I was asked to translate “August” by Christa Wolf, a story completed by the prominent East German author just six months before her death in 2011. Her writing is beautiful. The story is short and the commission paid well. It would look extremely good on my CV. But how could I, someone whose reading and translation work focuses on a much younger generation of German-language writers, possibly live up to the task? And how, especially, would I translate a piece when I couldn’t ask any questions of its writer?
The first step was to read the work. Thirty-two pages, quietly rendering a man’s life east of Germany. It tells the story of a small boy, August, who loses his parents to the war and its aftermath, then spends three seasons at a TB hospital in the Soviet Occupied Zone. There he meets Lilo, a teenage girl who helps take care of the younger patients. August adores Lilo, and resents every scrap of attention she devotes to anyone else. But Lilo is perfect in his eyes and so can only be fair with her affections. We witness everyday scenes, lessons and songs and stories, budding romances and sudden deaths in the “Mottenburg” or “Consumption Castle”—an abandoned stately home as cold as an ice palace, where food is scarce and fat is unavailable. Gradually all the other children there die or have to leave, and one day Lilo, restored to health, returns to her family.
August remembers the time as he drives a busload of pensioners back to Berlin after a trip to Prague. He has led a simple life, on his own until he met and married Trude, who liked to stay at home and spend holidays on their balcony in East Berlin. These are his achievements: becoming a heavy vehicle driver, being content with his wife, and having once learned, though Lilo, that sadness and happiness can occur together. Now Trude has been dead a few years and he still can’t get used to coming home to an empty flat, but in sum his life has been a good one.
A simple, calm story on first reading, reflecting on a simple life well lived. This, I thought, I can manage. The plain but affectionate style reminded me of Anna Seghers, another East German writer—probably the other woman writer of the GDR—whose work I have admired since I was a rebellious undergraduate. (There’s nothing like a stubbornly socialist writer to annoy British academics.) I told a friend I’d be fine to translate it, because although I hadn’t read all of Christa Wolf’s work I had read almost everything by Anna Seghers. My friend laughed. She didn’t sound convinced.
There was one thing, though, that nagged at me during that first reading, namely Lilo’s character. She came across like a Victorian heroine: all good deeds and kind thoughts, all self-sacrifice and never a mean word. Yes, we see her through August’s eyes—the over-the-shoulder perspective is in the third person but the thoughts are almost all August’s—yet surely no young woman could be quite that saccharine? At least no young woman in a story by Christa Wolf. I am being disingenuous, of course. I knew all along that the story is a return to Wolf’s major 1976 novel Patterns of Childhood. The August character and the hospital setting, I knew, first cropped up in her treatment of her own childhood under the Nazis. To understand the characters, I realized, I would have to read the earlier book.
And so I did. Over 600 pages in the German paperback edition, 400-odd in Ursule Molinaro and Hedwig Rappolt’s English version. That alone is a major difference. But I was soon struck by the big, big thing that marks out Patterns of Childhood as an experiment in autobiographical writing: its distinct narration. As Wolf puts it, in a translation I found clunky enough to put aside very quickly, perhaps arrogantly:
as months went by, the dilemma crystallized: to remain speechless, or else to live in the third person. The first is impossible, the second strange. And as usual, the less unbearable alternative will win out.
In tackling her own behavior during the Nazi dictatorship, Wolf found it impossible to write in the first person. During 1971 and 1972 she made 33 attempts to start the novel, abandoning each manuscript after only a few pages. Until she found a modus operandum that enabled her to tell the story. The structure is complex: a narrator, perhaps Wolf herself, describes, addresses, and admonishes her adult self in the second-person while detailing the writing process over several years, including political and private occurrences. Along with her brother, husband, and daughter, she visits the town where she grew up, now in Poland. And this visit is interspersed with the narrative of her childhood, which is told in the third-person. The child here goes by the name of Nelly.
I began thinking about fiction and autobiography, and where we draw the lines between them and whether we need or indeed ought to do so. About identity and how much we wish to know about the author. I know a few writers, most of them German, and have even experienced the delight of spotting myself—or believing as much—in a (fully clothed) cameo role from a friend’s porn book for women. Reading a book when I know the author, no matter how well, becomes even more a journey of conjecture than usual. Is this his opinion or the character’s, did that really happen to her, isn’t that rather like her own childhood? In the wake of Patterns of Childhood, every book I read seemed to pose questions about writing and autobiographical material: David Wagner’s Lives about a liver transplant, Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story about a love affair. No matter how hard I try, no matter how many books I read, I find myself equating the narrator with the writer.
My daughter and I went to Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie and I found myself fascinated by two self-portraits, Lovis Corinth’s Selbstporträt vor der Staffelei and Arnold Böcklin’s Selbstbildnis mit fiedelndem Tod. Corinth painted himself shabby, cheerless and brown—this was in 1919, right after the end of World War I—but with a canvas taking up the right-hand edge of the picture, indicating the artist’s vocation. But surely, I thought, there’s a huge element of artifice in this picture. Corinth is leaning away from the canvas, presumably looking toward a mirror, his body twisted in our direction as he rests one leg on a table of some kind. He can’t really have maintained that posture for hours on end while he applied the paint. And while he was at it, perhaps he prettied himself up to some extent. Perhaps he couldn’t be bothered to shave one day, I told my daughter, but simply painted his chin smooth for appearances’ sake. My daughter shrugged. One floor up, we came across Böcklin. Back in 1872 there was no shame in pathos, and Böcklin grips a palette, a brush and a scrap of cloth. Behind him, a skeletal death plays the fiddle. He looks rather dapper, certainly not as if he were being pursued by any kind of chronic disease or fear. Well, I philosophised on what I hoped was the right level for a twelve-year-old, it looks like he was quite interested in death. How far could I trust these two narrators of themselves, I wondered. And why did I want art to be “authentic” and free from artifice?
To return to the writing, however, Wolf’s authorial voice intervenes so strongly in Patterns of Childhood as she details the writing process that we are constantly aware of her distance from the protagonist, and yet how close she is. Wolf does not seem overly fond of Nelly. The child is an inveterate liar and a practiced thief, for a start, and soon falls for the Nazi ideology she is spoon-fed at school. We see the influence her favorite teacher has over her and the way she ignores her more skeptical parents. We learn how she refuses to believe Germany could lose the war, even days before her family flee their home to escape the advancing Red Army. We see her mother burning Nelly’s diary because its contents, including heartfelt oaths of allegiance to Hitler, would be incriminating.
The later chapters, set after the war, chronicle her survival and shock as the world she knows falls apart. Life is hard in material terms, but there is a sense that Nelly has just as many difficulties dealing with emotional matters. Wolf was notoriously open about rapes by Soviet soldiers in the novel, which garnered her suspicion and criticism in the GDR. But she also portrays her protagonist as stubbornly clinging to her Nazism for far too long; only gradually does she come to reevaluate these beliefs through the mediation of a Christian teacher. And then she falls ill and ends up in the TB hospital. The West German psychoanalyst Margarete Mitscherlich wrote of Patterns of Childhood that sickness was Nelly’s only possible response to the “loss of self-esteem that always accompanies the loss of ideals.”
The descriptions of everyday life in the hospital tally with those in “August” and there is significant overlapping of characters, although there is less detail in the novel. The book ends with Nelly’s return to health and subsequent discharge, and it is at this point that Wolf manages to reunite her narrator and her protagonist briefly into a first-person voice:
The child who was hidden within me—has she come forth? Or has she been scared into looking for a deeper, more inaccessible hiding place? Has memory done its duty? Or has it proven—by the act of misleading—that it’s impossible to escape the mortal sin of our time: the desire not to come to grips with oneself? . . . I don’t know.
And what of August himself? He warrants only three paragraphs in Patterns of Childhood, two of them quoted from adoring but inarticulate letters he sends to Nelly after she leaves the hospital. One of the real-life letters sent to Christa Wolf is reproduced in the booklet for the audiobook version of “August,” adding another layer to my temptation to seek authenticity in the story. Yet in Wolf’s earlier reminiscence of the time, August is almost an extra in the hospital crowd scene. He is described as “a pudgy, stocky, awkward boy” and the narrator remarks on “his gawky, pushy wooing, his jealously of the other, more handsome, pushier children.” That’s all.
Based on the characters’ roles in incidents occurring in both texts, it was perfectly clear to me that Lilo and Nelly are both embodiments of Christa Wolf’s younger self but that August’s admiring perspective skews the character beyond recognition. But was it deliberate, I wondered. Had the older Wolf become more forgiving of her teenage self, so much so that she could portray her as a model friend to the sick and suffering? Had she perhaps forgotten how scathingly she once viewed Nelly? Did the story’s rosy presentation of the GDR—a state Wolf criticised during its existence—extend to her portrayal of herself?
Aside from confusing me further over the Lilo character, reading Patterns of Childhood gave me a useful sense of the setting and the time in which “August” takes place. I’d be able to take some elements from the English translation, I thought, particularly terminology pertaining to medical matters. I read the closing section in English. The translators are dead now and translation practice was different in the 1970s. Molinaro and Rappolt did some things I found startlingly domesticating, such as changing August’s name to Gus. At the same time, they wrote a prose I found awkward, albeit mixed with flashes of genius when it came to colloquial language. Perhaps the English text hasn’t aged well; perhaps I wanted to persuade myself I could do better. I did have one great advantage, after all—research has become infinitely easier with the internet.
I began by researching tuberculosis, and read Helen Bynum’s fascinating Spitting Blood: The History of Tuberculosis. As it turned out, I was right to mistrust Molinaro and Rappolt on one point: without today’s easy access to reference material, they seem to have had to guess at some of the medical terms. And while working on a 600-page book, how many translators would seek out a specialist library to look up the correct equivalent for Kaverne? In fact my German medical dictionary gave the same English word as they used; it just happens not to be the term the English medical world uses. While my version of “August” isn’t a re-translation, I still felt I had to distance myself from the English edition of Patterns of Childhood, no matter how much respect I harbored for my predecessors’ hard work. I learned, too, that tuberculosis was a terrifying disease for which no effective cure was available until the mid-twentieth century—well after Lilo, Nelly, August and the young Christa Wolf were lucky enough to recover of their own accord.
And then I found Consumption Castle. Browsing reviews online, I found the name Schloss Kalkhorst. I found a website and a phone number, and a writer friend willing to drive me there. On the first fine day of spring, we set off to inspect the premises. I was excited to see the rooms and the building. Of course much would have changed since 1946 but I’d get a sense of scale and perhaps the atmosphere. I was having trouble translating the word Schloss—it can be applied to anything from Versailles to a small stately home. As it transpired, this particular one is more of a manor house than a castle. The new owner welcomed us and gave us a tour of the building and the grounds, told us stories and anecdotes and showed us hundreds of photographs he’d collected. He’d visited the hospital regularly as a child, he told us, after his father returned home from a POW camp with tuberculosis. I couldn’t have hoped for a better guide to the setting.
An amateur historian, he was, as fascinated as I by Wolf’s use of truth and fiction in the two books. Yet his was a different fascination, a more literal one. He had identified some of the story’s real-life personnel, particularly the doctors. One of them was a strikingly beautiful woman, just as she is described in the story. He even showed us a photo. But it was the apparent inaccuracies that seemed to interest him most. The pictures on the walls of the dining hall, he emphasized, weren’t images of the former owners’ ancestors but allegories of the deadly sins. The terrace one character threatens to jump from is hardly high enough to sustain an injury. The ground is not as marshy as all that, and the place is very pleasant, even in winter. His proprietorial pride appeared hurt.
My friend and I found ourselves wanting to explain the laws and license of fiction-making, while not being rude to a very kind man. In fact he told us that Wolf never went back to the building after a brief research visit in the 1970s. Perhaps that explained why some of the details were inaccurate, I ventured. And perhaps it was her first real confrontation with death that made her see the place in such a dark light. But really, I realised, the place is depicted in a dark light because that’s what worked best for the story. Wolf added and subtracted for effect. That terrace was put on a higher floor for added drama. The house was not previously owned by aristocrats but by an educational foundation, yet the idea of the rich lords of the manor fleeing westwards as the Red Army advanced adds simplicity and a certain political nuance. She used types, like any writer does at times, and that particular stereotype contrasts very well with the poverty-stricken TB patients. The head nurse in “August”, I began to notice, was rather similar to the mother character in Patterns of Childhood with her wonderful repertoire of quirky phrases.
I began to feel foolish for my own obsession with what I’d been thinking of as the real story, the real Christa behind Lilo and Nelly. I’m still not sure how much of Christa is in Nelly—presumably a significant amount—but I now think that Lilo is pure storytelling. What made me feel uncomfortable with her, her perfection, is not the rose-coloured spectacles of old age suffusing her in cosy forgiveness. It really is nothing more than August’s perspective. The contrasts between Nelly and Lilo are unimportant, because although the characters are in a sense based on one person, they are interpreted and presented by different storytellers.
I shall refrain from using a translation metaphor here, but let me compare instead to mythical figures. Euripides, Chaucer, Rubens, Händel, Cézanne, Jahnn, Pasolini, and Wolf herself all portrayed Medea differently, as indeed have the younger German writers Nino Haratischwili and Helene Hegemann. Corinth and Böcklin and countless others used themselves as models for “the artist”, deliberately painting themselves in the way they thought best suited what they wanted to say. Why should Wolf not use her younger self as flexible material for her writing? Perhaps I had fallen into the trap of judging her story by the standards of the contemporary English-language personal essay, expecting soul-baring honesty rather than good literature.
The published book includes a facsimile of the letter Christa Wolf wrote to her husband Gerd on their anniversary to accompany the story. In it, she uses a phrase I still find telling:
We’ve grown together over the years. I can hardly say “I”—usually “we.” Without you I’d be a different person.
“August” is a story about August, the boy as he was and the man as Christa Wolf imagined him; it’s a story about childhood and aging and a calm kind of love that lasts a long time. It’s a statement to a husband, written in a single sitting as an anniversary gift. Perhaps, although I shall never know whether this idea is accurate, she made Lilo such a flawless character because her husband was so familiar with her own flaws; a joke, if you like. And yet I still feel Wolf couldn’t quite bring herself to write about her teenage self in the first person. Lilo is just as distant from Christa Wolf as Nelly is, but for different reasons. “August” is simply far less autobiographical than Patterns of Childhood. Wolf could still hardly say “I”. But that needn’t matter to us, for what she made of the material is an excellent story. I hope I have done justice to it in my translation.
Katy Derbyshire is a translator of contemporary German fiction, including Helene Hegemann, Christa Wolf, Clemens Meyer, Inka Parei, Simon Urban and Sibylle Lewitscharoff.
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