Michael Hofmann is an essayist, poet and translator of over 70 books. Answering your questions on countless topics: poetry, writing, the politics of translating, Kafka... read what he had to share
A big thank you to Michael for sharing so much of his time and wisdom with us.
Thank you Michael! That was just brilliant.
(And thank you for going over time too and answering so many questions.... I think we'll keep the comments open for a while longer if anyone still wants to chip in.... I'm sure there are lots of people out there virtually-applauding too.)
a) What do you think about Michael Hamburgers work, as poet, translator and essayist? Do you think a translators importance wanes with the passing of time?
b) Who would you have liked to translate that you have not translated yet?
Hello , Yuan Mei.
a. Not an awful lot, I have to say. I like that he had 'his' principal authors - Holderlin and Celan - and think most of his best work was on them. I think probably it does, unless you're Constance Garnett.
b. I'm sorry not to have translated any Thomas Mann ever. Some new book in the next 5 or 10 years. I'm very happy with the people I've done.
c. I can't say. I wish I knew. It's of a piece with other things one suspects about them - some of them said by Napoleon.
carolinebermo wants to know:
As a poet do you find that you have to hold back on making your prose translations too poetic? Would you say that practising writing and translating poetry is a great asset when you turn to translating prose?
One more question: Do you find that some of the best translated lines you have created came very quickly, instinctively, or are you most proud of ones that were very tricky and required a lot of puzzling over?
Hello. There is that, yes. But I think that's one of the reasons who cross-genre translating is liable to be good. One brings one's flexibility, ear for a sentence, sense of clash and contiguity, and writes interesting sentences. And luckily someone else is in charge of the overall shape and compass of a book.
Probably very quickly. I don't believe in unpicking the Gordian knot any more than Alexander of Macedon.
Michael, Im a grateful fan, as your translations have opened so much literature from the German worlds for us. (I dont share your thoughts on Stefan Zweig, though.) Could I please ask for a few comments on Heideggers position in 20th century German literature? Somehow I feel that he has a presence that most of us dont quite know how to deal with, and Id be very interested to hear your thoughts. Thanks.
A dubious figure, isn't he. I don't know the first thing about him - well, I suppose I do, Celan, Sein und Zeit, Nazi party membership - he comes across to me as working with the tools of poetry, the tools of Rilke, not to put too fine a point on it. Who's another dubious figure...
Speaking as a publisher from the other end of the equation, the thing that most commonly seems to work for us is when a publishing deal is set up with a publisher abroad... i.e. if A German publisher gets in touch thats more likely to go through than a translator alone - so possibly start by approaching companies publishing in your destination language - Although of course there are always going to be exceptions and variant circumstances...
Yes, one really shouldn't! It makes me a little sad, German publishers touting for English versions of their own books. I wish there was more coming from England. I'm waiting for them to leave the EU and boathook themselves towards the US.
Reading Group host samjordison has a question of his own:
I have a question too! How do the other stories from Kafka that you are about to start working on compare to those collected in the Metamorphosis collection? Are there significant differences? (Or is it too early to start asking questions about them?!)
Another lost answer here - and probably out of time. Yes, far too early!
I love your reviews of American poets. If I had my choice I wish Great Britain would revel in the hallucinatory lines of James Schulyer. Who are some of the American poets of Schulyers generation you would hope would be increasingly read?
He's older, but I love Weldon Kees (d.-55?) Schuyler is fabulous. Berryman, Lowell, Bishop, the usual suspects. I remember as an undergraduate reading Ed Dorn's Gunslinger - perhaps time for that again. Do people still read cummings?
Do you have the impression, as I think many people do, that literary translation is generally undervalued by the academy? And supposing this were so, do you think aspiring literary translators would have anything to gain - or, on the contrary, everything to lose - by choosing to pursue their work outside the academic milieu? Many thanks!
Yes, of course I do. But that's perhaps only part of their undervaluing what they are pleased to call 'the primary text'. A translation is a sort of first-equal text. I don't work for academies or for people with German - it wouldn't make sense. I do my work for readers, to make available outstanding books and particularly 'German' books that they otherwise wouldn't be able to read.
Are there any German writers (with translations in copyright) who you feel have been badly mistreated by their translators?
I don't know. You see, I don't regularly read English translations of German books. For a long time it was thought that Thomas Mann had suffered at the hands of Helen Lowe-Porter, and I'm sure the new John Woods versions are better, suppler, funnier. Rilke - before Stephen Mitchell.
Henry King says:
Daniel Weissbort said its easier to translate a collection than a single poem. Have you found this true? And does the way you translate change if you know the poem in hand is going to be part of a larger project?
I'm not sure I understand what he means. Perhaps there's some benefit in making one's own context? I did a lot of translating single poems for my 2oth century German anthology; it didn't feel different to the whole volumes I did later from some of the poets - Benn, Eich.
As a fan of Martin Amis, I found myself often agreeing with what you said and thinking actually yes, thats what I love about his writing. Strange!
Can I ask who you would cite as an anti-Amis? Which contemporary author is wading fearlessly into the deep stream, rather than splashing through puddles?
That's funny - but for me, comforting. Then there are these qualities, only I happen to find them less beguiling than the Amophiles. I'm a little loath to try and oblige - I don't want to be a lightning rod to some other poor writer, just because I like him better!
Do you think there is a stand out author of prose fiction in the German language in the last couple of hundred years or so, the one, possibly two, you would put in the time capsule?
Kafka; Musil; the early Thomas Mann, if you could chronologically rig up your capsule.
Few non-Anglophone writers have achieved the profile or had the influence on the English literary landscape of WG Sebald (in recent years, anyway). What is your estimation of his writing? Why do you think he has seemingly struck such a chord with readers (and writers) in England?
Hi. I'm sort of agnostic about him. I've taught the Rings of Saturn (and will do again), didn't like Austerlitz, and couldn't finish (which hardly ever happens) The Emigrants. It's too difficult to try and second-guess popular taste, but this instance seems to be a rare one of the English readership receiving direction from above - the head - rather than the hips or stomach, as usual. He's the beneficiary of an egghead conspiracy, in other words. Maybe.
By sheer coincidence, I will be discussing your translation of Die Verwandlung with my students next week - the context is a module focused on German literature as an object of cultural exchange. I (and they) would be interested to hear how you feel about the question of ownership of the translation, as this is something we have discussed in seminars. To what extent do you feel controlled by English-language literary and/or publishing norms when you translate? And especially as a translator with your own cultural prestige, do you feel there is a struggle for power in the translated text?
Dear Dr CS, I try to keep things in an amiable footing. When I was looking at my Kafka last night, I was surprised that it seemed rather relaxed, not-stiff. I would have expected it to be more 'papery'. The imperative or the urge that comes from English is always to be more casual and more friendly. But more own sense of it while actually doing it was that it was like translating from Latin. All about constructions, very little about 'feel' or diction.
Two questions - both, Im afraid, rather grasping on my part - first, can we look forward to another volume of collected reviews and occasional criticism from you, a follow-up to 2001s Behind the Lines? And second, after a longish hiatus, Ive been happy to spot a few of what George Szirtes once called that rare, strange, much valued item these past years: a Michael Hofmann poem. Is a new collection in the offing?
Dear Ben, good news - well, some good news! I'm getting copies of the second collection next week, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?, and Faber are doing it early in the new year. Poems - I've thought for some time there will be some - I feel like the fairground ride that's stuck at the top, and am just about to go tumbling down the steep hill to general screams.
As a completist or totalist, I always resist the idea that Joseph Roth wrote one great book and you can forget about the others (as with Malcolm Lowry as well). So there's the question: Radetzky March or other? I think probably I would concede Radetzky March for these purposes. But there are others! A few wonderful stories/ novellas - Leviathan, Legend of the Holy Drinker, Stationmaster Fallmereyer - and some of the later novels, The Emperor's Tomb, Weights and Measures (not done by me, but/ and a lovely book), the 1002nd Night.
Do you write any poetry in German?
Only terribly briefly, when I was 19. They're gone. I seem to remember they were quite American.
There has been a lot of discussion about the humour in Kafkas writing. I appear to be one of only a few who do not find it funny, or only very rarely on which occasions the next sentence usually wipes the smile off my face and I feel ready to cry. Do you think that Kafka intended it to be amusing? Am I taking it too seriously?
Of course. It's both. My father started reading them to us when we were children. The place where the little dessert apples get stuck in the interstices of Gregor's armour still makes me cry. There's so much pain in Kafka. But then you should think about the pleasantness - sweetness, gratitude - of his late postcards to his parents - thanking them for 'good butter' - and the lovely alertness of his humour. Gregor skitters down the bed and hurts himself against the bed-post. Outcome? "This lower end of himself might well be, for the moment, the most sensitive to pain." You smile, but there's the promise of worse pain, maybe, to come, from this body he is just getting to know. Fabulous!
Michael, have you ever seen any productions of Steven Berkoffs stage adaptations of The Metamorphosis, The Trial and In the Penal Colony? If so, what did you think of them?
I have in fact. Metamorphosis. An eternity ago. If I'm even thinking of Berkoff. It was too physical for me. Virtuoso scrabbling around. I'm not a balletophile.
Poetry- but what is poetry anyway? More than on rickety answer has tumbled since that questioned first was raised. But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that Like a redemptive handrail. Wistawa Szymborska -SOME PEOPLE LIKE POETRY-(translated by Baranczak and Cavanagh)
Two questions: who, in your opinion, has the best theory to explain what poetry is? Which of Thomas Bernhards novels is his masterpiece?
Dear Alexey Maximovitch, thank you! I WS a little bit recessive, and wish she would have stepped forward a little more. But that's OK. (The Baranczak/ Cavanagh translations are amazing.) I can offer you two of my own: the controlled release of information, and a machine for re-reading - ie something you can't shake of, or get to the end of, even after 100, or 1000 readings.
It's probably his last book, Extinction, isn't it?
CunninghamEck has more questions:
Do you have any opinion on Ernst-Wilhelm Händler? Do you think his novels will ever appear in English, and do you yourself have any interest in translating them?
If a translator falls in love with a contemporary novel written in their source language, and wants to launch a project to find and English-language publisher willing to publish a translation, as a first step is it better to approach the author or their publisher? Or is there an even better first step?
I'm sorry to say I've never heard of him. New, old, living, dead? A blank. With reference to your other question, I've several times translated whole books on spec. (Which you shouldn't!) I would translate 10 or 20 pages, get in touch with the author, start trying publishers. English is terribly important to almost all foreign writers -even if there's so little for them here, that's the irony.
MythicalMagpie has had a coincidental arrival:
Oh now that is Kafkaesque. The book has just come through the letterbox, right this second! Looks good though. Thank you.
Do you intend to translate more of your fathers novels?
Funny answer - not at the moment. I translated his last 3 novels - The Film Explainer, Luck, and The Little Flower Girl - I was embarked on the first of those when he died in 1993. Another book of his that I love is The Parable of the Blind - but that's been done.
Writers like Kafka and Joseph Roth, who youve also extensively translated, lived on the cusp of enormous change and upheaval. Do you think that great literature can only emerge in conditions of impending Weltuntergang, or is an authors own outlook and fantasy sufficient?
Oh, and please make a case for the Reading Group taking on one of your Joseph Roth translations at some stage in the coming year.
Whose hand do I have to bite off for that to happen? Sure, like anything!
Giuseppe Cornacchia asks:
What would you recommend to poetry translators? Do you think only poets can really translate poetry?
Y-yes. But I almost think there are two separate commodities. There are the translation of poets by poets, which are inhabited and animated and redone and made over - all that kind of thing - but all that means exercising your own judgement as writer, and 'making it you' kind of thing. There is another much less personal, less invested kind of translation, less self-conscious, and for that a non-writer is ideal.
What do you think are a few of the best novels written in the German language in the 20th century?
The Man Without Qualities. Numero Uno.
Rilke's novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge - same translator, Burton Pike - is one of my favourite books. Another is Robert Walser's The Assistant. And then of course I love my Koeppen and my Roth.
a) Ive always thought that The Metamorphosis is uncannily close to perfection. Every detail seems just right, from the woman with the boa to Gregors relationship with his sister. Every aspect of the world Kafka creates in this story seems to be resonant and true. I think it stands out from all his other fiction as the one absolute masterpiece. Would you agree?
b) How did you handle the Ungeziefer problem? I remember Nabokov arguing quite firmly that it had to be some kind of beetle that Gregor turned into.
I wouldn't be so - captious, is it - as you. I agree, I think it is perfect, but I think quite often in Kafka you have passages that are so dense, so fluid at the same time, and so concatenated - a little system of onward hooks - and those to me are perfect. All done with such apparent freedom and imagination. The Stoker. So many.
Joel Ferdon wants to know:
What about Gottfried Benn fascinates you the most? Drew you to his work? Do you still love his work after spending so much time with him and in his head?
It's his word 'fascination'. He calls it a primary category, and I'm inclined to agree. I feel enormous tenderness and compassion for him. And yes. Still.
To what extent do you agree with Dr. Johnson when he wrote
A translator is to be like his author - it is not his business to excel him.
where he does so (excel him), the original is subtly injured ... And the reader is robbed of a just view
Two lovely quotes - so extra good to hear you're not convinced by them! Surely the major risk is the opposite case: that the translator is inadequate. Translating anything - even 'good morning' - will involve loss. So if you have something that fits beautifully, or even on occasion a little better than your original, I think probably use it. A little redress. Who's going to mind? The author? The reader? I don't think so. Only the sort of critic for whom the translator has no basis for existence anyway.
Hello! So many questions. Thanks everyone. This thread is fascinating already.
I've spoken to Michael and he's standing by ready to answer in a few minutes. Looks like he's going to have his work cut out.
Dear Sam, hello, yes. Hi, all y'all, and thank you.
Already lost one answer due to incompetence at this. Stay tuned.
Michael Hofmann is kindly joining us, live from Florida, to answer your questions for the next hour. Add your questions in the comments section below!
Michael Hofmann is the translator of the superb edition of Metamorphosis And Other Stories that weve been following this month and on Thursday 30 October he will join us for a live Q&A.
Hofmann has also translated Kafkas Amerika and The Zurau Aphorisms: he is, in other words, extremely well placed to answer questions about the great writer. But fascinating as Kafka is, it would be a shame to limit ourselves to one writer in the company of such a distinguished translator: Michael Hofmann has translated some 70 books from German into English, including Hans Falladas Alone in Berlin, as well as books by Joseph Roth, Patrick Suskind, Thomas Bernhard, Wim Wenders and Peter Stamm.
Why I write? With the example of my father before me as I was growing up, it was all I ever wanted, or felt fitted to do. In obedience to a genetic imperative - my father wrote 12 novels in 12 years and dropped dead, my (maternal) grandfather edited the Brockhaus Encyclopaedia. Out of allegiance to certain twentieth-century practitioners, in particular Lowell, Brodsky, Benn and Montale. To bring confusion to my languages, and clarity to myself.Continue reading...