Multilingual Wordsmiths, Part 2: Michael Hofmann in an Age of Increasing Insufficiency

By Liesl SchillingerMay 16, 2016

Multilingual Wordsmiths, Part 2: Michael Hofmann in an Age of Increasing Insufficiency
The translator — and literary critic, and award-winning poet — Michael Hofmann moved to England from Germany with his family when he was four years old. He remembers watching his father, the novelist Gert Hofmann, draft manuscripts, then clamp them with bulldog clips and put them to the side to rest, “rather like hams from the rafters.” In the same fashion, Hofmann likes to let the manuscripts he translates sit for a bit before he does the final polish. Although he grew up bilingual, he started translating by accident in 1985, when a London editor enticed him with Kurt Tucholsky’s Castle Gripsholm. Since then, Hofmann has translated nearly 80 books and story collections from German — specializing in early-20th-century novels by Franz Kafka, Joseph Roth, and Hans Fallada (he also translated several of his father’s books). Today, he lives in the United States and teaches at the University of Florida, where he brings his poet’s ear for voice to all his work.


LIESL SCHILLINGER: Do you think translators get short shrift, or are they getting more attention lately?

MICHAEL HOFMANN: I think it comes and goes. Translators certainly do not get reviewed enough, but every aspect of a translator’s life requires consolation. It begins with guilt: the guilt of producing books that you haven’t yourself written. Then, people are sort of stuck in books, or they’re suffering under awful contracts, or somebody writes some shitty review — or, no mention is made at all. I always felt unfairly privileged as a translator, because people knew me either from the newspapers as a reviewer or through my poems. I think I tend to be noticed a bit more than if I was just Joe-translator, and that makes me a feel a little bit guilty.

Do you find translating to be a different muscle, to call on different resources, than other forms of writing?

Not a very different method; I think for me, translating is as near as I’m going to get to writing a novel. My father was a novelist, Gert Hofmann.

Do you remember when you first became aware of translating, as a thing somebody might do professionally?

I have the wrong sort of upbringing for that question, because I am German — we moved to England when I was four, and I have no memory of learning English. With my parents and sisters, we spoke German at home always, so we were all happily bilingual. If you’re bilingual, there isn’t a sort of magnet pulling you out of one language into another. If a word doesn’t come to you in one language, you say it in another. In a way, I think the people with the biggest draw to translating are monolingual people who translated something in order that they may read it, because they can’t read it in the original. What happened with me, was that I started publishing book reviews and poems, in 1979 or 1980 or so, and everything was short term. A poem is something you write in a day; a review is something you do in a week; and I was looking for something that would pay me bigger checks at longer intervals. The first book I translated was a Kurt Tucholsky book — Castle Gripsholm — by a then well-known publisher, Chatto & Windus. This was in 1985. They paid me 500 pounds, and I translated this very odd, funny, quite wonderful novel about a summer holiday in 1935, and it seemed to kind of set my period. Most of the things I do are set in the 1920s and 1930s. There are great writers from then. I thought I would keep on translating maybe a book a year, and it would supplement my income. I was a freelance writer for 10 years, and I thought translating would give me a kind of dietary balance — like giving me carbohydrates — but then in 1988 I translated a book called Blösch, by Beat Sterchi. It was 400 pages about a cow — the great Swiss novel — and that’s what made me a translator.

Do you have any favorites among the books you’ve translated?

Many really. One recent one is Jakob Wassermann’s My Marriage, which The New York Review Books recently published. Wassermann was a friend of Thomas Mann, he was one of that generation of professional writers; he wrote a book a year. In one of his books — the last book of his that he finished, which came out posthumously — he has a character who is told by his therapist to tell the story of his marriage, and the story is of Wassermann’s marriage, and I think it’s the best thing ever written about an awful marriage. I managed to persuade Penguin to publish it in England and NYRB to do it here. It is amazing. It came out in January. I also love Wolfgang Koeppen’s Death in Rome, from longer ago. But I have lots of favorites.

What would you say makes a translation good?

What I like, and what I like in poetry, too, is vocal quality — the sound of somebody talking. There’s a character in Death in Rome who is a young composer, and he is rather lugubrious, and I loved doing his voice. But the vocal thing is just a permanent part of literature.

What would you say makes a translation worthwhile?

It is important to me that it be somehow a big story, or an important story — something that either is important on its own or is important about Germany. I’m quite conscious of putting over Germany in a lot of books I do — helping English and American and other readers think about Germany, think about German history, think about German guilt, think about the last century.

Hans Fallada’s novel of the German resistance, Every Man Dies Alone, is a masterpiece; your translation was flawless. How did you get the chance to translate that book, and what did you think of working on it?

That is an amazing book. I just remember the draw of it — I read it in two days. Another reason to translate things is to learn. Translating that book taught me a new thing: I’d never translated anything like a thriller before, and I just wanted to learn, to have that experience. The main task I set myself was not to get in the way of the reader, so that the reader in English can have an experience of similar speed to the experience of the German reader. When I read it in German, I couldn’t put it down.

How would you describe your process? And are there any specific tools you rely on when you’re translating?

I do the first draft as quickly as I can, then I put it away. I used to see my father’s manuscripts, clamped with bulldog clips, hanging rather like hams from the rafters. These manuscripts would be resting, or maturing. I like to do this: I work as quickly as I can; I let it hang for three months or six months, then I’ll go back to it and revise it five, 10, 15, 20 times. Bulldog clips — that would be my tool.

When you do your revisions, are you doing them through rewrites, or is it more like fine-tuning?

I am mostly copyediting. My girlfriend is German, and I am native, so if there is something sort of old or obscure then I may ask her advice — as luck would have it, she is a German copyeditor. Actually, on the question of a special tool I use for translating — she would be my instrument!

What shared characteristics do you find translators have?

I don’t really know many translators. I find writers or poets reclusive, and I think translators are fairly similar. I have met very few. I was lucky enough to meet Edie Grossman: she is just a wonderful character.

What do you dislike about translating?

In my own writing, my natural unit is a poem, which is under a page, or a book review, which is maybe four or five, so when I’m translating a book, the idea of being trapped under a large amount of prose is horrible. I kind of put my head down and drill through it.

Do you think that, as a native speaker of the language from which you translate, you work differently from translators who had to study the language they translate, and might their formal study of a foreign language give them an advantage at the craft?

People come at it from such different ways. I’ve never studied German; my program is quite wrong, my equipment is Glücksfall — luck — but I did study a bit of French and classical languages. Now my Latin and Greek are gone, but I did do Latin for six or seven years, and that seems to me terribly important. When I first translated Kafka, I made the discovery that it seemed more like translating Latin than German, because the structures are so firm and ineluctable. It was not a matter of vocabulary, it was a matter of argument; there would be a very strong drift one way, then a strong drift in the other.

I find Thomas Mann terribly difficult to translate.

But that’s just because of his vocabulary.

Do you have any favorite translators from the past?

I was lucky to meet Ralph Manheim, in Paris a long time ago. I think he just summoned me. We had drinks at his apartment in Paris, and from him I learned that translating could be a profession. Here was somebody who treated it as a job, who had an office, who got up in the morning, went to the office, came back, had whiskey, had his dinner — he didn’t live in the middle of it, which is what I suppose I do. I’m a little bit like Kafka’s creature in “The Burrow,” which I’ve just finished. I’ve just translated a collection of Kafka’s “other” stories — the ones that weren’t published in his lifetime — called The Burrow and Other Stories. Penguin will publish it in England, and I hope they will in America too.

Have you translated works that have previous translations, and if so, do you have any firm policy on looking at prior translations?

Yes — that is about as exposed as you can feel in literature. It is almost impossible that you would know a book and love it, and then a new translation would come along, and you would think, “Oh, this is even better!” That must be extremely rare. It is really difficult offering a new translation; there are readers like you and me who are just always going to prefer Constance Garnett. When I have retranslated, it’s either been work I didn’t know had been translated before, like Koeppen’s Death in Rome; or it’s been Kafka, of whom there are many other versions. I’m also doing a new translation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. I suppose I must retranslate a lot, because I do so many novels from the 1920s and 1930s. Germany is the only place I really know about. You tend to get new translations in Europe of important novels every 20 or 30 years, but in English, a version lasts for 80 years. Berlin Alexanderplatz was translated once, 80 years ago, so far as I know.

Will you read the earlier translation of Berlin Alexanderplatz as you work on your own?

Well, if I’m very unhappy about some particular bit, then I will look at it. I will only look at a preexisting translation in a spirit of anxiety, or to see how some unusual word is translated, like, for instance, “brougham.”

What is the difference between a poor translation and a good one?

A poor translation reads like a dead text — a foreign, alien text. A good translation provides an experience; it is alive, it quivers. That is the goal I’ve set myself.

Can you fill in the blanks: A translation is to the original as X is to Y?

I think that’s really difficult. It depends what your view is. Is this thinking of a reader who can read both the original and the translation? Or is it thinking of somebody who can’t?

Well, either; Petrarch once wrote something to the effect that a translation was to the original as the son is to the father: sharing similar, related blood and sinew, but having a distinct identity and form. I was thinking along those lines.

Well, I think there’s something filial about it in my case; there is my writing poems and translating, and my father’s writing novels — and indeed, my translating his novels. I was translating my father’s novels when he died 20 years ago, and it seemed to suspend mortality. I translated a book of his called The Film Explainer, then two more: Luck and Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl.

How many books have you translated?

I think I have translated 80-odd books, more than one a year, but I’m not really counting. I stopped counting some time ago. There is no definite number.

Which has been your most meaningful collaboration?

I have two answers, one is Joseph Roth, from whom I’ve translated the most books, and probably with whom I’ll be associated for a long time, the other is somebody I ironically think of as “my living author,” Peter Stamm, because he is alive. Otherwise, I specialize in translating dead people. Peter is my living author, and I think I’ve said ironically, “The dead are more grateful.” Peter is very charming, he tells this rueful story about getting my translation of his first book, then going through it and sending me two pages of notes and queries, quibbles; until then it sort of dawned on him, or people told him, that I knew what I was doing, and thereafter he left me completely alone. I’ve done 10 of his books.

What effect would you say online translating engines have on translation?

Hurting, I think. I guess I’m a linguistic conservative, and I feel most things relating to language and expression are getting worse, and I think machines and gadgets are not helping. I think one is a craftsman, and a person does better work than any machine.

Are there any books in translation that you are longing to read?

I haven’t read Knausgaard. I think I’m due, and I’ve just read something that Penguin is doing in England by the Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian called For Two Thousand Years. It’s set among Jewish characters in Bucharest in the ’20s.

Can you name an author who writes in German and who ought to be translated into English but hasn’t been, or hasn’t been enough?

Jakob Wassermann. It’s really a question of getting a commensurate readership, I think. I’m sort of expecting the great German novel of reunification, of the fall of the Wall, but I’ve been waiting for a long time. I tried to get a writer named Hans Joachim Schädlich published; he is an East German author, and he has a great story about a character by the name of Tallhover, a Prussian police spy. It starts in 1848, and just keeps going. Demand for his services doesn’t cease, so the man himself doesn’t stop either. He lives through German unification, World War I, Weimar, the Nazi period, East Germany and the Stasi, and at the end he’s still going.

Why should people read books in translation? 

Our own stories are not enough for us in an age of increasing insufficiency. For our own humanity, it is important to read the stories from other places: the book of Africa, the book of Asia, the book of Antarctica.


Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based critic and translator.

LARB Contributor

Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based critic, translator, and moderator. She worked at The New Yorker for more than a decade and became a regular critic for The New York Times Book Review in 2004. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Beast, The New Yorker, Vogue, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, The Washington Post, and many other publications. She translates fiction and nonfiction from German, French, and Italian; recent novels translated include Every Day, Every Hour by Natasa Dragnic (Viking), and The Lady of the Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas, fils (Penguin Classics). She is the author of the book Wordbirds, an illustrated lexicon of necessary neologisms for the 21st Century (Simon & Schuster).


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