Thursday, 12 February 2009

Bye Bye Burkhart Kroeber - Hello Stefan Weidner

For the past two years, the August Wilhelm von Schlegel Guest Chair of the Poetics of Translation has been a fixture at the Freie Universität Berlin. Right, I hear you say, how terribly fascinating. No, wait, this is a great thing. Every year, a highly experienced literary translator spends the winter semester at the university, studying and teaching translation as a literary genre. That means they have time to take a break from the daily grind and reflect on their own work and that of others before them. The first man to fill the chair was the Shakespeare translator Frank Günther, who gave a hugely entertaining inaugural lecture in which he held an imaginary dialogue with the patron of the professorship, Schlegel himself.

This year's chair was Burkhart Kroeber, the German voice of Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino and many others. His closing lecture last night showed how very differently he approached the task to his predecessor. In effect, the event was an open workshop, with the faux-modest title "What is really difficult about translating?". Kroeber provided handouts with samples of tricky bits in his publications and took us through them with literal translations as an aid, followed by questions and comments from the floor.

The framework of the event was the issue of foreignising and domesticating, as kindly introduced to the world by Schleiermacher. You guessed it, it was very much a translators' event - and there was a full show of Berlin's finest in the audience, who provided plenty of feedback. Kroeber himself was very impressive. Although the nature of the post rather encourages the holder to feel he has arrived at the pinnacle of his career with only a medal to top it, Kroeber was actually quite willing to admit in several cases that, yes, one could have solved that one better, but never mind.

What makes me so enthusiastic about this new institution is the fact that it brings practitioners and theory together. While working literary translators are quick to complain that translation theory ignores our working conditions - myself included - we're often rather less keen to make a move towards the theorists ourselves. There seems to be a heartfelt distrust towards theory - you wouldn't have a professor of cycling, so why translation theory? is the rather self-effacing question. But this chair frees a professional translator from the burden of actually making a living for a few months and tasks them with sitting down and thinking about what they do and how they do it - and then imparting their knowledge to students.

Kroeber's main theory-related point last night was that every translation contains foreignising and domesticating elements. Every translator makes thousands of individual choices during any piece of work, and these can turn out either way. So while he chose to maintain a particular rhythm at one point in Der Name der Rose at the cost of "natural-sounding German", at another point in Das Foucaultsche Pendel he domesticated a description of a Bavarian beer cellar, adding rather more detail than Eco had provided. He found a rather delightful metaphor for the whole phenomenon in fact, comparing foreignising and domesticating to major and minor in music. A good composition, he maintained, combines them both.

And now to today's exclusive scoop: the next Guest Chair for the Poetics of Translation will be the really rather good Arabic translator and writer Stefan Weidner. Long may he reign.

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