Sewanee, TN—December 21st, 2013
It is a pleasure to be able to open this exchange with you. When we first began to write one another, I had only published two short excerpts from Josef Winkler’s books, a section of Natura Morta and a few pages of Domra, and these were the first pieces of his that had appeared in English in fifteen years. Not long afterward, we were both asked to contribute pieces to the volume of literature devoted to Winkler’s work, and now, When the Time Comes has been published and Natura Morta is coming not far behind. You have been a companion throughout, and your impeccable translations are of course an inspiration and a model.
Shall we begin with the idea of obsessiveness? First because Winkler became a sort of instant obsession for me—it was maybe a month after reading Natura Morta that I had bought everything he had written, and I began translating him that fall—and second because a marked characteristic of his work is the unwillingness or incapacity to depart from a fairly limited number of themes. The backgrounds change, but whether he is in Roppongi, Mexico City, or Varanasi, the same images crop up like ghosts: the pig with its throat slit, the two boys who hanged themselves together, his aunt lifting him up over the coffin to look down at the dead face of his grandmother. I tend to relate these to two phenomena well-known in psychology: the so-called “intrusive memories” common to trauma sufferers and what is known as memory-rehearsal, an act by which our recollections of the past become more refined, sharp-edged, and potent. A curious aspect of Winkler’s writing is his ability to impress his own concerns onto the reader. I, at least, do not grow bored seeing the same scenes played out again, though I have read all of his books, and some of them several times; the fine-grained differences, the way the contours of an event harden or soften over time, is fascinating to me. Proust is the great writer of memory and time, but with the possible exception of Albertine disparue, I don’t know that he delves so deeply into the evolutions of memory in time, and this seems to me one of Winkler’s signal contributions. I suppose these memories take the place of protagonists in Winkler’s writings, they have a kind of disembodied reality and serve to maintain tension in the novels.
As this is the beginning of our dialogue, I don’t want to write too much; I will wait for your thoughts and then we will see where this goes.
Dans l’attente de te lire,
Berlin—January 25th, 2014
Thank you for this first letter. I’m happy to have this exchange with you about the reading and the translation of Josef Winkler’s work. I’ll try to write in English, that is in my “Esperanto English,” and you’ll have to make some corrections; sometimes maybe I’ll give one word or one expression or one sentence in another language when I feel my thoughts much too much restricted by the language. I find it interesting to have a multilingual correspondence about a rather monolingual author whose experience of multiculturality and world literature comes from a very small world, the one of his tiny village. I was there once with Winkler and his family (imagine visiting Illiers-Combray with Proust or Yoknapatawpha with Faulkner): it appeared to me even smaller than in the novels, but I was and still am so full of the images from the books that I didn’t see the “reality,” I only recognized what I had read about before: the cruciform village, the sixteen steps leading to the second floor of the family house, the armless Christ; it’s true though, that the “real” neighbor wouldn’t greet Winkler, he glared at us with ire and mistrust, and his mother, who was still living at the time, and his sister as well, and they spoke hardly a word, one moved about quietly and slightly cowering. As Werner Kofler, another of my favorite authors from Carinthia, has written: the reader exclaims “Reality!” and the author says, “Literature!”—The reader exclaims “Literature!” and the author says, “Reality!” The same goes for Winkler. Certainly it is a matter of obsessions. And many of these “obsessed” Austrian writers have the ability to obsess us, readers and translators.
My own story as a translator of Winkler is different from yours (selbstverständlich!): the first Winkler I read was Graveyard of Bitter Oranges in the early 90’s. It was one of the very significant moments for me as an adult reader (similar to discovering Rimbaud, Lautréamont and Proust when I was 17), and comparable only to finding Koltès, I think. Then I met Winkler at the Austrian Institute in Paris when he gave a reading there. A few years afterward there came the offer from Jean-Yves Masson, the editor of the Döppelganger series of translations from German at the publisher Verdier, to translate When the Time Comes. Winkler is a very productive writer and his first translator Eric Dortu (who did Graveyard, The Serf, and Domra) had no time. Naturally, translation is a matter of time but also, regarding Winkler, a matter of obsession. Sometimes people ask me, how do you bear this atmosphere of death, suicide, horrible rural stories, these severed chicken heads, cuts of meat, etc. Actually, as a translator, in the moment when I am translating, only the language and the technical aspects are there; either there is a distance between myself and the “facts” or else I imagine one, because, even if the act of translating requires this distance, the flow of the language and images becomes obsessive all the same. One ought not to evade them but sometimes a break is necessary. These intervals I find either in other occupations, or in translating other authors.
“Read you soon,”
Girona—January 28th, 2014
It was so nice to receive your mail, naturally I was worried with the holidays and the abrupt return of your university work you would be too tied up for this correspondence.
It is true that there is an absolute darkness to Winkler that skews your perspective somewhat as a reader, especially when the act of translation brings you into such intimate and unremitting contact with his work. This occurred to me the other day when I realized that I was rereading Mishima and Dostoevsky to relax after translating a section from the Graveyard of Bitter Oranges! I’m curious to know which of the linguistic and technical aspects preoccupy you most with Winkler’s work, particularly as we’ve translated two of the same books, When the Time Comes and Natura Morta; whether there were unique challenges, pleasures, or frustrations for each one. For me there was a practical matter in that the former was the first book I translated, I had no sort of routine and made every decision nach meinem Bauchgefühl, but it is also true that the two are very different: the first fugue-like, with its constant invocations of the bone cooker, the calvary, the verses from Baudelaire, the second more quiet and measured.
Of course English-speaking readers, who are just coming to know Winkler, will not know of the importance of repetition in Winkler’s work, of the fact that his mother’s and sister’s silences, the sixteen steps of the staircase, the leering of the neighbors, are repeated ad infinitum in almost all of his major works. You mentioned Proust, who is a great writer of time but whose canvas is very broad; for me, one of Winkler’s major contributions is the examination of the same small number of memories, and which aspects of them change and which persist in the coarse of time. There is this longing for an exorcism that is ever deferred, which I thought was described so beautifully in his newest book, which deals overtly with his mother’s silence, when he once again recollects how his aunt lifted him over his grandmother’s coffin, commanding him to look at her dead face:
How many thousands of times must it still be repeated, before this coffin will be pulled from me and taken to its grave, be it in Heaven or Hell?
Saint-Épain—February 1st, 2014
Last time I answered partly in German and you had to translate. This time I’ll write in my “mother tongue” and you’ll have to translate it as well. Sorry, but—apart from the fact that my English is rather primitive—I think it is a good experiment to write in several languages. Though when I do write in English, I have the impression that I say things and people understand them. This is a something curious about English as a global language: when I was in the USA and apologized for my English, people looked at me and were surprised. Nevertheless, I knew it was quite poor. (I like to say “My tailor is rich, my English is poor”—the first sentence of the very famous first lesson of the French Assimil Method for learning English.)
A strange thing: I said I’d write everything in my mother tongue and then wrote everything in English. Correspondence is like a conversation, and since we’ve never met in person or spoken to one another we don’t yet have a favorite, natural, spontaneous language of communication (I think one develops it by speaking, not writing).
I’ll continue in French: you ask me what occupies me the most when I am translating Winkler. I should tell you, first of all, that my debuts with Winkler were rather tentative. The first two books I translated by him were also When the Time Comes and Natura Morta (I have since translated the book on Jean Genet, which was not published, as well as Muttersprache / Langue Maternelle in 2008 and then Roppongi in 2012). When Jean-Yves Masson (poet, author, translator, and also my colleague in comparative literature at the Sorbonne, as well as a scrupulous reader and evaluator of all the translations that he publishes) proposed that I translate When the Time Comes, he sent me a copy of the book beforehand. And I read it in a single night, something that I hadn’t done in a long time, devouring a book like that; and that night of reading is associated in my mind with the insomnia of Katherine, the mother in the book who stands at the window looking out over the cemetery, and the tomb of her son, the suicide, that hovers there; it should be said that at the time, we were living in a village in Burgundy, the cemetery lay across the yard, and there was a woman from the village, Yvonne, who became a friend and would come over to the house to chat. Though one part of her family had roots there and she wasn’t simply a hanger-on of the sort that are so common in French villages, the natives almost always called her the American: she had spent almost forty years in the United States after marrying an American soldier at the end of the Second World War) before coming back to live in the village; and one of the reasons she stayed there was that the grave of her only son, who had died in a car accident at nine or ten years of age during a visit to France, was there; and over the tomb, in that cemetery which in other respects was quintessentially French, there was a book carved in stone with the English words, “To my beloved Tom.” All these coincidences come to mind when I write you; it was a very pretty village, a magnificent landscape, but the atmosphere was rather dreadful, really not any better than in Kamering, where Josef Winkler was born. Well, I’ve digressed. Whatever the case, that book had been written—by means of a retrospective illusion—in accordance with the place where I read it. Still, I had translated very little at the time, and my admiration for Winkler caused me to balk; I didn’t think I was capable of contending with prose of that character. But then I threw myself into it. And it is undoubtedly one of the translations that I have worked and reworked the most, I polished it, read it, reread it, had it reread, and from that point of view, this first Winkler book was my “school”: this was in 1999-2000, and at the time I had a primitive computer and no Internet; I worked at a normal rhythm, I only had paper dictionaries, I was not constantly on the hunt for information that was a click away; no, I listened to the old people in the café in the neighboring village to find the right tone for the diabolic and grotesque exchange among the three brothers toward the end of the book; I went into the funeral parlors to ask what sort of inscriptions one put on the ribbons of mortuary wreaths and it was disheartening, because one is much more expressive and expansive with these matters in Austria than in France, where the formulas are always the same and quite conventional; I would go in and say: I’ve not come here to bury someone or to order flowers; I’m a translator and I only need details for a book; how would one speak in such-and-such a situation, would this be the right word; maybe they would tell me, maybe they would say to themselves that I was a little mad or, with justification, obsessed.
If I say that this first Winkler was my school, I mean that it disciplined me in the ensemble of difficulties that come with Winkler’s work: I had to absorb those lessons about looking. Several years later, when I was translating Natura Morta, Winkler said to me that it was enough for me to go to the markets and look—at the poultry, the rabbits, the butchers, the fruits, the vegetable hawkers, the customers—in order to capture the right image; and there you have it: the images are not so different in a French market and in a Roman one (if at all!), but they still have to be put in words; and thus, even before Natura Morta, When the Time Comes was a school of writing at once descriptive and paradoxically realistic, of still-life and genre painting: to describe an interior, to describe movements—in brief, to experience these sensations and gestures before reproducing them in French; and thus, to use your expression, there was something of a Bauchgefühl, but very briefly; my translation appeared to me more like a work of marquetry. The second major difficulty I had to face with When the Time Comes was that of syntax: like Natura Morta (but unlike Langue Maternelle), it contains numerous long ornate sentences, those protracted periods Winkler employs to subsume in a single phrase an entire fragment of reality, of space and time, with their successions of subordinate prepositions. Once you’ve gotten the knack of it, you’re a bit like a Chinese calligrapher; you come to be able to reproduce a complex structure rapidly.
Voilà—I’ll stop myself. Now you have grist for the mill (in French we say, “bread on the board”): not only do you have to write back, but you have to translate me as well. Merci!
Mèze—February 10th, 2014
I was going to give myself another day or two to answer you, but I couldn’t resist adding one more place to our correspondence, particularly as we are in your country, though in the Languedoc, fairly far from you, where we have come to visit the documentarian Jean-Marie Teno. You were not wrong about there being grist for the mill; both your reminiscences and your discussion of the technical aspects of translating Winkler have given me a great deal to think about. Certainly insomnia has a place in Winkler’s work—when you mentioned the suicide of Jonathan’s mother, I thought of the chapter in Domra in which, driven mad by the noises in his hotel, Winkler collapses into his wife’s arms, as well as the terrible lines that recurred to me at night, numerous times as I translated When the Time Comes:
In the clay vessel where the putrid-smelling bone stock was rendered from the bones of slaughtered animals, to be brushed with a crow’s feather on the horses, around their eyes and nostrils and on their bellies, to protect them from the mosquitoes and horseflies, Maximilian, the bone collector, shifts the skeletons of Willibald and Hildegard Zitterer, laying the skeleton of Hildegard over the bones of her mother, Elisabeth Kirchheimer, who, after long and painful suffering, a few days after she’d asked the thirteen-year-old Maximilian, who sat on the sunken-in, urine-scented sofa flipping through his Karl May book, whether he had heard the Tschufitl, the death-bird, cry out, perished in the farmhouse under the eyes of her son and the family doctor.
This passage also exemplifies the kind of long, I would say symphonic sentences that characterize much of Winkler’s work. I am not well-educated in regards to music and hence hesitate to use musical terminology but it does seem to me that there is a polyphonic aspect to both When the Time Comes and Natura Morta: in the former, the invocation of the bone-cooker, of the calvary, of the cross-shaped village, of Baudelaire, and in the latter, the various personages in the market and even certain repeated details such as Piccoletto’s long eyelashes, “which graze his freckle-studded cheeks,” seem to recur in a musical pattern and, as you noted earlier, the purpose of Winkler’s extended phrases often seems to be to fit all these countervailing details into a single, complete tableau. If I were to give in to my penchant for psychologizing, I would relate this in some way to the profound sense of loss that lies in the background of all of Winkler’s writing and to a kind of compulsive identification of recollection with redemption. This is something that comes through most clearly and most painfully for me in the chapter on the “repatriation” of the dead at the end of Graveyard of Bitter Oranges.
Although my translation experience was different from yours (without the Internet, I wouldn’t have known who Winkler was), the idea of When the Time Comes and Natura Morta as schooling resonated with me very deeply. When the Time Comes was not only my first Winkler book but the first book I ever translated, and I began it on an utter whim, first because I couldn’t believe that Winkler’s work was unknown in the English-speaking world and second because my wife had gone out of town for a month and I needed something to occupy myself. The first time through I had numerous questions and doubts, some of which you were kind enough to help me with, sharing your correspondence with Winkler from when you yourself had translated the book. I had written Petra Hardt from Suhrkamp about doing the book but then went through it rather leisurely until one day she wrote me asking when I was going to have the book done, as she wanted to take it to Frankfurt. The version I’d done hadn’t been proofread, I’d left countless troublesome passages as-is and had done virtually no editing for style, but I didn’t want to make a bad impression, so for a week or so (insomnia, again) I got out of bed at four or five in the morning, walked down to the lobby of my building, and went over the manuscript with a fine-tooth comb. When I did find a publisher, a year or so later, I repeated the process numerous times, weeding out infelicities, ironing out awkward phrasings, shifting clauses around and so forth in order to come up with a version that would respect both the intricacy and elegance of the original. Fortunately, I learned a number of practical lessons in that time, and when I came later to translate and edit Natura Morta, which is, admittedly, a much shorter book, the process was fairly painless.
It is odd, what a translator draws on to call up the mental atmosphere necessary to do justice to another’s text, and it reminds you that linguistic facility is only a part of the job. I recollect here Heidegger’s comment that thinking is both a listening and a saying; the process of translation, particularly when it comes to going back over the text, smoothing out the rough edges and so on, is really comparing the text one has written with a kind of Ur-text composed of imagined sounds and images that are provoked by the text in its original language, to see where they do and don’t match up. As you know, my wife is Galician, and when I try to grasp the significance of Catholicism for Winkler, I think of such things as the swastikas I saw drawn in crayon on the stone lions guarding the cathedral in Avila, the carved wooden altarpiece in the cathedral in Tui with the screaming sinners falling from the devil’s fanged mouth, and the curious nexus of corruption, superstition, venality, and ignorance that permitted fascism to take root in Spain as well as in Austria. Though my upbringing in the United States was not especially rural, conversations quite similar to the one you mention from the end of When the Time Comes, where the three old men cavil about the greed of the Jews, the sneakiness of the Italians and Romanians, and how much better things were under Hitler, had their own analogues in Tennessee, where even today people who can scarcely spell their name will lecture you about how much better things would have been if the South had won the Civil War.
I know the Assimil method! I have used it for Catalan. Sadly there is nothing so funny as to have gained the currency that the line from the English set has—apparently it was through his attempts to learn English with the Assimil method that Eugène Ionesco was inspired to write The Bald Soprano. Still, one phrase from the Catalan lessons, a cliché, comes to mind, and has certainly proven true with regards to this very fruitful exchange: “Qui llengua ha, a Roma va.”
Bernard Banoun is translator and professor of German literature at Paris-Sorbonne. His research focuses on opera libretti and the relationship between literature and music, the history of translation, and men’s studies. His literary translations include works by Josef Winkler, Werner Kofler, Yoko Tawada, Thomas Jonigk, and Bertolt Brecht. Adrian West is a writer and literary translator living between Philadelphia and Girona, Spain. His book-length translations include Josef Winkler’s When the Time Comes and Natura Morta and the Catalan poet Pere Gimferrer’s long poem cycle Alma Venus.
Photo of Winkler by Amrei-Marie, user on the German Wikipediaderivative work: Parzi (talk) – Josef_Winkler.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15266049
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