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Translator Relay: Breon Mitchell

By Breon Mitchell

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 on the plains of Kansas and had no knowledge at all with any foreign language until I took beginning German in high school. I assume Mr. Goering, our teacher, was of German descent (I had never heard of that other Goering, and so could not find the situation ironic), but with the exception of Mr. Goedicke, who made a wrought-iron table for our home, and had reportedly been a prisoner of war somewhere near my home town of Salina, I knew no of one who was actually German.  Nevertheless, they must of existed, for I still remember our class singing Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, one snowy Christmas Eve in the candle-lit living room of an old couple who listened to us with tears streaming down their cheeks. 

I left Kansas to go abroad for the first time after my freshman year at the University of Kansas.  We spent the summer south of Munich learning German. We attended an opera (my first—Der fliegende Holländer), visited the Alte and Neue Pinakothek, and discovered that the local villagers liked to talk with us in a dialect none of us understood.  What would it be like to understand them?  I wanted to answer that question.  

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

The upcoming gathering of ALTA members in Bloomington will include a panel on precisely this subject, with Doug Hofstadter, who has much to say on the issue in Le ton beau de Marot.  I do believe that some texts, and particularly poems, may never be brought satisfactorily into English, but that is something quite different from saying they can’t be turned into English poems.  I do recall wrestling on one occasion with the Bavarian dialect that stymied us all in the local pub in Holzkirchen.  In Sten Nadolny’s novel Ein Gott der Frechheit (The God of Impertinence), Hermes is visiting southern Germany and can’t understand a Bavarian he meets, although the man makes perfect sense.  My task was to transform the dialect into English odd enough that the reader might reasonably believe Hermes would find it incomprehensible.  My “solution” was to try to make it look like a dialect.  Here’s a sample: “‘Say, luv, yer as black assa bushmun—did da gimpy smith reely letya spend ta thousn yirs hangin’ inna chimbley?’  Hermes guessed that Hephaestus was the ‘smith’ involved, but he hadn’t understood the question at all.” If you don’t understand it either, then it’s my example of untranslatability.   

Do you have any translating rituals?

My best period for working, when my mind is sharpest, is from 11:00-11:15 am, so I always try to sit down to a project then.  I sit in a comfortable recliner, with my laptop on my laptop, the original text to my left, and my dictionaries and reference works within easy reach on my right.  A cup of coffee is not amiss.  Once all this is in place, I go to work.  This physical ritual works best for me at home.  One other ritual is doing a first draft without knowing what lies ahead in the text. Even if I’ve read it before, or know it quite well, as with Kafka’s Trial, I still get great pleasure from the surprises that greet me on every page.  I also save my drafts and all evidence of the process of translation. Preserving such material has become yet another ritual.

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 do find metaphors helpful in discussing translation with those unfamiliar with the nature of literary translation, and I generally turn to well-worn but serviceable examples provided by others, for example that of a musical performance in which the original text is the score, and the performance itself the translation of that score into a form the listener can understand, even if he or she can’t read music.  One of my colleagues has suggested that translating a poem is like seeing footprints in the sand on a beach and reconstructing the experience of that stroll.  And I’ve always liked the metaphor for the relationship between practice and theory in which translating is like riding a bicycle without necessarily understanding the physics behind your progress.  It would be fun to come up with a new metaphor: translation is like taking a shower and forgetting to dry off, for example, but it would be a struggle to make that one serviceable.

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

My last major project was retranslating Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum.  That was exciting because I believed it might be my last translation, since my eyesight was failing, and I am relieved to have made it through.  I now believe that what remains of my vision will allow me to take on new works.  The current project that excites me most is working with Adriana Calinescu on Matei Calinescu’s The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter, a Romanian novella that profoundly influenced a whole generation of young Romanian intellectuals when it first appeared in 1969.  I do not know Romanian, but I am enjoying working in tandem with Adriana on her versions, and I am convinced that this is a text of great literary merit and cultural importance. 

Carol Maier's Q: Translators justly lament the lack of recognition accorded to their work and to themselves. Ironically, however, they have long contributed to their own invisibility by discarding their drafts and notes, even their journals and correspondence, thus making serious study of their work difficult, if not impossible. How might translators begin to assume more responsibility for their own legacy? For instance, how should they decide what's worth keeping? What might they do with the material they save?

Preserving literary translators’ archives is essential if we are ever truly to understand the role that translation plays in the creation of world literature and its impact on culture.   Translators should preserve at least the following materials: all correspondence with authors and publishers (including emails), various drafts of translations incorporating substantive changes, annotated copies of original texts used in the translation process, corrected galley proofs, contracts and royalties statements—in short anything that would shed light on both the process and context of literary translation.  This material will be invaluable to future researchers on the history of culture—and to students and scholars interested in the nature of translation itself.  Of course most translators don’t have room to keep the often voluminous files that accumulate and the material must be eventually transferred to an institution willing to honor and preserve it.  Many libraries would no doubt be willing to do so, but the one I know which has focused directly on building a collection of literary translators’ archives is The Lilly Library at Indiana University, which I directed for the past ten years.  Information about the library and its holdings in this area can be found at their website.  

Published Sep 25, 2013   Copyright 2013 Breon Mitchell

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