Forgotten Gems and Refreshed Perspectives: Translating the Classics

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‘With Freud, I was terrified at first when I was asked to do one of his books in the new Penguin series of all his works. But I found I liked Freud much better at the end of that book than before, and I had really enjoyed it – it changed my view of Freud.’ – Anthea Bell

It is impossible to imagine our literary landscape without classics in translation – books that continue to speak to readers decades or centuries after they were written. And we have Anthea Bell to thank for a remarkable number of these works being available in English. Some classics are translated again and again; others go undiscovered for years. But how do publishers come across such ‘forgotten gems’, or decide when a classic is ripe for retranslation?

London-based publisher Pushkin Press has brought many classic texts to renewed attention, including works by the Austrian author Stefan Zweig. Although hugely popular during his lifetime, after his death in 1942 Zweig’s works fell into obscurity in the English-speaking world. That has all changed in recent years, however, with translations of Zweig’s books attracting glowing reviews. Much of his work is published by Pushkin Press, many in new translations by Anthea Bell.

Zweig is by no means the only big rediscovery on the literary translation scene. In 2009, Adam Freudenheim – then at Penguin Classics and since 2012 at the helm of Pushkin Press – published the first English translation of Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel Alone in Berlin. The translator was Michael Hofmann. ‘I thought it was an excellent book,’ says Freudenheim, ‘but I never thought it would go on to sell more than half a million copies in English as well as sparking many new translations around the world.’

The ripples of ‘the Fallada effect’ are still being felt. In May this year Penguin Classics will publish another exciting rediscovery, Berlin Finale (tr. Shaun Whiteside), a novel by Heinz Rein that was also first published in 1947. One of the first bestsellers of the post-war period, Berlin Finale is a gripping fictional account of the last days of the Nazi regime.

James Conway, publisher and translator at new Berlin-based press Rixdorf Editions, is dedicated to bringing hitherto neglected texts to an English-speaking readership. Rixdorf Editions specialises in translating works by progressive writers of the Wilhelmine era (c. 1890 to 1918), which reflect the surprisingly radical thinking of that period. Its list includes Ilse Frapan’s 1899 novel We Women Have No Fatherland, August Endell’s 1908 essay The Beauty of the Metropolis and a report from 1904 entitled Berlin’s Third Sex by Magnus Hirschfeld, one of the world’s first gay activists. ‘In numerous respects,’ says Conway, ‘we are living in ways foretold by Wilhelmine writers – women’s liberation, alternative lifestyles, sexual experimentation and distrust of authority.’

Sometimes, classics that have already been published in English are brought back into the public eye through retranslations. Over the course of her extraordinarily versatile career Anthea Bell produced a number of new translations of classic texts, including Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (Penguin Classics, 2003) and Kafka’s The Castle (OUP, 2009). Last year Pushkin Press brought out a collection of Kafka’s stories entitled The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man, newly translated by Alex Starritt, who describes the book as ‘Kafka’s best work in one place, and nothing else.’ In 2015 Pushkin also published my own new translation of Ulrich Plenzdorf’s cult classic The New Sorrows of Young W. Freudenheim remarks that translated texts, which often reflect the time in which they are made and the biases of their translators, tend to date. A new translation can bring fresh perspectives to a classic text and update it for a contemporary readership.

The enduring nature of classics in translation is proof that there are certain themes, insights and ideas which resonate across cultures and across generations. This is particularly the case for Tom Kuhn, Professor of German Literature at Oxford University, who is committed to extending the corpus of Bertolt Brecht’s work available in English. Brecht’s work, notes Kuhn, ‘can be as topical, direct, urgent and unsettling for modern readers as it was for his own contemporaries.’ The same can be said of many other classic texts in German. As we approach the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and in a time of political upheaval of our own, German literature in translation – be it renowned classics or forgotten gems – still has a great deal to say.

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By Romy Fursland. Romy Fursland is a literary translator from German and French. Her translations include The New Sorrows of Young W. by Ulrich Plenzdorf (Pushkin Press, 2015) and the forthcoming Refugee Conversations by Bertolt Brecht (Methuen Drama, 2019). She is a co-translator of Brecht on Theatre and Brecht on Performance (Methuen Drama, 2014).