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.