Collaborative work: Translating and copyediting the Bureau of Past Management

The Bureau of Past Management, a novel that shows how Nazi-era crimes resonate to this day, is published by V&Q Books. 'A bold and absorbing novel (…) translated sensitively by Abigail Wender' says the Irish Times. Angela Hirons, who copyedited the translation, interviewed its translator, Abigail Wender, for New Books in German.

Angela Hirons writes: In April/May 2021, I had the pleasure of working with translator and poet Abigail Wender, on Iris Hanika’s acclaimed Das Eigentliche (awarded the European Prize for Literature in 2010, and the LiteraTour Nord in 20211) – I in my role as copy editor, and Abby as the translator from German. As I remember it, we had several rounds of edits; it was a process of toing and froing, with me asking for clarification on certain things or making linguistic corrections/suggestions, and Abby coming back with her comments and revisions. Luckily, we were on the same page overall, and it was a smooth and rewarding process. It also helped that we both really love the book, particularly its dark humour and experimental, poetic features.  

The novel deals with one man’s (Hans Frambach) existential despair in the face of Germany’s Nazi past (something he’s unable to escape, due to his employment as an archivist at the ‘Bureau of Past Management’, a fictional Berlin institution that handles and preserves records and documents from the Holocaust), and his fraught search for meaning in his own life. There’s a nice interplay in the book between absurdity and tragedy, and moments of implied hope through music, friendship, and a perceived in-built human tendency towards self-preservation and survival (when visiting Birkenau, Frambach finds that his feet instinctively carry him away from the gas chambers and out of the gates into the village).

In terms of specific translation-related issues, I remember Abby and I discussing how best to render the German archiving abbreviations so that they’d be easily understood in English. We also talked about ‘memory work’ as a therapeutic term, and how to handle the occasionally idiosyncratic language and long, free-flowing sentences. We also exchanged opinions on the protagonist, who we both felt warmth and empathy towards. Frambach is by no means an easy character to dissect, but that seems to be part of the book’s charm and complexity – there are ambiguities there, and without giving any spoilers away, I think the ending is open to interpretation too.

As part of my internship with New Books in German, Abby kindly agreed to answer some interview questions I had, both on the book and on literary translation in general. Here is our recent email exchange:

Angela Hirons: You mentioned in an email that you see the translation process as a ‘collaborative’ one. Can you talk a little bit more about this? Is that a collaboration between yourself and the author, or more widely between yourself, the author, the editor and copy editor?

Abigail Wender: I think the collaboration is first with the text itself. What is its context and history? and more specifically what are the patterns and threads in the text? The Bureau of Past Management has so many intentional repetitions of words and syntactical chunks (as usual, forever and ever, in the past, essentially, and so on) – initially I just tried to notice these and understand what the patterns were.

I was lucky enough to work with Iris Hanika on the translation’s early drafts, which was a collaboration of another kind. The difficult, satiric chapter titled ‘Past Management’ would have been extremely hard for me to translate without our conversations about what the book meant to her and why she’d written it. The emotional engine of that chapter is fury; I’m not sure I understood that. Iris and I had so many conversations about the differences between German and English words, the nuances and references; it was helpful, of course, and also deeply fascinating to discuss the work with her.

The final manuscript was also a collaboration with the editor (Katy Derbyshire) and copy editor (yourself). I’ve worked as an editor and a copy editor and am grateful for the chance to have those discussions and corrections. It’s very easy to get something in mind and not see where you’ve made a mistake as a translator. Both you and Katy helped make the translation a better book.  

You’re a published poet (Reliquary, published by Four Way Books, February 2021) as well as a literary translator. Can I ask how you view the creative work you do as a translator vis-à-vis your creative work as a poet? Is translation more of a collaborative vision, and poetry more of a personal one, or do you feel equally attached to artistic decisions you make as a translator?

Translation is creative, but the translator is given a very strict set of parameters within which to work. In my own creative writing, I write a lot that will not turn into a poem; the content may refuse to take shape or form. I have to find the shape, content and form for myself, and that can take a long time. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. I think Lydia Davis wrote somewhere a wonderful list of the joys of translating; one was that no matter what, you can translate. You don’t have to imagine the content or structure – and yet the work is nonetheless artistically challenging in many ways. I look for the voice, the humour, the style, the kinds of words the author uses. There are so many linguistic facets that determine a translation.

As I said above, translation is a more collaborative effort and less lonely, but I don’t know if in the end I’m less attached to my artistic decisions as a translator. I’m open-minded. If someone offers me a good solution to a problem, I’m likely to take it.

I note from reading reviews of The Bureau of Past Management that readers have commented on how surprisingly readable/accessible the book is, despite the heavy subject matter. For me, this is one of the book’s achievements, along with its interplay of light and dark aspects, and its darkly humorous delivery. What do you see as the book’s greatest achievements?

You are right – the humour appealed to me right away; the humour and pathos. I think Iris’ ability to alter tone, and her mastery of timing are crucial. She knows when to let the reader fill in the blanks.

She conveys her awareness of the horror that was perpetrated, but she doesn’t forget what is joyful in the world; the many things we can laugh about. Hans’ obsessive need to divide the letters of people’s names by three, for example, is funny but not satiric, and charms the reader. Iris is also in touch with how Hans’ personal quirks and foibles affect his character – so Hans Frambach is a complicated figure.  

Hans’ struggle with emotion (fury, humour, sadness, despair) runs throughout the book. A painful moment begins the novel: “There comes a time when it all falls away – the anger of youth, the sorrow you felt at the world’s injustice, and also the confidence that things would get better, maybe even good if you just tried hard enough, put your whole heart into it. There comes a time when that heart empties abruptly and you eddy down into yourself, entirely alone.” But the novel’s conclusion suggests a radical change: “…they must do whatever they could with their time… and find the middle between action and endurance, force and forbearance, progress and tradition, with small adjustments, first in one direction, then another….”  This is also a great achievement.

The book’s inner sleeve contains a quote by Michael Arditti, who describes the work as “A brave account of one man’s struggle to come to terms with the nation’s past, which draws an artful distinction between memory and memorial.” Could you say a little bit more about this? (I’m thinking of Frambach’s view of state-prescribed remembrance and memorials, his almost Kafka-esque view of bureaucracy, and his assertion “I wish people would… contemplate rather than commemorate.”)

That moment was rather tricky to translate. In German, Hans says to Graziela: “Ich wünschte, man würde bedenken, worum es eigentlich geht. Bedenken statt Gedenken.” I’ve translated that using alliteration – “I wish people would think about what it is essentially about. Contemplate rather than commemorate.” In German, the prefixes Be and Ge change the meaning of the verb denken (to think) into two nouns taken from the verb: to ponder, think over, contemplate, and to honour, to think of, to commemorate! The line can’t quite work in English as it does in the German; the wordplay isn’t there. But because ‘commemoration’ and the making of memorials is the issue of the book, I chose ‘commemorate.’

The narrator (as well as Hans) considers issues of memorialisation and memory throughout the novel. The beginning chapters reveal differences between personal memories and public memory. Hans has his memories, Graziela has hers, and they share a more generalised public ‘memory’ of Germany’s Nazi past and the Shoah. Wolkenkraut’s memories never differ; his writings are repetitions, as if all the horrors were one enormous never-to-be-forgotten horror – essentially one crime.

Early in the novel, Hanika writes that after the constant revelation of horrors perpetrated by the Nazis, “…the state remembered its duty and resolved to take this burden away from its citizens; it would undertake to memorialise the crime as its eternal duty. It would cast the burden into historical monuments to fulfill the obligation…” But the issue is that despite all the memorials, the memory of what happened does not change. The two are not interchangeable. What would it take for people to actually think about what occurred and why? Those are the nearly impossible questions that Hanika poses, and that people either avoid or can’t avoid (like Hans).

In your translator’s note, you describe the book as “an experimental collage of story, history and culture.” Did this collage style (poetic sections, song snippets, cultural references), along with the unconventional syntax, broken lines and long sentences pose specific problems in translation?

I was glad to be able to ask Iris questions about cultural references, history, and song – for example, the British televised play Dinner for One, which Germans apparently watch every New Years’, is a cultural reference I didn’t have. References were easy enough to handle within the text once I understood the allusion or reference.

What was more complicated were Hanika’s very dense, circuitous sentences. These were difficult in German as well, so the issue was how to create English syntactical complexity where necessary. I had to figure out what the point of the complexity was, and then discover if I could replicate it in an appropriately English-language manner. Another issue for me, and one I’m not sure I found a happy solution for, was how to signal to the anglophone reader those instances where the original text appeared in English. There were a lot of English words and phrases in the novel – sometimes they were very funny – and it was always quite a challenge to figure out how and if that could be translated.

Music is an important leitmotif in the book (“The language of music, that’s the language of love!” p. 52.) Can I ask how you approach translating the musicality of a text generally? Do you see it as an academic/scientific process, or more of an intuitive one?

I wouldn’t call my approach academic or scientific. I loved the way musical references reverberate throughout the text, and the many songs and lyrics in the novel posed difficulties but delighted me at the same time. They add many layers to the book. Translating some of the songs – Dahlia Lavi’s and Hans’ own jingles – was fun and challenging – but I was grateful when a poet friend referred me to the lyrics of Schubert’s Winterreise translated by Fischer-Dieskua.

When I began the translation, I actually typed most of the book in order to ‘hear’ Hanika’s sentences and see them. She is such a musically driven writer. It helped me to understand her phrasing and to pay more attention to internal rhyme and repetitions, even if they couldn’t be translated. I am aware of tonal variety and juxtaposition in my poetry – so Hanika’s musicality was something I was attuned to.

You mentioned in a recent email your hope to see the book taken up by a US publisher. Has anything materialised there?

I wish! I’d love to see The Bureau published here in the States.

Thank you, Angela, for the chance to answer these interesting questions and to reconsider the process of translation.


Click here to order a copy of the Bureau of Past Management directly from the publisher

A novel that opens up a window. A masterpiece. 

Denis Scheck, ARD druckfrisch.
Photograph by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Abigail Wender’s debut collection, Reliquary, was published in February 2021 by Four Way Books. Her translation of Iris Hanika’s award-winning novel, The Bureau of Past Management is available from V&Q Books.

Her poems have been published in Bodega, The Cortland Review, DMQ Review, EpiphanyGuernica / a magazine of art and politics, Kenyon Review Online, The Massachusetts ReviewNew Orleans Review, The Madison Review, and other journals and anthologies including The Traveler’s Mecum, A Poetry Anthology. Her translations from German have appeared in Asymptote, Epiphany, Tupelo Quarterly, and the New Haven Review.

© Angela Hirons

Angela Hirons has worked as a freelance German-English translator and proofreader for the past 17 years. She has been involved in copy-editing for V&Q Books on several titles. She has also worked as an in-house copy editor at an advertising/PR company, taught German in an adult learning context, and worked as a home tutor in A-level/GCSE German.

She has an MA in The Poetry of Sarah Kirsch, University of Liverpool, 2000; and MA in Translating, University of Salford, 2003. She took part in the University of Warwick’s ‘Warwick Translates’ summer school in 2019.  

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