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The Translator Relay: Sophie Duvernoy

By Words Without Borders

WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator every few months. The current month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.

For January's installment, Jack Jung passed the baton to Sophie Duvernoy, who translates from German to English.

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

I grew up speaking German in a displaced context: I was raised in Brussels as the daughter of an East German mother and the son of German immigrants to America. Most of my schooling was in English, though, and it became the language of my professional life. German, in contrast, became a cultural home to me, but one that existed more in books, stories, and films than in reality.

For me, translation is, in part, a way of traveling to places that have been lost: I can begin to feel the texture of another world. I translate books written in the Weimar Republic, and this is also the main focus of my scholarship (I’m completing a PhD in German at Yale). So far, I have primarily translated the work of Gabriele Tergit, a German Jewish journalist active in 1920s and ’30s Berlin, who uses the city and its happenings as the setting for her novels. More than any other author of the time period, Alfred Döblin included, Tergit references extremely specific, sometimes minute, details of life in Berlin, which she picked up in her journalistic work. This has made me a sleuth-in-training focused on Berlin ephemera, and I am fascinated by the way the city loomed large in the German imagination of the 1920s as the quintessential theater of modernity.


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

I don’t put much stock in the concept of untranslatability; technically, everything is untranslatable in its full complexity. As a translator, I cultivate a certain amount of optimism and pragmatism. Even if I can’t fully recast a word in a new language, I can make certain aspects of it appear—or bring out new aspects that lie dormant within the host language. It’s a delicate game of give-and-take. 

When I come across something I consider untranslatable, it’s usually the case that I simply have no idea what the author meant. Once I have a sense of what the author intended, I can at least come up with an alternative, even if it isn’t perfect.

This phrase from Tergit’s 1931 novel Käsebier took me several months to work out. It occurs in a conversation at a party between Käte, a young socialite, and her former lover. When the lover asks how it’s going, she answers: “Vertikal ausgezeichnet, daher horizontal gestrichen Brief.” Translated literally, this means, “Vertically excellent, therefore horizontally crossed(-out) letter.”

Initially, I thought the letter might refer to divorce papers. The comment seemed to have sexual overtones, given the context of the conversation and the vertical-horizontal remark. But I couldn’t figure out how the letter factored in. Eventually, I figured out that “gestrichen Brief” means “-B,” a financial term for the cancellation of a stock price because there are only offers, no buyers. To my knowledge, there is no equivalent in English, and if there were, it would probably be too obscure. I wasn’t sure how to interpret these mechanics in Käte’s love life: was she the buyer or the seller? Context seemed to indicate that she was not impressed with the many suitors buzzing around her. I finally ended up with, “Vertically excellent, so not taking bids on the horizontal.” This preserved the play of horizontal and vertical, while the bids were a nod to the stock market context.


Do you have any translating rituals?

As I translate, I like to find anglophone writers who share something—a mood, an outlook, or a voice—with the author I’m translating. They don’t have to be from the same time period or write about the same subject. Often, I just go on gut feeling. It helps me imagine what my author might sound like outside of my head and in the world.

When I begin, I usually do a quick, dirty draft, then follow with several rounds of painful revisions. Once I’m in the revision process, I read everything out loud to myself. It’s the easiest way to tell when something isn’t working.


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?

Over the past year, I have been thinking about parallels between translation and the visual arts. In this context, I would call translation what Anni Albers describes in On Weaving as “work with material.” Albers writes, “Concrete substances and also colors per se, words, tones, volume, space, motion—these constitute raw material.” I like the idea of words as raw material, there to be apprehended in the way that a visual artist understands her mediums. Material suggests certain choices or treatments to the craftsperson or artist. It presents practical constraints, but intuition, knowledge, and personal intention come together in the shaping process to bring something new forth from the material. The choices made in this process should remain true to the material itself and point back to it, but should also communicate in new ways.

A translation will always be very different from the source text, and many metaphors of translation focus on what is lost or gained in this transformation. In considering translation to be “work with material,” we can imagine the material as a constant that grounds the new form, yet subtly metamorphoses as the work of translation discovers new potentials within it.

For me, words have haptic qualities just like textures, colors, or shapes. When I pay attention to words, they suggest certain choices to me rather than others. As Albers writes so beautifully in her preface, her thoughts on weaving can “be traced back to the event of a thread.” In the same way, translation can be understood as the repeated attention to the event of a word. That event—its conditions, its power of suggestion—is what pulls the translator along.


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

I’m lucky enough to be at the beginning of translating Effingers, Tergit’s multigenerational family epic, for NYRB. German literature contains few works with the scope of a nineteenth-century novel, and Effingers is one of these few: some have described it as a “Jewish Buddenbrooks.” The novel follows two German Jewish families, the Effingers and the Oppners, from 1878 to 1948. It’s a brilliant piece of work that took Tergit many years to complete, the majority of them spent in exile from Germany after 1933. It fills a large hole in German literature by being a novel specifically about German Jews as Germans rather than outsiders. With a clarity and hindsight rare for the immediate postwar years, Tergit paints a comprehensive picture of the political and social tensions of the time through the story of these families. The characters are compelling, the dialogue is witty, and it is a powerful testament to the experiences of assimilated German Jews in the early twentieth century. It’s nine hundred pages long, however, and I have a dissertation to write as well, so my translation will take a little while to complete.


Jack’s question for you: I would love to hear more about the connections you see between our current time and the Weimar Republic, and what the authors you are working on translating have to show us—like how Tergit's story resonates with the fake news of our time. Another thing I love in your translation work is the snappiness of the dialogue between characters in Käsebier Takes Berlin; you mention in your notes that conversations with friends helped you in finding this voice. What was the process like?  

Tergit’s Käsebier is a satire of the media that documents how a single newspaper article about an obscure singer in Neukölln named Käsebier is taken up by the Berlin media. They catapult Käsebier to sudden fame through relentless press coverage. An entire segment of the economy begins to revolve around Käsebier, and he’s made into the next big star and savior of Germany—until the newspapers dump him and move on to the next craze. But in Käsebier, Tergit also provides a portrait of how this media frenzy correlates with a larger shift in the role of newspapers: just as Käsebier becomes a commodity, so do the newspapers that report on him. The dictates of the market economy hollow out journalism’s commitment to public service until newspapers have no tools left to defend themselves with, and no readership to reliably depend upon.

It is interesting that many current sociological conditions that resonate with 1930s Germany—the hollowing-out of the middle class, wage stagnation, a heightening of nationalist rhetoric—have correlated with a right-wing buyout of media outlets. In 1930s Germany, the ultranationalist Alfred Hugenberg built a media empire by buying up local newspapers that were in dire financial straits after the Great Depression. Hugenberg then transformed them into propaganda organs for the Nazi Party. We saw the transformation of the media landscape in the United States from 2000 to 2010 as online journalism gained traction and legacy media brands were sold off to large conglomerates who kept these publications only in name. As increasing numbers of people got their news for free online, local papers were devastated, and many moved to earning revenue as pay-for-play propaganda sites. The Trump presidency has shifted the ground again; legacy newspapers have regained stature and readership, but fake news has flourished alongside them.

There’s an excellent October 2020 article by Alex Pareene in the New Republic on this subject; Pareene points to an alarming study undertaken by UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, which documents the loss of local news sources between 2004 and 2019 and describes our current situation as one dominated by large conglomerates and “news deserts.” Tergit’s book is a frightening reminder of how a market economy is not the natural ally of a free and diverse newspaper landscape, and that journalism should not be treated as a commodity, but as a public service.

To end on a lighter note, getting the tone of the conversations right was crucial to translating Käsebier, since so much of the novel is witty banter. I was lucky enough to be living in New York at the time with three friends whose witty repartee could rival any in Käsebier. I think their voices lived in my brain when I was trying to edit the dialogue. But because the novel also contains a lot of Berlin dialect, I had to figure out what tone to hit in English. Dialect translation is notoriously tricky, and I looked at a number of other translations of literature from the time period for inspiration. None of the books I read really grabbed me. Then I began to think more in terms of affinities between German and English authors—who might Tergit’s equivalent in English be? I ended up reading the collected works of Dorothy Parker, and then I had it. Parker and Tergit were born only a year apart, and each had a meteoric rise as a writer in the two big modernist metropolises—New York and Berlin. I tried to absorb Parker’s sensibility and infuse some of this into Tergit to give Käsebier a finely sharpened satirical edge.


Sophie Duvernoy is a PhD candidate in German Literature at Yale University, where she focuses on the literature and aesthetic theory of the Weimar Republic. Her translation of Gabriele Tergit’s Käsebier Takes Berlin was published by NYRB Classics in 2019, and she is the recipient of the 2015 Gutekunst Prize for young translators. She is now working on translations of Gabriele Tergit’s Effingers and Emmy Hennings’s Das Brandmal (The Burn). Her writing and translations have appeared in the Paris Review Online, Los Angeles Review of Books, No Man’s Land, and The Offing.


Related Reading:

The Translator Relay: Jack Jung

The City and the Writer: In Berlin with Rajeev Balasubramanyam

First Read: "Peach Blossom Paradise" by Ge Fei

Published Jan 13, 2021   Copyright 2021 Words Without Borders

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