Tess Lewis’s translations from French and German include works by Peter Handke, Walter Benjamin, Anselm Kiefer, Maja Haderlap, Philippe Jaccottet, Pascal Bruckner and E.M. Cioran. She has been awarded grants from PEN and the NEA, the Austrian Cultural Forum NY Translation Prize, the PEN Translation Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is Co-chair of the PEN Translation Committee and an Advisory Editor for The Hudson Review. She has written essays on European Literature for a number of journals and newspapers including The Hudson Review, World Literature Today, Partisan Review, The American Scholar, The Wall Street Journal and Bookforum. In 2014 and 2015, Ms. Lewis curated Festival Neue Literature, New York City’s annual festival of German language literature in English. www.tesslewis.org
Nancy Naomi Carlson: Before we get started with my barrage of questions, I just want to say how impressed I am by all you have done and continue to do on behalf of literary translation, as well as your generosity of spirit toward other translators—both emerging and established. I’m wondering how you first got interested in literary translation.
Tess Lewis: My fascination with literary translation was first ignited when I was in high school. A friend gave me a copy of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and the universe it opened up to me was so unexpected, so strange, awe-inspiring and captivating, so unlike anything I’d read before, certainly unlike any English or American fiction I’d come across, that it turned me into a passionate explorer of these alternate universes. I was completely drawn into the force fields of Italo Calvino, Flann O’Brien, Milan Kundera, Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, etc. Each time I browsed through a bookstore in Europe, I was struck by the number of major writers who were only minimally translated into English, if at all. They certainly weren’t part of any national literary coverage or conversation in the US. I was determined to get more of these writers’ voices into English, whether as an editor or as a translator—or both.
NNC: I’m guessing many writers feel compelled to bring some of the world’s greatest literature to an English-speaking audience, but don’t know where to begin. When I first started to do literary translation, I was told, “just do it.” When I persisted in asking how to do it, it was suggested to me to read Robert Bly’s The Winged Energy of Delight, which seemed to give me the confidence to give it a whirl. How did you learn how to translate?
TL: I jumped in at the deep-end—quite literally. I had a wonderful college professor, Joseph Duffy, who let me translate several poems for the final writing assignment in a comparative literature class. I translated a poem by Paul Celan into English and one by Wallace Stevens into French. It was an illuminating experience. First, for the implicit confirmation that translation is writing and not merely some secondary technical linguistic process and second, as an object lesson in translation as a verbal art and act of interpretation on the most intimate level. I’m quite certain my versions of those poems had their limitations, but they got me hooked.
The actual learning came through years and years of practice. I translated quite a few poems or passages of novels, stories, and essays for my desk drawer while I worked as an editor and critic. Sometimes because I wanted to see how a particular author’s sentences were constructed. Sometimes because I found the passage particularly meaningful or apt at that particular moment in my life. I had the great good fortune of having the very patient and exacting editor, Declan Spring of New Directions, for my first published translation, Peter Handke’s Once Again for Thucydides, and an extraordinarily generous and encouraging author, Alois Hotschnig for my second, That Didn’t Reassure the Children, a collection of his short stories. Both were willing to discuss subtleties of nuance, tone, and syntax at what must have seemed endless lengths to them. I also find it’s very important to read translated fiction as much as possible and even compare it to the originals once in a while. Translators are nothing if not inventive beings and some can even work magic.
NNC: Ah, I am very well acquainted with that translator magic when I see it! Those leaps of brilliance. For us mere translator mortals, translation theory often helps with the process. Can you talk some about how “translation theory” informs your work?
TL: I gravitate to the practical end of “translation theory.” In the last few years there has been a spate of books by practicing translators on translation that have changed the way I see translation in particular, but even literature as a whole. David Bellos’ Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is a witty jungle guide through the thickets of translation and literary publishing. In Why Translation Matters, Edith Grossman makes a convincing and energizing case for translators as cultural bridge-builders. Three recent translator memoirs have both expanded and sharpened the way I think about not just translation but the malleability and instability of language. In This Little Art, Kate Briggs lays out in detail her experience of translating Barthes and has a lovely passage on translation as a re-vitalizing stress test of the original work. In Translation as Transhumance, translated by Ros Schwartz, Mireille Gansel reflects on a life lived between several languages and cultures and presents translation as “the essence of hospitality.” Jennifer Croft is an especially acute observer of the precariousness of words, the way they change over the centuries, sometimes even into their opposites. The cover of Homesick claims it’s a memoir but it gleefully defies categorization. “A fictional autobiography in and through language punctuated by images” might be one way to describe it. The narrator Amy, whose life has been centered and grounded by translation, observes, “When you consider the plenitude of any word’s experience you might think all words are untranslatable.” Yes, but as she shows, that’s no reason to stop trying!
NNC: And it seems as if you never stop trying, never stop translating. Your new translations keep appearing, often more than one in a year! Who are the authors you’ve translated, and how do you typically find them?
TL: I’ve translated works by the German writers Walter Benjamin, Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, the painter Anselm Kiefer, and Lutz Seiler; the Swiss writers Jean-Luc Benoziglio, Klaus Merz, Monique Schwitter, Melinda Nadj-Abonji, and Jonas Lüscher; as well as Christine Angot, one of the pioneers of French auto-fiction, although she would dispute that label. I’ve also translated the Austrian writers Maja Haderlap, Julya Rabinowich, Doron Rabinovici, among others.
Half of my translations are works I read and liked so much that I wanted to share them with friends who can’t read French or German. The other half were suggested to me by editors. In 2013 and 2014, I had the great privilege of curating the Festival Neue Literatur, the only German language literary festival in the United States (and probably the entire world outside of German-speaking countries). Two writers from each country—Austria, Germany, and Switzerland—are invited to New York City for a week of events that introduce them to US editors, translators, and readers. I had to do an enormous amount of reading to form the line-ups and discovered many exciting authors that way. I ended up translating five of the authors I invited to the festival.
Perhaps the easiest and most fun way I find books I want to translate is by talking to translators working in language pairs different than mine. For example, a German to Turkish translator recommended Monique Schwitter’s short stories to me. I liked them so much I invited her to the festival. Two years later, I translated her novel One Another, which was partly inspired by her time in New York City for the festival. I also find that a country’s literary landscape can look very different in various countries around the world. A Russian translator of English I met at a residency enthused about French authors I’d never heard of. That is one of many reasons I like to do translation workshops, residencies, and conferences: they almost always lead to new discoveries.
Also, literary digests, blogs, and newsletters like perlentaucher, la république des livres, or the literary saloon are a convenient way to follow developments in the French and German literary worlds.
NNC: I’m guessing that highly-successful German language literary festival took uncountable hours to plan and carry out, especially as you yourself translated five of the visiting authors! Can you share your translation process with us, and perhaps compare it to the process you follow when writing your non-translated essays?
TL: Well, I’m not as prolific as that makes me sound! My five FNL authors were translated over a period of five years and one of the books, Jonas Lüscher’s Kraft, won’t appear until next year.
As for my process, I generally do a rough draft at a pretty good clip and then revise it several times. I try not to get lost in thorny issues in the first run through because, for me, maintaining momentum makes it easier to keep the author’s voice in my ear as I translate. I will later spend days tracking down a particular detail, unusual words or references in the original. Ideally, I put the manuscript aside for a week or even a month between revisions so that I can approach it each time with relatively fresh eyes. When it comes to writing essays, I am excruciatingly slow. I also revise my own writing multiple times but there’s generally a whole lot more agony involved in finishing an essay than a translation.
One similarity between my process of writing and my process of translating is that for both I like to read as widely as possible. I’ll use a new project as an excuse to read anything and everything under the sun—I can always find someconnection to the work at hand. For example, when working on Philippe Jaccottet’s Seedtime notebooks, I found it helpful to return to some of the Shakespeare monologues in which the language is especially multi-valent and self-referential. The entries in Seedtime show Jaccottet wrestling with his poetics, trying to increase precision both in his observation of the world around him and in his expression of what he sees. He uses language against itself and repeatedly qualifies, throws doubt on, or even undercuts a conclusion he has just drawn or a metaphor he has just employed. Metaphors, for Jaccottet, are as much an epistemological tool as they are a literary device. In this late entry, for example, he refines his thinking on time in old age by progressing through four metaphors—horses escaping the coachman, leaves and birds swept away on the wind, water draining from a bathtub, specters holding shadows. He dismisses the first out of hand, acquiesces to the next two, then is finally satisfied with the fourth, but only briefly. Reservations set in immediately:
The swiftness of these days, as if they truly were fleeing, escaping us. Still, it’s not that we get nothing out of them. Like horses escaping the coachman? It’s the first image that comes to mind but it’s false. This is not a case of recklessness, of brutality.
Birds and leaves carried off in the same direction by the violent, relentless wind. As if they came from the same hearth. And like the days.
As if these were fleeing more and more quickly even. Like water draining from a bathtub, irresistibly drawn down. Does this impression come from what the days lose of their reality, their flavor, as they dwindle? Perhaps. Then everything will end with a story of specters who retain nothing more in their hands than the shadows of things.
But this is still too beautiful. Because in the end we are not swept away as easily as leaves. (1998)
My husband claims my gluttonous reading a cover for procrastination, but I maintain it’s research!
NNC: So how do you know when a translation is truly done?
TL: When the deadline comes or, more often, is missed! In truth, I find my translations are never truly done. I could tinker with them endlessly—sometimes taking an hour to change a few words, only to change it all back a few hours later.
NNC: It seems that more and more literary journals and presses not usually associated with publishing translations, are now doing so. For our non-translator readers, can you comment about what they should be looking for in a “successful” translation?
TL: Translation is such a subjective enterprise, I’m reluctant to be prescriptive. Some readers, those in the “domestication” camp, prefer translations that read as if they’d been written in English, completely assimilating to English and American literary traditions. Readers in the “foreignization” camp want a heavy imprint of the original work to remain, whether in a literal reproduction of word order, retaining foreign words or cultural markers unexplained, etc. Personally, I prefer translations that offer a distinctive and consistent voice and adhere, in the main, to conventional English syntax. But for authors with sui generis styles, you have to find a way to honor their idiosyncrasies, although ideally without committing too much violence on the English language.
NNC: I know you do quite a bit of traveling around the globe. How does this traveling enhance your ability to translate?
TL: I find it immensely important to spend time in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and France to keep up my level of French and German. Not only does language evolve constantly—slang most quickly of all—but I’ve got the added differences between the German spoken in Austria, German, and Switzerland and the French spoken in France and Switzerland. Also, as I mentioned before, you discover all sorts of literary gems that fly below the global publishing radar when you’re on the ground there.
NNC: Can you please contextualize the Philippe Jaccottet excerpts below? How do these particular pieces fit in with the two previous books of his you’ve translated?
TL: Writers’ notebooks sometimes prove more revelatory than diaries or journals intîmes. What at first might seem to be a rag and bone shop of fleeting thoughts, ephemeral experiences, insights, hesitations, doubts, self-doubt, records of things seen, heard, read, dreamt, struggles to find the right words, false starts and final illuminations can coalesce into a labyrinthine map of the creative process. Jaccottet faithfully kept notebooks for many decades and for me the selections that make up the three volumes of the Seedtime carnets still have, despite the passage of time, a vividness of insight and discovery. Jaccottet has described these notebooks as “a collection of delicate seeds with which I replant, I try to replant my ‘spiritual forest’” and the Littré definition of semaison—the natural dispersion of a plant’s seeds—stands as an epigraph for each volume.
What these notebooks chart are the single steps, sometimes forward, sometimes back, taken in the course of a lifelong attempt to transcend the limits of art, to achieve meaning in and beyond art. I find the inconclusive nature of the notebook entries, their tentativeness and lack of resolution, more intriguing and evocative than some of his more finished, more crafted works. It was particularly interesting for me to translate the first two notebooks around the same time that I was working on Jaccottet’s philosophical narrative Obscurity, a quasi-allegorical account of a philosopher’s dark night of the soul. From some of the entries made at the time Jaccottet was writing Obscurity, I’ve deduced that this narrative was one way for him to work through a profound crisis of confidence in poetry.
In Seedtime III, written forty years after his first notebook, there is, not surprisingly, a greater preoccupation with the passage of time and life’s ephemerality. But his observations of nature and natural beauty are every bit as precise and his gift for metaphor and analogy is undiminished.
NNC: While having many translators can be flattering for a writer, I think a translator’s familiarity and previous experience translating a particular author can make the translation process easier for subsequent translations of that author. As with so much regarding translation, it all depends, and I don’t think many would say that much about the translation process is easy. I hope we haven’t scared off our readers who are considering literary translation. What advice do you have for those who want to try their hand at translation?
TL: Read widely, both works in the language you’d like to translate from and in English, but try to find works in English with a narrative voice or style similar to the one you hear in the original work you want to translate. Follow—and subscribe!—to literary journals that publish translated literature. Seek out events and readings that feature translation. More and more festivals and bookstores are hosting events about translating and translations. In my experience, translators are a talkative and encouraging bunch. And if you find a work you’re set on translating, be sure to write the author and his or her publisher to make sure the rights are available. Then, have fun! Revel in the language and don’t let yourself be constrained by excessive worries of “faithfulness.” Beware the literal!
NNC: Great suggestions, Tess! Continuing in this vein, how helpful are literary translation conferences to the emerging translator, such as the annual one run by ALTA (American Literary Translators Association)?
TL: Conferences in general, but especially ALTA, are invaluable for translators at any level of experience, but especially emerging ones. Not only can you find an instant community, mentors, friends, and advisers, but your views on translation, on literature, and on language will be broadened and challenged. They’re a great way to jump-start your work as a translator.
NNC: One last question. What are a few of the projects you’re hoping to complete in the future?
TL: Right now, I’m working on extended transit, a collection of poems by the Austrian writer Maja Haderlap, whose Angel of Oblivion I translated for Archipelago Books. I’m almost finished with a mammoth project called Notes, by the Swiss writer Ludwig Hohl (1904-1980). He was deeply admired by many prominent European writers of the last century—Dürrenmatt, Frisch, Canetti, Handke, and others—but his work never made it across the ocean. Notes is a meticulously ordered compendium of over 3,000 aphorisms, maxims, reflections, mini-essays, observations, portraits and quotations, bound together under his philosophical conceit of “Arbeit” or “work” as the unrelenting and wholehearted use of one’screative forces. As you can imagine, it’s taking a while...
NNC: Oh, yes. That massive undertaking, for which you received funding from the Guggenheim Foundation, if I’m not mistaken. And wonderful that you’re continuing to translate Maja Haderlap. I found your translation of Angel of Oblivionwonderfully compelling and beautifully translated.
Thank you for sharing with us your thoughts and perspectives on literary translation. Below is a translated excerpt from Seedtime III: Notebooks 1995-1998, by Philippe Jaccottet, forthcoming from Seagull Books in 2020.
Once again, all around, a kind of stammering of the white flowers on the branches; which touches you even more mysteriously when they’re in disorderly groups, like something dispersed, scattered, squandered. As if someone indivisible were scattering a frail coinage of more value than any other.
That moment in early spring when light still passes through the new-born leaves before throwing a shadow (in the fig tree as it lifts all of its child hands). They turn the light into a shade of yellowish green; they catch fire like so many small candle flames inside the frame, the scaffold, the monstrance of the tree. Very quickly they will become opaque, protective; for now, it’s like seeing a brief smile flit over someone’s face.
Grass seen against the light, still sprouting, rather sparse, slender and straight: almost a filter, a harp... or, close to the ground, my last lyre. To make the evening light, which is almost golden, resound in the gusts of the already frigid wind.
On my wrist, the little butterfly with orange-brown wings that are yellow underneath: a miniscule, double stained-glass window in an utterly modern style. It spends a long time palpating my skin. A delicate, mobile stained-glass window for the sun that has finally returned.
Rain and fog: light a lamp in their midst, like a piece of fruit in straw.
The first bloom, the first blossoms of early spring, almost painful this year because their expression only reaches me from a distance (let’s put it this way); perhaps also because I can’t chase away the fear that I will not see many more; which casts on them a shadow similar to the shadow of one of those clouds that, in this season, can still cross a softer sky.
Editing the notes from my trip to Israel leads me to reread Celan’s last poems and the commentary on them ventured by his Jewish friend whom he’d found again so belatedly in Jerusalem. As on each rereading, this approach oppresses me—making it more difficult to continue this work. Which words, measured against these words, would not appear too vague, too light, almost vain?
Despite it all, the garden: violets, both purple and white; flowering trees surrounded by nascent greenery, etc. Well! Despite it all, I must continue speaking. There is in Celan’s intransigence, in his genius, a haughty, abrupt power that impresses me but it’s not the only way. The error, the absurdity would simply be to believe one has the right to ascend all these steep summits—from which, by the way, he never spoke as a master, as I have reproached Char of doing.
A stroll at the Roche de l’Oie, above Pierrelongue. In the pine trees. Many of the orchards have already lost their flowers, others are in full bloom. The most beautiful are like foam badly hung on the slopes. The grass is thicker in the olive groves and I remember Mallorca where this first moved me and Greece, later; a vague idea of a cradle, of tender sleep under these silvery cinders, around these ageless trunks, twisted like old flames that have gone cold, gnarled column for a shepherds’ walkway.
D’Aubigné, in a commentary of a psalm written after the death of his wife: “I am no longer one of those to whom greenery brings some hope...”
While listening again to Mozart’s Requiem, if I’m not mistaken, I noted down the idea—I no longer remember why—of a “line” passing rapidly over everything, as the white bird, the egret flew over the lake at Saint-Blaise once; but this time I imagined it in the sky over Jordan.
An arrow? A rapid sound, very high, which did not prevent it from being something very real, very firm, fleeting and real: like a signature? a flourish? A line of iron, of lightning—but which, far from being destructive, would have signed a kind of clear promise.
The bindweed, seen again this morning on the hillside of the Bertrands’ house: what shouldn’t be touched with words and, at the same time, what matters to me perhaps most of all in the act of putting into words. “The pure of source is a riddle,” wrote Hölderlin in The Rhine: this is what I return to persistently, hesitating yet again as if at a crossroads in which one road leads to a long, humble, and patient search and the other requires a swift apprehension that could only be translated into words with grace.
These evenings again, seen from above, a light breeze in the leaves, some of which are beginning to rust, the knotgrass flowers lifting their slender, white clusters, as if effortlessly, the sound of boards, of tools, here and there, a bird, barely like a living being, barely more than a leaf, hopping with an apparent sense of elation, the sky milky in the distance, the softness of the air: “Alles atmet und dankt,” “everything breathes and gives thanks,” as Rilke wrote.
The puff of wind, too weak for the ear to perceive it; the leaves’ trembling—moving like wings—in light that can only be described as golden.