I have heard said that realists tend to be pessimists and that hopelessness at times overwhelms these sorts of folks: they foresee the vast difficulty in accomplishing anything and so they skip it altogether – a sad, self-fulfilled prophesy. I must admit that if I had realized all the difficulties that this book – the first in a series of related projects – itself would have entailed, I probably would have not undertaken it. Happily, somewhere in the heart of darkness, my optimism prevailed. I simply said, of learning German and of translating these stories myself: How hard can it be? Well, as my lawyer in Munich foresaw as she rightly, politely, albeit disparagingly, compared me to Joseph Conrad: I had neither the clay to learn an entire new language – particularly within the 18 months I had granted myself to do so – nor literary hands to translate these stories in anything resembling the quality and care they deserve.
And so, the task of hiring a suitable translator was born. In July of 2007, I posted a brief request for quotation on several Internet websites. The ad itself was brief and didn’t go into great detail. I no longer have the ad copy – but, I believe it simply said that I was interested in having the short stories of a German author translated into English. I had expected a few replies but nothing like the 150 or so that I did receive. I was prepared though and to those that were interested, I asked a few simple but I thought important questions. To address the financial aspects, I asked that each provide a quote for the cost of translating the first story in the collection – Als Einleitung: Das Märchen von den Händen Gottes, translated herein as By Way of Introduction: The Tale of God’s Hands. To get a sense of their style, I asked each to translate the last paragraph of the last story, Eine Geschichte, dem Dunkel erzählt, translated herein as A Tale Told to the Dark. And, to get a sense of their appreciation for Rainer Maria Rilke, I asked each to tell me what they thought of Rilke’s view of the relationship between God and man.
I was overwhelmed by the response. Many pointed out, just as a Professor of German literature had the year before at the Rilke Literary Society annual meeting (that year) in Dresden, that these were not Rilke’s best works – certainly not his most famous works, those that had put him at the top of the German literary pantheon along with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. I was struck and humbled by their appreciation of Rilke and his ideas and their sheer knowledge of his works and how these stories fit into his overall body of work. And, in reading the translations and essays included in this collection, I remain so.
Narrowing the field, so to speak, to thirty-three of these translators, was an easy but still time consuming task. Most of the respondents seemed to have a “shots-on-goal” theory of marketing and seemed to have no interest in the project beyond churning out words and receiving a check.
One interesting fellow from Prague seemed to be preoccupied with everything under the sun other than Rilke and other than a long series of confusing letters – and a curious package of unrelated electronics manuals that arrived by postal mail – he never bothered to address the three core questions I had asked at the outset. Another translator took very much for granted, submitting – apparently – machine translated copy of the entire book along with an invoice. She didn’t seem to understand the concept of a contract – into which we had never entered. Still, selecting a single translator to do the work that I had set out in my mind, proved yet beyond my grasp.
And, so, I rededicated myself to making a living – doing honest work with agreeable people, feeding and clothing my children, and doggedly pursuing some understanding of German vocabulary and – God help me – grammar.
By July 2008, a year had passed and I threw myself back at this project – flying to Berlin and then by train north-northeast to Angermünde and then southwest by cab past large fields of sunflowers, edging up on either side of the increasingly thinner roads, to the tiny village of Schmargendorf, where I had supposed Rilke had sat and written these stories one hundred and nine years earlier.
As I say, I had been overwhelmed by the initial response, both in terms of quantity and quality. At their intersection, were nearly thirty-three well-qualified candidates from whom I was determined to choose only one. As I was preparing for my journey to Germany, I happened upon the idea of a preliminary project that would involve having a different translator for each story. The idea would be to provide a compilation of different approaches to the same body of work – to highlight the subjectivity of translation and the art of the translator. I felt that this would give me a better opportunity to assess the styles of the translators and therefore determine which was the most suitable for my ultimate intentions – as well as to assess working compatibility – and, so, help me to decide whom to offer a “single translator” contract to for the entire work. This had the added virtue of narrowing the field to thirteen or fourteen candidates by the simple process of contracting the stories.
I had, early in that intervening year, spoken with two candidates in particular and these I reengaged with through an Internet telephone call. For the rest, I sat in the tiny yard of the inn, with a large glass of the proprietress’ excellent beer, looking out on fields upon fields of sunflowers, and wrote them a letter – an email, as we call it these days. After a brief introductory paragraph, my letter began:
“So, I decided to come to Schmargendorf itself where, I believe, Rilke wrote these stories, to focus again upon them [and] the world here in this tiny town 100+ years, two wars and a long bit of communism away from Rilke’s day.”
To each, in one form or another, I again put forth three questions: whether they were interested and available to translate one of the stories, would they be willing to enter into the necessary contractual arrangements, and, if there was continued interest, which of the stories would they most like to “have at.”
Most were surprised to hear from me but nonetheless interested although busy with their own interests, lives and work as well. I took the odd step of quoting from my letter to show that I wasn’t exactly sure about the matter myself and so I didn’t specify my exact latitude and longitude. After I had sent off that letter, as I sat in the tiny, converted farmhouse, I had a big laugh at myself when I discovered through more proper research that I was in – ha! – the wrong spot. I discovered then that Rilke had in fact written the stories in a district of Berlin by the name of Schmargendorf. To this day, without exception, each has remained polite and has not mentioned the matter of just where Rilke was when he wrote these stories.
With the issue of my planning skills tabled, a group of twenty or so translators remained interested in the project. Over the next few months, preliminary legal documents were signed and stories were contracted until just three stories were left to be “let” and six candidates from which to choose remained. I wish Rilke had written three more stories but he had not. I remain pleased with the choices I made and simply regret that the choices had to be made.
Although the idea of a different translator for each story was born as a preliminary idea – as I listened to these translators discuss the subjectivity and art inherent in the work, the idea blossomed unto itself with, perhaps, an appeal to an audience wider than those interested in Rilke and / or God. A book that showed how different translators take different, more-or-less valid approaches to translation might be of some interest to students of translation. Within that context, the idea of each translator including an essay on his or her approach was born.
The idea to include the original work quickly followed: any English-speaker interested in learning German, or any translation student interested in referencing the original work, can easily do so as it is included, almost as a second book within the book.
Which brings me to the structure of the book itself. The book is essentially divided into two parts – an English first part; and a German second. The value, I believe is two-fold. One, the book is primarily focused on an English reading audience – an audience that may or may not read German. So, putting the English – new work – at the front makes a certain sense. Since the essays are companion pieces to the translations themselves, these immediately follow the translated story to which they primarily make reference. Finally, the short biography of each translator follows his or her respective essay as that too seemed the most appropriate place.
In terms of each translation, I hope to have remained true to my word to each translator. I imposed no theory or constraint other than that they be true and consistent to how he or she felt the problem should be approached – as well as, of course, true to Rilke’s original intent (however divined).
With respect to the essays, they are as different as the translations themselves. Some are light and others complex. I became, in a few cases, more involved – helping one or another to explicitly state that which he or she implicitly had taken for granted in his or her approach. Even in those cases, the essential ideas and viewpoints remain strictly his or hers. As I have read and reread these essays, I remain struck by the ideas brought forth.
I’ve read the stories countless times, in various English translations, in the original German and now in this set of translated stories. I read and read, perhaps like one of Rilke’s characters, expecting herein to find God. Perhaps He is at the soul of the typographical errors which have been revealing themselves in the course of repeated proof-readings…
Each translator, I believe, has remained true to what I think is the ultimate thread which weaves its way through these stories. But, perhaps like Rilke’s Michelangelo visualizing the statue hidden in the block of stone, each translator has, in effect, answered the question each had chosen to ask: what is in this story? Rather, what else is in this respective story? The answer each found, of course, led to the work that each has produced. I won’t steal their thunder here – I remain, like you, a reader of these stories, a lover of these stories – and unqualified to offer criticism on the stories, the translations or the companion essays.
I believe it is fitting that the character “Klara” in the “final” story, the story which – to me – expresses Rilke’s views in the simplest terms, has been translating. When I first traveled to Germany in 2006 I was told by a new found friend that I didn’t understand Rilke at all. I assured her that she was correct on this matter. As the character “Georg” is grateful to Klara, I too am grateful to each of these translators, for their professionalism, for the insights in their essays and for their patience with me as I’ve completed my tasks.
So, I hope readers at home with God and those still seeking Him both find joy and comfort in these stories. I hope readers interested in Rilke specifically and German literature more generally, find a useful text here. And, I hope readers interested in translation – German-to-English translation in particular – find much to keep their interest and something upon which to compare their own views, both in the essays as well as the translations themselves.
Now you know how this book came to be, why it is structured as it is and who I suppose – and I do hope that includes you – would be interested in both the English and German stories as such as well as the translation process entailed in their, so to speak, rebirth. How and why I came to be interested in these stories – is itself a story for now left to the dark – perhaps recounted later in an introduction to another book.
Copyright 2009 – Aventure Works, Inc.