Robert Walser’s scrupulous art of translation.
Today is International Translation Day, an occasion of particular piety among the few who observe it. Translation, that glorious service to culture and human understanding!
There are failures, too, though. Some are of the sort that plague most any endeavor in this vale of tears: inadequacy, incompetence, ineptitude. A New Yorker cartoon, beloved in translator circles, shows someone approaching a horror-stricken writer and saying, “Do you not be happy with me as the translator of the book of you?”
Some are cases of the capable but incompatible: not every good translator can translate every good book. They say poetry is what gets lost in et cetera, but humor might be even more often misplaced. Not getting the joke is a common form of not catching the music.
And sometimes, when a translator totally hijacks the original, the failure is so dramatic, its lapses from the source text so catastrophic, that it’s hard to tell if it might not be a success after all. Is what we have here a terrible translation, or fake-terrible, or fake-fake-terrible?
In the mid-1920s, Robert Walser, approaching fifty and particularly prickly, struck up a “friendship” in Bern with a younger Swiss writer, Alfred Fankhauser, by swearing that he had never read a line Fankhauser had written and never would—a promise that he, and posterity, seem to have kept. Their time together, consisting mostly of drunken ribbing, didn’t last long, but while it did Fankhauser ventured to suggest that Walser was the only man alive capable of bringing the lush and flexible musicality of the great fin de siècle poet Paul Verlaine into German. Walser did not take it as a compliment: “What!” he bellowed. “Translate that old goat? I’m supposed to carry that guy’s bags for him?” While playing the proper, upstanding citizen appalled by Verlaine’s tormented life and libertine sexuality, Walser was also venting his spleen at a more famous writer. This is, after all, from the man who called Thomas Mann an “imperialist” and once asked Hugo von Hofmannsthal in a café: “Can’t you forget for five minutes that you’re famous?”
Perhaps Fankhauser was thinking of the Walserian leaps of imagery in Verlaine’s “Parisian Sketch,” in which the sky is gray, the breeze weeps (pleurait) like a bassoon, and a stealthy tomcat meows strange and harsh. Or of this lovely poem*, Verlaine’s most famous:
IL PLEURE DANS MON COEUR
Il pleure dans mon coeur
Ô bruit doux de la pluie
Il pleure sans raison
C’est bien la pire peine
THE TEARS ARE FALLING IN MY HEART
The tears are falling in my heart
Oh, gentle sound of the rain,
Tears are falling for no reason
Truly, the hardest sorrow
Walser, in any case, must have had those poems in mind when he had what we might call a change of heart. In 1925, he tackled the task of the translator thus:
Hier wird sorgsam übersetzt
Ganz Paris steht grau in grau,
O du mehr als schon genug
Stimmungsvoll ist zweifellos,
Gebet eine Zwiebel mir,
Höchste Zeit ist’s, wie ich meine,
Here is a scrupulous translation
All of Paris gray on gray now,
Oh you flight of fanciful stuff
Moody and atmospheric, doubtless,
Lord, send me an onion
Now it is high time, I’m just sayin’,
This poem was one of Walser’s now-famous microscripts, written in incredibly tiny handwriting for his own amusement and potential later use, and laboriously deciphered only decades after his death. He never published it or showed it to anybody; it never went anywhere, in public or private. Taking his hostility toward Verlaine, Fankhauser, and the rest and turning it into a chuckle—into a virtuosic exercise in rhyme, too, quasi-signed with three-quarters of his name—seems to have been enough for our man Wals.
If a scrupulous translation falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it still bring the original across? Maybe so. The word somewhat loosely translated here as “scrupulous” is sorgsam, full of Sorge (worry, concern, solicitude): painstaking and attentive, careful, gentle. Translations are always sorgsam—acts of loving care, even if not exactly gentle; taking pains of some sort, however unhinged. The private, unpublishing scribbler, too, is offering himself to us (sich uns vorstellt) as a translator—or at least it’s high time he did.
*(All translations into English in this column are mine.)