Monday, 20 October 2008

Ross Benjamin on Close to Jedenew

I recently read Ross Benjamin’s translation of the short novel Close to Jedenew by Kevin Vennemann, and was so impressed I wanted to share it with you. But I knew Ross could do the book justice much better than me. So I interviewed him – and I was right.

Ross Benjamin, by the way, is a translator, essayist and literary critic based in Brooklyn. For more information, see his unsurprisingly classy website.

Ross, tell us about the book...

It's an account of a pogrom against a Jewish family by their neighbors, who had been their longtime friends, in a fictitious village called Jedenew near the Polish-Lithuanian border during the German invasion. This horrific incident is recounted in the first-person plural -- "we" -- and the group of characters indicated by this pronoun expands and contracts at various points, but the point-of-view of these passages is aligned with a single female protagonist who remains nameless. During the onslaught, she and her sister Anna hide in their unfinished treehouse in the woods, where they witness the destruction of their home. Having lost their loved ones, they recall the events of their truncated childhood and especially stories that have been told to them by their father and their older brother. Different voices, tales, and memories interweave as the narrative moves forward and backward in time, the scenes and speakers often shifting unexpectedly in the middle of a sentence. The novel never departs from the present tense, even when this means violating grammatical convention. The effect is a sense of simultaneity that heightens the harrowing loss at the heart of the novel.

How did you first come across it?

I attended a reading by Kevin Vennemann from his second novel, Mara Kogoj, at the Frankfurter Biennale at the Literaturhaus Frankfurt in June 2007. I was immediately intrigued, so I bought both novels and began reading Nahe Jedenew, and was intensely moved and struck by its originality and power.

Did you know the author personally before you started the translation?

I met the author at the Frankfurter Biennale, and we got together soon thereafter in a cafe in Berlin, where we discovered certain common interests and got along quite well. At the time, he was translating an anthology of writings from the magazine n+1 from English into German, and I was translating Hölderlin's Hyperion from German into English, so we discussed translation. Several months later, I was asked to translate his novel. Having read it and been so impressed by it, of course I accepted.

The subject matter is pretty weighty. I know for me, translating a piece often takes me right into the text and I feel more deeply with the characters than in a normal reading. How did writing the translation affect you?

The power and intricacy of the German text became all the more evident to me as I sought to render it in English. I did feel a more profound attachment to the characters after retracing their fates so many times during the process of translation and revisions, reliving their painful experiences and gaining increasing insight into them. This probably allowed me as a translator to get closer to an author's relationship with his characters, though of course I did not invent them, so it was not exactly the same creatively or emotionally. Still, an acute experience.

You've kept the very difficult grammatical structure (all present tense, confusing sentence structure) more or less untouched, as far as I can tell. Were you tempted to take a more interventionist approach? If not, why not?

I felt strongly that the exclusive use of the present tense was an essential feature of the novel, so I was never tempted to alter it. Even when German grammar would usually require another tense, whether past, future, or indirect discourse, the novelist stayed in the present, and if this was at times awkward in the original, the awkwardness was clearly a deliberate effect. So I reproduced this to the best of my abilities in the translation. Of course, this posed a challenge. Overall, I had the impression that the German language was more conducive to Vennemann's technique than English, for both the historical present and the ability to refer to future events in the present tense are available, conventional options in German more often than in English. So at times something that was only somewhat jarring in the original would be more intensely jarring in English. But I thought this still reflected the author's aesthetic better than to restore grammatical fluidity and familiarity would have. Though I tried to keep the level of estrangement close to that of the original, at times some degree of enhanced awkwardness in the English version was inescapable. But since the device was used as a grammatical Verfremdungseffekt in the German version, this felt justified. As for the complexity of the syntax, some degree of confusion is endemic to the novel. Again, such intricate, long sentences are less unusual in German than in English, but my rationale for retaining them was similar to my approach to tense. The labyrinthine nature of the sentences in the original was intentionally disorienting, and to efface this by composing more easily readable sentences would have been to dispense with a key aspect of the experience of this novel.

How did the work compare to translating the very different Hyperion?

The process was radically different, of course. Above all, it was much less lonely, being able to consult with the living, and very helpful, author. And if I could have asked Hölderlin (when he was still sane) half the number of questions I posed to Kevin Vennemann, I might well be a more enlightened individual. At least it might have saved me hours and hours of doubt and irresolution. But in fact I love the experience of contributing to the afterlife of a classic novel and trying to communicate with the great poet's ghost as much as I enjoy working with a living novelist and being able to introduce as important a novel as Close to Jedenew and as talented an author as Kevin Vennemann to English-speaking audiences.

Many thanks to Ross Benjamin for the interview! I really recommend the book.


David said...

I've added this to my (impossibly long)list of books.

I was trying to think of other novels written in the present tense, and could only come up with Berlin Alexanderplatz, although Doeblin - unlike apparently Vennemann - does shift to other tenses when grammatically required.

kjd said...

Hi David. Glad to hear I've prompted a purchase!

The present tense is not all that unusual in contemporary German-language writing. Quite a few of my current favourites use it: Selim Oezdogan, Clemens Meyer, Raul Zelik.

It's Vennemann's exclusive use of it that makes the reading experience so unusual, so deliberately confusing - as if you were trapped in a treehouse yourself and everything around you is suddenly out of joint, nothing and no one behaving as it should do, the past and present and future merging into one. I think it works really well in Ross's English version too, although the effect is stronger, as he points out.

Zephyr Eurova said...

Very interesting interview!