Thursday, 10 March 2011

"Wonderfully translated by John E. Woods"

Wednesday night was book group night. I go every month, but last night was a special event. One of our group is a good friend of the literary translator John E. Woods. He was asked if he would like to select one of 'his' books for us, and perhaps come along to our group and tell us all about his work. I was looking forward to hearing all about his work, as as a German learner I'm wrestling with the grammar every day and increasingly realising how hard it is to directly translate phrases and sentences that I would say in English but which just don't work in German.

John is an American living in Berlin who translates from German into English. He's pretty famous in the translating world, but he's a modest guy, and comes across as utterly charming, fantastically interesting, and the type of person that you'd kill for at your dinner party.

I have to admit though I wasn't completely looking forward to last night. The book he chose for us to read was Ingo Schultz's '33 Moments of Happiness'. As I said on my book list, for me it was like 33 moments of unhappiness, and I literally had to force myself to read it. Briefly, it's a series of short stories capturing small moments of the lives of people living in St. Petersburg all set around the late '80's and early '90's during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Anyway, I just didn't like it. And I couldn't finish it. And I felt like I should because we had the translator coming and it would be rude not to. But I couldn't, so I half thought that I might not go. But I am so glad I did.

Normally, as with everywhere I go, I turn up late. But last night I was nice and early and turned up just behind our special guest and his friend. Literally, just behind, as in 4 steps behind on the escalator. So I called to them and he introduced himself and I introduced myself and he told me that I was "the one person in the group he'd heard all about", and went on to comment on my "beautiful accent", etc, etc. See what I mean? Totally charming. I'm sure he would have had something lovely to say to whichever one of the group had been in my shoes, but what does it matter: he charmed me!

So then we joined the group in our little reading den and the normal routine is that we go round and say whether we liked or disliked the book and in 3 sentences more or less, say what we thought, before we get into a real discussion over it. I was sat at the end of the semi-circle and totally avoided eye contact with everyone when this came up as I so totally didn't want to be the one starting off with "Well, I hated it, so much that I couldn't finish it....", so lucky for me the person at the start of the semi-circle did it and it turned out she hated it too. In actual fact there were very few people who had finished it, and not many who liked it, so by the time it got to me, quite honestly it didn't matter what I said.

Anyhow John started off telling us about how his career began. (I wish I'd taken notes, I'll probably be a bit wrong). He started off wanting to be a writer, but quickly came up against writer's block. He then moved to Germany for a while where he took an intensive German course with the Goethe Institute. The secret to his excellent German he says is that he married his German teacher. Because he felt he was going nowhere as a writer he decided to try his hand at translating a german book by Arno Schmidt. Once he'd worked his way through it he approached a publisher who loved it and published it.

John managed to build his career from this point. He was able to secure a long term contract with this publishing house and also managed to secure a long term contract with the Arno Schmidt Foundation to translate his works. By doing this John has become one of very few translators to actually make a career out of translating. He says that it is very difficult for others who have to go from contract to contract and that there is generally little money in it, but that he has been fortunate. At nearly 70 years old he is looking forward to his retirement, though as an avid reader he won't be putting down the books.

We enquired about his method of working. He says he has always been the type of person who has been able to get up in the morning, have breakfast, then sit down and get stuck into his work. He normally manages to translate around 5 or so pages a day, and in the evening he reads his work aloud, and if he stumbles or hesitates over any part, then he knows there's something wrong with it.

He talked about the differences in the languages, of how you can't ever do a 1:1 translation. There are far more words in English than there are in German, and it's not just the words that you are trying to translate but the author's voice, the 'feel', and I wish I could remember the word he used to encompass all of this, but basically all of the above plus the culture too. It'll come to me, and I'll change it when it does. He spoke of how in German you can create sentences that have a real 'punch' at the end, but when translated into English just don't do that. That he has to find other ways to recreate that feeling or provide something that creates the same punch through the words. He says where German has it's grammar, English relies on it's syntax.

He told us how each year around 300-400 books are translated from foreign language into English and of these perhaps only 30-40 are German. On the reverse he thinks that there are approximately a couple of thousand books translated from English into German. Apparently, we English speakers just aren't that interested in reading books which have been translated, which seems a shame really, because I am sure we must be missing out.

I asked John how he felt about reviews of the books he had translated. Did the books feel more like 'his' books, and did he then take the review more personally as they were essentially 'his words'? He said in terms of reviews of 'the translation' normally these didn't extend beyond one or two words, either "Beautifully translated by..." or "A terrible translation..", but I meant more than that. Without it being a one-to-one translation, surely an English review is commenting on more than just the original author's work. Ah yes, he said. When they write "This author's prose is beautifully crafted" I do think 'But that's my prose!'. Translation is certainly not a job for those seeking glory and praise.

John talked more about his life and his career and about the books of Ingo Schultz, whom he counts as a good friend. He meets up with him while translating his work to discuss areas which he needs clarification on and to discuss the translation. He says this is so useful as most authors he translates are dead and he doesn't have the opportunity to get more of an understanding of phrases which may seem ambiguous. Although, he says, sometimes it is easier this way as he can interpret things as he chooses.

I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and listening to John E. Woods. It's not often that I meet people who I think afterwards that it was a real honour to meet, but he was certainly one of them. John plans on retiring soon, and is working on his final translation, Arno Schmidt's 'Zettel's Traum'. As a final question, I asked him what he enjoys reading, outside of translating. He brought a book from his bag and showed us: 'The Yiddish Policeman's Union' by Michael Chabon - more than just a good detective story. I think I might try it!

Of course as we packed up our books and all got ready to leave, we all thanked John for a great evening. I said that when he next meets up with Ingo Schultz to be sure to tell him that we all loved his book. Though perhaps I said it with a grin!

You can read a little more about John E. Woods on The Local - Germany's news in English


  1. I loved that book by Chabon so much that I became a pusher: I have given 5 copies of it away so far, and forced one of my book groups to read it (as they did not enjoy it- most of them- I realized that was not a book club I would enjoy!).

    I mentioned it here,, before I started to do regular monthly round-ups.
    I hope you love it as much as I did.

  2. What a brilliant post, thanks Fiona. I've always been a bit, um, I don't know, well I just think book groups sound like a good idea but that I would hate them in practice, but it sounds like your one is actually great and this particular meeting sounds fantastic. I actually love translated books (not that I've ever thought of them like that... but I love Japanese fiction in particular) and so this really interested me, I've never thought about the process behind it. Thank you for sharing your experience, John E Woods sounds like a lovely chap and it was obviously a real treat to be able to meet him.

  3. Another vouch for that book, and also I absolutely positively loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by the same guy.

    I have heard that Mysteries of Pittsburgh (which I own but have not yet read) doesn't pass muster, however.

  4. If you are still in touch with Mr. Woods, please convey to him that there is a dreadful typographical error on page 529 of the paperback Vintage edition of his English translation of "The Magic Mountain." Where it should say "Beethoven's Eroica" the print reads "Beethoven's Erotica."


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