Denis JacksonIn part one of this inteview, Denis Jackson demonstrated how he and Theodor Storm have, through the literature and translation, have become one in spirit. Today Denis proves that there is no one, except perhaps the author, who is so intimately acquainted with a text as its translator.

8) You recently published a small volume of Storm’s fairy tales The Rain Maiden and other Tales. They are as different from Grimm as it is possible to be: charming and without an ounce of terror. You published them in e-book format only. Why is that?

The Rain MaidenStorm was a keen collector of legends, ghost stories, folktales and fairy tales, all of which in one form or another appear in his later novellas. His most notable fairy tale, Die Regentrude (The Rain Maiden, 1864), remains today a favourite among the German young, and is published in many finely-illustrated editions. Mine is the only translation into English. It was Storm’s farewell to the late Romantic age with its evil fire goblin as a gothic reminder of the past. It was also my first Storm translation, primarily due to its intense dialogue that runs throughout the narrative between the girl and her boyfriend as they search for the Rain Maiden in a cavern below the earth. Natural dialogue is most difficult to produce in a translation, and The Rain Maiden provided for me what might be called a ‘dialogue apprenticeship’. Regretfully, today’s publishers are not interested in traditional fairy tales, like The Rain Maiden. After many rejection slips, I was forced to publish it myself, together with translations of Knecht Ruprecht and Der kleine Häwelmann (Little Hans), the latter written for his son Hans, as an eBook for Amazon and for Barnes and Noble in the US. Such is progress.


9) Which of Storm’s novellas gave you the most pleasure to translate and why?

For me there are two novellas that gave me the greatest of pleasures to research and translate: Pole Poppenspäler (Paul the Puppeteer, 1874) and Renate (1878), both now in the same volume. Paul the PuppeteerPaul the Puppeteer is a magical tale which speaks to all ages, an affectionate portrayal of the vanishing world of the marionette theatre which also contains sharp social criticism of contemporary society. The Low German title of the story, Pole Poppenspäler, is a jeer at the central character, Paul, who befriends a puppeteer and his family with their gypsy-like way of life; puppeteers being viewed at the time as thieves and vagabonds by a guild-dominated society. To translate this work, I set about to learn the travelling puppeteer’s hard way of life, to understand the puppet theatre and its role within nineteenth-century Europe, where it was the entertainment of princes, dukes, kings and queens. Visits to puppet museums in the capitals and cities of Europe, especially in Lübeck, which has the finest collection of puppets in Europe, and to the Puppet Theatre Barge on the river Thames, gave me a firm understanding of the puppeteer’s way of life and of his struggles just to survive. I even learned how to manipulate the puppets and of the various techniques that were used across Europe. But above all, it was the diary of a travelling puppeteer in nineteenth-century Europe, kindly given to me by the Puppet Theatre Barge, that was the most valuable, and which confirmed just how accurate Storm’s descriptions of the puppeteer’s way of life were. It was a most harrowing diary to read, and when I write of ‘experiencing’, the events related by this puppeteer should be essential reading for any translator attempting to translate this novella. When I received the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize for this translation, it was the puppeteer’s story I told, and how translating Storm has taken me on many a similar emotional journey to discover the many ‘worlds’ within his novellas.

Paul the Puppeteer projects the deep humanity of the author and his profound understanding of human feelings. There is no finer monument than this novella to the lives of those travelling entertainers who gave so much to so many people, yet in the process were treated as the lowest members of society.
In one memorable scene, the puppeteer in the story is put in prison in Heiligenstadt in southern German, his daughter, Lisei, attempts to visit him, but is ushered away by an official. So she sets off up the hill in the town in the freezing cold and kneels before a cross. She is observed by Paul Paulsen, the main character in the story:

As I was about to turn away from the window, the woman came up the street again. She stopped in front of the prison door and hesitantly put a foot on the stone step below the entrance; then she looked round and I saw a young face whose dark eyes wandered over the empty street with the most helpless and forsaken expression; she appeared simply not to have the courage to face the official’s threatening fist yet again. Slowly, and continually looking back at the closed door, she went on her way; it was evident that she did not know where she was going. When she now turned into the narrow lane at the corner of the prison that led up to the church, I instinctively grabbed my cap from the door hook to go after her.
​“Yes, of course, Paulsen; it’s the right thing to do!” said the good-hearted Frau Meisterin. “Go after her; I’ll heat up the coffee in the meantime!”
​It was fiercely cold when I stepped outside the house; the town seemed deserted; from the high hill that reared up at the end of the street the dark fir forest looked down almost threateningly; white curtains of ice hung in front of the window-panes of most houses; for not everyone, like my old Frau Meisterin, had a rightful claim to five bundles of wood for domestic use. I went up the narrow lane to the church square; and there on the frozen ground at the foot of the tall wooden crucifix knelt the young woman, head bowed, hands folded in her lap. I quietly stepped closer; but when she looked up at the bloodied face of the crucified figure, I said: “Excuse me if I’m interrupting your prayers, but you’re a stranger to this town, aren’t you?”
​She simply nodded without shifting her position.
​“I’d like to help!” I continued. “Where is it you want to go?”
​“Don’t know any more,” she said without expression, letting her head sink lower on to her chest.
​“But it’ll be dark in an hour; you won’t be able to stay out much longer on the open street in this deathly weather!”
​“The good Lord will help me,” I heard her say quietly.
​“Yes, yes, I’m sure,” I said, “and I almost believe He’s sent me to you!”
​It was as though the firmer tone of my voice had woken her, for she rose and walked hesitantly towards me; with her neck straining forward she brought her face nearer and nearer to mine, and her gaze fixed itself on my face as though she wanted to seize me by it. “Paul!” she cried suddenly, and like a cry of joy the word flew from her breast. “Paul! Yes, the good Lord’s sent you to me!”
​Where had my eyes been! I had her here again, my childhood friend, Lisei the little puppeteer! Of course, the child had become a beautiful slim young woman, and on the child’s face once so radiant, after the first ray of joy had spread over it, now lay an expression of deep sorrow.
​“How is it you’re here all alone, Lisei?” I asked. “What’s happened? Where’s your father?”
​“In the prison, Paul.”
​“Your father, that fine man! — Come with me; I’m working here for a good woman; she knows all about you, I’ve often told her about you.”
​And hand in hand, as we had been as children, we walked to the old Frau Meisterin’s house.

Pure Storm! It is a scene that is often cited as confirming Storm’s religious beliefs, but his belief remained ambiguous to the very end of his life, not even allowing a priest at his funeral.

The overall narrative reveals not only Storm’s intense interest since childhood in the puppet theatre, but also his consummate skill in being able to enter into the puppet’s world:

The second act was even better. Among the servants of the castle there was one dressed in a yellow Nanking suit called Kasperl. If this boy wasn’t alive, then nothing or nobody ever had been; he made the most outrageous jokes so that the whole room erupted with laughter; he must have had at least one joint in his nose, which was as long as a sausage, for when he let out his mock-stupid laugh, the tip of his nose swung from side to side, as though even it was unable to stop itself in the fun; at the same time the young fellow opened his huge mouth and snapped his lower jaw-bone like an old owl. “Whoops!” he would cry every time he came jumping on to the stage; then he would settle himself down and speak with just his large thumb, which he could move back and forth so expressively that it really went like: ‘Here nix and there nix! You get nix, so you have nix!’ And then his squint — it was so bewitching that the whole audience instantly squinted too. I was simply infatuated with the dear fellow!

Storm’s intense love, since childhood, for the puppeteer’s world is artistically and brilliantly displayed in this novella’s conclusion, in what could be viewed as his personal farewell to it. The puppeteer’s puppets had to be sold in his old age, and the whereabouts of his favourite puppet, Kasperl, becomes unknown, much to the sorrow of the old man, father Joseph, who dies. The final scene opens with the old man’s funeral:

The churchyard was thick with people; from the burial of the old puppeteer it seemed that a final, special performance was expected.

And something special actually did happen; but it was noticed only by those of us standing close to the grave. Lisei, who had come out of the church holding on to my arm, had just convulsively clasped my hand as the old priest, in accordance with custom, grasped the waiting spade and tipped the first soil on to the coffin. A dull thud sounded from the bottom of the grave. “For out of the ground wast thou taken!” rang the words of the priest; but hardly were they spoken when I saw something flying towards us from the churchyard wall above the heads of the people. I thought at first it was a large bird; but it dropped and fell straight into the grave. Glancing quickly behind me — for I was standing a little above ground level on the dug-out earth — I had seen one of the Schmidt boys duck behind the churchyard wall and run away, and I knew at once what had happened. Lisei had let out a cry at my side, our old priest held the spade undecidedly in his hands for the second cast of earth. A glance into the grave confirmed my suspicion: on top of the coffin, between the flowers and the soil, which had already partly covered them, there he had seated himself, my old childhood companion, Kasperl, my little jolly friend. But he didn’t look at all jolly now; he had let his great beak of a nose fall sadly on to his chest; the arm with the elaborately crafted thumb was stretched up at the sky, as though he were saying that when all puppet plays had ended here, another one would begin up there.

​I saw it all in a brief moment, for the priest had already cast the second spadeful of earth into the grave: “And unto dust shalt thou return!” And as the earth slid off the coffin, so Kasperl too rolled off its flowers into the bottom of the grave and was covered.

​Then with the last pitch of earth the comforting promise rang out: “And together with my dead body thou shalt arise!”

​When the Lord’s Prayer had been said and the people had dispersed, the old priest came over to us as we remained staring into the grave. “It was meant to be a wicked act,” he said, as he kind-heartedly grasped our hands. “But let us take it another way! As you’ve described it to me, the deceased carved the little figure in his youth, and it brought him a happy marriage; later, and throughout his life, by means of it he brightened many a human heart after a day’s work, and in the mouth of the little jester he placed many a word of truth agreeable both to God and the people — I watched it once myself, when you were still children. – Let the little puppet simply follow his master; that will be entirely in the spirit of the words of our Holy Scripture! And be of good cheer; for the Blessed may rest from their labours.”

​And so it was over. Quietly and at peace we went home, never to see old father Joseph or the magnificent Kasperl again.

No one can but fail to hear the actual voice of Storm himself in this concluding narrative.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Theodor Storm as a writer is the range of subjects and moods (Stimmungen) within his novellas. For the translator, each novella opens the door to a totally different ‘world’. Such a range being forcefully demonstrated in his novella, Renate, whose conclusion is equally of the highest artistic quality.

Renate records within a narrative frame the memories of an eighteenth-century Lutheran pastor and his love for a farmer’s daughter who is persecuted by the local community for alleged witchcraft; a clash between religious bigotry and spontaneous emotion which drives one of the most moving stories in all of Storm’s fiction. The second in Storm’s series of ‘chronical novellas’, it takes the reader through a narrative frame technique back to the years of the witch craze in the beautiful village of Schwabstedt on banks of the river Treene, south of Husum. Storm researched the period within the local context in great detail, recording the trial, torture and burning of two women convicted of witchcraft in the village in 1619. Of all his novellas its swift descriptions of the North Frisian landscape, and of the village itself, surpass many in his works. Its taut style closely follows the chronicle of events throughout.

Only the moor lies between here and Schwabstedt, a bird would soon wing its way across it; but some thirty years have passed into eternity since that day — without increasing it; for man alone exists in time. I am sitting here in the village of Ostenfeld, as an all too prematurely disabled emeritus and wretched boarder with the local parish priest, with my dear, thoroughly able-bodied cousin Christian Mercacus. I should therefore have time enough to record, like the other details of my life, the events of that afternoon as well. They still lie within me, an exuberant sweet memory in the soul. I have even prepared a whole sheet of paper for it and had my quills cut by the sexton, and now my mind’s eye sees nothing before me but a lonely path between green hedgerows that gradually winds its way up into the forest. I am certain, though, that this was the way we took that afternoon, and the summer scent of honeysuckle and dog-roses seems still to hang here in the air about me.

Storm’s descriptions of landscape are swift, almost in passing, a quick glance at a scene, then to move on:

And so we left the wedding celebration silently together. And as we came to the rise in front of the bishop’s residence where the path crosses over it, we remained standing under the tower, looking down on to the lowlands before us; for there in the early dawn of the day, in the deep red glow, the river flowed away into the still half-darkened land. At the same time, however, a sharp breeze blew from the east, and as Renate shivered, I put my arm round her bare neck and drew her cheek close to me. She resisted gently. ‘Let be, Herr Studiosi,’ she said, ‘I must go home now!’ and pointed down to her father’s house which lay to one side among the dark trees. And as a shrill cock-crow now rose from there, I saw her already running down the hill; but then she turned and looked up at me openly with her dark eyes.

Or a slightly longer look at a scene:

Not far from the village, the path was crossed by a stream which flowed out of the forest down towards the river Treene. Water-loving birds gather here, and the joyful songs of finches and blackbirds now rang out as if they were already announcing the arrival of May. I was so enthralled by the charm of the spot that I did not cross the little bridge over the stream, but walked a few paces on this side of it up towards the forest and sat down on a bank where the stream broadens out into a small pond. The water, as was usual at this time of year, was so clear that I could quite easily make out the tangled stalks of the water-lilies deep at the bottom and the budding leaves on them, and so was able to admire God’s wisdom even in these small things which are usually hidden from our eyes.

But even here in this novella, and in its conclusion, Storm cannot resist a ghostly element; for he is forever the prime artist in its telling:

Now when the Almighty God covered the forest and fields and the desolate moor too with darkness, Held Carstens, the blacksmith, was skirting the edge of the forest around midnight, returning home after taking his mother-in-law back to Ostenfeld after she had been helping her daughter during confinement. The man had his old and trusty carriage team in harness and was beginning to doze when the otherwise quiet horses suddenly became restless and edged over, snorting, to the side of the forest. He roused himself, now struck with fear, for out on the moor a light flickered like a lamp in the darkness; one minute it was still, the next swaying to and fro. He thought at first it might be jack-o’-lantern about to dance — being the courageous man he is he had frequently observed it in the past during his journeys — but when it came nearer he made out a dark figure close by the flickering light wandering about on the firm ground between the dark ditches. Saying a quiet prayer, he whipped up his horses and made straight for home. But early next morning people saw the Hofbauer’s daughter in the street below without her cap, with hair dishevelled and a smashed lantern in her hand, making her way slowly towards her father’s farm.

The Lutheran pastor, Herr Josias, who saves Renate from being lynched by a mob as a witch, retires in old age to the village of Ostenfeld, north of Schwabstedt, with nothing more known of Renate’s fate. The conclusion to his life is found and read in an old manuscript:

In the self-same month of my departure a rumour spread round the village: on Sundays, when everyone was in church and the streets were empty, a pale grey horse, the likes of which had not been seen in the community before, would stand tethered before the door of the parsonage. And soon afterwards it was further said that a woman would come riding from the south over the heath, tether her horse to the ring on the wall, then enter the parsonage; but that each time the pastor and the stream of church-goers made their way home from the church, she had already ridden away.

That this woman visited Herr Josias was not difficult to guess, for at such an hour there was no one else in the house. But there was something strange about it all; for although she was undoubtedly already in her late years, the few who saw her have disputed it and have asserted that she was still young, and others, that she was even beautiful; but when more closely questioned they turn out to have noticed nothing other than two dark eyes that glanced at them as the woman rode by.

There was only one person in the whole village who learned nothing of these things, and that was the pastor himself, for everyone was afraid of his quick temper and all had great affection for Uncle Josias.

But one Sunday, when spring had returned and the violets were already in bloom in the garden, the woman from across the heath was there again; and on this occasion too, when the pastor came home from the church, he saw neither her nor her horse; everything was quiet and solitary as usual as he entered his grounds, then his house. And when he went into his cousin’s room, where he was now in the habit of going after church, it was quiet there too. The windows stood open so that the whole room was filled with the scent of spring from the garden outside, and the pastor saw Herr Josias sitting in his large armchair; but to his surprise, a small bird was perched unafraid on one of his hands, which rested folded in his lap. The bird flew off and out into the open air when the pastor approached with his heavy tread and bent over the chair.*
Herr Josias continued to sit motionless and his face was filled with peace; only the peace was not of this world.

Soon a loud rumour had spread round the village, even the pastor was told about it by everyone he was ready to hear it from; it was now known that it was the witch of Schwabstedt who had come to the village each Sunday on her horse; indeed, some had certain knowledge that she had taken poor Herr Josias’s life while pretending to heal him by her deceitful art.

But we, when you have now read it all, you and I, we know better who she was who took the last breath from his lips.

Here in Renate we have a combination of Realism in the trials of Renate, Romanticism in the ghostly and mysterious, and folklore in the departure of the soul from the dead and other such references in the text. The belief that birds are the winged souls of the dead, or that they carry/accompany the souls of the dead to the next world, is ubiquitous in folklore and mythology. In the original edition of this story (1878) Storm wrote: ‘only his soul was no longer within him.’

It is this artistic combination of genres that makes Storm supreme in the craft of fiction, and a prime reason for my becoming his translator.

10) Which is your favourite non-Storm Novella and why?

Without any doubt Eduard Mörike’s Mozart auf der Reise nach Prag (Mozart’s Journey to Prague, 1855). A light-hearted tale of the composer’s journey from Vienna to Prague to attend the opening performance of the opera Don Giovanni. It is Mörike’s supreme achievement in prose, clearly revealing Mörike’s spiritual affinity with the composer and the profound emotions aroused in him by his opera. I attached my affections to this novella for I have travelled this same route and have visited the theatre in Prague in which this first performance was held. So, as with Storm, I can ‘see’ the journey taken and the many facets of it that are described.

11) I’ve heard that the 5th volume of your Storm translations will be the last. If I cast you off on the proverbial desert island with the remaining Storm novellas to translate, would you do it?

The simple answer is that I am continuing to translate Storm – for the time being. I was going to finish, but needed to keep a promise I gave to a friend some years ago to translate Zur Chronik von Grieshuus (1884). My publisher too is interested, should it not be too alike with Aquis submersus. Failing a printed book edition, I would publish it personally as an eBook. It is all a question now of a publisher.


Editor’s note

  • The novellas which Denis has focused on so closely and so generously are those which won him the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize in 2005.
  • In addition to novellas, Theodor Storm also wrote beautiful lyric poetry. This will be the subject of the final installment of this interview, which I can reveal will contain a surprise and a world exclusive!

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2015