On Uwe Johnson: The Hardest Book I’ve Ever Translated


On Uwe Johnson

This week marks the publication in English of Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl. This is the second of three essays by the translator, Damion Searls, a Paris Review contributor and former translation correspondent for the Daily.

Original illustration by Ellis Rosen

There are 367 chapters of Anniversaries. It spans a year, from 1967 to 1968, with two August 20s, and 1968 had a leap day. This adds up to a long book, almost seventeen hundred pages in the new translation. It is nothing short of incredible how much of a page-turner the book manages to be, because of the three different levels (German past, New York present, current-events news) and Johnson’s ability to set up a different way of bouncing between them in every chapter.

A chapter might open with a Times report on the traffic, shift to the weather in Riverside Park outside the Cresspahls’ window, then move to the playground in the park where Gesine, a recently arrived German immigrant, and her daughter, Marie, made their first friends in America. Since this is the Upper West Side in the sixties, these are, naturally, a Holocaust survivor and her daughter. The chapter shows us Gesine’s guilt when they first meet, covers their shifting relationship over the years, and ends with Marie in the present running errands for her friend’s Orthodox family on the Sabbath, because this is a Saturday chapter. Four or five short pages, another jigsaw piece of the Cresspahls’ life and its anniversaries, and then on to the next chapter, which opens in 1931. I find that when I’m reading about Germany, I’m eager to get back to the New York story; when I’m reading about New York I want to find out what’s happening with Gesine’s family in Germany, on and on and on. Every few hundred pages, the Holocaust survivor and her daughter show up in the neighborhood.

All this, while dense and rich, is easy to read but not easy to translate. My joke to friends during the years I was working on Anniversaries was that on the one hand it’s almost two thousand pages long, but on the other hand, it’s the slowest and hardest book I’ve ever translated. The challenges are to keep it moving—keep it light, so that it doesn’t bog down—while honoring and reproducing Johnson’s nearly maniacal commitment to seeing everything, understanding everything (from his character Gesine’s perspective), getting everything right.

Early in the novel, Gesine and Marie go to a Czech restaurant on the East Side:

The restaurant is tucked away in the East Seventies, in the middle of a Hungarian and German neighborhood. The way there runs from the Lexington Avenue subway, across Third and Second Avenues, past dilapidated buildings, over badly cracked sidewalks, by shop owners standing guard over their wares, under the watchful eyes of neighbors chatting on the stoops, between garbage and scar-encrusted cats, next to dismantled cars and the abandoned wastelands of schoolyards, to a little apartment building whose ground floor shows no sign of a restaurant. The blue door with its thinly outlined white and red rectangles denotes the Republic of Czechoslovakia, and the customers inside, at tables far apart from one another, speak Czech: familiarly, unobtrusively, as though the age of the bourgeoisie in Prague’s Lesser Side, the Malá Strana, lived on. The regulars are elderly, formally dressed, dignified, couples silenced by long marriage as well as the solitary gentleman moving his lips above his raised glass as though speaking with the dead, the only ones who still recognize his doughy, old man’s face. Younger and more casually dressed are the ČSSR’s representatives to the UN, the administrators as well as the new power’s spies, who here, unashamed by the presence of newly disempowered compatriots or refugees, eat away at the same homesickness for Bohemian, Czech, European cooking.

It’s a whole short story in a set-up paragraph, complete with a quiet little piece of virtuosity in the camera-eye second sentence that contains nine consecutive prepositional phrases, all using different prepositions (have to keep that, even though the nine different prepositions in German don’t map directly onto nine different prepositions in English). It’s not quick reading, but it’s not hard, it’s immersive and it has to keep moving. Not for nothing is swimming one of the main motifs of the novel.

There’s a library’s worth of historical references in the book—luckily for this translator, German scholars have tracked down most of them—but the real hurdle is this detailed texture. An elevator operator turns around, away from Gesine, to face the … not the metal outer doors but the wooden gate that accordions into rhombuses, which you shut from inside the elevator. What is that called? (Since you don’t know what it’s called, how do you look it up? Google image search “parts of elevators”? And when that doesn’t work?) The translation could just say he turned to face the front, or the door, but that would lose a little piece of intensity.

Or when Marie says, on their weekly Staten Island Ferry outing, “ ‘I bet it’s going to slam. Wanna bet?’ Because some captains steer into the [Becken] too late, so that the heavy ship bangs into the [hölzerne Pfahlwand der Einfahrt], hard the first time, then with a more muffled sound.” The second term is the “wall of wooden pilings as the ship pulls in,” which is wordy but not too overpowering. But what is the perfect, simple little word for where the boat is going? It’s not a pier, or dock, or inlet, or mooring, or berth. After an hour or so, I gave up on the Internet and saved the question for a trip of my own on the Staten Island Ferry, but it’s hard for people who aren’t writers or translators to answer questions about words as words. I asked various staff what it was called, and was told it was the terminal. It’s where you pull in. “Thanks,” I might persist, “but, what do you call the actual place, the area of water there?” “ … It’s called where you pull in!”

I eventually found out it’s called a ferry slip—monosyllabic, easy to understand, doesn’t slow the sentence or the reader down, nice New York texture too (Coenties Slip). Since then, I’ve run across the word twice, in novels by Saul Bellow. Maybe this is the writer in English who has a prose energy comparable to Johnson’s, all cylinders always firing on every level. One word down, 599,999 to go.

The insurmountable challenge was capturing Johnson’s games with English. Those New York Times excerpts are given in Johnson’s sometimes playfully translated, sometimes ironic German—filtered, in other words, through the sharp and ironic reading of his character, Gesine, who is narrating the news to us. For those passages I had to start from the original, decide where I thought the German was intentionally deforming it as opposed to just translating it, and deform the English likewise. Then, too, I had to decide, often under cross fire from the copy editors, what to update from the fifty-year-old originals. Newspapers use numerals, book editors want them spelled out. The Times spelled Vietnamese place names differently (Can Tho vs. Cantho, etc.); referred to “Negroes,” of course, but also to “racial disorders,” which sounds like a disease instead of unrest; hyphenated new words like teen-ager; put clauses in now-clunky places. To what extent does fifty-year-old English need “translation”?

And sometimes, Gesine or Johnson is joking with the language itself. There are the “mobile kiosks” in Central Park selling heisse Hunde, which in German doesn’t mean the iconic thin sausages, it means actual dogs that are literally hot. That’s a gag that can work in every language except English (at least where readers can be presumed to know what a hot dog is). All a translator into English can do is try to get the same kind of humor another way, for instance by naming the hot-dog stands with Euro lingo no native would ever use here.

PS. It’s a “scissor gate,” because the wooden slats open and close like scissors.


The first installment of this series can be read here. The third will be published on Wednesday, October 17. 

Damion Searls is a translator and the author of a book of short stories, What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going, as well as of The Inkblots, a history of the Rorschach test and the first biography of its artist/psychiatrist creator, chosen as a Best Book of the Year by both NPR and the New York Post.