An Interview with John E. Woods

Context N°24

Kathryn Toolan

John E. Woods is an award-winning tran­slator of German literature. Throug­hout his career, he has translated the work of Thomas Mann, Ingo Schulze, Christoph Ransmayr and Arno Schmidt. He was awarded the PEN Translation Prize twice—for his edition of Perfume by Patrick Süskind in 1987, and for Evening Edged in Gold by Arno Schmidt in 1981. His translation of Arno Schmidt’s Zettels Traum (Bottoms Dream) is a forthcoming title from Dalkey Archive Press.

Q: How does translating Arno Schmidt compare to translating Thomas Mann and Christoph Ransmayr? Is there a comparison?
JW: Translation is, as I am wont to say, an impossibility. Every language is unique to itself. So a translator tackles that impossibility anew with every author, with every sentence for that matter. Thomas Mann is a master of German grammatical intricacy. Those long sentences work because every semantic nuance is embedded in a grammatical one. English depends far more on syntax for its complexities. Just ask any English speaker what a dative plural might look like. To compensate for Mann’s grammatical richness, I tried to fall back on the richness of English vocabulary, not always successfully of course. But I hope the total aesthetic experience, which after all is the translator’s nirvana, corresponds at some level.
Christoph Ransmayr’s texts are dithyrambic, the prose hurtles you into deep, dark isolation. Hurtling prose is possible in both languages, or at least I tried to find counterparts to both that driving force as well as the existential loneliness.
Arno Schmidt is in one sense just another case of impossibility. The density of his prose is sui generis, even in German, which can be intimidatingly dense. Then there’s the word play, the dance of literary references, the Rabelaisian humor, all packed into what I like to think of as “fairy tales for adults.” So, what does a translator do? He puts on his fool’s cap and plays and dances and hopes he amuses.

Q: Often referred to as the “German Joyce,” Arno Schmidt openly admitted his admiration for Joyce as a writer. What was his opinion of other Irish writers?
JW: Schmidt was an autodidact and a polyhistor. Joyce came late in his reading, and for Schmidt it was less a matter of discovering a new kind of prose than of finding multiple links to his own work. Other Irish authors? Well he certainly knew and had his opinions about, for example, Shaw, whom he quotes on occasion, and mocks for his opinionated cockiness, probably because Schmidt himself was at least as opinionated and cocky; and Synge, whose Playboy he quotes with apparent approval. Wilde also came rather late in his reading, but he quotes him with attribution five times in Bottom’s Dream, and several times without attribution, primarily and surprisingly the poetry. Beckett he dismissed, claiming that minimalism is too easy, but my guess is he admired him more than he would admit, even to himself. As for Flann O’Brien, as far as I know he was unaware of his work.

Q: Arno Schmidt never shied away from the tough subject of war, in Nobodaddy’s Children (1995) he presents three realities: pre-war, post-war and a third, the middle of World War Three. Do you think this was why, in post-war Germany, his work was not given the recognition it deserved during his lifetime? How do you think his work would be received today?
JW: Schmidt was a contrarian, at odds with the Adenauer Restoration of post-war Germany. But then so were a lot of German intellectuals at the time. His loathing of the military, his own experiences of the ugly horror of war, and, perhaps even more significantly his life, as a refugee after the war (he had lost his library! The ultimate affront for a man who lived within his own mind), all contributed to his Jacobin outlook and won him few friends in the academic establishment of the time. But it was the prose itself that offended—it was seen as so contrarian, so unlike anything else before or after him, it excluded him from a wide readership and general critical acclaim. Now, more than three decades after his death, he has won a committed readership, and indeed the acknowledgment of academia,  as one of the most significant German writers of the twentieth century.

Q: How did you decide on the titles for your translations Bottom’s Dream and B/Moondocks?
JW: Titles are often a bugbear. ‘Kaff, auch Mare Crisium’ could of course have been called Podunk, also the Sea of Tears, or something of that sort. Not exactly a convincing title, is it? Although the Sea of Tears has a certain power. Added to which is the pun on Kaff in German, which means both a remote hamlet and chaff. So I just played with the possibilities, landing on “boondocks” as a synonym (sans pun unfortunately) for a backwater kind of place, which triggered the rhyme in my brain. And since the later Schmidt loved to use fractional spellings, one letter set atop another, it just seemed like a good fit. As for ‘Zettels Traum,’ there really was only one possible title. In the classic Schlegel-Tieck translation of Shakespeare, “Bottom, the weaver” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is given the name “Zettel,” which is the warp of a fabric. And it is of course Bottom’s dream which is a central metaphor of the novel. Lost again is a pun, for a Zettel is also a small slip of paper, especially one used to jot something down on; Schmidt used thousands of such slips of notepaper to construct his later novels, by arranging them in large homemade file-boxes. Also lost, at least at first for the English speaker, is the fact that in German your Po is your “bottom,” and after all it is a novel about Edgar Allan Poe. As I said at the beginning: translation is an impossibility.

Q: Arno Schmidt’s prose is layered, but never to the point of complication. It is concise, sharp, fragmented at times but deliciously human, intimate and real. How do you think younger audiences will read him?
JW: Arno Schmidt has always attracted a younger readership, and most of those readers stick with him. He is a fearless author who does what he knows he must do and thumbs his nose at taboos. That alone I think is what makes him a voice that younger, serious readers connect with. He is also at times foolishly opinionated, unnecessarily arcane, and always a man of his own time and place, all of which can set up barriers for those same readers. Yet even what may seem his “faults” lead to revelations about himself, and more than any other writer I know, he is willing to risk relentless self-exploration. His words are who he is. That kind of literary honesty resonates with younger readers and it’s an addiction that can last a lifetime.

Selected Works by Arno Schmidt
Collected Novellas. Dalkey Archive Press, 1994.
Nobodaddy’s Children. Dalkey Archive Press, 1995.
Collected Stories. Dalkey Archive Press, 1996.
Two Novels, The Stony Heart & B/Moondocks. Dalkey Archive Press, 1997.
Bottom’s Dream. Forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press.

Comments are closed.