Monday, March 24, 2008

Mike Mitchell, part II: An interview with Friedrich Glauser's translator

(Read part I of the interview with Mike Mitchell here.)

Talk briefly about some of your other translation work and about how that work compares with translating Glauser.

That is rather difficult, as I’ve translated over 50 books. Whenever I start a book by a new author, I work on it until I feel I’m getting under the skin of the writer, that I’m getting an English ‘voice’ which is a satisfactory equivalent of the original; critics might not agree, of course, but in most cases there does seem to come a point where I start to feel more comfortable with the translation. That is how I approached Glauser, but I can’t think of any direct comparison with other writers I’ve translated. He’s not just the only crime writer I’ve translated, he’s the only Swiss writer and the only 1930s author — though I don’t know if that’s really relevant.

In The Chinaman, Glauser has Studer observe that "detective novels seemed popular in Pfründisberg," and he names Edgar Wallace, Agatha Christie and Georges Simenon. What is Glauser’s place in the canon of crime writers? Within Swiss and German-language literature?

I’m not very familiar with the canon of Swiss literature, but (leaving aside all the arguments about the status and evaluation of the genre of crime fiction; German in the past has tended to have stricter demarcation between ‘light’ and ‘serious’ literature) Glauser is treated as a serious writer, not ‘just’ as crime writer, an important figure in 20th-century Swiss literature who has made a significant contribution to Switzerland’s self-image.

I think this ‘Swissness’ is particularly important, especially in the reception of his detective, Sergeant Studer, who is widely familiar in German-speaking Switzerland through films and television as well as the books; I suspect he is seen by many as embodying typically Swiss virtues. A contemporary writer, Hansjörg Schneider, has created a detective (Hunkeler) who is clearly modelled on Studer and was immediately recognised as such, though his background is Basel, not Bern.

As I’m sure you know, the major German crime-fiction prize is called the ‘Glauser’ — because, I think, he was the first German writer to give the crime novel literary ‘respectability’ (see comment above).

Glauser seems obviously to rank high among crime writers – perhaps something like a slyer, more humane and funnier Simenon. Why did it take so long for his work to be published in book form and translated?

Glauser’s crime novels first appeared as — very successful — serials in Swiss newspapers. Only two were published in book form during his lifetime, the other three in the years following his death in — in German terms — relatively little-known publishing houses. I believe his reputation spread in the wider German-speaking world some time after the war.

I suspect this publishing history is the reason why he didn’t come to the notice of English publishers before the war — Switzerland has never been ‘sexy’ to use a modern journalistic term; afterwards it was the war itself (Kirst’s ‘Gunner Asch’ novels) and coming to terms with the Nazi past (Grass, Böll) that attracted English attention to German writing. Also, Glauser’s style of crime writing is not in tune with the English tradition: the country-house mystery, the amateur, often upper-class, ‘sleuth’, Agatha Christie’s almost abstract ‘locked-room’ type puzzles, and a ‘Swiss Simenon’ lacks the attraction of Paris.

One of Bob Cornwell’s questions in “The Translators Unedited” concerned translators’ professional relationships with authors. In the case of Glauser, who died in 1938, where would you go with the sorts of questions you might have asked the author?

Generally with authors who are dead — or don’t respond — you have to make up your mind yourself, which is both a privilege and a duty, sometimes a big problem, though not with Glauser. Occasionally secondary literature or annotated editions can help, but not often for specific questions. I have a former colleague who specialises in Swiss literature I can ask for help.

Fortunately one paperback edition of the stories has very useful material, information on institutions, photographs of buildings etc, and another has explanations of Swiss terms for German readers, again very useful, as the Duden Swiss-German dictionary is out of print, and when I looked it up on Amazon there was a long queue waiting for a secondhand copy.

A further problem with true dialects, of course, is that they are written as they are pronounced, so even if one has a dictionary, one has to be aware of variant spellings. A small Swiss-German dictionary I have gives the word quoted above — ‘meitschi’ — in the form ‘maitli’. It does also give a brief account of pronunciation differences between Swiss dialects, of which it lists ten.

(Read part I of the interview with Mike Mitchell here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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