Tuesday, 27 May 2008

More Michael Hofmann

Sunday's Independent features an interview with the poet, academic and translator (probably in that order) Michael Hofmann.
He says translation "takes the words out of you. It also takes your autonomy away, and I think it takes away your sense of when something is finished. On the other hand, if you survive it then it'll turn out to have been good for you. And that's probably my hope. You know that you'll
have acquired more writing muscle or a greater array of styles." Sounds like he doesn't enjoy it a great deal. The castor oil of creative writing. And he talks about his father, the German writer Gert Hofmann, a lot. Babelguides offers information on his books available in English.

I heard Hofmann speak at a VdÜ get-together a couple of years ago. He was on a panel of authors who don't write in their native languages, along with Jan Faktor and Artur Becker - the assumption being that Hofmann's native language is German, but he writes and translates in English. I found that position a little coy - after all, he's lived in Britain since he was four years old. As the Independent comments, he has "the assuredness of someone who has passed through the English public-school system. He is, too, a softly spoken, courteous host. Not quite English, and not quite German." In the interview, Hofmann claims he writes his poems to make himself English. On the podium in Germany, he said, as I recall, that he doesn't feel at home with the English language; that he dislikes it, even.

How sorry a fate, then, to be trapped within it as he surely is. Michael Hofmann has translated Bertolt Brecht, Joseph Roth, Patrick Süskind, Herta Mueller, Franz Kafka, Irmgard Keun and Wolfgang Koeppen. He has won so many awards it must seem normal to him. But what I find most remarkable is that he has translated his own father's writing, winning the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 1995 for The Film Explainer. I'd have thought the feeling of sneaking into the author's mind you have when translating would be even stranger if that author were your father. Like cat-burgling your own parents.

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