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from the June 2008 issue

Reads Walser in an Abandoned School Bus

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

In the spring of 1973, in the forests of Arkansas, specifically in the woods between Cooter Neck and Rock Island (you won't find them on any map I know), I was living in two abandoned school buses on a knoll in the woods overlooking two cypress-enshrouded ponds. Not much for me to do there, after my twelve hours a week working at Chet Darling's Mobil in Fordyce, but read and write. One of the books I had with me was the 1960 Dell paperback Great German Short Stories edited by Stephen Spender with works by Stifter, Büchner, Keller, Heym, Aichinger, Hildesheimer, Böll, Nossack, and, between Kafka and Benn, someone named Robert Walser. The piece by Walser was "A Village Tale" (1927), a radical, forehead-slapping fiction translated (brilliantly, I came to learn) by Christopher Middleton. I read "A Village Tale" many times that spring and summer, and the following summer, after a year of teaching at a university in southwest Louisiana, I found myself back in a sort-of civilization, i.e. New Orleans, with access to the Tulane Library. At last, more Walser! I gobbled up Christopher Middleton's translations of The Walk and Other Stories (John Calder, 1957) and Jakob von Gunten (University of Texas Press, 1969), scoured the shelves and uncovered his three translations in Texas Quarterly (1964), Harriet Watts's translation of "The Little Berliner" (Delos, 1968), a handful of others, and then all the critical material I could find—George C. Avery's Inquiry and Testament (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1968), essays by H. M. Waidson, Michael Hamburger, Middleton, assorted reviews, notes— whatever I could find. And then a dead end. That was all, at least in English. In German, however, there was much more. So in order to keep reading Walser, I had to translate him, even though I knew no German and possess no special facility for languages. In 1976 another way out of my dilemma appeared in the form of a research grant that sent me to meet Christopher Middleton in Austin, Texas, where I commissioned from him new translations of Walser pieces for the small press magazine I co-edited, Lowlands Review.

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

Many challenges, especially for someone like me. Other than the German verb wheel I spent many hours spinning in the 1970s and 1980s, I "resolved" them by almost always working with collaborators and seeking help wherever I could. I also tried to be selective and not translate works that exceeded my limited abilities.

Fortunately we have two excellent essays that address directly the issues involved in translating Walser: Christopher Middleton's "Translation as a Species of Mime" ("Robert Walser Number," The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1992) and Susan Bernofsky's "Elements of Style in Walser's Late Prose" (Robert Walser and the Visual Arts, ed. Tamara S. Evans, CUNY, 1996).

In my essay on "Die Hochzeitsreise" ("Between Heaven and Earth: Robert Walser's 'Die Hochzeitsreise,'" Studies in Short Fiction, Spring 1990) I point out the difficulty of translating a story whose theme and structure (linguistically, spatially) is built around the parts of its title—high/time/trip—German for honeymoon. Though it's impossible to follow Walser's maneuvers in English, Christopher Middleton's version is still miraculous.

Rhymes and puns, of course, are especially difficult. For her translation of "Letter to Edith" I had tried to help Susan Bernofsky with the following: "Ich wankte in eine Konditorei, und trank im Wanken sogar noch Kognak. Zwei Musiker spielten mir zuliebe Grieg, aber der Chef des Hauses erklärte mir den Krieg…." What we came up with was "I swayed now into a pastry shop café and, reeling, if I may, put away some cognac. For my benefit two musicians played Grieg, but the proprietor declared war on me…." A few years later, after Masquerade and Other Stories had appeared, Susan made the following welcome improvement: "I swayed now into a pastry shop café and, reeling, if I may, put some cognac away. To please me, Grieg was played by two musicians, but the proprietor brought out his munitions…"

In "Boat Trip" I was flummoxed by something as simple as "Den Fischen fehlen die Arme." Fish are missing arms—but that's rather flat, isn't it? I remember walking up and down Magazine Street in New Orleans trying to come up with something better and finally settling on, "On fish one finds no arms." That seems simple enough, doesn't it, not something that should have taken all that effort?

Of course German translators face their own impossibilities, for example when Melville has Ahab go down to his "grave-dug berth," a condensed life/death pun that the recent translation of Moby-Dick couldn't begin to manage: "um mich ins Grab meiner Koje zu legen"—losing the pun on "birth" in the German Koje.

But then, as Borges said, "What are translations but objects in motion? The concept of the definitive text belongs only to religion and fatigue."

3. Thinking of Christopher Middleton's role in bringing Walser to English-speaking readers, I wonder whether existing translations of an author's other works—particularly when they are well done, well known, and well loved—influence your approach in any way?

Christopher Middleton was and is the model and master and founder of Walser in English. He's also a great essayist and one of our language's most unique poets whose Collected Poems (720 pages) will appear this month with Carcanet Press. A useful lesson, one I've often performed, is to translate a story or passage from Selected Stories or Jakob von Gunten and then compare it to Christopher's version. Equally useful would be to try one's hand at a passage from The Robber or The Assistant and then compare it to Susan Bernofsky's translation. Of course the exercise might be humbling (or humiliating?), but humility for Walser was as essential as a chapeau.

4. 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.

Numerous. "Kleist in Thun," "Helbling's Story," "The Little Berliner," "The Walk," "Snowdrops," "Titus," "A Village Tale," "The Honeymoon," "Essay on Freedom," "The Aviator," "Thoughts on Cézanne," "For Zilch," "A Sketch," "The Battle of Sempach," "Basta," "Good Morning, Giantess," "The Old Fountain," "The One of Fairy Tales," "The Green Spider," "A Lump of Sugar," "A Flaubert Prose Piece," "Sampler Plate," "Boat Trip," "The Park," "Well Then," "There was once, to my knowledge, a poet…," "The Forest," "The Berlin Tiergarten," "The Nimble and the Lazy," "Tram Ride," "Essay on Bismarck," in translations by Christopher Middleton, Susan Bernofsky, Mark Harman, Walter Arndt, Annette Wiesner and myself. "On and on, well well, what a journey it is," says the narrator of "Kleist in Thun," a story whose ending George Avery described as a "perspectivistic marvel." Detailed responses to this question can be found in the essays I've written on "The Honeymoon," "Sampler Plate," "Boat Trip," "A Lump of Sugar" and The Robber. Of the prose pieces I take some credit for translating, "A Little Ramble," "Snowdrops," and "Boat Trip" come to mind because, though quite hard to translate, the language seems simple and non-ironic and unmediated.

5. 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?

I believe the comment was made, after he rehearsed for a reading, that Walser hadn't yet learned to speak German. Someone else read for him, with the excuse that the author couldn't attend, while Walser sat in the audience. Susan Bernofsky will remember this anecdote better than I. I can't find the source at the moment.

Thanks, Tom—you are correct, of course! From "A Letter to Therese Breitbach" (1925): "Once I was supposed to read from my work in Zürich, but the president of the Literary Circle which had invited me said that I had still not learned to speak German." Middleton has more details in the chronology he provides in Speaking to the Rose. "1920: Walser walks from Biel to Zürich to give a reading from his newly published collection of shorter prose, Seeland (illustrated by Karl Walser); at rehearsal it is insisted that the Hottingen Readers' Circle would prefer Hans Trog to read (an editor of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung); W. sits unobserved in the audience." Nice. Oddly, as Middleton notes later, the group saw Walser himself read the following year, but we'll never hear what they heard: he read from his novel Theodor, which is now lost.]

In Switzerland, school children are taught Walser. When I was there in 1976, a Swiss radio station had recently broadcast a reading in its entirety of Jakob von Gunten. A young architect said to me: "Robert Walser. Ein muss, ein muss!" (A must, a must!) The previous owner of the apartment I live in here in Stuttgart is a high school history teacher whose favorite author is Walser. All this is to say that many of the native speakers I know find Walser's language not as strange as some of us non-natives, though certainly sui generis.

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