Uwe Johnson: Not This But That


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 third of three essays by the translator, Damion Searls, a Paris Review contributor and former translation correspondent for the Daily.

Original illustration by Ellis Rosen

In the previous installment, I discussed some tricky words to translate, but the process and art of translation isn’t primarily about words. It’s about doing in your language, as a whole, what the original writer is doing in his or her language as a whole—and sometimes about reconsidering, or reimagining, what that language is.

For example, in German it’s much more common and normal to say “not this but that” than it is in English. In English, you’d say “I want a whiskey, not a beer”; in German you’d say the equivalent of “I want not beer but a whiskey.” You’d say, “The train leaves at not six but five thirty.”

This feels like a maddening little detour in English, but in German it feels like an earnest commitment to accuracy—you sort of slowly home in on the true situation because you care enough to keep pursuing it. In English, though, we tend to cut to the chase and say how things are, then give further details if necessary: “The train’s leaving at five thirty! Not six, like you thought, so now we’re running late.”

No one ever taught me this difference, and in my years as a translator from German I’d never noticed the issue as such. In short sentences I would just flip it around, as one often does; in longer sentences with more clauses, the occasional use of “not this but rather that” in English didn’t stand out. Then came Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson, where the construction kept coming up. In my draft translations:

Lisbeth was almost surprised that the New Star and Garter Hotel existed not only in the Griebens travel guide but also on Richmond Hill itself.

Francine came in with a gray bitter brew of tea that she’d bought not at the pharmacy but from an old man way up in North Harlem, a wizard with herbs.

In the middle of the park is not only a stable for police horses but also a police shooting range.

None of these sentences is an especially hard translation problem in its own right. You can flip the sentence around, or expand the syntax out slightly, or downplay the contrast if there isn’t really a contrast. Respectively:

The New Star and Garter Hotel really existed on Richmond Hill, not only in the Grieben’s guidebook.

Francine came in with a gray bitter brew of tea, and not from the pharmacy—she’d bought it from an old man way up in North Harlem.

In the middle of the park there is a stable for police horses, a shooting range for policemen.

But seeing so many of these examples pile up in my early drafts finally made me pay closer attention.

That’s when I started realizing that this is part of the general mindset of the German language. In German you say “but rather” in one elegant little word instead of two, sondern, which suggests that this kind of contrast is, so to speak, more elemental in German than it is in English. There are other German words like doch (roughly, “yes, really!” over opposition, as well as a particle of insistence) that reinforce this suggestion. Sondern is related to a German verb meaning “to separate,” while “rather,” from the Old English word hrathe, with no other surviving cognates, meant “faster, more promptly”—the way English tends to want to cut to the chase. The German language embodies a whole different set of assumptions about conflict and agreement, statement and admission, precision and efficiency, dialogue and communication, than English does.

But Johnson wasn’t just using a German tic, he was doing what any great writer does: push the resources of his or her language to express a personal vision. There is no writer I know of with a more earnest commitment to slowly homing in on the truth than Uwe Johnson—that’s why he so often uses this kind of phrase. He is scanning and piercing, digging and digging, looking and looking, with a kind of insistent, staggeringly articulate, sympathetic but corrosive attention. Saying “not six but five thirty” is truer to the way his mind works than “five thirty, not six.”

So now it’s a problem simply to turn it into ordinary English. The “not this but that” construction here is not just the German language—it’s part of what the author is trying to convey. The translator has to tease out an author’s particular voice from his language, and then recapture what the author is doing.

Writing like a translator isn’t that different from writing like anyone else—all writers operate under the influence of others, within certain generic conventions, and with words and a language that were invented before they came along. But reading like a translator is different: it means reading with attention to the medium. How does this specific text take up, and push against, the assumptions inherent in the original language? You don’t have to be translating to read like a translator—a monolingual close reader can also do this—but unless you have another language to compare and contrast against, a language’s built-in assumptions are likely to remain invisible to you.

As a further twist, Johnson’s biggest influence was William Faulkner, and Faulkner’s later novels, with their long, clawing, grasping, searching sentences, prominently use this same “not this but that” move of correction and negation. Here are a very few examples from the early pages of The Wild Palms (1939):

He was not eavesdropping, not spying.

It was a beach cottage, even though of two stories, and lighted by oil lamps, or an oil lamp.

[She] sat all day long in a new cheap beach chair facing the water … not reading, not doing anything, just sitting there in that complete immobility which the doctor (or the doctor in the Doctor) did not need corroboration … to recognize at once—that complete immobile abstraction from which even pain and terror are absent. [A bit farther down he walks past her in the beach chair] with no sign from her, no movement of the head or perhaps even of the eyes.

So is Johnson’s usage deliberately drawing on Faulkner? And does that mean the translator should try to make Johnson’s sentences in English sound like Faulkner (not to mention Bellow)? How would a line written in the seventies, in German and consciously after Faulkner, be best expressed in today’s English?

Meanwhile, Faulkner found his own searching, circling prose strategies by reading Joseph Conrad. English was Conrad’s third language, so maybe Conrad’s English bears traces of Polish conventions? And so on. No language is truly monolingual. Johnson’s German has some Faulkner in it, English is half-Germanic to begin with, and of course much of what Anniversaries describes in German, even the dialogue, supposedly happened in English.

The most interesting aspect of translating Anniversaries for me was just this: how it scrambles the categories of “local” and “foreign.” I’m a New Yorker; I grew up three blocks away from Gesine and Marie’s apartment, and not too much later than 1967–68. That playground they go to was mine, and Johnson gets it right, but also makes it different. I didn’t bring Anniversaries from German into English, it was here all along, and so was I, but now there’s a new version of New York that English-speaking New Yorkers have access to.

In fact, that’s the New York experience, and the immigrant’s experience, and the reading experience itself. People tend to think of a translator as a special kind of lonely traveler, a messenger able to move between two isolated villages or islands of different languages that would otherwise have no contact between them. But that’s a misleading image. Sitting in my apartment or on a bench in Riverside Park reading a German novel isn’t a split or dual experience, nor is it a means of bringing something “foreign” into a “local” environment—it’s just normal life. I’m encountering a shared and shareable New York with my own sets of linguistic tools and mental frameworks. So was Uwe Johnson. So is anyone in any place in any language. So are you.


The first installment of this series can be read here. The second is here

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.