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from the June 2008 issue

On Translating Walser

1. How did you discover Walser, and what first inspired you to undertake a translation of his work?

On first coming across Walser in graduate school I found his voice beguiling and, at times, infuriating. I began to wonder how that voice might sound in English. It was only after obtaining my first academic job, though, that I found the time to translate some of his short prose. That project led to my arranging a conference on Walser in Hanover, N.H., which in turn led to the book Robert Walser Rediscovered: Stories, Fairy-Tale Plays, and Critical Responses. I was fortunate to have as a colleague at Dartmouth the distinguished translator from Russian and German Walter Arndt, with whom I could discuss my first translations. Arndt also rendered for that volume two fairy-tale plays, "Cinderella" and "Snowwhite."

2. You have translated authors other than Walser. Are there unique challenges that Walser presents, and how do you resolve them?

I have translated—among other German-language authors—two novels by Franz Kafka with whom Walser has, of course, been linked. We know that Kafka read Jakob von Gunten, which he praised, and that he also read some of Walser's short prose. While I found little trace of Walser while rendering The Castle, I could overhear certain Walserian tones in Amerika: The Missing Person (forthcoming in November from Schocken Books). Kafka himself spoke of his conscious use of "blurry" Walserian metaphors, and I could sense, especially in the first "Stoker" chapter, parallels between the attentive but naïve voice of Kafka's young hero Karl Rossmann and that of Walser's clerks. Having said that, though, Robert Musil was surely right to insist that Walser was an unique case and best not imitated. What is unique about Walser is that virtually all of his writing is composed in the same voice. While this observation may sound limiting, it is not, since his voice is capable of endless modulation. The chief task of the Walser translator is to capture that flux.

3. Do you have Walser prose pieces you particularly love, whether translated by you or by others? Give an example, and tell us what you love about it.

I am particularly fond of the short text "Green," which I translated in 1992 for Georgia Review (45.2). It's an exhilarating prose poem about the color green beneath which one can also sense a charting of the highs and lows in Walser's emotional life. A voice celebrating the life force symbolized by green is pitted against another that expresses fear of its pervasive, utterly overwhelming power, its intensity bordering on madness: "Indeed, there's something almost insane about green." Nature could be immensely threatening to Walser and the numerous alter egos that populate his texts. Hence the narrator's admission that he takes comfort in alcohol when the forest and valleys prove too overwhelming. As usual, however, Walser ends the piece with an effort to re-establish a degree of calm and equilibrium. It is as though he needed to climb down from the often exalted state that he attains in his prose, to tranquilize himself, before re-emerging into the colder realities of his difficult and isolated life.

4. Walser speaks of having a manuscript returned to him with the comment that he hasn't learned to write German. For those of us who don't read German, can you tell us how Walser's language might be perceived by a native speaker, and perhaps how that affects a translator's task?

The notion that Walser hadn't learned to write German is clearly absurd. He is one of the—indeed perhaps even the greatest—prose stylist in twentieth-century German. Of course, his genius with language can induce uneasiness and even anxiety—not only in German speakers but also, if we translators do him justice, in English. Much the same, incidentally, has been said about Kafka. Of the two, however, Walser is the greater stylist.

At times, Walser's stylistic prowess tempts him to believe that style is all. But never for long, since, in spite of his precarious life on the margins, he was also a writer with strong convictions about how people should behave, what a civilized society would look like etc. Yet he never lapses into sentimentality. What saves him from that fate is the pervasive self-irony that kept following him, as he once put it, "like a docile little dog."

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