Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Anthea Bell at the Vienna Café

Last week saw a literary evening at London's Royal College of Art, as part of the multidisciplinary Vienna Café Festival, aiming to "redefine our understanding not only of the arts in Vienna, but also of modernity and modern life more generally." Sounds good, eh?

Demel had set up shop, serving coffee and cakes from behind an ornate bar, and the chairs and tables were café style. Sadly, though, all that was left for the evening was the quiet clinking of staff shutting up shop for the night behind us in the background to the reading. Sad because if you're going to an event about Viennese café culture, it would be even lovelier to enjoy the smells and tastes while you're at it. But I could have got there earlier, I suppose. I did enjoy eavesdropping on the two Austrian ladies chatting next to me though, which added a little of the flavour I craved.

The evening started with original fiction by Deborah Levy, a witty and entertaining encounter with Freud's Vienna. But I suspect I wasn't the only one in the audience looking forward to Anthea Bell, translator extraordinaire. The lady herself, small and endearingly modest like a favourite great-aunt, was talking about fiction in Freud's Vienna from her viewpoint as a translator. She was gushingly introduced by the boss of Pushkin Press, who have published a great deal of fin-de-siècle Austrian writing. But wouldn't you gush? I know I would (and probably will here), faced with the high priestess of German literary translation.

Launching into her talk by describing herself as "a mere translator", Bell started by telling us about the task of re-translating Freud for the general public, as part of a team for Penguin in the 1990s. She chose to translate The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, which is one of the more cheerful, she assured us, describing it as a gripping series of detective stories based on Freud's own experiences and those of his friends, rather than his patients. Bell jettisoned the uncomfortable jargon-y term parapraxis (for Fehlleistungen, a translation approved by Freud but not suitable for today's lay readers, she felt) in favour of more colloquial solutions such as slip of the tongue, pen, mind, etc. - the Freudian slip itself.

By coincidence or serendipity, Anthea Bell was offered more Viennese texts after this one, sarting with Lilian Faschinger's novel Vienna Passion, where Freud hovers in the background at the turn of the century. Another modern take on old Vienna she has translated is Eva Menasse's Vienna. This, Bell commented, is one of those books she uses on her crusade to convince the British that there is such a thing as a Teutonic sense of humour.

Moving back to the early twentieth century, Bell introduced us to her translations of Stefan Zweig for Pushkin Press. He's not an easy writer to translate, she noted, as one has to think hard over every sentence. One gradually gets to know an author's favourite adjectives, though, and one of Zweig's is dumpf - which often means sombre. She is especially fond of Amok, which reminds her of Kipling and Conrad, and Leporella. His only novel, Beware of Pity, she told us, shows Zweig's great interest in medicine, psychology and Freud, which was shared by Arthur Schnitzler, a Jewish doctor-writer. Another Jewish author in Vienna was Joseph Roth, translated of course by Michael Hofmann, whose Radetzky March she warmly recommended.
At a distance of only 155 miles away in Prague, Bell generously subsumed Kafka into Viennese café society, attesting him a similar mindset to the Viennese. She has just handed in her new translation of The Castle to OUP, she told us. As other translators will know and Willis Barnstone points out in The Poetics of Translation, translation is an extremely "intensive reading of the original text". Actually, Anthea told us that, I haven't read it. She said she had never before been struck by the book's topsy-turvy atmosphere, leaving her feeling almost like Alice in Wonderland. From Kafka we leapt to Ernst Weiss, another Jewish doctor in Vienna, whose Franziska Anthea Bell recently translated, again for Pushkin. She was truly impressed by Weiss's very strong heroine, and wondered what he would have made of Jane Austen.

Weiss committed suicide in 1940 as the Germans marched into Paris. Zweig committed suicide in Brazilian exile in 1942, Roth killed himself with drink in Paris in 1939, Freud died in London, and Schnitzler had the fortune of dying in 1931. All their books were burned - a sobering end to a very creative era.

All in all, I was impressed to experience Anthea Bell in person. She seemed incredibly busy and dedicated, mentioning that she always works on more than one book at a time - a change is as good as a rest. So at the moment, she has Stefan Aust's Baader-Meinhof Complex on her desk, along with Stefan Zweig's long memoir and an outtake from Volker Weidermann's Buch der verbrannten Bücher to go with an upcoming Times interview (and perhaps Uwe Timm's Halbschatten?). Perhaps the occasion didn't merit it, but I was nevertheless a little disappointed that she didn't go into more depth on some of the themes and ideas in fin-de-siècle Viennese literature. But my cup was very much half-full, as she did give a very good idea of what it's like to translate some of these writers, and gave the books on sale that evening a very hearty push. If I wasn't so stingy I'd almost definitely have bought Franziska.


Anonymous said...

Hi Katy, I've just started on the English version of The Baader-Meinhof Complex after having read the German original back in 1985. I've been to see Stefan Aust here in Auckland a week ago and picked up the book.

Did you manage to read part or all of it? I'm about to upset a few people here, I realise that, but I was (still am) quite disappointed with Anthea's take on it. It comes across as somewhat lacking finesse - an awful thing to say I know. You're a translator and so am I, an amateur one admittedly, but I couldn't help feeling that something was missing? What is it I am not seeing here? What's your take?

Thanks, Ulf from Auckland - NZ

kjd said...

Ulf, to my great shame I haven't read either of them - although the German is on the shelf in the other room.

Maybe I'll find the time to compare and contrast at some point and post the outcome here. In the meantime I'll have to pass comment - but I would suggest that 1985 is a bit of a long time ago to make a direct comparison...