On Translation

On a sentence by Robert Walser.


Plantin letterpress type. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

It is worth remembering that there once was a time when every letter, number, and punctuation mark printed on paper started life as a sculpture. Someone had to make the letterforms by hand, in three dimensions; the individual characters could all look alike because they were all molten metal poured into the same mold (hence: font), but someone had to make the molds. The first time this hit home for me was when I thought about changing the type size in letterpress days: rather than pressing CTRL+> or CTRL+<, the whole font—every letter, capital and lowercase and italic and roman, every number and symbol—would have to be recarved, by hand, from scratch. Redesigned, too, since different proportions work better at different sizes. Tiny furniture’s got nothing on typefaces.

They’re sculptures, not drawings, because the angle and depth of the sides affect the look of the printed letter. These can be adequately controlled along the outline of a letter, but for the inner lines and negative spaces—the triangle in an A, the near-rectangles in a serifed E—it’s hard to gouge out the cavities precisely enough. So a D, for instance, would start out as a rod of steel whose tip is carved into a semicircle: a counterpunch, tempered to be harder than the steel of the punch. Pounding this into the flat end of another rod makes a semicircle-shaped hole. Carving around the hole makes a raised D, or rather a raised . Slamming that rod into another block of metal (softer than the steel, usually copper) makes a -shaped hole, the matrix. Pouring molten metal into that and letting it cool produces the piece of type. Then the letters are set into a stick, in reverse order; clamped together; and ink is rolled onto the surface before it is flipped again onto a sheet of paper, leaving a D-shaped black mark.

By my count, that’s five turnarounds: counterpunch, punch, matrix, piece of type, printed character. There’s a strange reversal in time, too, since every other kind of counterpunch (in boxing, in debate) reacts to the punch, while here it pre-exists the punch. I’ve never gotten tired of replaying the transformations in my mind—positive, negative, positive, negative, mirrored, counting and recounting them, following the fate of a raised waning half-moon to the empty space in a printed D. The dreamy dizziness felt like what art is.

I’ve since found the same effect in a sentence I’ve translated by the Swiss writer Robert Walser:

Der weite See glich einem Kinde, das völlig still ist, weil es schläft und träumt.

The large lake resembled a child who is completely silent because asleep and dreaming.

How can a large lake be like a child—isn’t smallness what defines a child? It turns out they are alike in their silence, even though neither form of life is generally known for being completely silent. The child is silent because asleep, which explains it. But the child is dreaming … and with that a universe opens up within the child, who is large after all, containing worlds wider than even the largest lake. The animate child, stilled, is brought back to life, an inaccessible inner life. I am happy for this child; I love this child, as much as Walser loves and makes me love his lake.

The sentence comes in the middle of a series of such reversals, all helping to set us afloat in Walser’s dreamworld:

The high mountain, drawn down by gentle forces, sank mildly with a wonderful gesture into the depths, where the smooth surface of the water gracefully reflected it. The large lake resembled a child who is completely silent because asleep and dreaming. The calm reigning everywhere all around was made yet stronger, and bigger, by the delicate rush of the rain; the silence, rustling noiselessly back and forth like an evening bird, experienced no lessening from the timorous light wind shyly wafting from the west.

Sinking and rising, back and forth, big strong calmness, rustling silence. It may not matter what the opposites are—the pattern itself is enough, a flipping of the counterpunch. Art has to open something up inside us, an inner sky as Rilke calls it. It sets up two opposing poles, pulls them as far apart as possible, and maintains the tension or communication between them—in the back and forth, the space between is where the feeling lives.

Walser’s German sentence has a harmonious balance and rhythm, with the three comma-separated parts separated, too, by pauses between unstressed syllables, until the strong finish. An optional, slightly archaic word form—Kinde instead of Kind—makes the pattern perfect. Here’s how the syllables scan:

   ∪    / ∪      /      ∪       /  ∪     / ∪

Der weite See glich einem Kinde,

  ∪     /  ∪      /   ∪

das völlig still ist,

    ∪   ∪     /  ∪     /

 weil es schläft und träumt.

I don’t scan every sentence I translate; I’d never scanned this one until the translation was done and I realized how much the sentence moved me. If I had done it beforehand, I could have matched the syllables in English—“The spacious lake was like a child who is wholly silent while he sleeps and dreams”—but that wouldn’t have been a better sentence in this case, especially since it forces a gender onto our sleeping mystery. My intuitive translation matched Walser’s 4-2-2 stresses and had a rhythm of its own, with exactly matching patterns in the second half of rushed rise and quick falling off.

  ∪         /      /

The large lake

  ∪  /    ∪     ∪   /

resembled a child

  ∪     ∪    ∪   /   ∪      / ∪

who is completely silent

   ∪  ∪         ∪  /      ∪       /  ∪

because asleep and dreaming.

If we had a grammar of prose rhythm, we would know more about the difference between Walser’s dreams in German and in English, or maybe children’s dreams in German and in English. The German is stately and regular, a march with a pause for each change in direction; the English starts stronger and fades gently and evenly away, like the splash and ripples of a stone tossed into a large lake. In either language, the words are asleep until we dream them.

Damion Searls, the Daily’s language columnist, is a translator from German, French, Norwegian, and Dutch.