It’s December, which means that German Literature Month has drawn to a close (although I’m sure Lizzy and Caroline will have nothing against your extending it for a while), and that my serialisation of Eduard Graf von Keyserling’s novella Seine Liebeserfahrung, translated as Experiences of Love, has also come to an end. While it hasn’t really attracted much attention (I supect that real world events have somewhat overshadowed my plodding efforts at early twentieth-century literature), the experience was a lot of fun, and in my now traditional afterword, I’d like to talk a little about the translation process and the story itself. Before we begin, though, a gentle word of warning. I’ll be revealing important plot details, so if you are planning to read the story, do that first – THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD.
I first read the book, set in August 1900 and published in 1906, back in February, and I had planned to work on a translation then, with an eye to serialising it on my site mid-year. Sadly, though, the fates intervened in the form of a dislocated finger (suffered during an impromptu game of basketball…), and the idea had to be shelved. The next substantial period of free time I had fell in July and August, but by this point I had decided to take a look at something a little shorter, with the result being my Women in Translation Month translation of Ricarda Huch’s story Der Weltuntergang (The End of the World). Sadly, it looked as if I wouldn’t be able to find time for Eddie this year.
That’s when I saw someone on Twitter mention #NaNoWriMo, and I wondered if there was any way I could pull that off myself. After calculating the daily averages, and taking into account small matters such as teaching every day and supervising an intern, and little things like speaking to my nearest and dearest, I decided to give it a shot. The final English-language version came to 17,345 words, and after starting on the first of November, I completed a first draft on the 16th, with all posts edited and prepared by the 22nd. If only I were this organised in the rest of my life…
In this afterword, I’m going to focus more on the story than the translation process, but there are a couple of aspects of this that I’d like to mention before we move on. The diary format means that the writing can shift between styles and registers a lot, with Magnus waxing lyrical one minute and letting his thoughts slip the next. In terms of grammatical issues, there are a lot of comma splices and sentence fragments that, while tidied up here and there, I have kept for the most part as they reflect the diary style of the book, with our friend often writing down the first thing that pops into his head. Another interesting feature is the way that the text switches between past and present tenses, especially when Magnus is walking through the streets of his town. Again, while unusual, it’s done for effect, with the descriptions of the steamy summer streets coming to life because of this tense choice, so don’t blame me if the transition seems rather abrupt in places.
A more frustrating issue, one that cropped up both here and in last year’s translation project, Sultry Days, is the country setting and the writer’s obsession with flowers. Personally, I can probably identify about five flowers by sight, and possibly three trees on a good day, so my heart sinks every time one of Keyserling’s characters leaves the house (don’t walk that way, stay in the town centre, no, keep away from that park!!!). I spent far more time than is healthy searching for the names of flowers, wondering exactly which type of pea plant the writer was referring to, scratching my head in a forlorn search for a common name for a plant that only seems to have a Latin descriptor in English – and generally wondering why a thirty-two-year-old bachelor was so obsessed with flowers in the first place. Next time, everything’s going to be roses or daisies, and my work will move along a lot more swiftly.
One of the few advantages of having put this translation off for around nine months is that it gave me the opportunity to read the book on a number of occasions throughout the year, and every time I did so, especially during the translation process, I discovered something new about it. As you’ll hopefully know by now, the story is told in the form of the diary entries of Magnus von Brühlen, a thirty-two-year-old nobleman and wannabe writer, who realises that the novel he’s planning to work on is unlikely to come to much owing to a lack of romance in his past. This deficit of experience means he’s ripe for a romantic adventure, and in fact there are two in Experiences of Love: a fling with a shop girl, Toni, and his more restrained flirtation with Claudia, the young wife of a friend of his father.
Of course, the beauty of the diary format is that everything is being told through our hero’s eyes, and as we soon learn, Magnus isn’t exactly the most reliable of narrators. The key to enjoying the story is picking up on the vast gulf that lies between what Magnus thinks is happening and what is actually going on in the background. On first reading the book, I sensed early on that he was a fairly deluded fellow, but I didn’t actually see the direction his crushing defeat was likely to come from (I suspect that other readers may have done rather better there…). In a sense, Experiences of Love is a Bildungsroman for a character who really should have grown up a long time ago, with our hapless friend left to pick up the pieces at the end of his adventures and hopefully move on to happier times.
One of the features of the text that supports this plot and character development is an unusual, clumsy mix of the poetic and the painful. Magnus loves to wax lyrical, but whenever he comes up with a particularly striking, poignant or profound thought, you can be sure that a faux-pas is just around the corner. The scenes in which he walks with Claudia in the Daahlen gardens, discussing the symbolic statue in the pond, hearing the wind rustling in the trees, are punctuated by his tone-deaf questions to his beloved, followed by comic asides to the reader in which he acknowledges that this was a really dumb thing to say. You can almost see him in his study with his head in his hands, saying, “What the hell were you thinking Magnus?!” It’s OK – we’ve all been there.
Perhaps my favourite part of the story, though, is the ending, which, while retaining hints of the earlier humour, is slightly more serious, appropriately so given the circumstances. The final diary entry, written on the night of the day covered in the previous part, begins with von Brühlen soberly promising to tell the reader all about the events of the day objectively, as if he were not involved. This is where we learn about Claudia’s elopement with Baron Spall, and we can see Magnus going into shock as he hears about their flight.
This final section provides the final two parts of my serialisation, and it’s the second half that is particularly well done, with Magnus being asked into the big old house by the cuckolded husband to share a rather sombre and torturous (and tortuous) meal. As the two shattered men pick at their dinner, the reader can sense the waves of sadness emanating from them, but it’s the older man’s revelation that he knew what was going on all the time, and was just postponing the moment when he would be forced to intervene, that shatters poor Magnus. Not only has he been deluding himself the whole time, but he is also the only one in the party of four regulars at the Daahlen dinner table who was unaware of what was really going on. You can imagine that this makes for a rather humbling walk home in the moonlight.
A recurring theme of Experiences of Love is the way Magnus is more of an onlooker than an active participant in life. Early on, he speaks of his tendency to want to be the director, not an actor, in his own story, and another of his ‘experiences’, an early crush on his cousin Alma, highlights this tendency. Instead of doing anything about his love, he instead collects gravel she has stepped on and forms it into a ‘mountain of love’, a monument to his feelings for the young woman (who, of course, remains completely oblivious to the boy’s feelings). However, in preferring thought to action, Magnus is actually missing out on the experiences of love he so longs for, and Claudia’s teasing words during one of their walks sum the situation up nicely – when he describes love so beautifully, he doesn’t really need to experience it at all. It’s a sad truth that he’s eventually forced to acknowledge, but the ending shows signs of hope. He realises that it’s time to move on in search of life. Perhaps in a new setting he’ll really experience love, rather than simply playing and talking about it.
While there are similarities with Sultry Days (and the two novellas are pretty much the same length, both running to around sixty pages), translating Experiences of Love was a different experience to last year’s effort, both because of the shorter time-frame it was done in and the greater familiarity I had with the text before starting. Each time I read the story, I noticed something new, picking up on subtle jabs at our hero that I’d overlooked previously. It was, again, great fun and most enjoyable, and I suspect I’ll have a go at another of Keyserling’s shorter works at some point.
But will I serialise it on my blog again? I have some doubts there. To be honest, I’ve been pretty disappointed with the reception this year. I’m writing this on the 23rd of November, with five parts already published and eight to go, and so far it’s been like speaking into a void. I’ve had fourteen likes and one short comment on those first five posts, and my page views have been well below average. Of course, that’s not why I do this, but it still hurts to think that when I’ve put so much effort into something, I could have knocked up a list of books to look out for next month in ten minutes and got fifty times the attention. (UPDATE – 31/11: I’ve been very fortunate this week that one blogger has been engaging with the text and leaving comments. However, in general, my page views have been woeful, with the day the penultimate episode was posted, perhaps the most dramatic of the whole story, bringing just ninety-seven views for the whole blog – easily the worst single day I’ve had since the early days of the site…)
I’m not deluding myself here about the quality of my work. I know that there’ll inevitably be errors in meaning that I haven’t picked up on, and that my writing in English won’t be as perfect and polished as that of a professional. Yet what I’ve produced is an English version of a story by a well-known German author, a piece that, as far as I’m aware, doesn’t exist in English anywhere else (of course, someone will now immediately, helpfully, point me in the direction of a far superior translation). Obviously, what I’m doing simply isn’t of interest to most people, whether that’s because of the topic, the time of year or simply the medium. I thought that serialising a book in short episodes would interest people – I was wrong. Or perhaps my idea of short is very different to other people’s…
At any rate, I’ll be thinking hard and long before doing anything like this again, particularly in terms of whether it makes sense to publish posts daily, and the length of the individual episodes. If anyone has any views on this, or anything else that you think I might be interested in hearing, please let me know in the comments, and I can bear your ideas in mind when considering a future project. I’d love to do it again if I can work out how to interest more people in what I’m doing.
Finally, though, it would be remiss of me to wind up so negatively, especially when there are people out there who have been supportive and read my translations. I hope you’ve all enjoyed this year’s offering of classic German literature, and rest assured that I appreciate the positive remarks you’ve made both here and on social media. Like poor Magnus, I’ll now be taking some time to reflect and reevaluate, in the hope that my future experiences of translation live up to my expectations 🙂