Yesterday saw the publication of the fourth and final part of The End of the World, my translation of Ricarda Huch’s story Der Weltuntergang. If anyone was reading along out there, I hope you enjoyed it, and thanks for taking a look – I’ll be more than happy to hear your views on the piece. There’s one last part to my project today, though, as I’d like to reflect on the translation experience now that the whole story’s out there. You see, there’s a lot more to translating than simply bashing out a rough approximation of the original text, and today I’ll touch on just a few of the problems I faced while trying to magically change German into English…
Back when I published my previous translation, Eduard Graf von Keyserling’s novella Sultry Days (Schwüle Tage), I finished off with an afterword detailing the process, and the issues, and little has changed since then. In terms of how I went about the task on a day-to-day basis, the increase in word count from German to English, and the editing process, there were no major changes. Again, I didn’t have the time (or the inclination) to really go to town on my first full draft, only making minor changes to the text. Even if I do tend to work quite hard on the first version, I suspect that the end result would be far better if I worked harder on redrafting – and this also shows the importance of having an editor, a fresh pair of eyes who can come at the text from a new angle and cut ruthlessly.
However, every text has different challenges, and there were a few things I faced here that weren’t quite as important in my last translation. Not least of these was the very start of the story, a first paragraph containing two monstrous, yet elegant sentences. With complex clauses and commas aplenty, it took time just to read it, let alone rewrite it, yet it was vital to get it right as it set the scene, and the tone, for the whole piece. This was the voice of the narrator, an educated, wry and slightly self-important fellow, and the whole story is told from his point of view, whether we believe him or not. Once these first sentences were in place, I had a model for the rest of the story, and a touchstone for my linguistic choices (on which more later).
These lengthy sentences turned out to be the rule, not the exception, with Huch’s garrulous narrator delighting in lengthy exposition, often adding tangential detail along the way. There were a lot of comma splices, too, and with English tolerating this style of writing less than German, the English teacher in me wanted to chop them up and add lots of full stops to tidy the text up. However, that’s not the translator’s job, and I decided to stick with the original punctuation for the most part, even if it might require the reader to go back and reread some passages carefully.
On a similar note, paragraphing turned out to be one of the most interesting dilemmas of the translation process, even if it was a fairly simple one. The story consists of very few lengthy paragraphs, and even if there’s a temptation to break them up (especially considering the final version will mainly be read online), it’s not always as easy as it sounds. The action tends to flow continuously, with any attempt to separate the paragraphs running the risk of breaking up the text unnaturally. In the end, the decision is what’s best here: fidelity to the writer or sympathy with the reader? Of course, given that I’m working from a copyright-free online source, I can’t be completely sure that the paragraphing is what Huch intended, anyway… (Update: I decided at the last minute to go with shorter paragraphs!)
A very different dilemma I encountered here, one that doesn’t really crop up in Sultry Days, is dealing with names. The narrator has the annoying habit of coining nicknames for his characters, forcing the translator to do likewise, which can require some ingenuity. Two of the major characters have nicknames ending in the suffix -bold, which is often used to describe a type of person, or a characteristic. Our good friend Pastor Wolke is dubbed ‘der Jammerbold‘ by some of the townsfolk, and with ‘jammern‘ meaning ‘to whinge, whine, complain’, I decided that Old Misery Guts would be an apt English equivalent. The Pastor’s rival, on the other hand, is known as ‘der Lustbold‘, with ‘Lust‘ having the sense of ‘pleasure’ rather than ‘lust’ (although there is a hint of that, too). My version here is ‘the Pleasure Seeker’ as the character stresses the importance of enjoying your time on Earth, rather than being overly devout.
There was more fun to be had with a couple of the minor characters. It didn’t take much imagination to turn ‘der Pelzkönig‘ into ‘the Fur King’, but when it came to his friend ‘das Dukatenmännchen‘, I’m still not sure my final choice of ‘the Ducat-Man’ was the right one. You see, there was an incredibly strong temptation to go with ‘Medallion Man’, one I finally managed to resist – even if I suspect many readers would have preferred this name and the images it evokes.
One reason I didn’t go in that direction had to do with the level of vocabulary used in the text. Der Weltuntergang was written in 1899 and set in 1599, and there’s an old-fashioned feel to the text that affected my semantic choices. Where possible, I chose high-level words and avoided spoken vocabulary, and this was also true of the grammar. Given the nature of the text, I often opted to keep some of the slightly stiff constructions, perhaps unnatural in modern English, where I’d probably simplify them in my own writing.
One particular example was the writer’s tendency to scatter time phrases throughout her sentences, with my preference to move them to the start of the sentence. Here, I had to decide whether I was simply making a natural correction for the preferences between the two languages or changing what was a deliberate emphasis on the part of the writer. I hope I got it right for the most part, but I’m not making any promises.
I’m sure the end result is far from perfect (don’t complain – it’s free…), but hopefully some of the style and substance of the original has survived the passage into English. Again, I found the translation process a fascinating experience, and even if I’m not convinced that I’d be able to cut it as a professional translator, it’s fun to pretend now and then. Look out for more of my translation work in the future, but not too soon. For me, translation is definitely something best done in small doses, and I suspect this was quite enough for a good while yet…