Every year a prominent German-language author and their translators are invited to Straelen, a charming town on the German-Dutch border which is otherwise known for its production of flowers and potted plants. As guests of the Europäisches Übersetzer-Kollegium, and with the support of the Kulturstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen and a publisher, the translators spend three days working together on a specific novel’s linguistic challenges and puzzles.
Previous guests include Günter Grass (who inspired these Straelener Atriumsgespräche with his famous ritual of convening his translators for each new novel), Julia Franck, Jenny Erpenbeck, Lutz Seiler and Uwe Tellkamp.
I was lucky enough to be invited this time around as the English translator of Christoph Ransmayr’s 2016 novel Cox oder Der Lauf der Zeit (S. Fischer) for Seagull Books (who also published my translations of his previous two books, Atlas of an Anxious Man and The Flying Mountain), and we were all fortunate that Christoph found time in his hectic travel schedule.
The size of the groups has varied from three to eighteen in the past, and this year there were six of us, the other translators hailing from Bulgaria, Croatia, Italy, Spain and China.
It is unusual for a Chinese translator to participate in the Atriumsgespräch, but for this book Han Ruixiang’s presence was both significant and extremely helpful. After all, Cox centres on a fictional encounter between a late-18th-century English clockmaker, Alister Cox, and the Emperor of China, who has summoned him to his court to fashion a number of unique clocks, each reproducing a subjective perception of time. It is a wonderful evocation of two men’s attempts to master the passing of the years, of love and loss, with occasional flashes of recognition and understanding piercing the mysterious veil of cultural and social differences.
Under the guidance of literary critic Insa Wilke, we started by addressing some general aspects of the novel (unorthodox punctuation, pronunciation and transliteration of Chinese terms, titles, etc.) before working our way through the book from first page to last, raising queries as we went. It is a short novel and Christoph Ransmayr writes with great clarity, so progress was swift and we’d tackled all our queries by lunchtime on the second day. As a seasoned traveller, Ransmayr is extremely alive to the subtleties of translation and interpretation, and his overall message was that we could do much as we wished. He even provocatively suggested that we embellish his novel with some scenes of our own devising.
Ruixiang was troubled by the fact that some geographical details about China – the course of a river, the name of a sea – were deliberately distorted in the book: a Chinese reader wouldn’t understand. Christoph Ransmayr’s response? Change whatever needs changing! Other questions from Ruixiang went more to the heart of differing Western and Chinese worldviews. For example, why should a court mandarin feel trepidation when his sole function was to obey orders? And so, in translating, we experienced a little of Cox’s bewilderment faced with a foreign culture.
The trouble with convening several translators working in different languages is that, in the absence of many difficulties of understanding, each of us was left with the problem of how to make the book sing in our particular language – and non-native speakers cannot help you with that. For languages less dense than German, the major challenge of reproducing Ransmayr’s writing in English is the need to unravel extremely long sentences while maintaining his singular cadence.
In general, I am convinced that translating is a very private pursuit, an individual grappling with a text. The great joy of collaborating in this way, though, is that people have interesting anecdotes to tell and unexpected areas of knowledge come to light. In our case, Andy Jelčic from Croatia turned out to be an expert on clocks, so we benefited from a potted history of clock mechanisms during a visit to the town museum.
The climax of the workshop was a public reading in the College’s wonderful atrium to a mixed audience of some eighty-five dignitaries, funders, local booklovers and resident translators. Christoph Ransmayr discussed the book and his admiration for translators, then read the first page of the novel, which describes Cox’s arrival by ship in Hangzhou Bay just as twenty-seven tax collectors are having their noses cut off on the quayside. Each of us then answered a question from the moderator before reading our own version of the same passage, creating a staggered chorus of Coxes, some intelligible to many, some a blaze of sound. Ransmayr read the rest of the first chapter – then drinks rounded off a collaborative, cosmopolitan occasion during which we had eaten together, laughed together, cycled through a nature reserve into Holland for pancakes and local beer, and talked literature, travel, poker, showjumping and other matters too numerous to mention.
It should be mentioned that Renate Birkenhauer kept detailed minutes which will serve as a record for the book’s future translators into other languages and colleagues who were unable to attend.
A final word about the Europäisches Übersetzer-Kollegium for those unfamiliar with it. As well as hosting the Atriumsgespräche, the centre is a fantastic place for translators (with a book contract) to come and work for anything from a couple of weeks to three months in the case of the translator-in-residence. I would like to thank Frau Dr. Regina Peeters and her kind team who think of everything, leaving you to enjoy the facilities (including the largest dedicated translation library in the world), the peace, the bikes (the surroundings are tabletop flat!) and a studious community of interesting, like-minded colleagues.