I had to chat to David Dollenmayer for Goethe Week because not only has he translated Rüdiger Safranski’s Goethe: Life as A Work of Art, but also the novel I reviewed a couple of days ago, Martin Walser’s A Man In Love. Dollenmayer is also an expert on Alfred Döblin. So I put this year’s #germanlitmonth readalong, Berlin Alexanderplatz, on the agenda too, as well as Gregor von Rezzori’s Abel and Cain, the latest Dollenmayer co-translation to drop through my letterbox

Welcome to the blog, David. How did you become a literary translator?

Although I had a conventional career as a Germanist teaching language and literature I was always interested in translation. I did not grow up bilingual; in my Southern California high school I took Latin because it was the snobby, “smart kids'” alternative to Spanish. I didn’t start learning German until my freshman year in college and now have what one would call near-native fluency. But I’ve always felt there’s a little machine in my head converting what I want to say from English into German.

As an undergraduate learning that language, I was so enamored of Hölderlin’s poem Hälfte des Lebens that I made a translation which the university literary magazine published. Rereading it fifty years later, I think: Not bad, except you mistranslated See as “sea” instead of “lake” — one of the pitfalls of putting too much trust in cognates and not paying enough attention to gender.

My student years were spent under the reign of New Criticism’s close readings of texts, but I found much subsequent literary theory unreadable for normal, educated consumers of literature, which suggested that something in the academic approach to literature was seriously off-kilter. In the decades I spent teaching and publishing academic articles, translations were of no value in forwarding one’s career. (Fortunately, this is no longer the case at many institutions.) Once tenured, however, I had the freedom explore my interest in translation, which I like to think of as the closest possible of all close readings: Every word must be accounted for.

My first breakthroughs in getting translations published were the result of serendipitous encounters with visiting German-language writers. My first published translation was of Im Äther, an essayistic story about Greek poets working as maritime radio operators. The Swiss author Perikles Moniousdis wrote it while a writer-in-residence at MIT and Rimbaud Verlag published it in a dual-language edition. Soon thereafter, the Austrian novelist Anna Mitgutsch gave a reading from her novel Abschied von Jerusalem in Worcester, Massachusetts where I was teaching. At the dinner following her reading Anna, who had lived and taught in the States for many years, confided that she had never been satisfied with any of the English translations of her novels. I said I was interested and asked her to give me a try with her next novel. A year or so later, she sent me a copy of Haus der Kindheit (2000) and I did a sample translation.  She was very enthusiastic about the result, which made me think: OK, maybe this is something I can actually do. When she explained that the next step was to find a publisher, I realized that an author’s approval was one thing but actually getting the thing into print quite another. Luckily, Anna’s Swiss agent knew the publisher of Other Press in New York, who published House of Childhood in 2008.

Intrigued by a short review in Die Zeit of Moses Rosenkranz’s memoir Kindheit, I pitched a sample to several university presses with series in Jewish Studies, and Syracuse University Press took the bait. When the translation unexpectedly won the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize for 2008, I felt that at the age of sixty-three, I was at last on my way as a translator. Other translators I know either come from academic careers, like me, or arrive at translation much earlier and by more straightforward and adventuresome paths.  Although I liked teaching well enough and was pretty good at it, I wish I had discovered translation much sooner than I did.

I’m always intrigued by the time it takes for a translation to appear. It’s 10 years since the German publication of Ein Liebender Man. What factors account for the publication of A Man In Love in 2019? Am I right to assume that this project is a kind of natural follow on from the translation of Safranski’s Goethe: Life as A Work of Art?

It was a natural follow-on for me but fortuitous as far as Arcade was concerned. Their parent company Skyhorse Publishing at some point acquired the English-language rights to all of Martin Walser’s as yet untranslated oeuvre. In 2015 I translated Walser’s wonderful autobiographical novel Ein springender Brunnen (A Gushing Fountain) for them and they decided to take a chance on A Man in Love as well. Come to think of it, they may have taken my translation of Safranski’s Goethe biography into consideration since it was pretty widely and generally favorably reviewed, and decided the time was ripe for a Goethe novel.

What were the particular delights and challenges of translating Walser’s novel?

For me, the challenges and delights of translation are one and the same thing. It was challenging to get the balance right between the charming, witty repartee of the dialogue (including snippets of Goethe’s occasional poetry) and the great man’s agonized and often tumultuous private thoughts. The former had to sound natural, unstrained, not like some stuffy costume drama. Goethe’s inner musings, on the other hand, (and I include in that category the largely unposted letters to Ulrike that constitute Part Three of the novel) are infiltrated with the voice of a twenty-first-century narrator who regards his protagonist with a sympathetic but ironic and often amused eye. (When the novel first appeared in German, I think it was Der Spiegel that ran a cover with Tischbein’s famous painting of Goethe in the Campagna but with Walser’s face superimposed on it.) One reviewer rightly pointed out that we see everything exclusively from Goethe’s point of view. The only hint of Ulrike’s inner life is in a postlude entitled “The Final Word” which reports that in 1899, the dying Ulrike has a packet of letters burned and the ashes put into a silver capsule and placed in her coffin. The last sentence of the novel is, “According to the written testimony of her grandniece, they were letters from Goethe.”

Certainly the greatest challenge was what to do with the twenty-three strophes of the great “Marienbad Elegy” which Walser drops into a letter to Ulrike about two thirds of the way through the novel. I decided early on, as I did with most of the poetry quoted in Safranski’s biography, to remain faithful to Goethe’s meter—iambic pentameter in this case—and grab a rhyme or two where I could. I’m very pleased that Arcade agreed to print the German original on facing pages; beside it my translation is a mere trot.

A problem with no satisfactory solution was that Walser could assume his German readers would be more or less aware when he drops names like Tieck, Herder, Schilling, Winckelmann, and Humboldt, to say nothing of Goethe’s previous loves Friederike, Charlotte, Christiane, Marianne, and Frau von Stein. The best we could do was include “blind notes” at the end of the book – and unfortunately, I just discovered they’re all keyed to the wrong pages!

In essence A Man in Love is the story of a love affair between a 72 year old man and a 19 year old girl. It’s a relationship that would not be tolerated in this day and age.  Was this age difference entirely acceptable in Goethe’s day or did he have special licence because of who he was?

Well, I wouldn’t call it a love affair exactly, and it’s not clear from the novel that Ulrike regards it as anything more than a very absorbing friendship. I’m not an expert on the mores of early nineteenth-century upper-class German society, but it is a historical fact that the Duke of Weimar was willing to act as Goethe’s proxy and propose the match to Ulrike’s mother. We also know, for instance, that the Göttingen physics professor and aphorist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg took a teenage flower seller as his mistress. Gert Hoffmann wrote a novel about it, Die kleine Stechardin. I would guess that in both cases, there were some who were scandalized. I’m also guessing that because of high mortality rates among women in childbirth, second—and maybe even third—marriages to younger women were more common than they are today.

That’ll keep me busy for a while (Ed)

2019 has also seen the release of a NYRB Classics edition of Gregor von Rezzori’s magnum opus Abel and Cain.  I understand that Joachim Neugroschel’s original translation of The Death of My Brother Abel has been revised by Marshall Yarnborough and that your translation of Cain is brand new.  Did you confer at all with Marshall Yarnborough to ensure consistency of style, vocabulary etc.  Or is your translation of Cain entirely standalone?

I’ve always loved Rezzori’s work and considered him underrated because of his unusual background, so I jumped at the chance to translate his last, unfinished novel. I think I was second or third in line after other colleagues had turned down the job.
Marshall Yarbrough and I worked simultaneously, he on the revision of Neugroschel’s translation of The Death of My Brother Abel and I on translating the sequel Cain: The Last Manuscript. Obviously it was material Rezzori just couldn’t let go of. Cain might more accurately be called a prequel, since it’s set mostly in immediately post-war Hamburg, before the events narrated in Abel. Edwin Frank of New York Review Books decided to publish them in one volume under the title Abel and Cain. So we ended up with an 860-page behemoth of which Cain accounts for only the last 180 pages.
Marshall and I did coordinate how we would translate key phrases like Epochenverschleppung and there were slight variations in things like the name of a film production company that we had to make consistent. We also went back and forth, for instance, about how to translate Filmferkel, Aristide Subicz’s derogatory term for producers – should we keep Neugroschel’s “film piglets” or call them “film swine”? Piglets won out. But generally, we didn’t have too many things that needed thrashing out or that we disagreed about. As far as I know, no English-language publisher assigns a translation in pieces to multiple translators, as is common practice in Germany with popular authors like Jonathan Franzen in order to get the translation out almost simultaneously with the release of the original. Working like that would drive me crazy.

Your backlist contains many intriguing and far-ranging works of non-fiction. Do you choose them or do they choose you? Do you prefer translating non-fiction to fiction?

While I most love translating fiction because it provides unfettered scope for creative solutions to the challenges of moving the work into another language, I have also enjoyed working on well-written nonfiction, especially works of art history. Again, nonfiction projects have come my way mostly through serendipity. For instance, Robert Silvers, the long-time editor of the New York Review of Books, was looking for someone to translate Willibald Sauerländer’s art reviews from the Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Judith Gurewich of Other Press recommended me. I ended up translating sixteen Sauerländer reviews for the NYRB between 2010 and 2016, and because of that connection, was chosen to translate two of his books for the Getty Institute. Sauerländer was the dean of German art historians and his interests ranged widely and deeply over European art from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. His German was elegant and he was able to see the artwork in its social and political contexts. I learned an enormous amount by translating him. The Getty Institute then also asked me to translate works by two other German art historians, one on the Sistine Chapel and another on the destruction and reconstruction of Reims Cathedral.

Which is your favourite translation and why?

I can’t honestly pick a favorite translation of fiction, the novels I’ve translated have been so varied. Each presented its own particular challenges and pleasures. My favorite work of nonfiction is Willibald Sauerländer’s The Catholic Rubens: Saints and Martyrs because it taught me so much about why Rubens—whom I had never liked very much and dismissed as a painter of pink, fleshy nudes—was a great artist, despite being a propagandist for the Counter-Reformation. A close second would be the same author’s Manet Paints Monet: A Summer in Argenteuil because it brings such a fresh eye to the interaction and differences between those two Impressionists.

Which was the most challenging to translate and why?

The biggest challenge for me is translating poetry, which I’ve had to do for Moses Rosenkranz’s memoir Childhood (Rosenkranz was primarily a lyric poet) and for the poetry quoted in Safranski’s Goethe biography in addition to the “Marienbad Elegy” in A Man in Love. One review of the Goethe biography bemoaned the fact that the reader never gets to see any of Goethe’s originals, and I agree. I tried in vain to get Norton to include the German side-by-side with my translations of the quoted poetry. For me, trying to reproduce a poem’s rhyme scheme almost always distorts its meaning to an unacceptable degree. I tried doing it in the case of Rosenkranz, and when his widow showed my efforts to her friend Wolf Biermann, the resulting critique was withering – and deservedly so.

If you were a castaway on a desert island with only one book to read and another to translate, what would they be and why?

Oh, I hate this question! But OK, let’s see: As a castaway, possibly forever, I assume I’ll need a good long book I haven’t read yet but have been looking forward to reading and another good long book I’ve read and would like to translate.

To read I’ll take the fifth and final volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, one of the greatest political biographies of our time. The first four volumes were riveting and Caro, now in his mid-eighties, is still working on volume five, which will cover the Vietnam War and Johnson’s final years.

To translate I’ll take Michael Kleeberg’s Der Idiot des 21. Jahrhunderts (2018), which I just finished reading. Kleeberg is under-appreciated and in my opinion one of the most interesting novelists writing in German today. Der Idiot is a radical formal experiment, less a novel than a collection of stories, anecdotes, life histories, and tales, some with fantastic, folk-tale elements. They revolve around the themes of refugees, migration, and fraught interactions between European and Near Eastern, Islamic culture. In a frame narrative a group of old friends—some German, some immigrants, some visitors—gather on a long weekend in August 2015 in a town north of Frankfurt to cook, eat, drink, make music, and tell stories. The subtitle of Der Idiot is “ein Divan” and throughout there are echoes and reminiscences of and epigraphs from Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan and the poetry of his great Persian predecessor, Hafiz.

And if not the Kleeberg novel, then Willibald Sauerländer’s book on Poussin’s landscapes, which he had almost finished when he died in 2018. Another Munich art historian is supposed to be finishing it.

This year’s #germanlitmonth readalong is Berlin Alexanderplatz. As the author of “The Berlin Novels of Alfred Döblin”, could I ask for some tips on the best way to approach the reading of Döblin’s masterpiece? (Ed – At the time of asking, I was 2 chapters into Michael Hofmann’s translation and feeling somewhat bemused.)

Lucky Michael Hofmann! It’s a retranslation that needed doing and one I would have dearly loved to do myself. It’s a very polyphonic novel, influenced by Joyce’s Ulysses, Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer, and the montages of Walther Ruttmann’s silent film Berlin, Symphonie einer Großstadt (which feels to me closer in spirit to the novel than Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s immensely long film version). As you read, be ready for the narrator to lure you off into sidebar glimpses into the thousands of other lives being lived in Berlin alongside Biberkopf’s and into the language of the city on all levels: jokes, advertisements, pop songs, and on and on. Döblin literally cut some of that material out of newspapers and pasted it into the manuscript. The slang of the Berlin underworld presents a challenge to any translator. It’s a sprawling, wonderful read.

(Ed – At the time of publishing the interview, I have finished the novel pushing against many instincts to abandon it. I am now feeling much more informed and a whole lot less bemused. Much of the credit for that goes to Dollenmayer’s chapter on Berlin Alexanderplatz in the aforementioned The Novels of Alfred Döblin.)