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Tess Lewis on Lutz Seiler — and why translators are destined to fail

In a rainy cafe in Prenzlauer Berg, we caught up with star American translator Tess Lewis.

Tess Lewis, one of the most accomplished translators in the game. Photo: Annette Hornischer

Tess Lewis is one of the most accomplished German-to-English translators in the game. The resident of Westchester, New York, has translated work by Walter Benjamin, Julya Rabinowich, Lukas Bärfuss and more; she also translates from French. Her translation of Slovene-Austrian author Maja Haderlap’s novel Angel of Oblivion won the 2017 PEN Translation Prize. Lewis is currently in town as a fellow at the American Academy of Berlin, where she is working on a translation of Berlin native Lutz Seiler’s prize-winning novel Stern 111, a much-anticipated follow-up to her rendering of Kruso in 2017. We met in a café in rain-soaked Prenzlauer Berg to talk about the art of translation.

You tend to translate authors from the periphery of the German-speaking world. What’s it like being in the literary capital?

When I started translating, I gravitated to Austrian literature. And then you get pigeonholed by editors. So, one thing led to another, and I think I’ve translated more Austrian and Swiss authors than Germans, though that’s starting to level out now. Being in Berlin is great: I was amazed at how many people I knew here—translators, colleagues, friends, writers. Everyone passes through sooner or later.

Lutz Seiler was born in the GDR and lived in Berlin for many years. Has being here helped you translate him?

It’s been very helpful, because there are so many people around that have lived through the times and know the context. Inevitably someone comes up to me and says, “Oh, I heard you’re working on Stern 111, if you have any questions let me know.” And I do have questions—even about the landscape. When is a Hugel really a Berg? They might call it a Berg, but is it really a Berg? The one thing I’ve been trying to do since January is to walk along the streets from the novel—because Stern 111 is set on Schönhauser Allee, Rykerstraße, Kollwitzkiez during the years around reunification. But every time I come here, it starts to rain [laughs]. So I have yet to trace the narrator’s footsteps. Hopefully soon.

What was in East Germany that was lost? What positive things went missing?

Stern 111 is a novel about the years around reunification. Anglo readers love books on German history, of course, but they typically steer more towards Nazi and Stasi. Is it interesting to work on this relatively unsung time period?

Translating Seiler has been a fascinating crash course in recent German history. English readers tend to stop at the fall of the Wall. They’re interested in the darker side of East Germany, like in Wolfgang Hilbig, and they’re interested in the Berlin scene. But the actual Wende period—when there really was this fascinating element of political anarchy and utopianism—doesn’t seem to get taken seriously by anglophone readers. There is a growing interest in the Wendezeit among German writers, too, like in Jenny Erpenbeck’s new novel Kairos and others. Not just about the big upheaval but asking: What was in East Germany that was lost? What positive things went missing? I mean, there was a lot more there than just the Stasi…

I wonder if that reflects a shift in tone in the critical landscape in Germany—back in the 1990s, anything that seemed even slightly ambivalent got slammed for revisionism. Do you think it’s been softening, and people are now interested in more nuanced stories about the Wendezeit?

Yes. I think it’s hugely important abroad too because that feeling of being overlooked, left behind and dismissed that the East Germans have, especially in many of the less developed areas of the country—it’s very similar to what we have in the United States with the politics of resentment and white anxiety and so on. There’s a similar dynamic at work. The political and historical circumstances are completely different, but still, both in the US and here, there are swathes of people who have been treated as expendable. And you see the effect of that in the rise of far-right parties, far-right sympathies. So I do hope that American readers will be interested in the totality of the East German experience, because there’s plenty for us to learn from it.

What are some of the particular challenges in translating Lutz Seiler?

It is very clear from his novels that he’s also a poet. His is a very poetic, associative kind of writing. And it’s hard to capture that density and fluidity in English without making it sound mushy. You know, I look at the German language from outside, to a certain extent, and it seems so elegant and fluid and beautifully associative—but then when I try to put it into English, if I’m not careful, then the sentences are just everywhere and it’s not clear who’s doing what. Part of this is just the way the language works, and part of it is that Seiler’s sentences are so dense, and convey so much information—a German sentence can bear that weight, while an English one generally can’t.

Do you often find yourself breaking up long German sentences?

I try to keep sentence length as much as possible—until it interferes with the experience of reading. If you’re spending too much mental energy keeping track of where the sentence started and where it’s gone, then I’ll chop it up. But I do think that, with writers who know what they’re doing, the delivery of information is significant. The sequence, the choreography, of a sentence is important. It’s a balance.

It sounds like you make yourself think like a literary critic first, before engaging as a translator—you set out to really understand the text so you can come from the same place as the author…

Yes, but not first. I feel like I translate very intuitively. Sometimes I just launch into a book without reading it first—I’ll just go in and do the first draft very intuitively, very reactively, and then only later will I go in as the critic and ask what exactly the author is trying to do in this scene, or this chapter, or the whole structure of the book. One thing I do, which is probably on the critic level, is that I think of similar or complementary authors in English, and try to read as much of that as possible.

there are these people out there making personal and political decisions based on the Bible … what are they reading? They’re reading a translation.

For Maja Haderlap, say, I would read Virgina Woolf, because of the associative stream-of-consciousness style, and the fluidity of narrative and narrators—actually Orlando is very similar to Haderlap’s Angel of Oblivion in the sense that it is, at some points, a single consciousness telling a story and, at other points, the multi-perspective narration of the village. And Woolf’s very long sentences, with their idiosyncratic terms and word order, were a good way for me to get a little distance from English itself, and to think about how I might recreate Haderlap’s style. 

You recently gave an address about translation at the American Academy. There you said that the “necessary failure” inherent to translation is not a weakness, but a source of richness…

One of the points that George Steiner makes in his book After Babel is that every act of reading is a translation—you’re translating the text into your own world, your own preconceptions, your own mind. Even simply reading is translation, so translating is—in a sense—a double translation, a translation at one remove. The “necessary failure” in translation is that you can only ever capture part of a text. You and I would read a book in very different ways, anyway—there’s overlap, sure, but still, you’ve got your reading and I’ve got mine.

Any translation is limited, not only by the translator’s reading and understanding of a book, but also by their ability to put it into a new language. And then whoever reads the translation is interpreting an interpretation, translating a translation, into their own mind. Every translation is limited—but if you can get two translations of one work, then you get two different angles. People love Constance Garnett for the way she gave 19th-century Russian literature that “English novel” feel, but if you add in others, like the more linguistically exact Pevear-Volokhonsky version, then you can triangulate, or quadrupulate, into a deeper understanding of the book.

All this seems to radically flip the uncharitable old view of translators as people who sell faulty knock-offs—although surely nobody thinks like that any more…

No! There really are people who say they won’t read a work in translation because it’s not the author’s words. [laughs] I feel very sorry for them, because they’re missing out on a lot of wonderful books. And maybe those books aren’t the “originals”, sure, but why would you deny yourself? There’s a fetishisation of the original text, the original word. But then there are all these people out there making personal, social and political decisions based on the Bible … well, what are they reading? They’re reading a translation.

David Bellos writes that translation is the first step to civilisation. If that’s true, then what can the rest of us do to make life better for translators? You don’t have to talk about names on the cover if you don’t want to…

[laughs] Yeah, yeah, I mean, that shouldn’t even be a question, it’s so obvious. But apparently it is a question. Well, I think things would be better if there were a broader recognition of David Bellos’s point—that, in order to be civilised, a country or nation or community or group needs to be able to talk to others who don’t share their same assumptions, their same geography. Ideally, there would be a wide-spread recognition of how important translation is as a means of communication, and as a way of understanding different mindsets.

Turning back to Maja Haderlap’s Angel of Oblivion—the way she addresses the experience of Slovenian speakers in Austria as a minority community within a very insular, closed-minded broader society, and the way they were treated with suspicion simply for speaking a different language, the discrimination they suffered, all of that is important for us to know. Not only for our understanding of what’s going on in various pockets of Europe, but also maybe we can look at ourselves with a deeper understanding of how minorities and speakers of different languages are treated in our own countries. Maybe then, instead of being fearful and protective, people would be more welcoming towards the richness of human experiences