Sunday, November 07, 2004

Reviewing: "The saying of inapposite things in uninteresting ways"?

In 2002, the novel Luck was published, Michael Hofmann's translation of his father's Das Glück. It is a wonderful novel. The TLS ran one of the few reviews it received. Michael Butler, a professor of German, was polite, welcoming and condescending ("an idiosyncratic author"). And in the final paragraph picked holes in the transation. Michael Hofmann responded with a letter, which I think merits repetition:
Translators live in the doghouse, and whenever they come forward ("sich zu Wort melden"), it's invariably dismissed as self-interested barking. I have, accordingly, tried and tried not to write about Michael Butler's really hurtfully inadequate account of my translation of my father's penultimate novel ... but it's no good.

There is a kind of niggardliness that mistakes itself for measure, for judgment. Butler's piece - he perhaps didn't even know it - was niggardly. It was an even 1 on the Richter scale. It was one bland, tepid routine phrase ("they last for ever if you look after them properly") after another. This wouldn't matter - or it would matter a lot less - if the book he was - or, on the whole, was not talking about hadn't been wildly, vocally, desperately, blackly original. It made me wonder what criticism was, or reviewing: perhaps the saying of inapposite things in uninteresting ways.

As for the few strictures on the translation (along with the usual, and usually worded cereal pack goodies, "considerable gifts", "fluent", "prose rhythms", la-di-da), I reject those too. The idea that by commission or omission I could do anything to diminish the effectiveness, the vivacity of my father's book is to me traumatic. The things that "grated" with Michael Butler - but, please, the whole book is meant to "grate" - I am perfectly happy with. "Gone on" ends a sentence and carries a metaphor (it was about a marriage, if I remember) better than "passed away"; "whippersnapper" is unendurable; if "bite down hard" isn't English yet, there's no reason why it shouldn't be soon; and the shoes did go downstream. I was four. They were my shoes.

I don't want to antagonize a profession, but it upsets me to think that busy people like professors of German can still find the time to impair the pathetic prospects for German literature in English. It took me eight years to find a publisher for Luck. There is nothing like it in English. Take that any way you like.
The good news is that Hofmann's ultimate novel, received a lot more attention; all favourable.

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