Earlier this year I read a book blurbed as “an incredible true story of the Cold War”. It is a tale of two zoos, one in West Berlin, the other in East Berlin. While it is a tale of the rivalry between two human egos and the clashing of two political ideologies, it also shows how this did not have the negative impact on the animals you might have thought inevitable. Even though the men were posturing for prestige, they and their teams were absolutely dedicated to providing the best care for their charges – as far as they could, given budgets and other political interference. In fact, the animals frequently fared better than their families! J W Mohnhaupt’s The Zookeepers’ War is full of surprising anecdotes, some of which are so surreal, you just have to accept that truth is stranger than fiction. This is the Cold War as you’ve never contemplated it before.

I’m delighted to welcome Shelley Frisch, Mohnhaupt’s English translator, to talk in more detail about this fascinating and accessible work of non-fiction.

The Zookeeper’s War must have been so enjoyable to translate. How did you land the contract and what was your experience of translating it?

I generally first learn of the existence of a German-language book I wind up translating when an acquiring editor contacts me, seemingly out of the blue, with a request to consider a project. In the case of The Zookeepers’ War, though, my friend and colleague Tess Lewis heard that Simon & Schuster had acquired this book, and she suggested to an editor there that I might be the right translator for the project. As soon as I read the pdf, I was intrigued and on board.

Working on this book with Megan Hogan, the editor, was a delight; not only was she obliging and supportive, but she also sent me a batch of Simon & Schuster novels that proved perfectly suited to rounding out my translating days with evening reading pleasure.

Early in the process, I wrote to the author, Jan Mohnhaupt, to introduce myself (as I routinely do with new authors), and we wound up establishing a fine working relationship. He was wonderfully responsive to the questions I sent his way, though these were few in number, since his text was well constructed and referenced. When I visited Munich that summer, Jan and I met in person. Watching his eyes light up as he described his visits to various zoos over the years made me wonder if I should visit zoos again for the first time in decades. My grandson has just turned one, and there’s a fabulous zoo in walking distance from his home in Washington, DC…

Given its specialism, did you undertake much research, or did questions to the author suffice when you hit tricky patches?

I regard each of my nonfiction translations as a crash course in the subject matter du jour. The goal of my research is to learn to speak in an authoritative voice about topics that may be relatively new to me, to convey information in a manner that resonates with a target readership likely to be better versed in the subject than I was when I started. I read a variety of pertinent literature to see how the subject matter is framed and which terms fit which situations. In researching The Zookeepers’ War, I needed to learn how and why zoos are constructed, how animals are acquired and placed in their new habitats, how zoos have functioned as visitors’ and researchers’ destinations over the centuries, and other matters of that sort. Coming into this project, I was knowledgeable about the history, political divisions, and East-West tensions that inform the book, but even here, my eyes were opened to, for example, the role of zoos in concocting ingenious escape routes from East to West. (See below.)

Much of the information must have been surprising. Tell us about your favorite anecdote from the book. What was the most startling?

The book as a whole came as a big surprise, and I love these kinds of surprises. Jan Mohnhaupt effectively demonstrates how the separate-but-(un)equal zoos in West and East Berlin can be seen as a microcosm of life in divided Germany. As for my favorite anecdotes, and the ones I found most startling, I’d single out three: the escapades of Tuffi the elephant on the suspension railway, the events surrounding a half-dead bald eagle named Willy Brandt, whom Robert F. Kennedy presented as a formal state gift to West Germany in an embarrassing diplomatic misstep actually meant to honor Brandt (then mayor of West Berlin), and Gerd Morgen’s spectacular escape from the East while sealed in a cramped wooden crate with a moose breathing straight into his face.

The Zookeeper’s War is the latest in a long-line of non-fiction translations. Where and how did your career in translation begin? Did you make a conscious decision to specialize in non-fiction?

Many translators come to this career more by happenstance than design, and I am no exception. While teaching German literature at Columbia University in the 1980s, I was approached by an editor in midtown, asking if I’d agree to retranslate an awkwardly rendered essay for a volume dedicated to Simon Wiesenthal. The text was brief but alluring, and once I’d completed it, additional assignments came my way, and although I continued my academic teaching for years after that, I recognized that translation was my profession of choice.

I think of myself as a reactive rather than proactive translator, meaning that I typically don’t pitch projects. Translators get typecast early on. I guess editors have determined that my turf is complex works of nonfiction that others would run from. Though I’ve also translated works of fiction—enjoyably so—nonfiction is a pleasure all its own, a deep dive into fields of inquiry that lie outside my usual range but invite me in as I translate. Nonfiction broadens my horizons by enabling me to write with a (faux-)authority that ripens into true understanding. I love what I do.

Are there any translations you’d consider milestones for your career? Why do you say so?

Each has been a milestone in its own way. Colonialism was my first book-length translation; Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography was my “trial by fire” entry into the New York publishing scene; Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives was my first translation to be optioned for a movie; Eunuchs and Castrati was the only translation that inspired me to add a chapter of my own to the end of the book (that’s a story for another day); Einstein: A Biography gave me my first dip into writing about physics and writing about my own neighborhood here in Princeton, as it was also Einstein’s. The rest of my translations also represent firsts of one kind or another.

That said, Reiner Stach’s three-volume Kafka biography emerges as the clear winner in the milestone competition, and not only because it ran to almost 2000 pages. Kafka is the project with which I most closely identify. I’ve been fascinated by Kafka’s writings for as long as I can remember. As an undergraduate I even got to design my own independent study course and spend an entire semester immersed in his works. And Reiner is a superb stylist and storyteller, which doubled my pleasure in translating those volumes.

Which of your translations gave you the greatest pleasure? Which was the most enlightening? Which was the most difficult to translate?

I’ll dodge the “playing favorites” premise of this question and insist instead that they have all been pleasurable, enlightening, and difficult. These labels certainly apply in full measure to the three translations that will be published in the coming year: a collection of Billy Wilder’s early journalism, a study of Early German Romanticism, and an annotated edition of Kafka’s aphorisms. What can I say? I love all these future babies equally, and I have been enlightened and tormented by all of them as they grew on my computer and prepared to enter into the world.

It’s 2020 and all that entails. Are you still in lockdown? How have you been passing the time? How has lockdown affected your concentration and productivity?

For someone who has worked at home for a good number of years, I haven’t experienced lockdown as the kind of drastic change in daily rhythms it has meant for people who work in offices, classrooms, and other places that entail stepping out into the so-called real world. I sorely miss café life; cafés seemed essential to my productivity in the Before Times, though now I see that they were actually dispensable. Still, I do miss the café white noise, the coffee aromas, the sense of I’m-here-to-buckle-down-to-work. My next-door neighbor, in full sympathy with my plight, recently sent me a tape of “café noise” (it’s a thing!) to get me in the writing mood, but a café is more than noise…

I would be remiss not to mention biking as a great stress buster for those of us usually glued to our desks or couches. The weather here in New Jersey has been most cooperative in enabling me to take daily rides along the canal, where I see turtles, chipmunks, and the occasional blue heron. 

I had visions, during the early lockdown days, of developing my Instant Pot cooking repertoire and learning to play the ukulele, but in fact I threw myself into my translation work even more headlong than usual and left those pursuits on the side.

Apart from my (non-)cooking and (non-)music playing, I’m putting the final touches on the three forthcoming translations I mentioned earlier, and I’ve just signed a contract for a new translation project. I was poised to co-direct a translation workshop in Switzerland, which would be in full swing as I write this, but we’ve postponed it until October 2021. Who knows what the world will look like then?

I’m feeling pretty Zoomed out by this point, but I’m looking forward to another “onstage” event, a panel discussion on a set of thorny issues in translation, which will take place on November 10 in the UK, yet somehow also in my own living room. Such are the joys of virtual life.

Which books are keeping you good company during lockdown?

Like my Instant Pot and ukulele fantasies, my plan to read lots and lots of literature has not thrived as I’d hoped. I lined up far too many books as must-reads, and the sheer vastness of the offerings somehow made them cancel one another out. The unread volumes are glaring at me as I type this. Die Qual der Wahl, as they say in German.

One novel I have especially enjoyed is Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World. Its unusual narrative arc covers the titular final minutes in the life of one Tequila Leila as she dies on a street in Istanbul.

My most astonishing pandemic read to date has been Sayaka Murata’s novel Earthlings, translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori. I’ll say no more about it, as any reader should approach it without preconceptions.

As of yesterday, I’ve settled in, at long last, with Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. I don’t know what took me so long to get to this one; after all, who can resist the novel’s opening sentence: “I am already at an age and additionally in a state where I must always wash my feet thoroughly before bed, in the event of having to be removed by an ambulance in the night.” The New York Times calls the book a “philosophical fairy tale,” a description that makes me confident that I’ll stay with this one.

In a month or so, the submissions for this year’s Wolff prize (which awards a top translation from German to English) will start arriving. As jury chair, I’ll read all of those. From what I know so far, this looks to be an exceptionally strong year. There’s that Qual der Wahl again.

I’m touring Germany virtually during GLM X, trying to decide where I’m heading once it is safe(r) to travel. Where in Germany would you choose to go and why?

As a backpacking college kid on her first trip to Europe, a half-century ago (!), I headed to a destination on few people’s itineraries: Staufen, in the Black Forest, for a two-month course at a Goethe-Institut there (alas, that branch has since closed down). This picturesque village was allegedly once home to Johann Georg Faust, of Marlowe/Goethe/Mann fame. I recall a Faust-Gymnasium, a Faust-Stube, and so forth. The town did its part in fostering my interest in the German language, literature, and history. I hear that the town has literally risen twelve centimeters in recent years, which is a story unto itself.

My usual go-to cities in Germany are more obvious choices: Munich and Berlin, both centres of German publishing and brimming with literary events (at least in the Before Times). I have dear friends in both cities, and I await the day that we can see one another again.