Antje Rávic Strubel’s debut novel Unter Schnee was translated into English by Zaia Alexander. You can read a sample from Snowed Under on Strubel’s website. The book tells the story of a disintegrating relationship patched up, perhaps, during a skiing holiday in the Czech Republic. But it’s also a microcosm of East-West relations and the way other people looking in from outside view a relationship. Those lucky New Yorkers will get a chance to see Antje, Zaia and Clemens Meyer in conversation as part of the PEN World Voices Festival this spring. I talked to Zaia about her excellent translation.
Zaia, tell us about the book. What made you want to translate it?
Every chapter has a different voice and this intrigued me. I wanted to stretch my ability as a translator to enter not only an author's writing style, rhythm, vocabulary, but to experiment with creating a panoply of voices. In some cases, I took rather large liberties in finding voices, such as with the small time crooks. I gave them a kind of 40s Raymond Chandler register. Antje has told me this was exactly the kind of voice she had heard, but the German language was limited in this regard...that vocabulary is exclusively American...so the translation, in a sense, fulfilled the original intent.
There were also stunningly beautiful descriptions of nature and touching moments in the book that inspired me to spontaneously begin translating it. Being her first and half novel (she wrote the book simultaneously to her first novel Offene Blende) it gave me the opportunity to move slowly and methodically into her oeuvres, to enter her writing laboratory and chart her obsessions from the start.
The first thing that struck me, almost as soon as I started reading, was - all that snow! Was it difficult to translate all the skiing and winter weather in the book, as a native of LA?
In fact, it was a big challenge. I'm not a skier and I had to ask English speaking skiers for help. Now I know what black diamonds and moguls are. As someone from L.A., the only moguls I knew were in the film business!
I noticed there were a few things you made clearer for a non-German audience in your translation, especially some of the references to German and Czech history. How far do you think a translator has to go to explain a piece of literature readers might not understand? Is there a point at which you morph from a translator to a mediator?
I think the morphing to a mediator happens the moment you sit down and translate anything. There are many things about East German society that continues to be foreign to West Germans. So the question becomes how do you preserve in English the foreignness a German reader experiences without making it unreadable in English? As far as history goes, there are some things that needed to be made explicit for American audiences (this is the target audience). I don't think it's necessary to give a history lesson, but if I didn't explain certain historic realities which were directly related to the plot, the story wouldn’t make any sense at all.
I know you're a fan of Borges' idea of the "unfaithful original". How faithful is your translation - or how unfaithful is Unter Schnee to Snowed Under?
As I mentioned, Snowed Under is a very early piece. When Antje and I worked on it together, she had the chance to take another look at it, first as a seasoned writer (she had written four novels since then and countless short stories, essays, etc.) and secondly as a work that needed to be grasped by an American audience. We had a lot of fun changing things, rewriting, editing. Antje and I have worked on numerous projects together and see the translation process more as a collaborative effort towards a new version than a faithful rendering. But by working this way, it ends up being very faithful to the original.
There's one chapter in which you've worked with dialect. Tell us about that... Using dialect can be a touchy subject, can't it?
There were actually a couple of chapters where I played around with dialect. I've told you about the petty criminals, but there is also a man who speaks in a heavy Berlin dialect. I made him sound New Yorky without being specifically Brooklyn, Bronx, New Jersey, etc. I think this is a very tricky, if not risky thing to do, but we were very curious how far we could go in "Americanizing" the book, while keeping it true to its east European roots. Naturally such decisions are made easier (and easier to defend) with the author's blessing.
You write in your introduction that you worked in close collaboration with Antje, and she's a translator herself (of Joan Didion). How did you go about that - who had the last word? Did you ever come to blows?
Of course I had the last word!!!! But as you can tell, the work was absolutely collaborative and I don't think the translation would have been the same without Antje's input. There was one situation, for example, with a character called Frau Beran. She is a very old lady, lumbering, slow. My first draft gave her a too smooth and elegant voice. Antje was horrified. She wanted the old lady's language to be awkward and clumsy. As a translator this is a frightening proposition because it simply looks like a bad translation. For example, she wanted me to remove all contractions of verbs, and the chapter was filled with them. So every time Frau Beran said something like I can't, I won't, I don't, it became I cannot, I will not, I do not, etc. After a while, it makes you crazy. We came to a compromise, I took out 3/4 of the contractions and, indeed, Antje's suggestion gave her a very specific and unique voice.
What's the plan for the future - are you going to roll out the whole Antje Rávic Strubel phenomenon across the English-speaking world?
At the moment, I am working on Kältere Schichten der Luft for Red Hen Press (Colder Layers of Air). It will be the second book of Antje’s they are publishing. After that, I plan to translate Fremd Gehen, write a film script of it, and then translate it into a half billion dollar low-budget Hollywood movie.
Thanks again to Zaia - I look forward to the Oscars' ceremony, and in the meantime I really recommend reading Snowed Under.