1. How did you discover Walser, and what first inspired you to undertake a translation of his work?
Two of my friends, T. and M., love Walser very much. I can’t remember which of them first spoke to me about him. I remember walking in the Brandenburg countryside outside of Berlin with T., who told me about Walser’s micrograms and the painstaking work involved in deciphering them, and we wondered together at the secrecy and loneliness of writing. Then there was M., who took me to a reading of Walser’s work during the Berlin Literature Festival. A serious young man read from Fritz Kocher’s Essays interspersed with piano music performed by another serious young man. It was my first introduction to the texts themselves and I was immediately hooked by their disingenuousness, by the way Walser adopts the most naïve tone and form so fully and uncompromisingly that he deconstructs it, without once batting an eye or winking knowingly. We sat in our hardback chairs and laughed and were happy. As we were walking out afterwards, another serious young man stood lingering at the door. He approached us and asked us in broken German whether we loved Walser, whether young people in Germany read him. We invited N., who turned out to be American like me, to join us for a drink in what was to be the inauguration of a three-way friendship between M., N., and me, mediated by R. W. As the first of the many gifts that have passed between us, N. gave M. and me a collection of Walser’s writings on Berlin, published as Berlin gibt immer den Ton an (“Berlin always sets the tone,” you might translate this, quickly). The gift came attached with several conditions, one of which was that I translate “Kennen Sie Meier?” So I did. I didn’t think until the translation was completed and published to ask why this particular piece. It seems that N. has a friend called Meier. He doesn’t read German and N. thought he’d like the story.
2. You have translated authors other than Walser. Are there unique challenges that Walser presents, and how do you resolve them?
Walser’s wily neologisms, making full use of the elasticity of the German language that allows words to be strung together ad infinitum, are delicious in the original and something is always sacrificed in translation. Compounding the nouns or the adjectives in his unexpected, even startling way creates a whole slew of meanings the translator has to disentangle and, sadly, sift—there are never as many left when they’re put back together in the second language, speaking for myself anyway. I tried to spell out as many of the intimations as possible so that I had plenty to choose from when I made my choice, doing my best to preserve as many as I could.
3. Do you have Walser prose pieces you particularly love, whether translated by you or by others? Give an example, and tell us what you love about it.
Although I confess to not being familiar with Susan Bernofsky’s translation, “Good morning, Giantess!” makes me happy and a little giddy no matter how many times I read it. The infatuation of the somewhat solitary individual for the city, adoring its bustle and jumble, craving to be part of it—Benjamin writes of Walser’s love of life as the love of the convalescent, and that eager, still-a-bit-pale desire is all over this piece. And then it ends with going back home and drinking hot chocolate, all that puffed up excitement and longing landing with a gentle, reassuring thud in the safety and comfort of one’s own room.
4. Walser speaks of having a manuscript returned to him with the comment that he hasn’t learned to write German. For those of us who don’t read German, can you tell us how Walser’s language might be perceived by a native speaker, and perhaps how that affects a translator’s task?
There is something wilfully unsophisticated about it. One is tempted to believe the apocryphal stories about Walser writing his pieces in one go, not revising a thing. Not because it’s sloppy or muddled, but because it is so direct and off-the-cuff, unrefined, sharp and fresh, like the speech of a child. Indeed there is something conversational about it. Which is not to say that it’s not complex. But its complexity seems to come from taking language at its word, letting it be what it is and do what it does without any fuss, without trying to make it perform properly or contort it into something imposing and “literary.”
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