eople who know that I specialize in 19th- and 20th-century German diaries and letters often ask me how I found my way into such an arcane corner of the
business. Most of them figure that I have university degrees and years of training behind me. But the truth is very different.
For much of the 1980s I made my living driving a taxi in Boston, but I spent a couple of years in the middle of that stretch as an editor in the elementary
textbook department at the publishing company Houghton Mifflin. One day another employee, who knew that I had learned German as a child, asked me to translate for her a diary
written in the 1860s by her great-great grandfather, who had been a fusilier in the Prussian army. It wasn’t much of a diary—mostly numbers and
calculations. There was one lengthy poem, however. It was in the old “broken” script, which I couldn’t read. But the title was more or
less in the handwriting that we use today, and I could read that: “Die Nonnenbeichte”—The Nun’s Confession.
Translation helped me to discover who I really was.
Well, that certainly motivated me. But I had no idea where to find help in deciphering that notorious handwriting style. The German departments at Harvard
or BU might have helped. But I was a college dropout and I felt defensive about it at the time, although over the years it has become something of a point
of pride. If I had known that there was such a thing as a genealogical society, I could have inquired there. But I didn’t. And “online”
didn’t exist yet. So I was on my own.
I made photocopies, and then I hunted through them for the German articles: der, die, and das. Once I recognized those, six letters
were mine (although I did not then know about the different forms of s). I cut those letters out and pasted them on 3x5 cards. Then I looked for
them in other words, and made guesses as to what those words might be. That got me other letters. By a process of substitution I gradually filled in larger
and larger parts of the “poem.” In the end, I had the whole thing. And on my 3x5 cards I had a virtually complete key—not only to
the poem, but also to what would become my professional niche.
Was it worth the effort? Well, probably not in terms of literary value. It turned out to be the sort of doggerel with which young soldiers amuse themselves
during their off-time. The poem was about a young nun who has a dalliance with a young man in the convent garden. She goes to confession, and her confessor
takes a hard line with her. But she defends herself: Her mother had herself been a nun, she responds, and before she died she gave her daughter a
ring. In it was inscribed a name—the name of this unforgiving priest. In the end the panicked confessor says something to the effect of, “You
are absolved of all sin, my child!”
Deciphering this epic was a lot of fun, but I didn't figure that I'd ever use that skill again. I was wrong about that.
By 1990 I had quit textbook editing and was editing on my own (while still driving cab). I went to all the universities in the area and put up tear sheets:
Academic Editor / German Translator. How did I know I could deliver? I didn’t, but I was going to try, and in fact I turned out to be good at both. A
few years later I got a call from a German woman who had torn off one of my tabs: Would I be interested in translating some family letters in her
Sometimes it really is better to be lucky than good. These letters—actually, several different sets of correspondence—spanned the period from
the 1840s to the 1860s, though some of the accompanying documents were written as early as the turn of the 19th century. They had been lovingly transcribed
over several decades by the owner’s father. The first set concerned one Theodor van Dreveldt, who was forced to emigrate to America after spending
time in prison for belonging to an illegal fraternity. Theodor got off easy: The ringleader of this subversive conspiracy was sentenced to
“aggravated death penalty by means of the wheel from above”—which, happily for him, was commuted. In 1845, Theodor ended up in Missouri,
and he wrote detailed and moving letters home about the country and his difficulties wresting a living from the land. His brother Anton was supposed to
send him money; without such family support it was difficult for most immigrants to survive. But Anton was an alcoholic, something of a ne’er-do-well,
and he hardly ever followed through on his promises. And so in 1849 Theodor was forced to return to Germany—just as the reaction was setting in after the
failed revolution of 1848. In 1849, Anton and his son Bernhard tried their luck in Missouri as well. But even with Theodor's more consistent support,
Anton’s alcoholism got the better of him and he barely stayed afloat. His son was much more successful, and his letters, too, were included in the
collection, as well as his wife's.
These letters were absolutely gripping. They were my entrée into the history and psychology of immigration, the revolution of 1848, the politics that
led up to the American Civil War, and many other areas that were essentially new to me. They were also my entrée into the study of my own history. And
they were the start of an ongoing relationship with the owner of the letters, an elderly German businessman who had fought in the Wehrmacht as a young man.
He flew me to Germany and showed me his archives and the house that Theodor had built in the “American” style when he returned, and we talked
about the war, his business, and the former Jewish community in the area. I came to have a great deal of respect and affection for him. I count that
relationship as one of the peaks of my life as a translator.
Eventually I suggested that we turn the letters into a book. We were in the habit of faxing each other, and whenever I heard my fax machine go off at four
in the morning, I knew that it was Hans. He loved the idea! I set out to write a narrative in which to set the letters, although I had never done anything
like that before. I had never contacted publishers before, either, but somehow I managed to send out thirty proposals with an outline, an introductory
chapter, and translation samples. I got back twenty-nine rejections—some of them very nice and encouraging. The press that actually bit was the
University of Nebraska—one of the best presses I contacted. People asked me later if I had had any idea what a long shot that had been. I
hadn’t a clue. I was flying blind, just doing what I hoped might work. I didn’t know what I didn’t know!
Soon after Lives and Letters of an Immigrant Family: The Van Dreveldts’ Experiences along the Missouri, 1844-1866 was published, I was asked
to translate letters written over four years in the 1880s between a young Jewish woman (working as a governess for a Jewish businessman in Constantinople)
and her mother in Germany. It would be an enormous project, about 400 letters, and I would be working from the originals. This was the first time
that I put my deciphering skills to use on anything more than an occasional official document or stray letter. And I had learned from my encounter with the
van Dreveldts what it meant to identify with a writer. But this was different. Identifying with young men making their way in the world was one thing, but
what did I have in common with Marie, a nineteen-year-old nanny? I soon found out. As my relationship with her developed, I began accompanying her on
errands, consoling her when she worried about being an “old maid” at 21, and even reading the romantic potboilers with which she seemed
to identify, like Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris. She commented several times that those letters home were her diary, that she was
confiding in her mother. But I, too, was a recipient of her confidences, and I responded to them. Returning some of the letters to my client one day, I
asked her for a color Xerox of Marie's portrait. Wagging her finger at me, she said, “Now Ken, don’t you go falling in love with Marie.
She’s been dead for more than 60 years!”
From elements like these I cobbled together what has turned out to be a twenty-odd year “career” in translation. They taught me some things
besides the alphabet. For one thing, that no experience is ever wasted. Certainly without my struggle over the “Nun’s Confession” I would
never have been able to read Marie’s letters. But the same truth applied to my years as a cab driver, which in a manner that is hard to articulate
conditioned in me an attitude of openness to whatever a day might bring my way. It also taught me how to get from point A to point B—literally and
figuratively. I learned never to denigrate past experience—everything that we have learned or picked up, no matter how seemingly trivial or even
negative, can be transformed and used for other purposes.
I’ve also come to understand that sometimes it’s useful not to know what you're doing. Knowing too much can make us needlessly cautious and cut
off novel approaches; a dose of naïveté, conversely, can make it easier to venture beyond the tried and true. I learned to appreciate accident,
and not always to play it safe, just accepting the routine corporate assignments that came my way. I learned a lot about my own history as my
specialization in early twentieth-century Germany developed and I shared the lives of the people whose letters I translated. Translation helped me to
discover who I really was, and that is no small thing. It has given me an adventurous life, and I grieve to see translation becoming increasingly
corporatized and automated, no longer something I would without serious reservations recommend to young people with an aptitude for language.
I have often said, only half-jokingly, that as much as I gained from my years as a cab driver, translation has been the better vehicle for me, allowing me
to ask more basic questions and to explore a larger terrain. Maybe there are even better vehicles out there, but I haven’t found one yet.