Mike Mitchell, part I: An interview with Friedrich Glauser's translator
These experiences are reflected in his crime novels, yet not in the way one might expect. Rather than self-pity, sensationalism and self-dramatization, his five novels about Sgt. Studer are filled with quiet humor and intense empathy with their downtrodden characters. Such empathy has led some critics to compare Glauser to Georges Simenon.
Glauser's reputation is such that the top prize in the German-language crime-fiction world is named for him, yet his work was never translated into English until Bitter Lemon Press brought out Thumbprint in 2004. Since then, Bitter Lemon has issued the remaining Studer novels as well: Fever, In Matto's Realm, The Chinaman and, this year, The Spoke.
To render Glauser into English, Bitter Lemon turned to Mike Mitchell, whose résumé as a translator includes works in several genres from all over the German-language literary map with occasional forays into French. Goethe and Oskar Kokoschka are just two of the writers whose work he has translated. His current projects include Kafka's The Trial for Oxford University Press.
Mr. Mitchell graciously agreed to answer questions on a number of Glauser-related subjects, including the challenges of translating a writer in whose work dialect plays an important part.
(This is part I of a two-part interview with Mike Mitchell. Read part II here.)
How did you come to be associated with the project to translate Friedrich Glauser? Were you aware of his work before you took on the job? If so, what did you think of him? If not, what do you think of him now?
Simple — I was invited to translate him by the publisher. The owners of Bitter Lemon are Swiss, though two have lived in Britain for years and are fluent in English. They were setting up a new publishing house to specialise in European crime fiction in English translation, and it was natural for them to want Glauser, who had not previously been translated into English, as one of their first authors. I knew of Glauser as a 1930s Swiss crime writer, but I hadn’t read anything by him previously. As an academic I had specialised mainly in Austrian literature and culture, so for me, Swiss writing was a list of names I knew but had mostly not read.
A life like Glauser’s will lead many to speculate about connections between his life and his fiction. He set In Matto’s Realm in a sanatorium, for example, and parts of The Spoke, such as Studer’s talking to himself, strike me as something like what an inmate of such a place might write. What connections between the work and the life strike you about Glauser?
Behind the exterior of a detective story a novel such as In Matto’s Realm is a gripping and very moving picture of institutionalisation, something Glauser himself was well acquainted with; the background material to one of the German editions suggests it includes direct references to people and situations Glauser was familiar with. Incarceration in such institutions obviously never managed to break Glauser’s spirit, but there are frequent characters in his books who have suffered under the system; the curriculum vitae of: ‘brought up in poor circumstances — bound to a farmer at a young age — maltreated and underfed — caught stealing and sent to a reformatory etc etc’ occurs more than once.
What particularly attracts me about Glauser’s crime novels is the way his detective — Sergeant Studer — understands and sympathises with the disadvantaged, even if his job means he has to continue to investigate them. There is a profound sense of humanity permeating Glauser’s writing, which at the same time throws a keen light on social conditions in Switzerland in the 1930s, but coming across as a concern for individuals rather than as a political message.
You’ve discussed Glauser’s handling of dialect. I’d like you to talk about his use of, say, Bern dialect vs. standard spoken or written German and about the challenges this posed for you as a translator. Were there any passages that were simply untranslatable?
Not untranslatable in the sense of finding it impossible to convey the meaning, but it was very difficult to follow the way the main character switches from local dialect to standard ‘educated’ Swiss to very formal German. Fortunately Glauser himself comments on this at times, so I felt justified in occasionally adding a rider of my own of the type: ‘ ‘’Xxxxx”, said Studer, reverting to his Bernese dialect’, where, say, a remark by Studer in thick dialect is reported without comment.
In The Spoke this is complicated by the fact the Studer is operating in another canton (Appenzell) with a different dialect. Again, what I do is insert a few markers in the translation to suggest non-standard language, the precise nature of the language becoming clear from the narrator’s comments and one or two added ones of my own.
I live in Scotland, and there is a temptation to use a Scottish dialect (or dialects) for the Swiss, but I feel that would arouse the wrong associations in the reader (tartan, kilts, bagpipes etc). In other translations I have used British dialects a couple of times, but only for very minor characters in scenes which last half a page or so — and even then I’m not 100% happy about it.
One example of this was Studer’s use of the word ‘Meitschi’ (meaning ‘girl’) for young women he becomes emotionally attached to (in a fatherly kind of way) in the course of his investigation. It needs a word with emotional warmth, and the warmth is partly expressed in the use of a dialect word. In the first novel I translated I thought I had found a solution in ‘lassie’ — common in Scotland and, often also as ‘lass’, in Lancashire, where I grew up. But readers from the south of England complained that it stood out from the rest of Studer’s language. I think that criticism was justified, and avoided the word in later novels. But I didn’t find a word I felt had the same emotional warmth, and words the editor suggested sounded to me too southern English.
All that, I think, supports my view that dialect shouldn’t be translated into a dialect of the target language — unless the setting is ‘translated’ to the other country as well.
I was once asked if I would translate an Austrian play about a Jewish actor in the 1930s who loses his job, disappears and then reappears in the guise of a very Aryan Tyrolean farmer who is a ‘natural’ actor. I decided it was impossible to do his return to Vienna, speaking broad Tyrolese. Someone else later translated it using a Scottish dialect, but I have to say I wasn’t personally convinced by it.
A possibly related question: What was the biggest challenge for you in rendering Glauser into English?
I think the dialect was the biggest challenge. Also perhaps the way much of the narration is close to Studer’s mind — keeping the balance between clarity of exposition and the colouring of Studer’s feelings and responses.
(Read part II here.)
© Peter Rozovsky 2008
Swiss crime fiction
German crime fiction
Crime fiction in translation