Monday, March 24, 2008

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

Friedrich Glauser had a more harrowing time of it than do most crime writers. Born in Vienna in 1896, he died forty-two years later after a life that included morphine and heroin addiction, diagnosis as a schizophrenic, service with the Foreign Legion in North Africa, and periods in psychiatric wards, insane asylums and prison.

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

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Blogger Linkmeister said...

Now that's enlightening. Obviously translating works from a no-longer-living author presents different problems than those which occur if he or she is alive, but I'd never really thought about it. Translating a living author's novel from English to German could be greatly aided if the translator could just call or e-mail the novelist.

Huh. Thanks for this, both of you.

March 24, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If you liked what Mitchell had to say about the process of translating, I suggest you read the article “The Translators Unedited,” to which I link in my last question. And I recommend Friedrich Glauser highly, of course.

March 24, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


thanks. "The Translator Unedited" ist very interesting.

Pity the man who have to retranslate the tons of anglicisms in the modern German language.

March 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If I recall correctly, "The Translators Unedited" is what first got me interested in the subject. And you pose an interesting question for translators of current German. How does a translator convey the flavor of all those anglicisms?

Which German authors, especially of crime novels, use especially many anglicisms in their work? English, of course, is full of borrowings from other languages, but most have become so thoroughly a part of English that their use would pose no challenge at all for translators.

March 26, 2008  
Blogger Lauren said...

I only translate as a hobby (although I may have to teach it soon...gulp...), but I'd put anglicisms under the same umbrella as other slang and street argot. Look at the sort of person who uses the language, and then find an equivalent. I don't think you can necessarily convey the flavour of an anglicism (or a dialect or accent) by using a foreign term or accent, because the associations are different. Dropping in a French term, for example, may suggest a character is pretentious rather than the youth/hipness implied by the use of English. If you want to pin down class/personality/age for a character, you simply need a different technique in English. For a young person, that might be the use of slightly American vocabulary. Or that sort of language might not be translated at all, and compensated for in descriptors. (I notice many of the translators in the article do this.) There may be an equivalent type of slang - specific rap or gang terminology comes to mind - but then you run the risk of giving readers associations with the wrong place and losing the original sense of place. I'd certainly find it rather off-putting if a Berlin detective sounded like a Londoner with Carribean heritage!

Even where borrowings from other languages have become well integrated, as in English, they can still signify character. So you need to see if a non-literal/non-foreign translation might get that across better.

Interesting things to ponder!

March 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A novel I'm reading now, The Janissary Tree, by Jason Goodwin, required no translation, since Goodwin wrote it in English. But it does use speech as a social or class marker. The book is set in the Istanbul of 1836, and the sultan's mother laces her speech with French, for example.

More interesting is the speech of working people, what we might call working-class. Some of them speak what seems like a mix of Cockney and 1930s American movie slang: "I sees him," and that sort of thing. Goodwin has an advantage, since most readers probably have no idea what the working classes of the Ottoman Empire sounded like. In effect, he's either looking for an English equivalent of how a working-class person in Istanbul might have spoken then, or he's striving for an imaginary and imaginative impression of such speech. Either way, his task seems similar to what translators do.

Now, let's see what happens when someone translates the book!

March 30, 2008  
Blogger kathleen duey said...

This is fascinating to me. I write, and some of my children's books have been translated into many languages. Most recently, a sociological, character-driven fantasy novel for teens and adults was published into the UK market. The curse words became an issue.
The novel contains two stories that go back and forth. They are two hundred years apart. The "old story" posed few problems. The "recent" story contains the word "crap", used several ways, all angry, most in various phrases, a few as simple expletives. The character is an 11 year old boy from a wealthy family, shoved into a horrific situation. He needs to curse.
I am alive, so they called my editor, who called me. The Simon and Schuster UK division was concerned since the word wasn't used as an expletive there, that readers would hear it literally. They suggested "damn". I reminded them that there is no Christian tradition in the created world of the book, no concept of hell. They eventually suggested "bloody" for all the adjective uses and "Bollix" for the expletives. For all the "I didn't give a ___" and other phrases, I asked them not to find a single-word solution and use what would make sense to their readers. It will be interesting to see what they choose. The same book is being translated into French and I have asked that they take whatever liberties needed to make the characters real. I use very little exposition; tight viewpoint carries the whole load of character and event for me. I hadn't thought about that being a challenge for a translator. I am so glad I stumbled across your blog.

June 09, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the kind words; I'm glad you stumbled in this direction.

Curse words can apparently be a problem. Sian Reynolds, who translates Fred Vargas' crime novels into English, cited this as one of her major challenges in an interview I did with her.

June 09, 2008  

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