It did not take long for Döblin’s book to become a best seller in the Weimar Republic. Within two years, over 50,000 copies of the book had been sold. The meandering story of Franz Biberkopf, ex-con, pimp, small-time criminal, and ordinary joe trying to stay on the straight and narrow, captured life in 1920s Berlin like no other document. It was banned and burned under the Nazi regime, but recovered in the postwar era and canonized as a modernist masterpiece.
Unfortunately, the first English translation, which appeared in 1931, was, as Franz might say, a bust. The American-French writer Eugene Jolas, a friend of James Joyce, should have been the perfect man for the job. He had an ear for vernacular dialogue and brought a supple, playful touch to Döblin’s oeuvre. Yet the book puzzled English-speaking critics, who wondered what all the fuss had been about in Germany. A reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune characterized it as “a sort of evil smelling, Gargantuan stew,” while another simply rumpled his nose, stating, “there was really no need of perfect indecency.” Döblin’s novel remained a minor work within the English-language literary world, which had lionized Joyce’s Ulysses and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.
A new translation that can reintroduce Berlin Alexanderplatz to a contemporary readership has been long overdue. Döblin’s cutting prose and social commentary are no less sharp than they were in the 1920s. He envisioned the work as a book for an uncertain time, a time that demanded nothing less of authors than to reveal its ugliness in full. Our times, racked by economic precarity, political instability, and increasing inequality are just as uncertain and just as ugly. Michael Hofmann’s new translation now promises to awaken readers to the relevance of Berlin Alexanderplatz as an urgent, raw account of modernity.
It takes courage bordering on foolhardiness to translate Döblin’s novel, which is heavy on period slang and local dialect. Hofmann’s accomplishment is to reimagine in English how the novel talks, squawks, screeches, and curses in Döblin’s German. The original is a gabby thing, and Hofmann too makes his translation talk in many voices. Each character uses colorful, punchy expressions and choice words, whether it’s Franz’s friend chiding him for donning a Nazi uniform (“And the sash. Christ, Franz, I’d sooner use it to hang myself wiv than wear it. They’ve really made a muggins of you”), a movie theater manager trying to get rid of a young runt who wants to sneak in (“This ain’t no flicker”), or Franz’s own violently direct thoughts (“Who’s to blame for everything? Ida, always Ida. Who else. I broke her fucking ribs, that’s why they put me in the clink”). All the characters talk a rough, mean English, as dirty as the streets they live on, and though it is inevitably peppered with postwar Briticisms (Hofmann is a Brit), it does not feel quaint or historic. The language remains impressively taut and sharp throughout.
Around 400 CE, Saint Jerome, defending his Greek-to-Latin translations in a letter to the Roman senator Pammachius, lamented the difficulties of preserving “the peculiar vernacular marrow of the language itself.” Döblin, who moved to Berlin when he was 10 years old, knew the marrow of his city’s language inside and out. He felt the cadences of Berlinisch, the earthy, hard-nosed, proletarian brand of German spoken by the city’s inhabitants, which incorporates words from French, Flemish, Yiddish, Hebrew, Slavic languages, and Rotwelsch, an argot spoken by vagrants and thieves. “Every language requires an encounter with crudeness and unvarnished rawness — that’s the only way it can stay fresh. But it cannot manage to be soulful or useful to philosophy with this strategy. Only ‘High Berlinisch’ has attained this state of perfection,” the scholar Hans Meyer wrote in 1878 in his study of Berlinisch. Meyer continued, “Berlinisch must be able to flash when lightning is called for. […] The flash must jump from the language almost spontaneously.”
Berlinisch’s telltale flash — exemplified by its fondness for sarcastic inversions — was not folksy. It had the quasi-philosophical ability to question facts and cut through to the core of things. Crudeness stood in service of critique.
Meyer also praises Berlinisch’s capacity to express deep irony and skepticism through tone, which gives it an air of insouciance. This insouciance made Berlinisch the perfect linguistic vehicle for Döblin and his contemporaries. Unlike the rural patois spoken by Françoise, the housekeeper of In Search of Lost Time, or the Irish idiom of Ulysses, the regional vernacular of Döblin’s modernism is relentlessly unsentimental and never nostalgic. Berlinisch wasn’t a minor language in need of rescuing. Instead, it was everywhere — in newspaper articles, cabaret songs, bar conversations, snatches of dreams.
Writers such as Irmgard Keun, Gabriele Tergit, Kurt Tucholsky, and Erich Kästner all had an ear for Berlinisch and gave it a prominent place in their work; it was used in the hilarious songs of the cabaret singer Claire Waldoff and the sociological pamphlets of the writer Hans Ostwald. Writing dialogue in Berlinisch meant more than injecting a dose of local color into one’s prose: it was a means of harnessing the dialect’s flash to illuminate the profound contradictions of modern life — and to do so with humor and wit.
Döblin’s approach is exceptional for its time, however, in that he deploys Berlinisch to the bitter end throughout the entire novel, alongside factual passages, brief elegiac moments, and snatches of poetry. His characters not only talk but think and dream in Berlinisch. Their entire world is inflected with the sounds of their home. Döblin thus raised not just the life of Berlin, but its very language to epic proportions.
Although dialects and vernacular speech are alive and well in contemporary literature, a new vernacular always brings a new world along with it. How can a translation tackle this problem? One can’t take geography out of a novel that’s all about Berlin and do, for instance, what its first French translator, Zoya Motchane, did in 1933: freely domesticate place and character names (“Münzhof” is rendered as “Closerie de la Monnaie,” for example). On top of that, the main duty for any translator of Berlin Alexanderplatz is not just to get the vernacular onto the page, but to translate its bright flash. It would be misguided to plump for a vernacular in the target language that lacks similar critical thrust.
Jolas, who had the benefit of being Döblin’s contemporary, chose American slang for his translation and was accused of turning the sophisticated work into a raucous potboiler. But it is more likely that this accusation had less to do with Jolas’s abilities as a translator than with what people expected from an important modernist book. They wanted it to exude dignified difficulty, yet this is not how Berlinisch flashes. Jolas’s language is pulpy and familiar. An exchange between Franz and a prostitute pouring him a drink reads almost like a movie script out of old Hollywood: “Come on, big man, take another glass. I’d walk a mile for Mampe’s brandy, it makes you feel so hale and dandy,” she urges, to which he replies, “To think the girls ran after me like a bunch of sheep and I didn’t even spit at ’em, and there I was, flat on my nose.” In Jolas’s hands, Berlin Alexanderplatz became boisterous, comfortable, and well-worn. In many ways, this approach gets at the marrow of Berlinisch: the language can only flash because it is so close to home. It signals to the reader, You know this life already; you’ve seen it from the inside.
And Jolas is equally masterful when he chooses to be elegant. His prose rolls along in rhythmic cadences that are easeful, even lush at times. In an elegiac passage from one of the penultimate chapters, Jolas captures the lucid dignity of Döblin’s prose:
So let it come — the night, however black and nothing-like it be! So let them come, the black night, those frost-covered acres, the hard frozen roads. So let them come: the lonely, tile-roofed houses whence gleams a reddish light; so let them come: the shivering wanderers, the drivers on the farm wagons traveling to town with vegetables and the little horses in front.
One can feel, as in Döblin, the perspectival pullback away from the city center to its dark, wintery outskirts, a sense of melancholy fatalism, and a quiet letting go.
Hofmann’s new translation constructs its sense of world differently. It does not rely on straightforwardly recognizable registers, but builds up sequences of words, fragments, and snippets to produce a sharp-edged book. Hofmann has chosen to preserve the flash of Berlinisch through jagged language. The dialogue jumps, as in this small sentence spoken by the gang leader Pums, Franz’s nemesis: “What’s he want here? He’s mad, I told him he’s barking, if you’ve just got one arm, and you turn up here, and you want to be a player. And he.” This strategy keeps us on our toes as we piece together Franz’s world. It helps us to be shocked anew by the critical flash of Döblin’s language.
Hofmann brilliantly creates a linguistic force field that captures the spirit and inflection of the original, choosing a word here and an expression there that slowly build the sense of a close-knit, grimy, grotesque world. Where Jolas’s prose is relaxed, Hofmann creates a tense mood that reveals the claustrophobic desperation of Franz Biberkopf’s world:
Suffer it to approach — night as black as you like, a void. Suffer it to approach, black night, the fields with the hard frost on them, the frozen roads. Suffer them to approach, the lonely brick houses giving out a reddish light, suffer them to approach, the freezing travellers, the drivers of the carts bringing vegetables into the city, with the little horses pulling.
The new voice Hofmann brings to Berlin Alexanderplatz promises to jolt us from complacency. He gives us a raw book, full of ugliness and force. This is the effect Döblin intended, and perhaps we’re ready for it now. The book speaks clearly, arresting our attention, like Death, which pays Franz Biberkopf a visit at the novel’s end. “You lost the war, sunshine,” he tells Franz. “It’s all up with you. You can pack up. Put yourself in mothballs. I’ve had it with you.” Hofmann allows him to finish with the deadly, simple phrase, “I want your heart, mate.” We come away having tasted that heart, and all the strange, succulent marrow of Döblin’s epic.
Sophie Duvernoy is a PhD student in German Literature at Yale University, where she focuses on literature and aesthetic theory of the Weimar and midcentury periods. She is the winner of the 2015 Gutekunst Prize for young translators, and will be publishing a translation of Gabriele Tergit’s 1931 satire Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm (Käsebier Takes Berlin) with NYRB Classics.