The world may be in lockdown, but the consolations of the online reading community are enormous. I’m spending 2020 reading many more German books than normal as part of the Goodreads Reading German Books in 2020. There is a group read each quarter with Esther Kinksy’s River the chosen title for Q1. Iain Galbraith’s English translation recently won the 2019 Schlegel-Tieck Prize. A poet in his own right, he is also the translator of Germany’s contemporary poet, Jan Wagner. So today I am delighted to welcome Iain Galbraith to the blog to discuss the translation of both poetic prose and poetry.

How did you become a literary translator?

I could give you a book-length answer to this question, including recollections of a childhood and thoughts about pre-verbal reading and the strange nature of translation. This would be a translator’s memoir, the kind of work we have seen such stimulating examples of in recent years: Kate Briggs’s This Little Art (2017), Mark Polizzotti’s Sympathy for the Traitor (2015), Mireille Gansel’s Traduire comme transhumer (2012), Esther Kinsky’s Fremdsprechen (2013) and others going as far back as Michael Hamburger’s aptly entitled book of “intermittent memoirs” A Mug’s Game (1973). I’m squirming a little here because to my mind your question points to paths taken and others inevitably not taken, to accidents of birth as well as influences, turning-points and unforeseen opportunities, all of it amounting to a fankle of anecdotes, delusions and unstable perspectives. A snappier, kinder (to the reader) version says I was asked by friends in 1979 to edit a German issue for a London literary magazine called Bananas, which in turn meant I spent much time in libraries finding out who was translating what and what I would like to see translated before commissioning translations and essays. This was a useful introduction, and suggested certain possibilities. The first short piece of German prose I translated was an excerpt from Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (The Aesthetics of Resistance) by Peter Weiss, published in the magazine Granta in 1982. At the time I should gladly have translated all three volumes of that 1000-odd-page novel, but it was not to be. Indeed it did not seem at all as if one thing led to another. It took me at least another 15 years of hanging about in the university of life (teaching, studying poetry, learning languages, yearning, parenting, agitating, listening to Soul, R&B, Bartók and Bach, reading, thinking, writing poems: all things I continue to do), translating bits and bobs (mostly art books and zoological papers for scientific journals as well as some 15 plays for the German stage) and anthologizing, until one day I woke up feeling so overworked and underpaid that I had obviously morphed into some kind of literary translator.

How did you become the translator of Esther Kinksy’s River?

I had known Esther for many years before she asked me to translate Am Fluß. In fact I first came to know her through her husband, the late Martin Chalmers, whom I had met in the 1980s. Martin advised Pete Ayrton on German writing and asked me to work with him translating new German and Austrian writing for anthologies that appeared with Serpent’s Tail in 1996 and 2002 (it was Martin, too, who introduced me to Seagull Books). Esther Kinsky was one of my co-translators for the Austrian volume. I had got to know Esther by the end of the 1990s, but I would not have translated River (Fitzcarraldo, 2018) if Martin had not died in 2014. Martin had translated Esther’s earlier novel Summer Resort (Sommerfrische) for Seagull in 2011 and would certainly have gone on to translate Am Fluß. Sadly, he became very ill and died as a young 65 year-old in Berlin, a city he felt at home in and where his maternal grandparents had lived. He was much loved, as was evident at his funeral. In fact Martin had already translated a chapter of the book under the title By the River, included in an issue of The White Review in 2016, a chapter I later expanded and adapted to my own translation. I had translated Esther Kinsky’s poetry for journals, festivals and readings and I felt honoured when she asked me to translate Am Fluß.

What was the biggest challenge in translating River?

There are certain challenges that invariably arise when you translate a work, but which present a different face each time. One of these is that of finding the unique sound you want a book to make in the new language. Sound (in all its characteristics and forms) is something that is essential to the way I translate and my thinking about translation in general. I listen, and in doing so try to stand back a little and make myself the site of two languages listening to each other, or I let what I have in me of language, my own lifelong language experience, sound out the way language is formed in the as yet untranslated text. I say “as yet untranslated”, but what I am describing is the process of my translations happening. It is important to me to keep the reading encounter ringing in my inner ear and to remain flexible enough to allow the language of the text I am translating to rearrange what my inner ear hears. And it really is an encounter, and not some form of “mastery”, a word I dislike when used for poetry or translation. An intimate experience – it is as if not only I were listening, but the German writer’s language were listening into me for the shape of a new home (or a home extension!). Then there are challenges a book brings to the table that are not to be found in every book. In Am Fluß Esther Kinsky creates a sense of flow (one meaning of Fluß is “flow”) and change via diction and syntax or punctuation. As far as her diction is concerned I needed to keep my ear to her cumulative arrangement of sound, which is the sound of her narrator searching and looping back on herself, rearranging her perspectives and assumptions as she inches forward into a new terrain. Another factor contributing to the book’s flow is the author’s use of a convention in German punctuation which allows two (or even several) sentences to be joined by commas. I have emphasized the word “convention” because this is so and always has been in German, but not in English. This throws up a number of theoretical questions I have no intention of going into here, but I shall just say that my instinct was to join sentences by means that are just as conventional in English as the comma is in German (e.g. by syntactical organization, or, only where appropriate, by the use of the semi-colon), as well as by juxtaposing single sentences in ways that emphasize or at least suggest their interdependence or contingency.

Did you require access to specialist reference material? I’m thinking specifically in regard to the minutiae of the natural landscape.

Yes, I did use reference works, especially when I wanted to find out about places I was unfamiliar with: Calcutta and the Hooghly River as well as the Ganges delta, also for Tel Aviv, Croatia and Herzegovina for the narrator’s journey up the Neretva to Mostar, or for the Oder and Tisza chapters, but I am not convinced that all such activity derived solely from a need to learn new things in order to translate. Much of it sprang from an urge to explore these places and landscapes as I was drawn further and further into the book (in other words, I would probably have done this research even if I’d been reading the book without translating it), and sometimes I wanted to find out about customs as much as landscapes. “Natural” phenomena were not so much of a problem, as I have been alert to these since childhood (but I was amazed to read about the Tizla “flowering” of mayflies, and had not heard of that local wonder before). I read travelogues and guidebooks, and articles in Wikipedia, and above all Google Maps. Sometimes I was able to follow the narrator down roads and across country using Street View, crossing bridges or investigating towns or streets I didn’t know. By contrast, I was already acquainted with the Lea Valley, which plays such an important role in the book, and I had been a fan of Hackney Marshes ever since living for a year in Tottenham (1979-80) and for several months in Stoke Newington (1986-87). So I felt almost at home in those chapters, despite or more likely because of the fact that not a few of the book’s scenes have disappeared, especially those in the Lower Lea Valley, transformed beyond recognition since the novel was written by the construction of the 2012 Olympic Park and concomitant urban “regeneration”.

River is such a subtle and nuanced book. How did you deal with all the things that are just hinted that? So much is left unsaid, yet it is there asking us to instil meaning into something (or not). How did you deal with that? (Question from Melanie of Reading German Books in 2020)

You are right, absence is a powerful presence in River. Many readers remark that the narrator seems to come from nowhere, or nowhere the reader can know, and that she leaves at the end for an unnamed place – somewhere in Eastern Europe. The world, at least in as far as it impinges on the narrator’s temporary East London abode, sojourn and activities, seems rounded with a kind of darkness, and some of what happens in the book assumes a consequent dreamlike quality. The narrator, searching for orientation to determine her (necessarily transitory) position, does not follow straight lines on a map (let alone a “plot”), but bases her decisions on a continually emerging topography of ciphers. It is as if the pylons, foxes, vistas, characters, incidents, roofs, the physical attitudes of figures in a landscape viewed from continually changing perspectives, had melled with memory (and the mysterious accidents of photography) to speak a uniquely adapted language. How did I deal with this? I shall reply with a question: how many times do you think I followed the narrator’s paths and thoughts during the long and multifariously reflective period of translation? My answer may seem unnecessarily obscure, but all is not dark, invisible or unsaid. Think of the many expeditions the book takes us on to rivers and cities and incidents in several countries on different continents! So full of light, discovery, materiality and evidence.

Native speakers in the Read German Books in 2020 book group have criticised Kinksy for poor poetics. Of creating a profusion of words and then using them in nonsensical ways. To quote a specific example: “das Fährenschild stand rostlöchrig und schief gegen den Fluß.” (p. 191). “rostlöchrig” is a new construct, and to make sense, the sentence should read “…, das rostlöchrige Fährenschild stand schief gegen den Fluss.” Kinsky uses “rostlöchrig” as an adverb describing how the ferry sign was standing and what sense does “rostlöchriges Stehen” make? Your translation of that sentence delivers an unambiguous English sentence: “the ferry sign had rust holes and stood at a skewed angle to the river.” Is this an approach you chose to take throughout the book, and for what reasons? Is this a case of the translator simply improving the readability of the original? (Thanks to Christiane for the question.)

There is no possibility of the translator “improving the readability of the original”, I can assure you. In order to do that I would need to intervene in the German text – were such a move even necessary or desirable, which, however, it is not. But the translator is indeed involved in creating the original (word by word, if you like), or the possibility of an original, since only a translation or reading of some kind can constitute the interdependency or peculiar kind of derivativeness that predicates an original text. An untranslated book cannot yet be described as an “original”. Saying this I notice how apt the word “derivative” is in this context, with its riparian connotations. The word connotes what we did before we could simply turn on a tap: we went to the riverbank to draw water. I should have translated that sentence differently, and you are quite right to question it. It would have been better as: “the ferry sign stood rusty and full of holes at a skewed angle to the flow of the river”. Always wiser after the event! Neither “rostlöcherig” nor “rusty” need be parsed as adverbs, however. “We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear”, said the WHO Director General in connection with various lackadaisical approaches to Coronavirus containment the other day – not “loudly” and “clearly”. “The horses stand silent in the field” is a sentence from the script of Fede Álvarez’s 2018 film The Girl in the Spider’s Web. “That morning I went to church cold and hungry” does not mean I went to church with a ruthless and desperate craving for spiritual solace (i.e. coldly and hungrily). They are actually adjectives. In grammatical terms these complements are known as predicative adjectives, following a copular or linking verb. In German they are depiktive Prädikative. They modify the “ferry sign”, not the way it “stood”, which, as you point out, would make little sense.

I imagine that being a poet in your own right, and having previously translated Jan Wagner’s poetry collection Self-Portrait with a Swarm of Bees stood you in good stead for dealing with Kinsky’s linguistic gymnastics. Though translating poetic prose must be easier than translating formal verse.

Yes, Esther Kinsky is a fine poet whose work I shall continue to translate. I am struggling a bit to fit “gymnastics” into this answer, to see either her or my work in terms of literary cartwheels, pommel-horses or even press-ups – though perhaps the “high bar” … !? Both she and I are by force of circumstance currently self-isolating in Italy and Germany respectively, and we do need to keep fit somehow, so please forgive me if my comments are facetious. But a poet or novelist will inevitably make use of the entire linguistic means at her or his disposal. I have described some of the poetic qualities of her writing above, specifically in regard to River. But no, I do not find translating prose any easier than poetry.

Robin Robertson, who was tasked with creating an English equivalent of Jan Wagner’s poem ephesusghasele from your own literal translation, called the poem “an act of international mischief making”. (23 out of 45 lines with the same rhyming scheme!) What was the most challenging poem to translate in Self-Portrait with a Swarm of Bees and how did you deal with it?

Robin is quite right, the ghazal is a tricky lyrical machine. But it does take you to places other forms can’t reach. The “literal translation” was detailed, explaining context and background as well as providing a raft of different translation options for words and phrases, also pointing where necessary to the poet’s deviations from classical form. Gingko (the publisher of A New Divan, 2019) has said that they are soon to publish the “literals” on their website. I am sure these will offer a great resource to translation research if they can be kept available, especially since the relationship between intermediary translation and a final version is one type of translation that is rarely made available to analysis. But as for Self-Portrait with a Swarm of Bees, if you really want a single poem, I would have to mention Quince Jelly. You can read poem, translation and my brief excursion into its difficulties on p.13 of this online booklet.

Seagull Books are publishing your translation of Reinhard Jirgl’s The Unfinished in April 2020. Would you tell us something about that?

It took me a long time to translate The Unfinished so that after a few years of being asked how things were going I would sometimes cite the Latin phrase nomen est omen (the name is a sign), by which I implied: this translation is fated to remain just that – unfinished! I knew of Reinhard Jirgl’s work before I read him. It was said to be difficult, which made me curious. It was odd that he was one of the few Georg Büchner Prize winners not to have been translated into English. What I found when I finally did engage with The Unfinished was that Jirgl is a brilliant story teller, his novel following the fortunes of four women and a boy from events during the chaotic aftermath of Nazi Germany and expulsion of German populations of Eastern Europe, through the rise and fall of the German Democratic Republic to the birth of today’s Berlin Republic and shadows of the approaching millennium. Jirgl is also an unusually resourceful writer. I could leave that phrase looking as innocuous as it does, but to stimulate your curiosity I shall clarify: “resourceful” means he makes full use of the resources of the German language, sharpening the reader’s focus on subjective complexities by reinventing the visible surface of German prose – much as an artist might model the pastosity of a painted surface. I allowed myself some time to think about how to do this in English.

And to finish, the “easy” desert island question! You’re stranded. Which book do you want with you to a) to read, and b) to translate.

Yes, there can be no doubt about it: we are stranded. Corona Island is not exactly an isola bella but it does give us pause. The book I have read more often than any other in the past 35 odd years consists of 20 volumes, the Oxford English Dictionary, but I can slip these into my washing-bag in the shape of a CD-Rom (were I allowed to add the 33-volume Grimms’ Wörterbuch I’d be an unusually well served castaway). As for translation, if I am to spend the rest of my life on a single project, it had better be something unfinishable, so I shall choose Friedrich Hölderlin’s collected poems.

Wiesbaden, 20th March 2020 (Friedrich Hölderlin’s 250th birthday!)