I spent the academic year 2001–2 in Berlin. This was a year bracketed by tragedies that took place in my absence—one huge and life-changing for millions of people, one small and life-changing for just a few. The year began with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and ended with my beloved friend and mentor William Weaver suffering a massive stroke in July 2002.
I had arrived in Berlin on June 21, the first day of summer. This was late for me; in those years, I was in the habit of traveling to Berlin the moment classes were over and returning just a few days before it was time to start teaching again. This time I left late, because I had a sabbatical stretching out before me, an entire year to spend in the beautiful library of the Staatsbibliothek Preußischer Kulturbesitz on Potsdamerstraße, the place where the opening scene of Wings of Desire was filmed. In the course of that year, I would finish writing my book Foreign Words, about literary translation as theorized and practiced by great German writers (Schlegel, Schleiermacher, Hölderlin, Kleist, Goethe) around the turn of the nineteenth century.
My German summer began with an “Übersetzerstudienreise,” a “translators study tour” for American translators of German literature sponsored by the Goethe Institut that allowed me to spend two weeks traveling around Germany visiting publishers and literature houses, and meeting critics and authors. I was in illustrious company: Krishna Winston was there, Breon Mitchell, John E. Woods. Michael Henry Heim spent the entire trip learning new vocabulary words to increase his fluency in Chinese, no doubt his fourteen or fifteenth language at that point. On this tour I first encountered the work of Jenny Erpenbeck, who’d just published her first book, Geschichte vom alten Kind (Story of the Old Child); I was given a copy by her publisher in Frankfurt and fell in love with it on the train to Munich.
Back in Berlin, I participated in a quite different workshop for translators, this one designed for translators of German literature from all over the world: the yearly “Sommerakademie” hosted by the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin. Then I settled down to my own work. Besides finishing my book, I was translating Peter Szondi’s Celan Studies for Stanford University Press. This is a book whose writing was interrupted by tragedy—Peter Szondi committed suicide while writing it (just a year after his friend Celan’s suicide), and his pain is evident in these essays, particularly the unfinished one, “Eden.”
My work was interrupted by the unimaginable. A friend called me up at 3:01 in the afternoon, having heard on the news one minute before that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. It was 9:01 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, and for the next two weeks I would spend most of my days huddled in front of the small television set in my Schöneberg sublet, sitting on an IKEA shelf I had repurposed as a bench. My vacant apartment in upstate New York became a temporary haven for NYU friends.
All of Berlin was in mourning. I’ve just written about that so won’t repeat it here. I was so moved by the outpourings of emotion I saw. On September 12 I went to the Berlin Philharmonic for a chamber music performance by young American musicians. Before they played, one of the musicians said a few words; none of them knew how long it would be before they would be able to go home again. At the end of the performance, there were no bows, just the silence the musicians had requested, louder than any applause. Some in the audience were weeping. There were a lot of tears those days, and displays of fellow-feeling between Berliners and Americans. These feelings soon vanished as George W. Bush began to pursue his hateful policies, but during these days and weeks I saw expressions of warmth and solidarity everywhere.
I learned of Bill Weaver’s stroke when the dean of Bard College called me in Berlin to ask if I could take over his translation workshop; it seemed, she said, that it might be months before he would be able to return to the classroom. At the time it was not yet clear that Bill would never teach or translate again, that the damage his memory processing center had suffered in the stroke (specifically, the ability to turn short- into long-term memory) would silence him. Ever since, he has lived in a combination of the present tense and the distant past, in ever greater isolation as his old friends die or move away. No new memories = no new friendships.
Sitting down to write these words, I am struck by how quickly even powerful memories can slip into vagueness and oblivion, even in a healthy brain. Things I felt sure I would never forget now feel insubstantial, anchored only by photographic images and annotations in an old appointment book. I am grateful for memorials, and for communal memory.