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Isabel Fargo Cole on the art of bilingual writing

The star author and translator tells us about her switch from English to German and why it’s often hardest to work with simple language.

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Celebrated US-born translator and author Isabel Fargo Cole on the art of translation, the rediscovery of Wolfgang Hilbig and writing fiction in a foreign tongue. Photo: Simona Lexau

Since moving to Berlin in 1995, Isabel Fargo Cole has become one of the leading lights of the city’s literary scene. A prize-winning translator, she is best known for making the work of East German author Wolfgang Hilbig available to English speakers; she also founded the translation journal No Mans Land. Her latest translation is The Motley Stones (NYRB Classics), a novella cycle by the 19th-century Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter.

Over the last few years, the Wahlberlinerin has also found success as a German-language author in her own right, most recently with Das Gift der Biene (The Poison of the Bees, Nautilus Verlag 2019), a novel set in the idealistic bohemia of 1990s East Berlin, unfortunately yet to be translated into English.

You’ve translated a very diverse cast of authors. What makes you want to translate a certain work?

It’s always different, but the work has to resonate with me. It has to speak to things I’m interested in – or something I didn’t know I was interested in yet. Often I like writers who have something mysterious about them, something you can’t boil down to a simple political stance or dogmatic aesthetic programme. I like books that I feel I could read over and over again, without ever unlocking all the mysteries – because that’s the experience you have when you’re translating, you read the book more often than anyone else does, you have to take everything apart then put it back together.

Do you see it as part of your role, as a translator, to bring new voices into the canon of German literature?

Absolutely. What drives all of us literary translators is the idea of bringing a book we’re excited about to a new audience. And the most exciting thing is when you can champion someone.

What drew you to Adalbert Stifter, of all people?

I’d always had this negative image of Stifter as being very conservative and stuffy. But someone I admire said something about how he has this dark, strange, radical side to him – and that he writes about nature and landscape, which are obsessions of mine. At some point I picked up what’s now Motley Stones, and I was really sucked in. It’s slow-paced and meditative, but it has these very weird, intense moments and perspectives in it. It’s unlike anything I’ve read, especially from that time. It has something very modern about it.

Why do you think Stifter is worth resurfacing now? Is he a writer for our times, for the Anthropocene?

Absolutely. People used to think he wrote about nature in a naive, romanticising way. And he is a real nature-lover – but he has this very implacable idea of nature, as a mysterious force full of uncanny aspects and potential catastrophes. The strangeness of nature in his work actually fits into current ways of thinking, where people are trying to explore how we can see nature in more expansive ways, ways that account for the fact we don’t really know everything that’s going on with the natural world.

In most of Stifter’s stories, his characters are trying to figure out if a thunderstorm is going to happen. But the storm is not an allegory for the character’s inner soul or whatever. It’s really about the thunderstorm. Nature has a life of its own.

What were some of the challenges of working on Stifter? I noticed he keeps listing things without commas, for starters.

There were a lot. He is one of the most difficult authors I’ve translated because his style is very 19th-century, but also very idiosyncratic. So I had to figure out what part of the weirdness in his language was the time period and what part was consciously his own. Stifter very consciously estranges language. His language feels very simple, even elemental. And often the hardest thing to do is to translate simple language. It was a matter of finding my way into the tone and the rhythm, which was more intuitive than anything.

What about Hilbig – what made you want to translate him?

When I moved to Berlin, I had a very East German circle of friends. I was fascinated with trying to delve into East Germany and get a sense of what life was like. A friend of mine recommended I read Hilbig, and his work – the voice, the imagery, the rhythm, and this very dark poetic aspect – totally seized me. And oddly, even though he writes texts that are very surreal and non-realistic, he conveyed the atmosphere of the GDR in a way I could never understand just intellectually. He’s the writer who made me smell it, and feel it, and wander around in its dirty hallways.

You’ve also written novels in your own name. Is that something you always wanted to do?

I’ve always seen myself as a writer, even since I was six. In a sense, I got into translation as a different way of writing. But I was still having my ideas. The ideas for the two novels I’ve published in recent years were ones that I carried around for quite a while, just trying to find the space to work them out. My translation work, and my general investigations into East Germany, accumulated a lot of material that ended up crystallising into my books.

And what led you to start writing in German?

Back in 2004, I was struggling to sell translations – and also struggling to write. I was trying to write in English, but I felt very cut off from the English-speaking literary world – there wasn’t much of an English-language scene here then. I wanted to connect with other writers, so I went to a weekly German writing group where anyone could come and share what they’d written.

Eventually I decided to write something in German and share it, and that was the beginning. My translating also prodded me in that direction, because I was starting to translate literary writers, and when you’re translating you realise all the cool things you can do in German that you can’t do in English – which you then have to find a solution for in English. But then you think, “Hey, I want to do that!” I wanted to use indirekte Rede, or a particular subjunctive, or be able to make up compound words. So I did.