Translating Thomas Bernhard

Scribe of The Discouraging Word (what a good title – do Americans realize I learnt that song at junior school in England?) has twice posted sentences from a translation of Alte Meister, Old Masters, by Thomas Bernhard. Of course he was interested in two words, bolshie and gravid, and not in the translation. But I was surprised to learn that people in the USA read Bernhard in translation, because I wouldn’t think it would travel. I don’t think Bernhard is that hard to translate – he doesn’t have a lot of wordplay. In some of his books he has incredibly long sentences, but they aren’t constructed in a way that couldn’t be done in English. And Alte Meister has not such long sentences. It has no paragraphs, and otherwise there is a lot of repetition as a device. I just wouldn’t expect the content to convey. But perhaps I’m wrong.

Anyway, when I saw the word bolshie, a British dated slang word, I immediately felt: Bernhard would never use this word if he were writing English. So I finished my copy in German – it had been lying in the bookcase with a bookmark one-third of the way through. I then tried to translate those sentences without looking at the version by Ewald Osers, and compared the results. Eventually I bought the translation myself and tried three separate sections – I can’t say paragraphs, because there are none. To sum up, I found the translations of the two sentences really odd, but the three longer sections were more acceptable to me.

I’m not a literary translator and my versions are just close readings to show the points where I disagree with the published translation. Although I resolved not to post a lot of criticism, I think I can allow myself a little discussion here.

Here’s the sentence quoted by TDW on August 12th:

bq. Thomas Bernhard: Heidegger hatte ein gewöhnliches, kein Geistesgesicht, sagte Reger, war durch und durch ein ungeistiger Mensch, bar jeder Phantasie, bar jeder Sensibilität, ein urdeutscher Philosophiewiederkäuer, eine unablässig trächtige Philosophiekuh, sagte Reger, die auf der deutschen Philosophie geweidet und darauf jahrzehntelang ihre koketten Fladen fallen gelassen hat im Schwarzwald.

bq. MM: Heidegger had an ordinary face, not an intellectual face, said Reger, he was unintellectual to the core, completely lacking in imagination, completely lacking in sensitivity, a thoroughly German ruminant chewing the cud of philosophy, a philosophical cow constantly pregnant, said Reger, that grazed on German philosophy and then, decade after decade, dropped its coquettish cowpats in the Black Forest.

bq. Ewald Osers: Heidegger had a common face, not a spiritual one, Reger said, he was through and through an unspiritual person, devoid of all fantasy, devoid of all sensibility, a genuine German philosophical ruminant, a ceaselessly gravid German philosophical cow, Reger said, which grazed upon German philosophy and thereupon for decades let its smart little cow-pats drop on it.

Note: geistig can mean spiritual or intellectual.
Gewöhnlich is more like ordinary than common.
I tried to bring out the transitive meaning of wiederkäuen, to chew the cud – ein Wiederkäuer (literally a re-chewer) is a ruminant.
Of course sensibility and sensitivity are both possible.
In the last line, darauf could mean then, i.e. thereupon, or it could mean thereon, i.e. on philosophy – but it can’t mean both.
Gravid is OK.

And here’s the other sentence:

bq. Thomas Bernhard: Mit den Druckern dürfen Sie sich nicht anlegen, sagte Reger, sie werden sofort aufsässig und drohen Ihnen, alles hinzuwerfen, wenn Sie sich ihrer Borniertheit nicht beugen.

bq. MM: You must not get into an argument with printers, said Reger, they will be up in arms immediately and threaten to drop everything, if you do not give in to their narrow-minded ideas.

bq. Ewald Osers: You must not tangle with printers, Reger said, they get bolshie at once and threaten to chuck everything unless you bow to their blinkered ideas.

I find it a problem in translating Bernhard to hit the right terminology that’s not too formal and not too slangy.

The longer texts, which are less interesting but show that the translation is better than these two sentences, are in this PDF file Download file.
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8 thoughts on “Translating Thomas Bernhard

  1. I read the translation you provided, without first realising that it was done by you, and thought to myself “What is she complaining about? This sounds quite good, actually.” :-)

    For what it’s worth (English is a foreign language for me), I agree with you that the published version sounds less than elegant at times. But then, I’ve seen worse, and generally tend to stay away from translations as much as I can, reading the original if at all possible.

  2. Thank you! I agree that the translation is not so bad. I think it could give a quite good impression of the novel. In fact, John of TDW seems to sense when the tone is wrong although he read the novel only in English. Of course translations are only second-best, but this caught my interest – I suppose because I do read Bernhard myself and was curious how it came over in English. And it isn’t possible to avoid translated novels all the time.

  3. To comment on a detail, I think “darauf” should be “thereon” in the first sentence you quote. Reading these few examples I am getting the impression that one of the main problems is conferring the more or less condescending/derogatory tone, e.g. in “aufsässig”, which you would use for recalcitrant children. Very difficult indeed.

  4. Bettina: What you say about aufsässig would at least explain why Osers uses ‘bolshie’. I’m not sure how important that is in context. I didn’t think about it. The context is the problem of getting printers to produce a simple and correct funeral announcement, following a model they have been given. The context gives concrete examples of all the ways in which the printers fail to do this, so I don’t think much would get lost by using another word here.
    The ‘thereon’ I now have two Germans in favour and one against. Grammatically and syntactically, thereon is logical. Again, it comes in a whole long Heidegger section. In view of the placing of “jahrzehntelang” ín only one part of the sentence, I am more inclined to ‘thereupon’ (Osers has both, of course).

    Incidentally, I don’t understand why if ‘kokett’ is used in German, one would avoid ‘coquettish’ in English.

  5. I completely agree with you about the “coquettish” and about “bolshie” being too slangy, but I think the translation should not read too smoothly if it is to catch the tone of the original.

  6. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘smooth’. The Bernhard seems smooth to me. You think that when Osers uses expressions that are a bit too slangy or too outdated in English, he is deliberately doing it in order to reflect something he sees in the original?

  7. That is exactly what I mean. Some quite unusual words (like “Geistesgesicht”) or their use in a given context (like the “aufsässig” for the printers) make the text less smooth in German than it might seem. Osers seems to show a feeling for this but he is not always successful in conveying the way in which something is unusual, or so it seems from the little I have read. I looked at the pdf file and preferred your translations of these passages.

  8. I see what you mean about Geistesgesicht. However, I cannot accept the translation of geist- as spirit here. And as for bolshie, you have shown me why volshie was chosen, because of the element of uprising or rebellion, but I think the choice does more harm than good. Perhaps I am just prejudiced: I should read another translation by Osers. He is a ‘grand old man’ of literary translation in Britain, but his first language was German and he was 19 or 20 when he emigrated to the UK. I didn’t read the translation looking for non-native errors, and I think the English is excellent, but looking at the various infelicities I did wonder if it isn’t a mark of becoming familiar with a language only as an adult.

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