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.
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.”