building when English contains the perfectly good word house?” (Um, because your Haus has thirty-seven stories, for one thing.) I won’t tell you which author said that; it isn’t someone I’ve done an entire book by. But working with a living author can make so many things so much easier. What if you aren’t certain you’ve understood how a certain phrase is meant? What if there’s a reference so obscure none of the native speakers in your circle of friends can explain it to you? What if something the author wrote is absolutely not going to work in English and has to be replaced by something completely different? That last one happens all the time. So I was very happy when my beloved author Jenny Erpenbeck, who happens to be in town this week, dropped by my apartment this morning just as I was revising her story “Aus der Haut fahren” (which will be published in Habitus Magazine this spring). The title phrase sounds quite a lot like the English expression “to jump out of one’s skin,” but it signifies anger rather than surprise (it’s more like “to fly off the handle”). The exact meaning of the phrase aside, in the context of the story the title works because the most common sense of the word fahren is “to travel.” This is a story about a woman who sheds her official identity and leaves Germany with forged documents at a time when remaining there would have meant certain death. So the English word “jump” just wouldn’t have the thematic resonance to make it a good title for this story. This is where the author consultation comes in. “So, Jenny, how about I call your story Paper Skin?” “Hey, wait a minute, that’s in my story.” “Precisely.” “Great, I like it.” Problem solved. Try getting that to work with an author who’s reposing in the grave.
Oh, so you’re wondering how you’re going to get to experience the wonderful Jenny Erpenbeck while she’s in New York? Easy! Just come to the Skylight Room (9100) at the CUNY Graduate Center this Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. Jenny and I will be reading from her novel Visitation and talking about working together, as part of the New Literature from Europe Festival. There’ll be a second translator/author pair on the program as well, John Cullen and French author Philippe Claudel. I’ll tell you a secret: Cullen and Claudel have never met before. Should be interesting.

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