Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Translating the German Nineteenth Century

One of the strangest books I have read—the tensions start already in the author's Spanish/German name: Andrés Neuman. 

He grew up in Argentina, writes now in Spain, and at the age of 35 has produced a fat novel set in the Saxon—Prussian heart of the German nineteenth century. And: I'm reading the book in English, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia. It takes me a good 50 pages to settle down into the English—books with German characters and German settings really ought to be in German, shouldn't they? Or at least in the original Spanish? See the problem?

The setting is the town of Wandernburg, and like its name it is a shifty little place, not stable on maps and even its streets are moveable.

Hans, Herr Hans Hans, arrives by coach and senses immediately that it may be a difficult place to leave, although he is an inveterate traveller (I prefer traveler) who really means to move on the next day to Dessau where an invitation from Herr Lyotard awaits him.

Okay, I get it, it's an indeterminate place of shifting postmodern significance. It is also thoroughly, substantially, and sometimes delightfully rooted in nineteenth-centure material culture and intellectual history. It's a love story. It's a story about ideas (Fichte, Goethe, Schiller, Jean Paul, Tieck, Schleiermacher, Schopenhauer, Sophie von la Roche, Bettina von Arnim, the Schlegels, Cervantes, Calderon, Voltaire, etc. etc.). It's a story about translation. Herr Hans and Fräulein Gottlieb (Bodenlieb when she's making love with Hans) translate as feverishly as they make love—poems from the Russian, Spanish, French, and English for the publisher Brockhaus.

True to its essential (yes, essential) shiftiness, the novel is a twenty-first-century version of the twentieth-century Magic Mountain relocated on a nineteenth-century north-German plain.

Herr Hans, like Thomas Mann's Hans Castorp, arrives in a magical place he inexplicably can't leave. While the hot-cat object of Castorp's affection, Clawdia Chauchat, resides in room #7 of the sanatorium, Herr Hans Hans himself resides in room #7 of the inn in Wandernburg. And while another Thomas Mann magician bears the timely name Zeitblom, the inn's own is more simply Herr Zeit.

Neuman isn't the new Mann. He does, however, wear the mask skillfully.

A final question: once a reader has been transported to the land of shifting signifiers, on what basis can he or she complain about copy editing? Lubëck marzipan????? (p. 204). Someone from Farrar, Straus and Giroux ought to read Buddenbrooks.


* said...

yes that is something, translating from translating and it feels always weird to read or write like that.
and lubeck like that.... i've read a book, t hat book by littell on that ss officer, the kindly ones, and they put a tremendous effort into making a serious glossary on all the german naziterminology, excplicitly explained, but in the book itself when they used the german, they often got the cases wrong. not something maybe supernoticeable, but it botehred me too which otherwise is really a great book.
congrats about the barbed wire books, you're so productive :)

Scott Abbott said...

i've stayed away from lit tell on purpose, although on your recommendation i might take a look.

as for productive, it's summer and there are two of us working on it. feels good.

* said...

littell is well worth a read. not cheerful subject matter. but not a bad book.

stay productive, that's a good thing.