I first met the wonderful non-fiction translator, activist and Germanist Shelley Frisch in line for the ladies' toilet at the Frankfurt Book Fair. One of her books recently won an award, and that seemed like the perfect opportunity to interview her for love german books. Everything else, I think, is self-explanatory.
Shelley, Fromms won a gold medal at the Independent Publishers' Book Awards. Tell us about the book.
Fromms, by Götz Aly and Michael Sontheimer, is the story of Julius Fromm, a Jewish entrepreneur whose condom manufacturing company in Berlin is seized by Hermann Göring in the 1930s and given as a present to Göring’s godmother in exchange for two medieval castles, while the Fromms flee to England, stripped of their possessions, their company, their adopted homeland, and even the right to continue using the family name when they rebuild the business in London. This true story is a powerful case study of how state-fueled greed coupled with pernicious ideology undid a man’s life’s work while undoing the moral fiber of an entire society.
The book’s umbrella of themes encompasses life in Weimar, the emerging field of “sexology,” the international history of condoms (I now know what kind Casanova wore!), the condom manufacturing process, brothel etiquette and aesthetics, and, first and foremost, the agony of expropriation and exile from Hitler’s Germany. There are moments of levity, such as Peter Lorre’s first encounter with Alfred Hitchcock (Peter Lorre was a friend of Max Fromm) interspersed with harrowing stories, such as the scandalous journey of the Dunera, a British ship that imprisoned Jewish and other refugees and brought them to Australia under concentration camp-like circumstances. One of the passengers on that ship was Julius Fromm’s son Edgar Fromm. Edgar’s son Ray and I were in touch by phone several times while I worked on the translation, and Ray contributed a wonderful afterword to the American edition to update the story with the poignant and revealing perspective of a family member.
And how was the ceremony?
The ceremony for the Independent Publishers’ Book Awards (known, for some reason, as the IPPY Awards) was grand fun. It took place in a lavish party space, a disco-like setting, on West 57th Street in Manhattan, with all kinds of bells (that is, food) and whistles (drink). Quite a nice change from my cramped little study where the text came into being! Fromms won the gold medal in the history category. If I’m not mistaken, it was the only translation to win a prize in any category.
When winners were called up to the stage to receive their awards, true hilarity ensued. Male awardees got to pose for a photo op with a scantily clad woman in stilettos; female awardees like me posed with a playboy-type boy toy. The medal he hung around my neck was so heavy and humongous that I had trouble remaining upright (slight hyperbole here… but it is large and heavy).
You've translated a long list of non-fiction titles from German. I know each book presents its own challenges - what were the big issues with Fromms?
Every book I’ve translated poses seemingly insurmountable challenges. Just when I think that a new project will be easier than the last, I find that it’s in fact devilishly difficult, with medium and message inextricably intertwined, and thus fundamentally resistant to translation.
In Fromms, one set of lexical challenges centered on the crazy quilt of Nazi bureaucratic titles for all kinds of offices that sound ludicrous (and worse) to our ears. There was also an overarching issue of tone, since the book alternates between harrowing, heart-rending stories of foiled escapes across borders and sober, detailed lists, such as the prices fetched by household objects auctioned from the Fromms’s home in Berlin.
How did you get into translation in the first place?
My path to translation from the German came via my studies of exile literature, particularly of the Mann family, where I found myself drawn to the linguistic dimension of their transculturation. Right from my first published translation—a piece in Simon Wiesenthal’s now-classic volume The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness—I have gravitated to subjects at the margins of their respective societies. The themes in my translated books span history to histrionics, psychology to physics, pre-Socratic philosophy to pilgrimages, marooned refugees from Hitler’s Germany to Maroon colonies in Jamaica, castrati to concentration camps to Communism and now—to round out an alliterative set, I suppose—condoms. Translating non-fiction entails a dizzying leap to instant quasi-expertise on the widest variety of themes.
You've said that you like to improve upon your texts occasionally. What do you do and how far do you think we translators ought to go along that road?
This topic is a hornet’s nest! The range of theories along what I call the literal-to-literary spectrum is vast, and the stuff of flared tempers. At one extreme, you have George Steiner warning you against “betrayal upward” (which he defines as enhancing a text’s stylistic quality or emotional scope) and claiming that all translation is per se “tawdry.” You also have Vladimir Nabokov worrying that his translations are “not ugly enough” until they are fully “defowlerized” (his coinage for “uglified”). Way over at the other end of the spectrum is the newest kid on the theory-of-translation block, Douglas Hofstadter, whose mantra of “poetic lie-sense” positively demands taking major liberties in translating texts.
I don’t think of myself as a card-carrying member of any “translation camp,” but every text entails navigating between the Scylla of literal rendition and the Charybdis of literary enhancement. While Hofstadter takes quite outrageous liberties at times (translating the French “chamade” as “mad ache” simply because they are anagrams!!), I do agree that the translator should inject a voice of his or her own to allow a text to come alive in its new linguistic garb. And I see no case for “defowlerizing” a text, or providing the stilted, near-interlinear translations Nabokov promotes (not that he practiced what he preached, luckily). After all, one of the cruelest possible barbs about a writer’s style in English is to accuse a text of sounding “translated from the German.”
When I read over my many drafts, I vocalize and subvocalize the text, and, like a cook at a stove, try a dash of alliteration here, a pinch of sibilants there, and just a smidgen of contrast intonation to bring out the flavor of my sentences. Above all, I need to feel confident that the end result does not read like “translationese.”
Translators run hot and cold on the issue of whether to contact and bring the author into the translation process. I always seek out the author, especially if I think textual incursions might be advisable. Ideally—and typically—a productive symbiosis results, and several of my authors have become close friends. One of my translator friends holds the view that “the only good author is a dead author.” Not me; I like mine alive!
What has been your favorite book to translate?
My favorite translation project is generally whichever one’s just been published! After you submit the manuscript, a good year passes before the book sees the light of day, and amnesia sets in regarding all the painstaking research and quests for the right shades of meaning. Just when you’ve practically forgotten you ever worked on the book at all, suddenly it’s out, and you get to ogle it in bookstores, linger on its Amazon rankings, and savor some glowing adjectives in reviews.
My translation of Stefan Klein’s Da Vincis Vermächtnis (Leonardo’s Legacy, published in Germany by S. Fischer, and in New York by Da Capo Press) came out just last month. It is certainly my current favorite! I am in awe of Stefan Klein’s deft presentation of Leonardo’s scientific and artistic achievements in the context of the Renaissance and beyond. The author himself figures prominently in the book, retracing Leonardo’s steps through the various places the artist-scientist lived, worked, and conducted research.
I know you're a dedicated campaigner for translators and their rights and recognition. What would you say at a private audience with Obama?
Obama has his hands full with the oil spill, the economy, two wars, and the Tea Partiers. I’ll spare him my yes-we-cans regarding the translation profession until he’s past those exceedingly troubling issues. In the meantime, I’d like to appeal to editors to recognize that translators craft the words that their readers read. Robert Weil at W.W. Norton, one of my all-time favorite editors, has stated in the pages of Publishers Weekly that his translators are his authors in the United States. And along with the other members of the PEN Translation Committee, I am fighting the good fight for proper remuneration for and recognition of our profession.
As it now stands, our best reward—and it is a very fine reward indeed, though not in monetary terms—comes when the book is published and reviewers remark on the work of the translator. We translators then become collectors of adjectives. Among the ones I’ve savored in reference to my own translations are “fluid, flawless” (Publishers Weekly), “evocative, idiomatic” (LA Times), “crisp, heroic” (New York Times), “felicitous” (New Republic), and my personal two favorites: “wonderfully supple” (thank you, William Gass!) and “zingy, dramatic” (thank you, Michael Dirda!).
What are you working on now?
I’m now translating volume two of a projected three-volume Kafka biography, by Reiner Stach. This project is most closely allied to my own area of scholarship (20th-century German literature), and it is meticulously researched and beautifully written. Each of the three volumes is quite hefty (volume two alone exceeds 700 pages!), so this’ll take a while. My identification with this project has already taken dramatic turns. A few weeks ago, I started sneezing and coughing uncontrollably. Hay fever, you say? No—it was because Kafka had just been diagnosed with tuberculosis!
I'd like to say many thanks again to Shelley for taking the time for the interview, for sharing so much wisdom and for being such an inspiring role model in general.
Update: contrary to popular interpretation, the interview didn't actually take place in the ladies' restroom last October - we conducted it between Berlin and Princeton last week via email. Sorry to have been a little misleading.