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Vitality Enough: Translating “Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl”

By Damion Searls

Damion Searls won the 2019 Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize for his monumental translation of Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl (New York Review Books). Published in Germany in four volumes between 1970 and 1983 and in Searls’s translation in two volumes, the book records, in exquisite detail, the daily life of the title character, a German émigré living in New York in 1967 and 1968. She shares stories with her ten-year-old daughter about her upbringing and early adulthood in Germany during WWII and the period of Soviet retribution, and recalls life under Communism. In the acceptance speech below—which Searls delivered at the prize ceremony, held at the New York Goethe Institute on May 23, 2019—he provides insights into the novel’s genesis and reflects on the translation choices he made when bringing Johnson’s work into English.


Thank you very much. I am extremely honored to be getting the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize for Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl—it really is a book of a lifetime, for I think most anyone who reads it but certainly for me as a translator.

I first came upon it and read it nearly twenty-five years ago, which is almost halfway back from now to 1967–68. I had first heard of Uwe Johnson as the author of a book about my favorite writer at the time, Ingeborg Bachmann, and then discovered that he had written this gigantic novel about my neighborhood, New York’s Upper West Side. I grew up three blocks away from the apartment where Gesine and Marie Cresspahl, the book’s main characters, live. So the book means a lot to me for personal reasons as well.

I’m sure that Uwe Johnson would have been thrilled to have his book receive a Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize and feel equally safe in saying that Helen Wolff would be delighted that the prize she endowed went to this novel. They knew each other, but more than that, Helen Wolff was one of the single most important people who made this book possible. In fact, the book is dedicated to Johnson’s first German publisher and to her.

Johnson came to New York in 1965, along with another young star novelist named Günter Grass, much more famous than him at the time. So Johnson would be asked, “Who are you?” and he would answer, in his typical defensive-aggressive way, “Oh, I’m Günter Grass’s photographer.” But it was on that 1965 trip that he met Helen Wolff. He was not happy with the publication by Grove Press of his first novel in English, Speculations about Jakob, or with how the second one was going, and so she, as an editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, got the second novel away from Grove, published a translation of his third novel as well, worked with him on revising the translation, and most importantly, got him a job in New York, at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, working on a textbook for high school German-language learners. That’s how he lived in New York for the first year he was here, 1966–67. Then Wolff and her friend Hannah Arendt got him a Rockefeller Fellowship and he was able to stay a second year. Wolff talked to her boss and got permission for Johnson to have an office, too, so, as he later said, he would take the same commute as the year before, go to work, show up on time, close the door, and read the newspaper. But that was where he wrote the beginning of Anniversaries.

Some of the things I’ve read even say that it was Helen Wolff who gave him the idea to stop writing about East Germany/West Germany and instead write about East/West in the context of America/Europe, and that is really the core of the book.

Wolff introduced him to all sorts of people, not only the glittering literati; she arranged for him to take a ride in a police squad car so he could see what that was like, she introduced him to bankers, she took him to a baseball game, she really was central to his immersion into New York life. Not only did he dedicate the book to her, as I said, but at the end of his life after finishing the book he said this in an interview, which I think speaks to the importance she had for him and his project: “With the publication, the delivery, of the fourth volume, it feels like I’ve kept a promise I made. First, a promise to Gesine Cresspahl to finish the thing. Second, to Helen Wolff, who kept threatening me that she would die before I finished it, but luckily I did manage to finish it. Third and most important, that I’ve kept a promise to the readers . . .” and he goes on (Dec. 8, 1983, my translation). That’s the company he puts her in: the readers who are most important to the work of literature, and the character, this incredible character that he created, and Helen Wolff—those were the people he wrote the book for.


There’s so much to say about Johnson and this book, but since this is a translator’s prize, I thought I would say just one thing about translation. I’m very moved that, in awarding the Wolff Prize to this book, the jury statement mentioned the acoustics of it, calling it a “sparkling translation” in “meticulous, acoustically spellbinding prose.” Because that is so much what matters in a translation and so little what anyone ever talks about. Everyone talks about the accuracy, or perhaps faithfulness, but the sound of it is what makes or breaks it, like anything else one reads.

There’s a line from Gertrude Stein that I think about a lot in this context, from an essay called “Henry James” (which isn’t really about Henry James). She says: It’s not clarity that’s desirable but force. Which she also calls vitality. She says clarity is of no importance because nobody listens, and nobody knows what you mean, no matter what you mean or how clearly you mean what you mean, but if you have vitality enough to know enough about what you mean, then people will have to realize that you mean what you mean, and agree, that you mean what it is you know you mean. And that is as close to understanding anybody that anyone can ever reach. I’m quoting from memory so this isn’t precisely what she says, but the point is, it’s not about the clarity of a translation except insofar as it’s about the force of a translation.

One review that did briefly mention this in the context of Anniversaries was Mary Stewart’s in the TLS. Because there’s an earlier, partial translation of Anniversaries to compare it to, it’s a bit easier to talk about different sonic qualities in mine, so Stewart quoted the first sentence of the book in both translations. The earlier one read: “Long waves sweep slanting against the beach, hump muscled backs, raise trembling combs that tip over at the greenest summit.” And my version is: “Long waves beat diagonally against the beach, bulge hunchbacked with cords of muscle, raise quivering ridges that tip over at their very greenest.” What the reviewer said was: “The unusual details are all there again, but their impact is the greater for a choice of wording that makes visual and aural sense.”

I only wish she had said a little more! Because it’s actually quite hard to know what that means, “visual and aural sense.” In actually translating this passage, if I remember right, I translated it relatively quickly. It was the first paragraph of the book, so it was important; I looked at the earlier translation, but I sort of just went ahead and did it, with the exception of one word that I’ll talk about later. And I didn’t go back and revise it that much. So what I’m going to say now that I’m trying to analyze “OK, what does make aural and visual sense?” isn’t what I was thinking as I was doing it. But I still think it’s true about what I was doing.

To start with the earlier translation, it’s hard to say the words “hump muscled backs”: the u-m-p-m-u sound is really unpleasant if you try and say it. The rhythm of

   /         /   ∪       /     ,   

“hump muscled backs, 

  /        /   ∪         /

raise trembling cones”

is nice in the earlier translation, and “raise trembling cones that tip over” has the nice assonance with the cones and over, but the assonance is kind of in the wrong place—you don’t want to land on “over,” you want to land on the tipping. My version was “bulge hunchbacked with cords of muscle, raise quivering ridges that tip over,” so you get the QUIVering RIdges that TIP, and then it tips over.

You have to talk on this level if you want to really get into what makes aural sense. In terms of the visual sense, I think sweeping against a beach is different from beating against a beach!  Sweeping stays on the surface and doesn’t really penetrate in, it’s not hitting it, just sort of brushing it, so “Long waves sweep slanting against the beach” isn’t quite the same as beating diagonally against the beach. As for “diagonally,” it’s too bad, German has this great word schräg, one syllable, boom, to mean *tilts body and holds arms aslant.* “Slanting” is two syllables, “diagonally” is unfortunately five, but even so, a wave hitting the beach slanting just isn’t quite there. The same with the “greenest summit” in the earlier translation, the waves that “tip over at the greenest summit.” I don’t know, I can’t quite picture the summit of a wave. Waves don’t have hunchbacks either, of course, but that’s an image you can see. The translation as “summit” might actually be a bit of a mistake: in German the waves tips over “im grünsten Stand,” where Stand could mean the state of standing up, or its height or level (it is a word for water level), but Stand also means “condition” or “state,” so “at its very greenest” makes sense. To me more sense than “the greenest summit,” because waves aren’t actually green at the top, they have whitecaps.

The second sentence has several issues that are easier to describe. The earlier translation was: “The taut roll, already streaked with white, enfolds a hollow space of air that is crushed by the clear mass as if a secret had been created and destroyed there.” And my translation is: “Crests stretched tight, already welted white, wrap round a cavity of air crushed by the clear mass like a secret made and then broken.”

It starts with “The taut roll.” What is that? A breakfast roll? A tightly wound roll of fabric? It’s supposed to be a tense, tight rolling motion, so “Taut rolling” would have been better in some ways; “roll” means too many things, and here, right at the start of the second sentence, we just can’t picture what she’s talking about. The German is a straffe Überschlag, where Überschlag is the normal word for “somersault.” It’s a compound word meaning “over-strike” or “whipping over” or something along those lines. “A taut somersault” would have been clearer, even though somersaults aren’t really taut. In any case, I made the sentence more visibly about waves, then got the action into the verb: “Crests stretched tight, already welted white, wrap round.”

The earlier sentence says it “enfolds a hollow space of air,” which closely follows the German, “einen runden Hohlraum Luft”—Hohlraum is a compound noun with two cognates, hohl is “hollow” and raum is “room” or “space,” but in English this reads like a triple redundancy: air is space which is hollow. We can use the resources of English to keep things moving: “a cavity of air” does all the work of “a hollow space of air.”

Finally, the end of the sentence in the earlier translation just trails off: “crushed by the clear mass as if a secret had been created and destroyed there.” This is the first moment of interpersonal relations in the novel, and it’s a fraught one—secrets! broken promises! The English needs more punch: I say “crushed by the clear mass like a secret made and then broken.” “Like” instead of “as if” means you don’t need that fussy “had been” and the “there” at the end. “Made” and “broken” are punchier verbs than “created” and “destroyed,” and are also better suited to secrets: you don’t “destroy” a secret in English. (You don’t “break” one either, but at least you break a promise, and the grammar with “like” makes the verbs semi-apply to the cavity, more than in the “as if” version of the sentence.)

Here are the two versions again:

The taut roll, already streaked with white, enfolds a hollow space of air that is crushed by the clear mass as if a secret had been created and destroyed there.


Crests stretched tight, already welted white, wrap round a cavity of air crushed by the clear mass like a secret made and then broken.

That’s three or four more roadblocks to reading in the earlier translation. Now that I’m looking so closely at it, I see room for improvement in my translation too—I wonder now why I didn’t get a somersault in there, I could have said it “somersaults round” instead of “wraps round.” I also could have said the secret was “kept and then broken,” or “like a secret promise, made and then broken.” There are pros and cons to both of these. But at least the sentence muscles ahead with real energy.

Anyway, one could go on like this, if one wanted to truly plumb the depths of what makes aural and visual sense. We’ve gotten through two sentences of a 1,700-page book, there’s a lot more to say. Again, this isn’t how a translator works: I guarantee you, I did not consciously think about any of this when I was translating it. But at the same time, it’s kind of what goes into it.

The one thing that really brought me up short was the last word of the paragraph. What’s happening in this paragraph is that our hero is swimming at the Jersey shore but remembering her childhood. The rest of the first paragraph is (in just my translation here): “The crashing swells knock children off their feet, spin them round, drag them flat across the pebbly ground. Past the breakers, the waves pull the swimmer across their backs by her outstretched hands. The wind is fluttery; in low-pressure wind like this, the Baltic Sea used to peter out into a burble.” Then the earlier translator ended the paragraph: “The word for the short waves of the Baltic was choppity.” Choppity. And I thought, that’s pretty good, it’s a strange word but I know what it means, it’s like “choppy.” That’s what I put in my draft and then I moved on. In fact the galleys of the book say “choppity.”

But at some point, near the end, in fact once I had finished the book and was looking at the galleys, I thought: Wait, that’s wrong. It’s not choppity. And I don’t know what the criteria were for making this decision, because any word here is “right,” it’s just a word that has the definition Johnson says it has. But this is what a translator really has to be doing. “Choppity” just suddenly seemed to me too Beatrix Potter, “hippity hoppity bippity boppity”—too English as opposed to American, you might say, or if you don’t want to put it in national terms, too Beatrix Potter as opposed to someone like Emily Brontë. And that was not what the energy of this Baltic memory was, the memory bursting into Gesine’s experience as she’s swimming in New Jersey. And that’s why I changed it. “The word for the short waves on the Baltic was: scrabbly.

Which isn’t a word I’ve ever heard applied to waves either, but you sort of know what it means, and, it just has a different energy, or as Gertrude Stein says, vitality about it. It’s a different kind of experience. Today, when I was thinking about what I would say tonight, I decided to go to the OED and German etymological dictionaries and try to figure out if I could reverse-engineer a good reason for having picked this word. Sure enough I could. Kabbelig, the regional German word in Johnson’s original, is of course sonically very similar to “scrabbly”; that doesn’t always mean anything, but German and English are pretty close, so it sometimes means something. There’s also Kabbelei, or a verb form, kabbeln, that means to squabble, or quarrel, or have a scrappy little argument, so the scrabbly/scrappy slippage actually works well. “Scrabble” isn’t an Americanism but “hardscrabble” is; “scrabble” has different meanings, which I’d never really thought about before looking it up: of scribbling, like writing, scribble-scrabble, and also scratching around or raking or clawing, which was what I mainly pictured, and then there’s scrambling along, struggling or scrambling for something. And with “hardscrabble,” which is more American than English, it does have this more belligerent or confrontational energetic vitality about it.

And the thing is, when I made that change from “choppity” to “scrabbly”. . . I secretly believe it changed the whole book. All 1,700 pages were different. I don’t literally believe that, but deep down, I kind of mystically believe it. That the whole book is different, because it’s not choppity, it’s scrabbly. I would even say that my slogan as a translator, my manifesto, instead of Make It New, like Ezra Pound said—mine is Make It Scrabbly! Because it’s not clarity that’s desirable, but force.

So I’m very grateful, not only for the prize, but for the extremely rare, sensitive recognition that these almost ineffable sonic aspects are what matter. In what we read and what we write, and how we translate. Thank you.


Read an excerpt from Damion Searls's translation of Uwe Johnson's Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl

Published Sep 6, 2019   Copyright 2019 Damion Searls

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