The Architect of Words
by Priya Basil
Frankfurt am Main, 11. October 2013
“I want to be a reader.” This was Bernhard Robben’s answer whenever he was asked as a boy what he would be when he grew up. Of course he had no inkling then that there was a profession called translation which, in its essence, is reading. Even when he began translating he didn’t immediately feel this was his métier. For a long time, he was more drawn to journalism, writing reviews and articles about what he had read.
The Indian literary theorist and philosopher Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, has said “translation is the most intimate act of reading.” To know a text intimately, as with a person, you have to get very close and very personal, as if language were skin and words fingers. Translation is also, necessarily, an expansive act of reading because to know the text even better, you must become acquainted with the family of its influences: its parents, siblings, teachers, friends and enemies. This is why it is said, you don’t just translate a book, you translate a culture.
In the afterword he’s written to his translation of Tom McCarthy’s ‘C’, Bernhard Robben acknowledges the many references in and influences on the novel. These include Maurice Blanchot, Charles Dickens, Vladimir Nabokov, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Martin Heidegger, George Bataille, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, E.M. Forster, Ovid, James Joyce, Sophocles, the Bible… to name, you guessed it, but a few. Bernhard – who is very well read and has an excellent memory – recognized many of these, others he perused while doing the translation. I remember having dinner with him during that time and hearing about how he’d ordered a book by Derrida just so he could check out an essay called A Silkworm of One's Own to which McCarthy alludes. Is that really necessary? I wondered. It was, for Bernhard. He wanted to understand exactly where McCarthy was coming from so he could do those intentions justice in German.
Sometimes even all the extra reading isn’t enough. Under a changing internet alias, Bernhard Robben trawls the virtual world searching for the details that might solve a strange translation puzzle. For ‘C’ he sought out experts on First World War aircraft and Morse code machines so he could clarify certain aspects of the text that remained obscure to him. He discovered an authority on First World War bombing sites living close to Rostock who, over a phone call, explained to him what a ‘Franz’ did, and thus the origin of the German word verfranzen. You’ll have to read the book to find out. He contacted another specialist in Dresden who enlightened him about an old pilot training exercise described in ‘C’ that involved disabling some of the struts connecting the wings of a plane and figuring out how to fly this way.
He’s done this kind of detective work for other translations too. When he started working on Andrea Levy’s ‘Small Island’ he struggled with evoking a Jamaican-German accent. He ended up calling the Jamaican Embassy in Berlin and as soon as the phone was answered he could hear the musical lilt and distinctive pronunciation. Keen to get a more extreme version of this, Bernhard asked if he could talk to someone from Jamaica who worked there and didn’t speak good German. The question was met defensively – what was he suggesting, of course everybody at the embassy spoke German well. All this was said in exactly the kind of imperfect German Bernhard had hoped to hear, and so he used all his charm to keep the woman talking while he jotted down her unique distortions of the language.
When Bernhard Robben is doing it, translation is more than reading, it’s a quiet form of method acting: complete immersion in the world of a novel, using all means to find the right voice or mood or detail. Yet, for all his own inventiveness, Bernhard always takes his cue from the author, with Ian McEwan he’s like a shadow, “I step into his footprints.” With Nadeem Aslam he thinks of himself more as a doppelganger, “I have to be more free – to move away from his words in order to get closer to his intentions.”
Finally, of course, the translator remains backstage and what’s left on show are the crafted words. Prizes, like the Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rohwolt Award, offer rare but necessary occasions for a translator to step momentarily from the wings onto the stage of literature. Such events remind us, as Henry David Thoreau indicated, that “it is the man that determines what is said, not the words.” In translation, the space for determination is narrow and therefore all the more consequential.
Translators sometimes have to make up words because no equivalent for what needs to be conveyed already exists in their own language. Occasionally, even the words that do exist aren’t quite good enough. In one instance, Bernhard wasn’t satisfied with using ‘flip-flops’, which is the same in English and German. He felt something more expressive was needed, and so he came up with Schlippschlapps. Such exactitude is characteristic of Bernhard. He is always so precise that, his wife Rima and son Durani confess, if he ever makes a mistake they doubt themselves before considering that he might be wrong.
Precision can be a form of devotion. This is something I have understood over the years watching Bernhard at work. Having one’s work brought into another language by such a translator is an honour. Bernhard is not my translator – yet. I write in hope. But he has moderated me and my work, and he does that as if it were a transient, oral form of translation. This is a man who, for an event about one book, will have read the author’s entire oeuvre. No surprise then that he can mediate with ease and skill between text, author and audience.
Bernhard Robben is the kind of translator who helps us comprehend Borges’ bold statement that “perhaps…the translator’s work is more subtle, more civilized than that of the writer: the translator clearly comes after the writer. Translation is a more advanced stage of civilization.” Translation represents flux. It is a recognition of the other that becomes an attempt to understand and include that other. Translation is openness, exchange and discovery. Translation is love. In all these senses, translation is emblematic of the advanced civilization that, in reality, we still aspire to.
And how much Bernhard Robben has contributed to German civilization with his translations! More than one hundred books, more than fifty authors, including Irish verse from the likes of Seamus Heaney, the crisp English voice of Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie’s lush magic realism, the burlesque early Philip Roth, the popular philosophy of Alain de Botton, John Burnside’s darkly poetic prose, Peter Carey’s mélange of fantasy and realism. The sheer range of what Bernhard has translated is remarkable: a testament to virtuosity.
One of Bernhard’s most recently published translations is Stoner, by the deceased American author John Williams. Described by many writers and critics as a perfect novel, it was certainly perfect for Bernhard who says it’s the book he’s most proud to have translated. He found the voice was already inside him, an echo of all the Irish poetry he’s inhaled which, he says, evokes a special mood – achingly beautiful with a melancholic edge – that is also the mood of Stoner. Bernhard felt an affinity with the protagonist, William Stoner, a country boy who goes to university under pressure from his father to study agriculture – and ends up doing history, philosophy and literature. Bernhard Robben went to university resisting pressure from his father to study architecture, enrolled instead for history, philosophy and literature. William Stoner’s will be a life dedicated to and sustained by literature, though it takes him a while to realize this.
»Wissen Sie es denn nicht, Mr Stoner?«, fragte Sloane. »Kennen Sie sich selbst noch so wenig? Sie sind ein Lehrer.«
Die Wände des Büros wichen zurück, und Sloane schien mit einem Mal sehr fern zu sein. Stoner fühlte sich, als schwebte er im weiten Äther, und er hörte seine Stimme fragen: »Sicher?«
»Ich bin mir sicher«, antwortete Sloane leise.
»Aber wie können Sie das sagen? Woher wollen Sie das wissen?«
»Es ist Liebe, Mr Stoner«, erwiderte Sloane fröhlich. »Sie sind verliebt. So einfach ist das.«
Bernhard’s own realization came after a long break (almost a year) from translating due to illness in 1998. When he started again, he felt how much he had missed it, and understood what an essential part of his being the work was. “It was like coming back to life again,” he once told me. Sloane might have pointed out, ‘That’s love, Mr. Robben.’ It’s as simple as that.