Christopher Middleton (June 10, 1926 – Nov. 29, 2015), the great English poet and literary translator who spent most of his adult life in Austin, TX, is the one who made me want to start translating in the first place. I’ll never forget sitting as a teenager on the hot pavement of the tiny enclosed patio at 6744 Milne Blvd. in New Orleans – now a vacant lot thanks to Hurricane Katrina – reading Middleton’s translations of stories by Robert Walser and trying to figure out how he did it. My own first attempts at turning sentences written in German (a language I was just learning) into English prose were not going well. “The songbird songs heard already such a long, long time ago by human beings!” I wrote, trying clumsily to approximate the flourish with which Walser ended his “Biedermeier Story”: “Die Singvögellieder, die vor schon so langer, langer Zeit von Menschen vernommen worden sind!” Middleton’s version of this sentence was lyrical, offhandedly elegant: “All the songs of singing birds heard by people such a long, long time ago!” Check out the assonance of “birds” and “heard” that gives this line its artful caesura, rhythmically setting up the reader to place another well-timed (if more muted) caesura after “people.” The line sings, it’s translation-by-poet. I’ve told this story before.
I first met Christopher at a Walser conference at the Swiss Institute in New York in 1994 and liked him as much as his translations. He was incredibly kind, incredibly supportive, and over the years often invited me out for a glass of wine, a walk, and a chat in Berlin when we intersected there, which we did most summers. He was a regular fixture at the wonderful old now-defunct bookstore autorenbuchhandlung on Carmerstrasse near Savignyplatz. (There’s a new bookstore by that name at Savignyplatz now – a good one, but nothing like the old rabbit warren of densely packed shelves where Christopher and his friends would sit for hours talking literature and drinking more coffee than is good for a person.)
Christopher’s translations of Robert Walser were seminal and ground-breaking. His Jakob von Gunten and Selected Stories of Robert Walser were for a long time all the Walser available in English – and the translations are so superb I don’t think they’ll ever lose their charm. His other Walser translations include Thirty Poems and Speaking to the Rose. He translated lots of other things as well, and not just from German. Lots of poetry of course. That great anthology he co-edited with Michael Hamburger, Modern German Poetry 1910-1960 (terminally out of print, it seems) is full of his beautiful translations. He also worked his magic on Christa Wolf, Gert Hofmann, Nietzsche, Canetti, Trakl, Benn, Hölderlin, his friend Lars Gustafsson (from Swedish!), and countless poets translated from French, Spanish, and probably Turkish as well (at least I know he spoke some Turkish and spent a lot of time in that country).
He was an important poet too, of the English/Texan variety, raised on Greek and Latin long before being transplanted to Austin. He wrote many incredible volumes of poems that all display his special mix of playfulness and erudition – as well as his undying love for formal verse (the odder the form the better). If you don’t know his poetry, I strongly recommend you check it out. To get you started, here’s a really excellent appreciation of his work by fellow poet John Yao, with lots of quotes. I also recommend you look for a copy of the Spring 2005 Chicago Review, which contains a number of tributes to Christopher curated by W. Martin, who studied with him in Austin. Christopher was a wonderful essayist too, and his essay on translating Robert Walser, “Translation as a Species of Mime” (published in 1989 in Rosanna Warren’s anthology The Art of Translation: Voices from the Field), is one of my favorites. And there was another genre he specialized in too: He loved writing and receiving nice long letters, such that all his friends who entered into correspondence with him were certain to receive some of the most memorable ones you’ve ever seen.
I’ll close by quoting a couple of paragraphs from a letter he sent me on March 26, 1994, in which he refers to the above-mentioned essay on Walser translation. He also mentions meeting Werner Morlang, the great Walser scholar and co-microscript-decipherer – who passed away, far too young, just 11 days before Christopher, on Nov. 18. I’d been meaning to call Christopher all last week – I’d taken to calling him every couple of months instead of writing, out of concern that the letter-writing taxed him (heart disease was making him weak, though he remained as mentally sharp as ever at age 89). My reluctance to share the news of Werner’s death made me put off this call until it was too late to talk to Christopher again. I hope he didn’t hear that Werner (who was only 66) had died before him – the news would have made him sad. But here’s part of a letter from back when everyone was alive and well:
That tall German journalist Klaus-Michael Hinze […] is planning a radio talk on my “theory” of translating Walser, which isn’t a theory at all, just a few ideas. He got me to read/record a passage from that essay, & I forgot to introduce it properly: you see, what I was thinking about is that the activity of translating is seldom discussed, only the “product” thereof, & I was asking myself what kind of activity it might be, when one goes dancing through German with Walser. The answer: mime. But dammit I forgot to remind Hinz that the activity as such is under discussion. I wonder if it makes much difference. Discussing translations bores me. But a veritably stylish analsis of the nature of the activity might be a new departure? – I recorded the bit about the temple-dancers miming the manifestations of their god, in India, and about the hyperbole that is peculiar to mime.
Had some pleasant talk with Werner Morlang, too. What an interesting person he is. A great bibliophile. He was combing practically all the bookstores in N.Y.C. All I found, to my surprise, was one of the last books of poems by the strange Lesbian poet Renée Vivien, who was writing around 1900. She died of anorexia & alcohol in about 1909, & was for a time the lover of Natalie Barney. Her books are terribly scarce, hardly to be found in Paris. I got my book for $10.00. (Renée is almost too plaintive to read, but she was relatively outspoken; Colette knew her, among that weird throng of Sapphos she consorted with, near the Bois de Boulogne, around 1900, after quitting her horrid “Willy”!) It’s odd that Rilke doesn’t mention her, but her kind of loving was right up his street. I wonder if he did know of her, but shunned her & her work, on account of her narcissistic “inversion”? Poor Renée. She even had a partly imaginary affair with a forlorn wife in Istanbul – mythified the whole thing, only to be eventually disillusioned by the wife’s insatiable appetite for candies! Here’s a clerihew I just thought up: Renée Vivien / Was sexually amphibian / But in Istanbul took flight / From a Sappho stuffed with Turkish delight! Apologies…!
Dear Christopher, thank you for your letter, it made me smile. Much love and safe travels, Susan
I was delighted to find your tribute. It is absolutely worthy of him and of she who wrote it, and that it should have appeared in the long shadow of Robert Walser makes it all the better. I have been close friends with Christopher since 1992 when he came to dinner in London. Thereafter, he’d stay with us for a spell almost every summer, and what splendid company he was. Today is a sorrowful one because it was always on a Sunday that I’d phone him in Austin and we’d confabulate, joke and sorrow and chastise, and he’d read me poems he’d recently written. And of course he spoke warmly of you as the true inheritor of Walser’s English-language mantle. And you know he was very tough on translators. Of course it worries me that his tremendous abilities as a translator should put his even greater ability as a poet in the shade, but time alone with rectify this. Anyway this is to salute you and, with luck, make your acquaintance. Should you ever come to London know you will be welcome at our table.
With kind regards,
I was directed to your enthusiastic and touching letter about Chris by his daughter Susan (I always knew him as that, but of course he was Christopher Middleton). I first met at School(Felsted, then evacuated to Goodrich Court in Herefordshire) where we became friends. He and I both studied the classics, but were far more interested in contemporary poetry. He was always the better informed; and this was true throughout our friendship, right from 1943-4 before I joined the RAF (where I learned Russian, he learned German) through our separate academic years right up to the eve of his death last November. We were great friends and as you noted and illustrated in your piece he was a great letter writer. Best wishes, Richard Freeborn.