“You Ought to Think About Translating This”: A Conversation with Carl Skoggard

CARL SKOGGARD IS a writer who lives with his partner, Joe Holtzman, along with their dogs in a converted cow slaughterhouse outside of Hudson, New York. Picture a metal chain that dangles down into the kitchen foyer with a substantial hook and track that runs the length of the room, and a concrete floor with little grooves where blood was meant to pool and flow … 

But this is hardly the most eye-catching element of their home — which is more like a technicolored compound, with giant papier-mâché animal head busts mounted on the walls, furniture upholstered with prints of lily pads and rabbits giving birth, and everything from radiators to electric strips to ceiling panels painted in bright patterns, reds and yellows. Holtzman, the designer, was also the founder and editor-in-chief of Nest: A Quarterly of Interiors, the celebrated and now defunct design publication with a cult-like following. Throughout its run between 1997 and 2004, Carl penned much of the magazine’s singular copy and wrote many articles — often unattributed. 

More recently, Carl has turned to translation. Beginning in 2015, he published English versions of several lesser-known works by Walter Benjamin, including an obscure poetry collection, Sonnets (2015), which the philosopher wrote to a young man he was in love with. In October 2016, Carl published a translation of German film theorist, critic, and Frankfurt School essayist Siegfried Kracauer’s novel Georg (2016), and he’s nearly completed bringing the author’s first book, Ginster, into English as well. 

Last January, when he was out in Los Angeles, Carl and I sat down for a cocktail at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena, where we had a conversation about how he ended up spending his post-Nest days obsessing over early 20th-century German writing.


CARL SKOGGARD: It was a chain of circumstances, really. I was 59 or 60 years old. I had finished working at a musicology day job — database work — where I had been for 30 years. I also had been working at Nest magazine, as a caption writer and, occasionally, I’d do a feature story. When all of that started coming to an end, people who knew a bit about my writing from Nest started coming at me with projects — not projects that I would have necessarily chosen. This was all back in the fall of 2007, when I was in Berlin. On the nightstand in my bedroom there was this book called Berliner Kindheit um neunzehnhundert — Berlin Childhood around 1900. I knew nothing about it. I knew who Walter Benjamin was, vaguely. So I read a bit of it, and thought it was fascinating. It was also very hard to understand, but I knew it was in some sense beautifully written.

PETER NOWOGRODZKI: What about it was fascinating?

It was somehow able to draw you in, but at the same time you didn’t really know exactly what you were reading. You know? It was just kind of incantatory. I decided to look it up, and I found out that there was an existing translation — which I looked at. The tone didn’t appeal to me. The tone that’s given to the persona — this kind of anonymous child who is really Walter Benjamin. He’s styling himself as this participant in an anonymous childhood in a certain place and time. So I thought, I’ll do a translation of this. That’s actually how this translation business started for me. Simple as that.

So you started with Berlin Childhood — and then how did you land on Georg?

Land on him … I did the three Benjamin’s that are primarily autobiographical. The last of those three was a book of sonnets, which no one had ever translated. So that felt good. I should add that all of these books have extensive, line-by-line commentary. They’re close interpretations. So a few years later I was again in Berlin. In the same person’s house where I came across Berlin Childhood. She’s a film student, finishing her doctorate, and she had been reading Siegfried Kracauer. She said to me, “You ought to think about translating this — this is really funny. It’s never been translated” — referring to one of the two novels by Kracauer. I looked into it and saw that it was very quick paced and, as I came to think, cinematic; kind of satirical in a 1920s Otto Dix style. Like George Grosz, those people. It was just such a fine portrait of the tumult and confusion of the 1920s, seen through this subject who is basically anonymous.

That particular history — that tumult and confusion — feels oddly relevant right now.

Very much so. God, I can quote from my own blurb here:

Kracauers “Georg is a panorama of those years” — the post–World War I years in Germany — “as seen through the eyes of a rookie reporter working for the fictional Morgenbote (Morning Herald). In a defeated nation seething with extremism right and left, young Georg is looking for something to believe in. For him, the past has become unusable; for nearly everyone else he meets, paradise seems just around the corner. But which paradise? Kracauer’s grimly funny novel takes on a confused and dangerous time which can remind us of our own.

That’s about it, you know?

Maybe I was reading this into it, but it seemed as though the author had a certain contempt for Georg. If not contempt, then certainly a judgmental distance. Georg is portrayed as this naïve idealist.

He’s an everyman. People generally are confused, and can’t see around the corner too well …

Do you think Kracauer had empathy for the character? It seemed almost a satirical cartoon of that person.

Well, it’s strange. It’s very true, that it’s satirical. On the other hand, there’s a great deal of his own specific personal experience in the book. He might have felt that he wanted to distance himself from it. In the novel, Georg, who is in his 20s, would like to have a relationship with a young man, Fred, barely in his mid-teens. It’s interesting — there’s no prudery in this, but he has the character experience a denouement where he finally discovers that this boy is not interested in him in this way. Of course, the boy was very admiring of him as an older person who took an interest in him — but it has this sort of comic undoing. Georg and this boy go on a vacation together and that’s what happens, he realizes he’s built this kind of castle on the sand.

But the actual fact of the matter is that Kracauer himself had a relationship with none other than Theodor Adorno. He met Adorno when he was 14 or 15. Kracauer was 25 or so. And they used to read Kant every Sunday. And they stayed friends their whole lives — it was one of these sort of bitchy relationships, you know, prickly and with ego in it. I can actually identify with Kracauer. This younger Adorno, in later life, became very well established. At the center of their type of intellectual life. He would write letters to Kracauer and say things like, “Well there you go, you don’t need to be so defensive.” It was one of these things where I always identified with Kracauer. He was vulnerable.

So how do you think Kracauer would have regarded Georg, even if it is sort of a semi-autobiographical character for him?

He gives Georg many of his most important personal traits. His shyness, his wanting to withdraw. As he reached manhood, World War I ended, Kracauer was sort of casting about, and he ended up becoming a newspaper reporter, and then very quickly becoming a powerbroker in his position at the leading liberal paper of the time. He must have been very ambitious. And here at the beginning of the book, Georg is always saying he wants to make a mark on the world. But what’s more obvious is that Georg is tremendously shy, and he wants to flee situations all the time. And, you know, this is obviously autobiographical. Then on the other hand — again — he makes Georg into an ordinary person. Kracauer was clearly an extraordinary person. How could he have gone from walking into the equivalent of The New York Times and then three years later hiding out in a back room deciding whose essays and criticisms would get published. There must have been something remarkable about him.

Did you identify with Georg?

I just identified with his general ability to be wounded by the right sort of person.

But then his earnestness keeps getting sort of put to use by other people with more clear agendas or beliefs.

He’s actually attracted to Catholicism, and I think there’s another parallel with Kracauer there. Kracauer flirted with Catholicism. You know, after World War I, everyone was feeling like the world had fallen apart. Politically it was all in turmoil, particularly in Germany, but elsewhere, too. And there was a wide movement in intellectual life and in the arts to find a way of reestablishing order. You can see it if you go to the Norton Simon Museum and look at the Picassos from the 1920s — his neoclassical interest; the placid, simple forms. You can see that impulse. Kracauer was interested in what a religion could provide — something like Catholicism — in terms of getting you something you could live by.

In your personal commentary at the end of the book, you refer to Georg as a “divining rod. What do you mean when you say he’s a divining rod? What is he leading us toward?

He’s looking for what holds promise. For getting us out of the mess we’re in. And, also, in his case, what he can seize on to become a person, to make a difference.

And he doesn’t find that. Isn’t that sort of the dysfunctional divining rod? Or do you think he does find what he’s looking for?

No, he doesn’t. The end of the book is so obvious. Professionally he’s a fool, because he is working at this sophisticated newspaper that’s using all kinds of tactical maneuvering to position itself in this turbulent world — and he’s writing articles that are unwittingly just the thing the paper wanted …

He keeps accidentally serving the agenda of these bureaucrats.

Without even thinking, “Oh, I’ve done it this time.” He comes in and they explain to him patiently why it was another stroke of genius on his part. But then at the end he gets a little carried away with his general critique of capitalism. And, of course, the newspaper is borrowing more funding from bankers at this point. The Frankfurter Zeitung actually did sell half of itself to I. G. Farben, the world’s largest chemical company, headquartered in Frankfurt. The company was broken up after the war because it had done so much to facilitate the war effort — made the gas that they used in the concentration camps, everything. It’s never discussed in the novel, but that’s in the background here. That’s why this Doktor Petri that you read about in the novel is in such a bind — he’s trying to pretend that he’s still such a good liberal democrat, and yet he’s taking money from these big industrial interests to keep the paper afloat. And Georg walks into that and makes a big mess of things by offering this big critique of capitalism at the bank director’s house. And then he finally speaks the truth in the most significant, general way, and gets fired for that.

Right, so we have Georg as fool professionally. And then Georg as failed divining rod — I guess I thought at the end there was meant to be something redemptive …

Kracauer wrote this book between 1930 and 1934, and in 1934 he had to leave Germany and set up in France, where he was trying to interest French publishers. In the précis, he says that Georg is “disillusioned but now he’s wise.” That’s what he wanted to think. I think it is a little more artistic than that. Sometimes you’re more artistic than you can be in your précis, when you’re trying to boil it down. Because I thought that Georg, first of all, could change his mind again. That’s the thing about him, he was never committed.

Right at the same time Kracauer wrote this novel, he wrote a well-known short book about the white-collar masses, which were a burgeoning sector of the economy at the time. And Kracauer was watching them — he was in Berlin at the time, from 1930 to 1933, working for the Berlin bureau of this paper. And he got this idea that the white-collar worker was ripe for being lured by fascism. Because they had this fragile status that could be disrupted at any moment, and they could be sent plunging toward a proletarian status, without even any unions to back them up or help them.

And he was right.

Yes. And this is Georg’s situation in the last chapter, when he’s moved to Berlin and he’s looking for work. He’s been fired by the paper. There’s that wonderful passage at the end where he’s just sort of flowing down the main boulevard of the western part of the city, the bourgeois part of the city, the Kurfuerstendamm. It’s just this sort of apocalyptic scene where he leaves the upper reaches that are still very sedate and quiet and firmly in control of the wealthy. He goes down and down and down, and then you’re in this river of office workers who are hungry and angry. Ants crawling on the street. You’ve got this lurid atmosphere, and the weather suddenly changes and becomes stormy. The book ends right there. There ceases to be any further mention of him in the last pages. And then there are two more pages of description but you feel he’s gone, lost. This all relates to that book that Kracauer wrote at the same time about the white-collar worker. Because Georg is a white-collar worker.

Now that you’ve had this kind of intimate relationship with Kracauer’s texts and writings, what are your feelings toward him?

Well, I’m not one of those people who, in translating, feel like they’re in direct contact with the author. I only feel in contact with his voice and literary rhythm, and his way of turning on a dime in sentences, his spoken and unspoken ironies. I feel in touch with him in that way, but I don’t feel like I know him as a person.

Do you lose track of yourself in that process?

No, you can’t. I came up with this idea for what translating is like. You’re in a certain place at a certain time and someone gives you a bucket. And it’s filled with water, but there’s a leak in the bottom of the pail. The further you walk with it, the more it leaks and the more water you lose. What are you going to do? You’re going to have to add some more water of your own to keep the bucket full.

Does that produce a sense of anxiety?

Well, I’m at peace with it now. I just think that’s what it amounts to. You’re actively participating in what comes out. You’re not faithfully registering. That’s not really what’s going on. When I first started translating, I thought that’s what I should be doing. And I thought I’d like to be particularly careful about preserving the syntax, mirroring syntax. What happens is that, you absorb the whole, and then you can selectively draw on it when you are faced with a problem.

Once you were in the position of choosing a creative pursuit, why did you go with translation instead of —

Writing myself? You’ve got to ask my doctor about that. It feels like there’s some fundamental act of making up a whole world and making up people that I guess I don’t like or I don’t feel able or entitled to do.

Interesting that you’re also saying the particular piece of the translation that’s the most exciting is the part where you take the liberty to sort of cut loose from the author and do your own thing.

Correct. My own personal experience of it is that I’m sometimes quite miserable. These are not easy texts here. I should mention that I have one or two people in Germany who will help me with problems and difficult passages. They assure me that these Kracauer and Benjamin texts are very difficult. Kracauer in particular is very idiosyncratic, a hard nut to crack sometimes. So in the beginning, I’m always very unhappy. Do I really know what he’s trying to say? It’s like knocking on a wall looking for studs, and it’s hollow, hollow, hollow. I can tell when I don’t understand something. But then you become comfortable with it, because there’s nothing to find behind that wall. After that phase of not feeling too happy about it, you feel like you probably understand what there is to understand. And then you get to this phase of refining, and toward the end it’s as if you’re making it sing. I’m always very happy with that, when I get to that point. And then I always forget everything else. It’s like a car accident: you forget how bad it was once you’re over it.


Peter Nowogrodzki lives in Los Angeles. He is an editor at FENCE. His work has appeared in the GuardianThe Paris ReviewTriple Canopy, and elsewhere.