‘Fra Celeste’ by Ricarda Huch (Translator’s Afterword)

After fifteen days and over seventeen-thousand words (about sixty pages in physical form), we’ve come to the end of Ricarda Huch’s novella Fra Celeste (or my translation thereof, at least).  Our story is finally done, and we can leave the narrator to his memories of the miserable monk and his tragic lost love.  However, as always, I thought it would be nice to wrap things up with one final post, in which I’ll comment on the translation process and muse over certain similarities with another of the writer’s works.  Oh, and we definitely can’t leave the story without discussing that intriguing narrator – there a lot there beneath the surface just waiting to be unpacked…

The whole project started back in January, when I found the story online and read it a couple of times with a view to publishing a translated version in time for Women in Translation Month in August.  Alas, as you may have noticed, 2020 has not been a normal year, and that plan went sadly awry.  Not that I’ve had any major issues, I hasten to add, but home-schooling the kids took up a lot of time and energy that would otherwise have gone into this project.  I eventually began the translation (very slowly…) in July, continuing during the next school holidays in September, before finishing it off just before the start of November.

In terms of language issues, the text posed fairly similar problems to last year’s WIT Month project, Huch’s long story ‘Der Weltuntergang’ (‘The End of the World’).  Once again, the text was replete with lengthy, clause-laden sentences that needed careful teasing out; there were also commas aplenty, far more so than is usual in English, partly arising from the narrative nature of the text, with the speaker rattling on at times with few definitive stops.  The dilemma here for the translator lies in how much of this to keep, and my task usually involved stopping my English-teacher alter-ego from editing the original too heavily.  It would have been very easy to add more semi-colons and full stops, and move time expressions around, but I managed to resist doing so unless keeping the original structure made the English too unwieldy or clumsy.

Another interesting area was the vocabulary used in this rather ecclesiastical text.  Luckily, Huch was fairly general in her approach, with the story more concerned with power struggles and day-to-day affairs than with the minutiae of church proceedings – which is just as well for yours truly.  I spent a fair amount of time on finding synonyms for commonly used words, and you’ll find expressions such as heavenly, celestial, terrestrial, earthly and mundane scattered throughout the text.

There was also the small matter of how to deal with the title character himself.  I decided early on that Fra Celeste was perfectly acceptable as a title, and as an address in the story itself, but I wasn’t quite as happy with the frequent occurrences of the word Bruder.  ‘Brother’ rarely sounded right in context, so I’ve tended to use ‘monk’ instead, or repeated the main protagonist’s name.  Among other minor issues, one puzzle I found myself facing was how exactly you address an abbot in a letter, something I never thought I’d find myself googling!

Looking at the story itself, there are further similarities with ‘Der Weltuntergang’.  The two texts were written around the same time and both feature a similar setting, namely a town somewhere in the fairly distant past, a more religious time where the fear of God is still palpable.  In both cases, the main figure, the priest of the shorter story and the monk of the novella, are certainly unfortunate figures, but they’re genuine in their faith, and in their desire to save all around them from damnation.  They’re classic tragic figures with a fatal flaw that will lead to their downfall, which in Fra Celeste’s case is his inability to deal with losing the one person he truly loves.

The tone again shows many similarities as the two pieces blend humour and darker elements.  For much of the time, Fra Celeste bounces along nicely, and most readers will enjoy the comedy of the war of letters and the intrigue the narrator spins against the doltish Count.  Yet Huch seamlessly turns this comedy into a tragedy when the focus switches from petty squabbles to weightier matters.  Fra Celeste’s worldly worries are eventually mastered, but death can’t be avoided as easily, and it’s only now that the monk realises the truth behind the sermons he preaches so readily.

Of course, the most striking similarity between the two texts is the approach taken.  Both stories use a narrator, an onlooker at just the right distance from the ‘hero’ of the piece to lend perspective. The reader is able to relax, sit back in a comfy chair and allow the narrator to guide them through the tale, one that happened long ago, but is kept interesting by the speaker’s skills.  Naturally, the flip side of all this is the small matter of trust – if we’re going to put ourselves in the hands of a storyteller, there’s a risk of wool being pulled over our eyes…

…and anyone who reads Fra Celeste carefully will surely suspect that not everything is as it seems.  The most significant difference between this story and ‘Der Weltuntergang’ is that while the scholar narrating the shorter piece benefits here and there from the chaos (in fact, both of the narrators manage to take financial advantage of people’s natural longing for superstition), we can generally take him at his word.  I’m rather less convinced that this is the case in the longer work, and perhaps the most impressive aspect of the whole novella is not the portrayal of the monk himself, but the way Huch uses the young man pulling the strings in the background to tell the story.

From the start, the secretary (whose name we never learn) shows himself to be opportunistic and ambitious, recognising the monk’s prowess and immediately hitching himself to the wagon of this rising star of the church.  Whatever obstacle appears, our young friend is able to eliminate it with little effort, and as the scale of the story expands, he’s able to use his skills in a wider political arena, playing cardinals, abbots and popes off against each other and making sure that his ‘master’ (or puppet, rather) is able to continue his meteoric rise to fame, and bring him along in tow.  There’s a lot here that’s reminiscent of Yes Minister, with the narrator the true centre of power in a story full of political intrigue.

That’s not necessarily a negative, and there’s certainly much to be said for an aide who helps his master focus on what’s truly important and avoids bothering him with admin and politics.  However, you sense there’s far more to the secretary’s actions than simply protecting his superior.  In Part Ten of my version, the monk’s lady love (an appropriate label for this story, I think) Aglaia compliments the young man by saying, “These eyes are as devout as the dove and as cunning as the snake.”  It’s a statement that’s perhaps truer than she realises as he turns out to be a rather formidable, and dangerous character.  In order to protect his best interests, he intentionally leads the Count on to his new marriage and is able to twist cardinals around his little finger.

In fact, it’s debatable whether we can trust him at all.  You see, history is always written by the winners, and he’s the only one left standing at the end of the book.  Despite his effusive comments, you wonder how much he really admires Fra Celeste, and, more interestingly, if he does really fear him (it might be the other way around…).  Then there’s the relationship with Aglaia, hinted at in his description of the three kisses she bestows upon him.  It’s hard to believe that such an ambitious figure is content to admire the beautiful woman from afar, particularly when we know both of his liking for the fairer sex (casually dropped in a comment early in the story) and of the platonic relationship between the monk and his childhood sweetheart.

Quite apart from any potential entanglements between the secretary and Aglaia, there’s a marked sexual atmosphere to Fra Celeste, with hints of lust and seduction scattered throughout the text.  You may also have noticed a fascination with the monk’s mouth and lips – completely innocent?  I have my doubts.  In fact, when you consider the monk’s remark on his secretary’s girlish looks, Cardinal San Fiori stroking the young man’s face and the several occasions where there’s a shoulder to lean on, providing more physical contact than is to be expected, I’m sure I’m not the only reader wondering whether these are mere glosses of what really happened.  There’s a tangible homoerotic air to the piece, and any reader going down that path might also begin to wonder who the instigator is.  It might well be a case of the narrator reluctantly giving in to the desire of his superiors, but my money would be on the secretary being the one seducing those around him.

This may be stretching the idea a little more than is probable, but once you begin to lose faith in the narrator’s veracity (and from their comments, I know that some of my readers tossed that aside very early in the piece!), it’s easy to see more to the story than is written on the page, and this is particularly true for the dramatic climax, which doesn’t really stand up to intense scrutiny.  It’s here, with the main protagonists meeting their tragic fate, that the secretary starts to hide behind hearsay and rumours, as well as claims of sleeping soundly through the fateful night, an excuse I’m certainly not buying.  It may well be that by this time the narrator has come to realise he’s overplayed his hand for once and, sensing that his time under the monk’s protection is coming to an end, he decides that it’s best to bring an end to affairs, in every sense of the word, on his own terms…

There’s a very different story somewhere in Fra Celeste, one I’m very tempted to write myself, and it’s this hidden side, what isn’t said, that attracted me to the novella and made me want to bring it into English.  I’m not sure everyone will agree with my theories, but even if you believe it’s simply a tragic tale of unfulfilled love, there’s a lot there to like, and I hope you enjoyed it.  I’m certainly keen to try more of Huch’s work and, perhaps, even translate it, but that’s a story for another day, and almost definitely another year.  For now, I’ll draw a line under my German Literature Month reading and writing – until next November, tschüß!

9 thoughts on “‘Fra Celeste’ by Ricarda Huch (Translator’s Afterword)

  1. First off, thanks so much for your time in translating this, Tony – it’s much appreciated and I did enjoy reading the story!

    And I think you’re spot on about the untold story here. Huch is very good at playing with narrative, and our young secretary here is very much not what he seems. I picked up on the homoerotic subtext – all that touchy feely stuff! – and he definitely has his own agenda, which I think showed itself quite early when he began answering the monk’s correspondence in a way that suited him. It does seem very much that the secretary was calling the shots from very early on and I wonder how Fra Celeste’s life would have turned out had the secretary not been on the scene? Fascinating stuff! 😀


    1. Kaggsy – I’m very glad you enjoyed it, and I hope a few others did too!

      One think I’ve noticed while serialising this story, and others, is that the format encourages readers to think about what’s happening in the text. Obviously, I’ve read the book many times and had a lot of time to think about it, but when I first read it (in one go!), I didn’t see half the things you and Jonathan have commented on over the past couple of weeks. It certainly shows how (enforced) slow reading can be beneficial to understanding of a text 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Tony, for another great translation of a work otherwise unavailable in English. Although, as you mentioned, reading a work in installments has its benefits, I think I’ll aim to read it again soon but it one go. Re-reading soon after the first read is becoming a bit of a habit for me lately; I don’t always do it but sometimes it can be worthwhile. I shall have to read your other Ricarda Huch translation too.

    I originally thought that Fra Celeste was going to be a charlatan, but in the end he was a bit more complicated than that wasn’t he? It wasn’t so much that he was fooling others but rather fooling himself that he had the answers.

    As for the narrator, yes, what to make of him? I also found it unusual when I was reading it that the narrator just went to bed and left Fra Celeste wandering along the beach. There’s certainly a lot packed into such a short story.


    1. Jonathan – Many thanks for reading along, and I’m glad you enjoyed it enough to think it warrants a second look 🙂

      It’s a book that ends very differently to how you’d imagine from the start, and the longer it goes on, the more you pity the poor monk. Of course, the general consensus in our small reading group here is that it’s the narrator that’s the real star of the show. It’s hard not to suspect he’s the one pulling the strings…

      Please do try, ‘The End of the World’. As mentioned in the post, it’s very similar to this one in style, but shorter (around twenty-four pages from memory) and also great fun 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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