Monday 19 September 2011

An Interview with Tess Lewis

I met the American translator Tess Lewis at a week of literary fun and frolics for translators at Berlin's Literary Colloquium last year. And since then she's been publishing translations left, right and centre, it would seem. We conducted an email interview while she was on tour with the writer Alois Hotschnig, whose Maybe Next Time is out now from Peirene Press.

It’s very unusual for short stories to get translated at all. And
Maybe This Time is a very unusual collection. Tell us about the book.

Maybe This Time is a short collection of eerie stories with open-ended plots by an author whose name English speakers don’t know how to spell, much less pronounce, so I knew that the prospects of finding a publisher were slim. However, when you read the stories they stay with you in a way few other stories do and it’s that haunting quality that convinced me I could find a publisher willing to defy the odds. Most editors I approached said, “We love this writer, but just can’t take on short stories, especially in translation.” It took several years, but when I saw Peirene Press’s motto “Contemporary European Literature: thought-provoking, well-designed, short,” I knew things were looking up.

I’m starting to see a lot of translators helping publishers to find books, although maybe that was always the way and I just didn’t know it was happening. To what extent is this one of those cases – did you “rediscover” Hotschnig? (The novel Leonardo’s Hands was previously translated by Peter Filkins for the University of Nebraska Press back in 1999.)

I think the burden of placing translated literature is falling more often on the translators these days. Given the state of the industry, most editors are overstretched and even more reluctant than in the past to take the risk of publishing translations. So an enthusiastic translator can sometimes convince an editor a work is worth publishing more easily than agents or foreign rights people who are pitching a dozen other books at the same time. In the end, though, it mostly comes down to personal contacts. I would say that at least half of the books I have translated or am in process of translating are books I brought to publishers and half were suggested to me.
I first read Alois Hotschnig’s work in 1994 when I reviewed the German edition for World Literature Today (back when they devoted most of each issue to literature that had not yet been translated). I was immediately hooked. I’ve read and reread all of his books since then. Alois writes very clear, rhythmic prose that contrasts intriguingly with his penchant for obsessive narrators. As a translator, I find that I feel my way into his style far more personally than I have for any other writer I’ve translated. Given the nature of the stories in Maybe This Time, that’s probably an admission I should think about seriously.

You’re on a bit of a reading tour with the writer as we type. How’s it going?

It’s a two-stage tour, set up with the help of Peter Mikl, the Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum London and his colleagues. We had two events in London this week, the launch at the ACF and an evening salon at Peirene Press, both of which had a good turn out. I’ve been pleased and a bit surprised at how engaged the audiences have been. These aren’t really ‘pleasant’ stories and they’ve been evoking some strong reactions. These stories get under people’s skin and some are more comfortable with that feeling than others, but so far, no one has said or written that they actively don’t like them or that they find them tedious.
In October we start with the Notes & Letters Festival at King’s Place on the 9th. Alois will be appearing with the composer Thomas Larcher who set some of his older texts to music. Then we’ll take the book on the road to Oxford, Bristol, Cheltenham, and Leeds.

You’ve written (in the forthcoming issue of New Books in German) about Hotschnig being a distinctly Austrian author. Does that come across in the language of your translation, which I found very elegant and slightly old-fashioned? Or is that my personal cliché about Austrian writers and the Austrian nature of the stories is entirely in the subject matter?

Just because something seems like a cliché, doesn’t mean it’s not true. Austria is a gorgeous country, highly civilized and gemütlich, but you don’t need to scratch the surface very deeply to find some very dark undercurrents. I find it refreshing to read Austrian writers who engage with the ambiguities and unsavoriness under their culture’s veneer. The knee-jerk reaction, of course, is to accuse them of Nestbeschmützen, but the best and most nuanced Austrian writers willing to explore these less fortunate aspects of their culture and their history do so out of a very sincere, if sometimes disappointed, love for their country.
Austrian-German is to me more playful and, as you note, more elegant than German-German. Of course you can find plenty of Austrian and German writers who disprove my theory. But in my experience as a translator Austrian-German wears its irony more lightly and its humour is subtler and more biting.

Was it difficult, as an American, to translate for a British publisher? Certainly the book is now in immaculate British English. How did you manage that?

I’ve worked with several British editors. Some prefer a more mid-Atlantic, some a more British English. But with their help and some very thorough line-editors, my American versions have been turned into British ones. Occasionally there are changes that sound odd to me or that still startle me a bit when I reread them, but in the end it came down to having faith in the editor’s judgment and vice versa, hopefully.

I think I’m not alone in finding the stories rather disturbing. In some of them, Hotschnig seems to play with weaknesses we all have sometimes, like loneliness and obsession and narcissism, and exaggerate them into plainly bizarre behaviour. You’ve called them “intense psychological dramas” and I’d agree with that – are these Freudian stories or is that another photo-fit Austrian cliché?

I’ve called them horror stories of apprehension because there’s an ominous atmosphere, a vague sense of threat, to all of the stories. But also because the narrators’ distress (some of narrators aren’t distressed but really should be) comes not so much from the particular situation they’re in, but from the way they perceive and internalize the world around them. So I would say that Hotschnig’s characters should be so lucky as to have recognizable Freudian complexes. Instead we have, for example, the narrator who succumbs to an unhealthy fascination with his neighbours and is willing to subordinate his life and his sense of self to it, or the narrator who can only access his own past through the bizarre intervention of a witch-like figure, or the family that feeds on a myth of a benevolent but always absent uncle, or the narrator whose identity is dependent on how his neighbours see him. It’s almost as if these are characters whose sense of self isn’t even strong enough to start a Freudian process of development.

Perhaps it’s just me, but the story with the dolls made my skin crawl. It could be because I watched this very scary mini-series called Maelstrom in the mid-80s that prominently featured porcelain dolls. But given that they are so disturbing and oppressive – what did it do to you when you got down to translating them? Did you have a contrast programme of cute kitties and peanut butter sandwiches to calm down again?

I read P.G. Wodehouse. It’s very soothing.

You’ve been translating for some time, and often Austrian writers (Hotschnig of course, Julya Rabinowich, Peter Handke). How did you get into translating and why the Austrian thing?

While at university, I studied in Innsbruck for a year and that’s when I first fell in love with Austrian writers and the way they use German. But I didn’t have a plan to become a translator or to focus specifically on Austrian literature. While working as an editor at a small press, I had translated Peter Handke’s Once Again for Thucydides as a sort of finger exercise. The agent Jennifer Lyons somehow heard about this and very generously offered to help me publish it. I translated a few things off and on over the next ten years, mostly essays and interviews for magazines. Then in 2006, I read the stories in Maybe This Time and decided to try my hand seriously at translating. One project led to another, and it’s mostly by chance that I’ve translated more Austrian than German or French writers, though I’m sure my love of Austrian literature influenced my choices more than I realized.

What would be your dream translation project?

One dream translation project is Hotschnig’s second novel Ludwig’s Room and his play Absolution. The first part of this dream may well come true in the next year or two, the second is much more of a stretch. Another dream project would be to translate the essays of the Austrian writer Karl-Markus Gauss. Like Andrej Stasiuk, Gauss writes his own particular combination of memoir, travelogue, and essay about his encounters with the other Europe, the smaller countries, communities, and minority cultures on the outer edges of the EU.

And what are you working on at the moment?

A huge departure for me: I’m branching out to Swiss writers. I’ve almost finished translating Lukas Bärfuss’s novel One Hundred Days, about a Swiss development worker caught in Rwanda during the genocide. Then I’m on to the French Swiss writer Jean-Luc Benoziglio. But I’ve still got a few Austrian pots on the fire, including Doron Rabinovici’s novel Elsewhere.

With only a brief twinge of translation envy over One Hundred Days, I have to say a big thank you to Tess for her time, her enthusiasm and her insights. I look forward to reading much more of your excellent work in the future!

You can catch her and Alois Hotschnig in the UK on Mon, 10 Oct in Bristol, 18:30: book presentation at Foyles. Wed, 12 Oct in Cheltenham, 12:00: book presentation at Waterstones - 15:30: reading at the Afternoon Tea Book Club in The Daffodil - 19:00: reading in the Beehive Pub, and at Leeds and Oxford Universities.


Samuel Willcocks said...

"Maybe This Time is a short collection of eerie stories with open-ended plots [...] when you read the stories they stay with you in a way few other stories do and it’s that haunting quality that convinced me I could find a publisher willing to defy the odds."

I was intrigued to see this since I am about to embark on translating Gert Loschütz's Dunkle Gesellschaft, a sort of unresolved open-ended mystery novel made up of ten chapters, each a stand-alone story in its own right. (Or rather, none ever achieve anything like a neat solution, any more than the novel as a whole does - the whole is no more here than the sum of its parts!)

In my case, though, I am lucky enough to work with a publisher with an open eye for such oddities - in fact he found the book and gave me the commission.

kjd said...

That does sound like something to look forward to, Samuel. Thanks!

kjd said...

Oh, and I see Der Spiegel once called him the David Lynch of German literature...

glenn said...

anything he reviews sells well...pretty much.

Anonymous said...

I was very interested in that interview! In fact, edit a Swiss revue of literature and translation, and I'd like very much to get in touch with Tess Lewis about a Swiss author. Could you help me and give me her mail? Mine is
Thank you!

Unknown said...

Great interview, some very interesting Qs & As :) Loved the Hotschnig collection, and I'm looking forward to reading 'Leonardos Hände' at some point too. After reading a few Austrian books recently, there does seem to be something in the water there... ;)

Final Fantasy XIV Gil said...

I was very enthusiastic about that interview! Actually, modify a Europe d ? ? ¨¬ of literary works and interpretation, and I'd like very much to contact Tess Lewis about a Europe writer.
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