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The Translator Relay: Ross Benjamin

By Ross Benjamin
Our "Translator Relay" series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. This month, Peter Constantine passed the baton to writer and German translator Ross Benjamin, a 2003-2004 Fulbright scholar, 2010 winner of Helen and Kurt Wolffs Translator Prize, and 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship recipient to translate Clemens J. Setz's The Frequencies.
What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?
I decided to learn German in college because I wanted to read Nietzsche in the original – not to mention Hölderlin, Benjamin, Kafka, Roth, Celan, and the list goes on and on. My connection to the German language has always been inseparable from specific works by authors who, in many ways, were out of step with their times, even as they heralded what was to come. All those I’ve mentioned were quintessential outsiders. They went against the grain of their culture’s expectations, definitions, and categorizations. It would be hard for me to say whether it was ever the German language or culture itself – whatever that means – that appealed to me. Rather, it has always been the way certain brilliant writers reinvent their language and their cultural inheritances. And if I initially learned German in order to escape translations, to read these writers in their native tongue, it was perhaps inevitable that I would ultimately come full circle, becoming a translator myself and seeking to expand the limits of my own language to make room for their genius.  
Can you give us an example of an "untranslatable" word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?
In the first book I translated, Friedrich Hölderlin’s late-eighteenth-century novel Hyperion, one character indignantly calls another a Grillenfänger, a now-antiquated compound word made up of Grillen, whims or moods, plus Fänger, catcher, yielding the literal meaning of a catcher of whims or moods. According to the long entry in the Grimms’ nineteenth-century German dictionary, the definition shifted over time from someone who has strange, fanciful notions, to a cerebral and absentminded type, later to an eccentric or crank, to a pseudo-intellectual or pedant, and finally to a sullen person, a curmudgeon, or someone who wallows in dismal thoughts. It seemed to me that the character accused of being a Grillenfänger in Hyperion was being faulted for a mixture of all these qualities. But what is a term of abuse that contains all those meanings at once and would not have been out of place at the time the novel was written or at least within the diction of my English version? For months there would be moments, at dinner with my wife or over coffee with a friend, when my eyes would suddenly glaze over in deep rumination about how to translate this impossible word. My companions could be forgiven for suspecting that I had in fact turned into a sort of Grillenfänger myself. Since I’m offering it as an example of the “untranslatable,” to reveal how I dealt with it in English would by definition only be to advertise my inadequacy and failure. One thing I would never do, though, is to just leave something out because it’s too difficult. It’s my responsibility to take on the challenge and to convey as much of the sense and texture of the original as I can.
Do you have any translating rituals?
Regular doses of caffeine are essential: coffee in the morning, Earl Grey with a teaspoon of sugar and a slice of lemon in the afternoon. I translate Monday through Friday, taking evenings and weekends off. A major reason for this unimaginative embrace of the conventional American workweek is the importance of not working on evenings and weekends, not only for my mental health but also for my creative process. It’s also crucial to take vacation time to rejuvenate, let my mind wander, and make discoveries aimlessly. I couldn’t count how many times the most elegant solutions to conundrums I was racking my brain over at my desk have come to me in the midst of a completely unrelated activity. Often words or phrases I’ve been desperately and fruitlessly searching for will be supplied by the universe during supposedly “idle” leisure time. It must be how people in the Bible felt when the voice of God Himself actually answered their prayers: Out of the blue I’ll hear the needed expression on the radio or come across it in a magazine or book I’m reading for pleasure. Speaking of reading for pleasure, I couldn’t imagine being able to translate – or write, for that matter – without having a constant infusion of great literature in my everyday life.
Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?
Very apt metaphors from the performing arts have already come up in other interviews in this series: a pianist interpreting a sonata, an actor feeling his or her way into a role. But I’d like to offer one of my own from a different angle: Translation is a handshake. It always takes place between a translator and the original author. Whether the authors are alive or not, you can’t escape the need to enter into a relationship and a dialogue with them, because it is always within their artistic creations that you must engage them.With the handshake you are reaching out to them and you are also asking for their trust. In the case of dead authors, you are trying to earn the trust of ghosts, a profoundly uncertain undertaking, but for me that’s what the whole responsibility to do justice to the original implies. I’ve benefited enormously from actual conversations with living authors of works I’ve translated, not only exchanges about the text itself but also ones about their literary and other interests, their lives, the way they see the world, all of which goes into their work, of course, and therefore enriches the translation process. When the author is no longer alive, all this takes place on a different level. It’s almost as if you are trying to get them to speak to you and through you from beyond the grave. In that regard, I suppose translators are like mediums and translation can be a sort of séance. But you asked for just one metaphor.  
Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.
I’m currently translating the young Austrian writer Clemens J. Setz’s novel Indigo, the first of his extraordinary books to be published in English. It has a premise out of The Twilight Zone or The X-Files, an uncanny atmosphere reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s comic imagination, a Pynchonesque paranoia, and a collection of digressions on all sorts of unusual topics that owes something to the encyclopedic abundance of David Foster Wallace. The way all these elements work together like musical counterpoint is pure Setz. A jazz pianist, he knows how to perform brilliant improvisational feats without losing sight of the composition as a whole. And his writing isn’t just full of intelligence, humor, and inventiveness – it’s also tremendously artful, with musical cadences, striking images and similes, and simple grace and precision.
Peter Constantine’s Q: Can you share an example of a project that challenged you in an unexpected way?
I had the amazing opportunity to translate a memoir that President Obama's sister wrote in German. Auma Obama’s life story is fascinating and illuminating in its own right, and she tells it in her book And Then Life Happens in a moving, reflective, and elegant way. The unique challenge for me was that she had grown up in English-speaking Kenya, which meant that she already had a strong distinctive voice in English. She wrote the book in German because she had studied, lived, and worked in Germany for over a decade, and so German was the language of her formative adult years. But I couldn’t just approach her German prose as I would that of any other writer, by attempting to recreate the way the text sounded to my own ear. Instead, her actual way of expressing herself in English was important. This was her non-fiction first-person narrative, after all. On the other hand, as a translation, it was still my work. It had to be hers, first of all, and yet it also had to be mine. That required a particularly close collaboration, open dialogue, and thoughtful creative negotiation. Because Auma Obama is a sincere and generous communicator by nature, we found a way of doing it so that, in the end, we could both call it our own.

Published Jan 29, 2013   Copyright 2013 Ross Benjamin

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