‘Sultry Days’ (‘Schwüle Tage’) by Eduard Graf von Keyserling (Translator’s Afterword)

We’ve finally come to the end of Sultry Days, my serialised translation of Eduard Graf von Keyserling’s early novella Schwüle Tage.  Hopefully, there will have been a few people out there who read along day by day, and if not, the story’s not going anywhere, so feel free to peruse it at your leisure 🙂  Before moving on from the whole endeavour, though, I thought it might be a nice idea to look back at the project and reflect on the translation process, along with some of the difficulties involved.  While I may not have the same insights as those who do this for a living, a look behind the scenes is always fun, so let’s see what went into the making of the translation.

I first stumbled across the text in digital form, both at the German Projekt Gutenberg.de site and on Amazon (that version was simply ripped from the Gutenberg source and converted to a mobi. file…).  The original story ran to around 16,500 words, and my finished version came in at just under 18,000, which meant I added a little less than ten per cent to the word count.  Before I’m accused of supplementing the text with my own ideas, though, I’m pretty sure that’s par for the course for DE-EN translations as German uses more compound words that English tends to break down (that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it!).

Once I’d got over my paranoia that these digital texts might be missing a section here and there and finally committed to giving the translation a go, it was time to think about how to go about it.  The first step, of course, was to read the book, and I did so twice before writing anything.  Luckily, I happened to have a fair amount of time off work earlier in the year, and with the kids at school, there was no chance of going away, so a project like this was the perfect way to occupy myself – even if my wife might have preferred me to do a little more work around the house or in the garden…  I had no idea how long the first draft would take, but in the end I managed to get it done in four weeks, working on average two hours a day, five days a week.  Slow?  Rushed?  I have no idea – you be the judge.

So, how did the actual translation process go?  Well, I copied the digital text onto a word file and simply (literally) rewrote it, with the English appearing above the original German, which was erased once I was reasonably happy with the sentences above.  As you can imagine, I had to be very careful not to mess things up, and I made an enormous number of saved versions along the way, just in case.  While I’m not convinced I really did enough work on later drafts (a subject I’ll come to later), I did check carefully that I hadn’t somehow omitted anything from the original story – fingers crossed, it’s all there…

After a few false starts, I soon settled into a daily routine.  Each morning, I settled into my computer chair and opened several documents and websites.  First, I got out the work in progress, then (like any craftsman), I set out my ‘tools’.  As an amateur, I don’t have a large array of specialist works at my disposal, so the tools in my case consisted of Google Translate (mainly for quick easy checks of words I was pretty sure of anyway), Duden online (for more nuanced DE-DE explanations), German Wikipedia (for more factual information about people, places and objects) and Google image searches (sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words…).  For the most part, Schwüle Tage is a fairly straight-forward story, so I was able to get by with this rather limited toolbox, but I suspect some translators may be frowning at my primitive methods 😉

The story itself is a fairly simple one on the surface, telling as it does the story of the young aristocrat Bill and his summer in the country.  It’s a classic Bildungsroman in many senses, with his discovery of sexual desires one important development; there’s a striking contrast between his rose-scented dreams of Gerda and the earthier reality he finds awaiting him.  Of course, if we dig deeper, it’s a little more complex, with the young man’s illusions gradually crumbling as he becomes aware of just how complicated the big wide world can really be.  Most of his lessons come, naturally enough, from his father, and Bill learns that this cold, rather distant figure is a person too, with the same desires, and flaws, as anyone else.

Like many teenagers, our hero longs for romance (his poetic ambitions are mentioned on several occasions).  His home for the summer is the perfect setting for such thoughts, with a backdrop of flowers and fields, beautiful farm girls and his alluring cousins.  However, romance only goes so far.  Over the course of the work, he sees how community and society compel us to conform, whether that’s in the case of his father or in his own dalliances with the local girls.  As time passes, even nature seems to be playing its part.  The atmosphere surrounding the party of friends becomes ever more oppressive, and a storm approaches, marking the end of the long summer.  It’s only fitting that it arrives at the climax of all the tale’s events.

Having looked at the mechanics of the task, and the story itself, it’s time to move on to some of the difficulties the translation posed, for despite my glib claims above, it wasn’t always plain sailing.  Reading the text carefully brought up several areas that were to cause issues.  One of the most time-consuming of these was the abundance of nature-related terms in the story.  Schwüle Tage takes place in the country, and the text is full of flowers, trees, birds and fish, many of which I’d never heard of (let alone seen…) in English.  The irony is that having had to work extra hard agonising over which particular type of flower Keyserling meant (it’s not always as easy as you might think), I know full well that many readers will simply skim over much of this.  There was also at least one occasion where the name of the flower simply didn’t exist.  The only example I could find online in German came from… well, I’m sure you can imagine 😉

Another area that caused a few headaches was sentence length.  Schwüle Tage is rather uneven in its sentence structure, with a huge contrast between the sentences used in different parts of the story.  Quite often we are confronted with a series of blunt, simple sentences with very little linking, often with no conjunctions at all, and the English teacher in me is just itching to break out the red pen and connect them.  However, there are also sections, particularly when Bill becomes emotional and waxes rather lyrical, where the writer seems to have run out of full stops, instead making use of a bunch of commas he has to hand.  Here, it takes a fair amount of restraint not to rein Keyserling in and restrict him to two or three clauses for each sentence.  So, do we remain faithful to Keyserling’s style, or do we give priority to what the English-language reader expects?  Well, my decision was to stick with the German as much as possible, as this contrast between the matter-of-fact exposition and the confused, emotional turmoil is one of the most striking features of the text.  However, I did make a few little changes (a little linking here, a semi-colon or full stop there) – sorry, Ted…

However, if I were to choose one feature of the book that caused me problems (problems I’m not sure I ever really resolved), it would be the difficulty of capturing the right voice.  There are several differences between the major characters, with Bill’s father switching between aloof didactic lectures and occasional ironic charm, and the sisters Ellita and Gerda chattering away breathlessly, seemingly using their words to avoid saying what they really think.

Of course, it’s Bill, our young narrator, that is the key to the novel, and it’s not always easy to pin his voice down.  There’s a fair amount of youthful bluster, and he often sounds a little pompous, and deliberately awkward.  As a child learning about the adult world, he also becomes a little more introspective, questioning the beliefs he boasted of earlier.  From the first reading I couldn’t help but be aware of the sheer number of expressions of uncertainty peppering the text, with Bill grasping for ways to describe people and actions he encounters for the first time.  One of the overriding memories of the translation process is the frequent use of ‘it seemed as if’, ‘as if he were’, ‘like a …’ or ‘almost as if’.  It’s a telling reminder that this is all being conveyed through the eyes of an impressionable youth, who is piecing events together as he goes along, without ever being in full command of all the facts.

As I reread my translation, I had doubts about whether I had truly captured the hero’s voice; in particular, it was tempting to think that it was all a little too formal.  Yes, it’s another time (more than a century ago), and he is of noble blood, but he’s also just a naughty schoolboy hoping to get lucky.  However, the more you read, the clearer it becomes that the story isn’t being told as it happens, despite young Bill’s presence as the narrator. Increasingly, sudden tense switches creep into the story, and later on there are clearer indications that the real narrator is the older Bill, looking back at this pivotal period of his childhood.  With this in mind, I decided that altering what I felt was the voice of the original (and I’m well aware that I may have misjudged this…) would be taking a little too much licence…

And speaking of artistic licence, this is probably where my amateur nature shines through.  As I mentioned above, it took me four weeks to produce a first draft, but (despite a plethora of typos which my kind beta reader Lizzy pointed out!) it was a full, readable text.  That’s just the way I am: I simply couldn’t go through leaving unfinished sentences, alternative vocabulary choices or even German words there for the next bout of editing.  Recently, I read how someone had a very different approach (possibly Emma Ramadan in her The Quarterly Conversation pieces), getting a first draft down quickly with lots of things to work on for subsequent drafts, and now I wonder if that isn’t the best approach after all.  You see, while I did revisit the text a couple of times, these later drafts did little to change the overall feel of the work, more light polishes than broad-scale renovations.  If the first draft is done properly, then it probably doesn’t matter – but that’s a big if, probably deserving of capital letters.  I wonder if I’ll be brave enough to change my approach next time…

…but speaking of next time assumes that there’ll be a next time.  While not a lady, I am one of Kate Briggs’ lady translators, in that this has nothing to do with my day job, and I’m not relying on its success to pay the bills (which is a good job as I’m not being paid anything for it…).  I spent a good month, plus a few scattered hours here and there, producing something that at best a few hundred people (and that’s being optimistic) will have been mildly interested in, so (to some readers) the idea of doing it all again might seem a little… well, shall we say, stupid?

That’s certainly one way of looking at it (and there have definitely been times when even I’d agree).  Yet I enjoyed my time immersed in Keyserling’s text and what it demanded of me; it’s a rather different experience to that of simply devouring the text, knocking off a thousand words reflecting on the story, and then moving on.  This isn’t exactly the most original of ideas, but translation involves reading at a much closer level than is usually the case, and that’s rewarding in its own right.  Hopefully, I’ve gained something from the process, whether that’s a greater appreciation of what goes into a text, or even just a little more ability to read German literature (although given the struggles I’m having with my latest book, I highly doubt that…).

Overall, then, it’s certainly been worth it, and translating a text that (as far as I’m aware) had never appeared in English before is just a happy bonus.  I hope my few readers felt the same way.  Now it’s time for a rest, but it just so happens that I do have some more time off work early next year.  I wonder if I’ll manage to find something to occupy myself with…

13 thoughts on “‘Sultry Days’ (‘Schwüle Tage’) by Eduard Graf von Keyserling (Translator’s Afterword)

  1. This was not an author I’d heard of before, so thanks for bringing it to my attention, and for taking the trouble to translate it. Really interesting insight into the process you went through to create it, too. I sort of understand why you did it. I remember translating a Spanish novel I’d studied for A Level Spanish, and had a gap year before university. I later discovered someone had already done it in English. Didn’t matter. The translator puts on the clothes, as it were, of the text and walks around in them until they fit. Sorry about the clunky metaphor.


    1. Simon – Yes, I’m sure another translator would have clothed the text very differently! I’m still unconvinced that there isn’t another version out there, somewhere – if there is, it’s well hidden, though…


  2. I had a great time reading this Tony. I was curious to know how you did this so I was hoping you would provide us with some sort of afterword 🙂 Your tool box and daily routine and the method you used, etc. I enjoyed finding all about this. I had suspected early in the reading that so rich a story with descriptions would present a good challenge. Also, replicating the voice of any narrator seems quite difficult to me, more so here because telling his story from a later point in time, the narrator is basically trying to replay his younger self using his “mature man voice” (it was not so obvious at first but it became more clear as I read along); it must have been challenging but fun. Thanks for sharing all this with us!


    1. Spacecadet – The voice was tricky. The problem was that while I was fairly certain I was conveying it correctly, it did seem a little off at times, and most of that was deliberate on the author’s part. Fingers crossed it came off without too many cringeworthy moments…


  3. I would like to thank you for the time you spent on this translation. I enjoyed reading it and it’s by an author I hadn’t heard of before. I can’t really imagine how difficult it must be trying to translate someone else’s words into another language, and it must be even more difficult when it’s over a hundred years old. I’m sure you can look at your efforts with pride.


    1. Jonathan – It’s definitely something I’m very happy to have done, and I can look back at it in years to come, knowing that I’ve translated something. Good to see my BA wasn’t a complete waste 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It is a truism that no-one knows a text better than its translator, Tony. That makes you the expert! So you get to determine the voice.

    Thanks for such a marvellous contribution to GLM VIII. Time for you to settle back into some relaxing reading now.


  5. Great to read about your process, Tony! I like the point you made about the closer reading of the text. I often find it dissatisfying just to read and move on, read and move on. The process of translation must indeed force you to spend so much longer with the text, first rereading it and then going through line by line, word by word.

    I’ve never translated anything myself, but I remember from French and German A-levels a long time ago that simply reading books in a foreign language forced me to slow down and pay more attention to the language, and while I was doing that, I tended to spend more time thinking about other things like the themes and messages and authorial intent. I can only assume that with the extra layer of translating into English, that kind of thing happens even more. That kind of deep immersion in a single book sounds like a good experience to me.


    1. Andrew – It is a wonderful experience, but it’s better when others share the journey. Having to justify my choices and explain what’s happening makes for a much richer reading and translating experience. Thanks for reading along, and for all the comments – hopefully, I’ll find the time for more in the future 🙂


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