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The Translator Relay: Shelley Frisch

By Shelley Frisch

Our "Translator Relay" series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. Ross Benjamin passed the baton to Shelley Frisch, who has published widely on German literature, film, cabaret, and the political and linguistic dimensions of exile, as well as on translation; her book on origin of language theories, The Lure of the Linguistic, was published in 2004.  Her many translations from the German include biographies of Nietzsche, Einstein, and Kafka, for which she was awarded a Modern Language Association Translation Prize.  Frisch also co-directs international translation workshops with Karen Nölle.

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

My father was a refugee from Germany, and my mother’s side of the family spoke Yiddish at home.  I began to learn German formally in junior high school, when the language class I signed up for (French) was overenrolled, and the German teacher was hurting for pupils.  Although I’ve since studied a good many other languages (including French!), I stayed with the German language and its literature through to a Ph.D., then taught at the university level for twenty years while taking on occasional translation projects.  I now translate full-time.

My path to translation came via my academic studies of exile writers, in particular of Erika Mann, a linguistic chameleon who moved to the United States and became the foremost woman lecturer of the 1940s in her new homeland and language.  My first published translation appeared in Simon Wiesenthal’s now-classic The Sunflower, in which Wiesenthal invited an international group of prominent writers to respond to a moral conundrum.  Since then I have translated many books from the German, most of them works of non-fiction.  Books about historical and literary figures who straddle cultures have become my stock in trade.

Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

Every text worth its linguistic salt firmly resists translation, but I believe that all words and phrases ultimately can be translated, maybe with a bit of a tug at the edges of the target language.  The English language offers an embarrassment of riches—reach hard enough and you’ll find a solution that captures the medium and message of the source text.   (Mark Twain claimed in “The Awful German Language” that German is unlearnable, in part because its endless sentences “require the speaker to deliver them in sections, with intermissions for refreshments”; still, I would argue, it is not untranslatable.)

I recently translated a book, Who Am I?  And If So, How Many?, that addressed an array of philosophical and ethical issues with a playful linguistic touch.  One chapter, about the animal rights movement, bore the title Die Qual der Wale, which means, literally, “the torment of the whales,” but actually calls to mind the common German idiom die Qual der Wahl, meaning “the agony of choice.”  Although I could not conjure up a phrase that would carry both levels of meaning in that same way, I went the homophonic route (as Richard David Precht, the book’s author, had in other spots), and called the chapter “The Wail of the Whale.”

Do you have any translating rituals?

I envy my colleagues who stay with a section of their text until the translation reads well, then move along to the next section.  My own method feels self-punishing, but it’s the way that works for me: I churn out a very rough draft of the full text as quickly as I can (which is not all that quickly, since my texts generally run at least 500 pages in length).  This first draft still shows all the signs of the in-betweenness of the evolving new text, with bits and pieces of German still evident, and slashes dividing the options that come to mind as I type.  Now that I’ve confronted the text as a whole, the real work begins—grappling with bedeviling linguistic matters, heading to the library for background information, gulping down coffee during my frequent café runs. (I was once interviewed in my favorite café in Princeton, and the published piece carried a photo of me in my “translation sweater” embroidered with big coffee cups.)  Portability is this profession’s blessing and curse; you never stop thinking about the plethora of choices as the wordsmith within you invades every last bit of what you’d hoped might be your “down time.”

Once I’ve gone through umpteen drafts and am as satisfied as I’ll ever be that the linguistic and factual challenges have all been addressed, I come to the final draft, which is all about the acoustic dimension.  I vocalize and sub-vocalize my way through the text and fine-tune the cadences until the text sounds the way I’d hoped, and off it goes to the publisher.

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?

I don’t think of my work in terms of metaphors (ventriloquism, with the translator as the dummy?), but I continue to be intrigued by a metaphor that Gregory Rabassa invoked in his book If This Be Treason: Translation and its Dyscontents. Rabassa pictures himself as the Mr. Hyde to an author’s Dr. Jekyll, and hopes that the outcome is happier than it was for Stevenson’s protagonist!

As far as the translator’s role in the process, it is my view that the translator’s own voice needs to come through in the newly created text, otherwise the result can read like generic, plain-vanilla translationese.

Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you’re excited about.

For the past decade, I’ve been working with Kafka biographer Reiner Stach, who will soon be finishing the third and final volume of his mammoth work. The first volume was published in English in 2005, the second will be coming out this spring with Princeton University Press, and I am working on the translation of the final volume while Reiner Stach writes it (let’s hope his editor goes easy on revisions…).  The full set will run more than 2,000 pages; critic Michael Dirda called its lively, enlightening, and beautifully crafted presentation “an enthralling synthesis” in the pages of the Washington Post.  Although I have entertained fantasies that the final volume will be briefer, all indications are that it will not be.

At the same time, I am translating a dual biography of Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl, by Karin Wieland.  This dual biography, which tracks the remarkably parallel early lives of these two cinematic icons and their sharply diverging paths in the 1930s and beyond, will be published by Liveright/Norton.  Luckily for me, this, too, is a masterful biography.

Ross Benjamin's Q: As a translator of both fiction and non-fiction, can you describe any differences in your approach to non-fiction texts? 

The process is remarkably similar.  Contrary to popular belief, non-fiction translation entails the same dedication to the rhythm and overall musicality of the language as translations of fiction.  Non-fiction also demands a great deal of fact checking and wrapping your mind around the lingo of the text’s field(s) of inquiry (learning to “talk the talk” of physics, for example, when you’re translating an Einstein biography).  The learning curve can be exhilarating.  I’ve “worked on” atomic clocks and atomic bombs, and written on topics ranging from castrati to condoms to communism to Kafka.  The linguistic fingerprint I strive for blends the author’s and my idiolects with the modes of expression the subject matter employs. I have elsewhere described my acquisition of the requisite voice for these non-fiction texts as “a dizzying leap to quasi-expertise on the widest variety of themes.”

Published Feb 25, 2013   Copyright 2013 Shelley Frisch

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