Volume 11, No. 3 
July 2007

  William L. Cunningham

  Front Page  
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Index 1997-2007

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  From the Editor
Thank You!
by Gabe Bokor

  Translator Profiles
Entering the Profession through the Back Door
by Márcio Badra

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
Educating the Customers, Redux: Time
by Brett Jocelyn Epstein
The Importance of Effective Communication in the Translation Business
by Judy A. Abrahams

  Cultural Aspects of Translation
Translation procedures, strategies and methods
by Mahmoud Ordudary
A Cognitive Approach for Translating Metaphors
by Ali R. Al-Hasnawi, Ph.D.

  Language and Communication
Haiducii Story
by M. L. Seren-Rosso
Translating Kinship Terms to Malay
by Radiah Yusoff

  Literary Translation
Caveat Translator—Let the Translator Beware
by William L. Cunningham
Transformation of Literary Imagery in Translation—Sallust's Personage of Catiline in Bulgarian Translation Context
by Yoana Sirakova

  Book Review
The Greatest Invention that Was Never Invented
by Zsuzsanna Ardó

From Zeros to Heroes: The Role of the Translator during the Late Qing Dynasty
by David Smith

  Translators' Tools
Specialized Corpora for Translators: A Quantitative Method to Determine Representativeness
by Gloria Corpas Pastor, Ph.D. and Miriam Seghiri, Ph.D.
Translators’ Emporium

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

Translators' Events

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
  Translation Journal

Literary Translation

Caveat Translator

Let the Translator Beware

by William L. Cunningham

lthough the focus of this article is primarily on translating dramas, in particular those of the Viennese master Arthur Schnitzler, a considerable portion of the following observations likewise applies to translations of short stories and novels. Too many translations of German dramas, even those in print from major publishers, as well as university presses, are virtually, if not totally unworkable on the American stage: they just do not play well. This defect hobbles British renditions in particular, i.e. Masterpiece Theatre. No matter how literally accurate, polished or eloquent, the words and style are stiltedly unnatural, they do not reflect the spoken idiom and flow of speech in the United States outside of the Ivy League, particularly in the Southern and Border States. Both British and American versions suffer the concomitant flaw of being simply too wordy, which, on the stage, is absolutely fatal. Therefore, they are unwieldy and unworkable for performances. Stilted wordiness alien to the idiom and flow of normal American speech likewise afflicts translations of numerous short stories and novels, particularly those of British origin, such as the Lowe-Porter editions of Thomas Mann, whose televised versions effectively nullified any intent to make the works accessible and understandable to American audiences, historical or political considerations aside.

Thus any effort at performance translations should, at the very least, involve the assistance of a colleague with training and experience on the stage. A background in directing performances is even better, with the additional advantage of working with the personnel actually performing the script, whose own insights can enhance authentic expression of what a particular character might, or might not say on stage. Performance considerations likewise need to consider cultural differences: European, in particular German-speaking, audiences, are far more accustomed and receptive to lengthy expository passages and exchanges on stage (even at the expense of relatively little action) than their American counterparts, including those with more extensive educational background. On a more mundane level of performance, questions such as the number of women on stage also need to be considered, such as when a play involves American and European academic life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The following observations, suggestions and caveats result from over twenty years of academic collaboration with David Palmer, Professor of Theatre Arts at the University of Louisville. His untimely death in April 2000 occurred several months before our Schnitzler project finally found a favorable publisher in Northwestern University Press at Evanston, Illinois. We had completed scripts of Roundelay (Reigen); Interlude (Liebelei); the complete Anatol cycle, with two additional non-canonical scenes; The Green Cockatoo (Der grüne Cockatoo); Countess Mitzi (Komtess Mitzi); The Last Masks (Die letzten Masken) and the first act of Professor Bernhardi. We had decided not to continue the latter work, due to the presence of only one woman on stage in the first act, and none in the subsequent four. Even a reduction to three acts, which we also considered, would not have resulted in sufficient action on stage: the cultural differences were simply too great. Despite the inducement of the role and significance of the Schools of Law and Medicine at the University of Louisville, the extensive discussions between medical school faculty and representatives of the legal, religious, journalistic, and political professions and institutions would have resulted in a failure on stage. The response of my colleague to a draft of the second act crystallized the problem: he simply fell asleep, to which I was likewise sorely tempted.

Beyond expertise in Theatre Arts, David Palmer was especially well-qualified for our efforts: as an undergraduate, he had acted in German language plays and had subsequently performed leading roles in Schnitzler's plays, notably Anatol. Therefore, he was especially well aware of the inherent difficulties in both languages. Thus he noted that even in Hollywood's version of Classical Rome, the aristocrats and upper classes affect a British accent, whereas American idiom is limited to slaves. That is precisely what we sought to avoid. My colleague frequently warned that German is far more ornate than American speech. To avoid loading down a line, we would frequently transfer a modifier or qualifier, such as ja, doch, schon, dennoch or wirklich to another line, or even further. Often we had to break up a sentence into two or even more parallel clauses or parallel sentences. Sometimes it simply wasn't possible to include all the flavoring, such as the second part of the standard South German (with all due respect to the Austrians, whose dialect is thus designated) salutation Grüß Gott—"Greetings" doesn't quite catch it all. No matter how well-intentioned, attempts to translate every single word, however, may result in passages that just would not play well, which would be both literally and figuratively stuffy. To avoid awkward or stilted diction which would just would not work on stage, we simply had to delete or greatly modify Schnitzler's text at times. A particular such problem came with the male characters' frequent, painfully condescending use of "my child" when addressing women, especially and throughout Rondelay and Liebelei: we found no alternative but to excise. As a result of our efforts, David Palmer directed a successful campus performance of the former play.

The stress on idiomatic, natural flow of speech, however, must not lead to oversimplified translations of words, lines and exchanges. Such attempts "to clean them up" unduly or excessively, can result in what might be described as "comic book diction," however dramatically effective. Like such better-known German writers such as Thomas Mann, Schnitzler frequently repeats words or phrases, in differing degrees of variation, which we at least tried to hint at. A modifier such as one of those cited above will be added to an initial statement, a series of incremental assertions with varying modifiers may follow. The technique is particularly evident in the use of dramatic "pick-ups," when Character B repeats or slightly alters a word, phrase or even a sentence just spoken by Character A. Likewise in an attempt to retain as much of the German as possible, we used such titles as Herr, Frau and Fräulein. Otherwise we used German words very sparingly. Our general principle was to let the text speak for itself, without the need for program notes or footnotes in the script. Especially in Roundelay and Interlude, the most specifically and characteristically Viennese of Schnitzler's plays, we had the characters themselves explain references to particular places, or we generalized such allusions. The Augarten Bridge thus became "A Bridge over the Danube." Strict adherence to the German original would require that the Actress' perfume in Roundelay be reseda or mignonette. But since the plant is scarcely known in the United States, we substituted jasmine, similarly strong and erotic, and thus expressive of the Actress. As far as possible, we tried to follow not only Schnitzler's wording, but also his punctuation. However ironic that may be for teachers of the written and spoken word, such non-verbal aspects are at least as crucial as the text itself in performance, starting with the well-known so-called pregnant pause.

Several procedural principles became evident in the course of our working together. We found it misleading and counterproductive to look at previous translations. Rather than "look over our shoulders," we attempted to craft what we thought was an accurate, appropriate, plausible and playable script. For such an especially intensive collaboration, it just was not possible to work for only an hour or two a week, a principle equally applicable to individual, solo translating as well. It simply takes time to delve into a script, particularly to "catch" such recurring words or phrases, as noted above. Working in pre-computer conditions, I found it useful and timesaving to set up glossaries for each script to afford greater consistency and strengthen the scripts. My colleague cautioned that the same rendition may not work every time, e.g. "Was fällt dir ein?" Such compiling does, however, help define the possibilities and provide a basis for further formulations. Dictionaries with synonyms may also prove useful: however dated, I found the very first edition of The American Heritage Dictionary (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, ed. William Morris; American Heritage Publishing Company, Boston, 1969) particularly helpful, better than more recent editions as well as other standard dictionaries. Despite its British idiom and frequently confusing distinctions, virtually to the point of obscurity, R. B. Farrell's Dictionary of German Synonyms (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, l973) sometimes proved useful in defining basic differences. While such an extensive collaboration usually isn't possible, a less intensive approach is also viable. David Palmer and I were anticipating working on Hour of Recognition (Stunde des Erkennens) during the summer of 2000. Because the play struck me as promising and as worth performing as the rest of our collection, I proceeded on my own, drawing on the approach and techniques learned from our collaboration. David's colleague in Theatre Arts, Stephen C. Schultz, shared my assessment of the drama, graciously looked over the completed script and pointed out rough, unclear or unworkable passages . The play was therefore accepted for publication as well.

To cite yet another type of collaboration and an additional obstacle, I employed the above methodology to craft a translation of Max Frisch' The Firebugs (Biedermann und die Brandstifter) for campus performance in April 2003 under the direction of a third colleague in Theatre Arts, James R. Tompkins. Because he found the standard available translation totally unworkable on the contemporary American stage, and, like David Palmer, regarded British idiom as incomprehensible, he combined my script with a text he had drafted. Incorporating suggestions from the student performers, my colleague then developed a performance script with far greater liberties than we would have even considered in the Schnitzler plays. For instance, pertinent twentieth-century American popular songs such as "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" largely replace the Chorus of Firemen.

Copyright restrictions on the published script, however, prevented my name from even being mentioned in the program for the non-profit performance. Such limitations apply not only to plays but also to fiction, including text editions of the foreign language original with footnotes and vocabulary for American students, as I had found out while trying to introduce intermediate-level language students to stories by the 1973 Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll. The proprietary holders of such rights are often jealously restrictive. Thus it is best to consult with legal counsel familiar with copyright restrictions or to simply avoid any work published within the last hundred years.

Even after finding a reputable publisher, however, one needs to be certain that the editing will be done by someone with at least a minimal background in German. Northwestern University Press unwittingly hired an assistant editor, who, it turned out, really didn't understand drama nor German. Instead the editor seemed intent on reworking Schnitzler in their own image, disregarding his words and even punctuation. For instance, his frequent use of ellipsis was summarily discarded. A number of the suggestions did, however, cause me to reconsider our work. Only after two years of working my way through the voluminous comments and proposed alterations did I learn of the editor's termination. The result has been a substantial delay in publication: Caveat translator!

To end with a bow to German literary history and one of the patron saints of translators, I would strongly recommend a reading of Martin Luther's Ein Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen (1530). Polemics aside, he offers striking insight into the process of translation, down to the details of working it out. I often found particular comfort and inspiration in his description of efforts with the Humanistic scholar Philipp Melanchthon in their translating the Book of Job (irony unintended):

In Hiob arbeiteten wir also . . . [editorial ellipsis] dass wir in vier Tagen zuweilen kaum drei Zeilen fertigen konnten. Lieber, nun es verdeutscht und bereit ist, kann's ein Jeder lesen und meistern, läuft einer mit den Augen durch drei, vier Blätter und stösst nicht einmal an; wird aber nicht gewahr, welche Wacken und Klötze da gelegen sind, da er jetzt überhin geht, wie über ein gehobeltes Brett, da wir haben schwitzen müssen und uns ängstigten, ehe denn wir welche Wacken und Klötze aus dem Wege räumten, auf dass man könnte so fein daher gehen. Es ist gut pflügen, wenn der Acker gereinigt ist; aber den Wald und die Stöcke ausrotten und den Acker zurichten, da will Niemand an. Es ist bei der Welt kein Dank zu verdienen.

(An Anthology of German Literature 800 - 1750, ed. Peter Demetz and W. T. H. Jackson;
Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1968, p. 177)