Translating an excerpt from Gunther Geltinger’s Mensch Engel for the June 2010 issue of Words Without Borders was a singular challenge. Geltinger stretches the limits of German syntax so as to capture the rhythm of the protagonist’s thoughts, memories and perceptions as they whir along and turn over and over with the wheels of his bicycle. The endlessness of the bike route through the Loire river valley—evoked in the first lines of the chapter and thematically related to the eternally recurring relationship problems tormenting the two young men—is reflected in sentences that go on and on with a ceaseless motion and a tendency to circle back on themselves. Geltinger exploits the conduciveness of German to long, complicated, and even convoluted sentences, the innate capacity of the language to nest sub-clauses within sub-clauses. English prose conventions can be less hospitable to such complexity. However, the close correspondence between style and content in Geltinger’s text demands that the translator resist the temptation to simplify the deliberately labyrinthine prose.
Thus, I sought all the resources of English grammar, punctuation and sentence structure that would enable me to reproduce Geltinger’s technique. Here is a sentence that, in the original, consists of nothing but sub-clauses separated by commas; in the English version I added dashes and semicolons and rearranged certain words and phrases so as to enhance its readability while avoiding breaking it up or smoothing it out:
Endless, this distance, his frustration, his dissatisfaction, his mistrust, and the fear that Boris could leave him at any time, his senseless thoughts of separation and his longing for a remote, indeterminate horizon on which—after a week in which, by his reckoning, they have to cover seventy kilometers a day under the scorching August sun—the sea will appear, where everything must be different, better with Boris and him, even if he doesn’t know what’s supposed to get better and whether things can ever be different and better with someone like him; at the latest, the sea, by his reckoning, must finally transform the distance into nearness and love; the sea, he thinks every minute, pedaling doggedly, is the goal.
My goal here was to retain what makes Geltinger’s language his own: not only the meaning, but also the intricate construction of the prose, its tempo and texture—in short, its music. Geltinger’s writing shows how an author’s idiom is in fact a new language, making it the translator’s task to reinvent his or her own native tongue in a similar fashion, to mimic the author’s linguistic idiosyncrasy. When the author has transformed conventional elements into an innovative mode of expression, as Geltinger has done here, the translator ought not revert to what is more comfortable and familiar, less eccentric and awkward – which is to say more trite and run of the mill. For that would erase the very fact of the author’s inventiveness. The brilliance of Geltinger’s style is the way it embodies the cadences of the experience it so artfully depicts. The success or failure of the translation depends on its ability to do the same.
Read Ross Benjamin's translation of Man Angel over here.
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