Thursday, 16 September 2010

Franzen's Freiheit: Critical Reactions

A little while ago I wrote about about the fact that Franzen's Freedom was translated by two people - Bettina Abarbanell and Eike Schönfeld - to make sure it hit the German market running before too many paying customers bought the original.

Now the reviews are out and everyone else is up in arms as well. Iris Radisch of Die Zeit gave a revealing interview to Deutschlandfunk, in which she pointed out that the critics have had to rush out their reviews as well, staying up all night to read the 800-page book:

So this book, which Jonathan Franzen spent nine years working on, is being read and reviewed within two or three days, by German reviewers at least - and it wasn't much better in the States.

Radisch hadn't actually read the book at this point - which makes you wonder why they actually interviewed her - and didn't comment on the quality of the translation beyond questioning the wisdom of using two translators. And nor did the reviewer in Die Zeit, Ursula März. In fact, the poor exhausted critics had been quietly working around the subject, possibly because the rush to get their reviews in meant there was no time to look at translation quality.

But then came Evelyn Roll in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. The piece isn't online I'm afraid, but it's a humdinger. She points out that Franzen speaks German himself and once translated Wedekind's Frühlings Erwachen (Michael Orthofer damns it as a "reasonable new translation"). And then:

Yet reading Freiheit in German is enough to put you in a very bad mood. Because two different translators worked on it, which is absurd enough in the first place. Because the two of them obviously didn't coordinate their translations sufficiently so the tone varies, even when the narrative perspective stays the same. Because the publishers Rowohlt felt so obliged to dock onto the American Franzen hype that they put the publication date forward again and made the two actually actually acclaimed translators work at high speed (...).

I'm feeling slightly guilty for pointing the whole thing out now. Because I can see both sides - I'm guessing it wasn't cheap for Rowohlt to buy the rights to the book, and they don't want to lose revenue to the original. Publishing is a business like any other, but there's no chance to launch a beta-version of a major translation because once it's out there the reviews come flooding in (or not, if it's in the English-speaking world). And I know those two translators worked their arses off to get it done on time. Oh, and the German editor Ulrike Schieder too. (Note to self: forgetting to credit the editor may result in anonymous comments.)

But then what else can we expect? In most cases translators can work faster than writers - after all, for most of us this is our day job and we don't have to worry about plot and characterisation and all the rest. But translating under too much time pressure is never going to produce a masterpiece, no matter how talented the practitioner.

What's interesting though, as an aside, is that German critics are gradually reacting to the Munich conference on reviewing translations that I wrote about here. And by that I mean making the effort to comment on translation quality in their reviews. I know this because I compile an overview of press reviews for the German translators' association VDÜ, which you can find under "Presse" on their website. In German, obviously.

Of course that has its good and bad sides - because I've noticed that, as in this case, critics are now slightly quicker to put the translation down, albeit while often assuming it's not all the translator's fault. Katharina Granzin, whose contentious article I picked up on in my original post about the conference, is a case in point. In a review of Petra Hulová's Endstation Taiga in the Frankfurter Rundschau, she devotes two paragraphs to the translation - very well argued, very tactful, almost friendly, but still pretty devastating for the translator Michael Stavaric.

Still, I for one prefer that to the standard single-adjective faint praise usually reserved for translators in reviews. I'll be keeping an eye on developments.


Jochen Schwarzer said...

Es gibt übrigens PDF-Leseproben

der Übersetzung:

und des Originals:

MM said...

The link to the Munich conference doesn't work for me.
I've been reading Franzen in the English - half-way through now - and enjoying it a lot - I also read The Corrections - but the hype mystifies me. It must have something to do with the search for the Great American Novel, which I don't understand. Can this hype transfer to sales in German? Shame they couldn't use one translator.

But why do these critics discuss Franzen before they've read him? They want to get on the bandwagon too - see Die Vorleser - but it's a waste of the reader's/viewer's time!

kjd said...

Thanks, MM. I agree on Die Vorleser, that made me laugh slightly.

The German book is selling very well indeed, I'm told.