Monday, 23 June 2008

Guantánamo and Tim Mohr

Michael Faber reviews Dorothea Dieckmann's novel Guantánamo in Saturday's Guardian, and makes it sound like a very good read indeed.

What caught my eye, though, was the attention devoted to the translator. Faber writes:

Guantánamo has just won the aptly named Three Percent prize* for translated foreign fiction, thanks to the midwifery of Soft Skull Press, a small New York publishing house specialising in controversial subjects, and Tim Mohr, staff editor at Playboy magazine. Mohr, previously known for pop reviews and parodies of Star Trek, seems an odd choice of translator, but he has excelled himself, rendering the prose pitch-perfect, poetically sprung, psychologically nuanced yet natural.

Hey, great. A review that includes actual biographical information on the translator - and praises his work. That's something to write home about. And look, Faber's done the same as me and googled Tim Mohr - to no great avail, translationwise. It looks like the book is his first ever translation - a huge success, I'd say.

Mohr seems to style himself as a bit of a lad-about-town, DJing in Berlin, reviewing rock bands, editing Playboy - and he's my top tip for the Wetlands translation (I have no idea who's doing it but they've already started, whoever it is). Apparently, his "scruffy baby cheeks give him the air of a hung-over Cupid" (New York Observer). It's all downright atypical for a translator - does the man not realise we're supposed to hide modestly in dark corners, not have interesting past career paths? Which is presumably what makes him an "odd choice". But he did graduate from Harvard, so that's OK then.

It's all just about as disgraceful as Germany's very own celebrity translator, Harry Rowohlt. Not only does the man have conspicuous facial hair - he appears in a soap opera, for goodness sake! What is the world coming to? Next they'll be wanting their names on the front covers...

*Not sure this prize actually benefited Dieckmann directly in any way, but it's nice to see it mentioned.


Karl-Marx-Straße said...

Isn't the main point about Rowohlt that he can't actually translate, as he puts it himself, doing a word-for-word literal dictionary job as opposed to understanding cultural difference, phrases, idioms, etc.? Not that anyone seems to mind, though.

kjd said...

I think that might be false modesty, that thing about the dictionary job. After 70-odd books, you'd probably get into the flow. The critique is usually that he turns translations into his own books. Not that I've read any, I have to admit.

But there's the rub. Famous people and authors are allowed to do very free translations. Think Adam Thirlwell and Blake Morrison. Rowohlt is *not* a translator's translator. But you're right, nobody else seems to mind.

I'm actually all for more "adventurous" translations, the translator as a creative writer and all that. But I think in most cases, the world isn't quite ready for free translation. So I like to see Harry Rowohlt as a kind of bumbling avant-garde, spearheading the movement with a glass of whiskey in his hand. Although he often comes across as a poor little rich boy with a pleasantly distracting hobby.

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