Unendlicher Spass
March 4, 2010 8:47 AM   Subscribe

The Mistake on Page 1,032: On Translating Infinite Jest into German. "'The limits of my language are the limits of my world,' Ulrich Blumenbach quotes Wittgenstein as saying in a Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung article to describe the challenges and inducements of the six years he spent translating David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (Unendlicher Spass) into German — something he did without input from the author, who refused to speak to him."

And regarding that "mistake":
Blumenbach eventually received more feedback than translators traditionally ever have, via 100 Tage Unendlicher Spass (100 Days of Infinite Jest), a blog created by Infinite Jest’s German publisher, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, which offered commentary on the book by various writers and thinkers, Blumenbach included, from August to early December 2009. 100 Tage Unendlicher Spass also provided Blumenbach with the opportunity to respond to readers’ comments on the blog posts.

In one of many such examples, a November 18th comment on Blumenbach’s November 15th entry from a user called Ronald Bergner says, “I noticed a mistake: P 1,032 ‘Dieses Vorgehen bergte Risiken [...]’ Do you mean the past form of ‘bergen’ or something else?” Blumenbach responds the very next day: “Concerning the apparent mistake on P. 1,032: Wallace allows the narrator to assume the respective speech of the character (here of the Wheelchair Assassins), and ergo on P. 1032 the “French-ified” German that we otherwise associate with Marathe emerges. Wallace marks the French Canadians not by their incorrect pronunciation, as the French are recognized in jokes or comedies…but through very precisely mistaken verb forms, terms, and idioms…” and he proceeds to give several examples.

Blumenbach’s accessibility, combined with his commitment to responding, results in a remarkable level of accountability on his part for his translation. Overall, the experience was a positive one for him: “Usually I could explain things or I tried to explain things on the blog and people, I think, reacted quite reasonably…I liked the direct commentaries because they showed me that people actually had an eye for the language Unendlicher Spass is written in.”
posted by ocherdraco (35 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
A little more about the book's success in Germany. And here's an audio interview with Blumenbach.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:51 AM on March 4, 2010

Ulrich also worked with our wallace-l listserv to answer some questions about the language in the novel, and he thanks the list in the acknowledgments of the book. Members of the list (which are mostly just fans of DFW, hi guys!) have contributed to the Italian edition of Girl With Curious Hair, the Dutch edition of A Supposedly Fun Thing, and various other translations. I wrote a paper partly about this phenomenon as I believe it is something that would've been unimaginable 40 years ago. Here's a picture of Ulrich in his home office. The book is beautiful, btw—an objet d'art.

Coincidentally, the one in-depth conversation I had with David Foster Wallace involved the issue of whether or not the stories in Girl With Curious Hair (outside of Westward) were "translatable." His opinion was that some of them were not. I still believe that they are—and so is most all literature in some way "translatable." There are poems and language tricks that depend on idiosyncrasies of the original language that are lost, but even those, I believe, can be explained in a commentary by the translator. In my mind, the best translators are those who faithfully render the original text while also trying to convey the nuances of the author's usage.
posted by mattbucher at 9:05 AM on March 4, 2010 [9 favorites]

And I totally just realized that I found this from mattbucher's twitter feed. So he should get the credit for it. Thanks, mattbucher!
posted by ocherdraco at 9:07 AM on March 4, 2010

Is this not on Amazon.com? Is there a deal with ordering books off Amazon.de, do I have to open a separate Amazon.de account?
posted by geoff. at 9:19 AM on March 4, 2010

posted by clavicle at 9:21 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's a lot of really interesting stuff about the art of translation in Hofstadter's Le Ton beau de Marot. It is a lot less popular than GEB, but just as fascinating, and more accessible if you're at all math phobic.
posted by ecurtz at 9:22 AM on March 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

geoff: There's one on ABE, but it's $11 shipping from Germany.
posted by mattbucher at 9:23 AM on March 4, 2010

Oh man, thanks for this! Blumenbach seems like someone who really knows what he's doing. Truly inspiring stuff. As a literary translator and an Infinite Jest fan, I can appreciate the problems he's had to face. Jesus, if that book landed on my desk, my first reaction would be to scream with glee, then to throw up. Also, five years before editing sounds almost too good to be true. I'm so, so glad there are still publishers and editors who know that you must let the translator go about his work without rushing, otherwise you burn in hell.
posted by The Mouthchew at 9:24 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's pretty cool that 50,000 readers can still be a phenomenon.

I'm actually not a fan of the German book design, but it goes to show that books won't be replaced by digital versions anytime soon.

Speaking of which, I picked up a first edition of IJ the other day for $15 to replace the original one I lost in a fire. Yay for me.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:24 AM on March 4, 2010

I take it back. That appears to be the audiobook CD version.
posted by mattbucher at 9:24 AM on March 4, 2010

Many of DFW's jokes hinge on making figures of speech literal, e.g. "He literally took a long walk off a short pier" or "He entered the room literally whistling Dixie." I wonder how jokes such as these translate into languages that (presumably) don't share the same idioms. Are they translated literally, or are substitute expressions swapped in?

A similar question occurred to me when reading Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland, wherein the characters are being chased by "INKlings". There's no possible way that works in both languages, so... just... what in the world was the joke in Japanese?

In short: good grief, translating must be effing difficult.
posted by davidjmcgee at 9:29 AM on March 4, 2010

Fascinating link. I should probably read this damn thing eventually.
posted by Damn That Television at 9:30 AM on March 4, 2010

Translation of DFWs writing seems like an enormous undertaking. So much of Girl With Curious Hair's content is bound in reflection or dissonance with the style and sound of the words themselves. The eponymous story for example. The events of the story are an extreme anarchic tempest of insanity, drug use, violence, and sex. But the events are related in flat, direct, emotionless statements of fact; an autistic journalists rendering of Fear and Loathing.

Somehow the true content of those stories only exist within the act of reading them. The experience of the words in tension with their physical presence constitutes the content of the story. DFW actually describes this experience in Westward the Course of the Empire Takes Its Way. He describes writing a story as shooting an arrow at the reader's heart. But notes that the direction of arrow's flight is subtly adjusted by the arrow's body touching the archer's hand. We are meant to see that the 'story' he provides us only exists within the mental framework where his words are refracted through our mind.

I wish I could do justice to how deeply meta reading Westward the Course of the Empire Takes Its Way is. He describes how his words are an arrow shot into our hearts. How the words are deflected by their interaction with our minds. How he must therefore adjust his aim to account for the deflection he knows will happen. He creates a mental event, takes us inside it, and describes the interior to us. Amazing work that must be experienced to appreciate fully. I've not read, and certainly can't write myself, anything that does justice to the level of meta discourse going on in that story. There is no other author that I've found who can accomplish what Wallace does. Few who can even adequately describe what he accomplishes.

Good god I mourn his absence anew every time I think of him.
posted by Babblesort at 9:38 AM on March 4, 2010 [5 favorites]

You can buy the book from Amazon.de here. That's where I bought it, and had it shipped internationally. I didn't have to create a new account — my Amazon.com account info worked fine — but you do need to be able to understand a little German to get through the checkout.
posted by Scotch at 9:38 AM on March 4, 2010

Amazon actually does a really good job of keeping their international sites consistent. I've bought several things, like the wonderful hint guide / art books for Ico and Shadow of the Colossus from Amazon.co.jp without knowing any Japanese, just by comparing it with the US site any time I got stuck.
posted by ecurtz at 9:48 AM on March 4, 2010

By the way, if someone is wondering what the correct form would have been, it's "barg".

(See e.g. Flexion von bergen at the wonderful canoo.net)
posted by Henrik at 9:55 AM on March 4, 2010

does anyone have any kind of link about Wallace refusing to speak to the german translator. I can sit here and come up with the obvious reasons why he'd take that position, myself. But I'd be very interested in hearing if he ever told anyone on the record what his feelings were on the matter.
posted by shmegegge at 9:59 AM on March 4, 2010

The gold standard for translation, in my mind, is that done by Michael Kandel for Stanslaw Lem. When reading the Cyberiad especially the poem Love and Tensor Algebra, I found it hard to imagine that the work started in any other language than English.

See here for an interesting article of the art.
posted by plinth at 9:59 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

> does anyone have any kind of link about Wallace refusing to speak to the german translator. I can sit here and come up with the obvious reasons why he'd take that position, myself.

I'm curious too, and I can't come up with any obvious reasons except laziness or dickishness. There was presumably something else going on. Authors are usually happy to work with translators, since it makes it more likely the translation will present their work accurately.
posted by languagehat at 10:06 AM on March 4, 2010

I just chose to pretend that I didn't read the part about not talking to the translator. I couldn't think of a reason other than laziness or dickishness either and I couldn't cope with such attributes besmirching my adoration.
posted by Babblesort at 10:11 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am reminded of the flurry of fluff magazine articles that came out when a pair of Chinese scholars had finally successfully translated James Joyce's Ulysses into Mandarin Chinese. The project took them five years, and much head-scratching as they tried to figure out exactly how to render things like:

Unsheathe your dagger definitions. Horseness is the whatness of allhorse. Streams of tendency and eons they worship. God: noise in the street: very peripatetic. Space: what you damn well have to see. Through spaces smaller than red globules of man's blood they creepy-crawl after Blake's buttocks into eternity of which this vegetable world is but a shadow. Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.

Most of the articles discussed the unique challenges -- Ulysses is loaded with puns, which not only wouldn't translate in Chinese, but also play havoc when you're talking about a language when intonation is so important - but they all ended the same way. Invariably, the interviewer would ask the couple if they were going to be tackling Finnegan's Wake next, and the couple would say something like, "You're kidding, right?"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:16 AM on March 4, 2010

That was sort of the context of my conversation with Wallace---I got the sense that he saw interacting with the translators as just more work for him, which meant more time away from actually writing, and he'd almost prefer them not bothering. Vladimir Nabokov he was not. That said, he did work closely with one of his Italian translators (Martina Testa) and his relationship with the Italian readership is one reason that the only international trip Wallace ever took was to the Isle of Capri in 2006. Once the rights to the book have been sold, the author has no financial obligation to help the translator, but as you point out, it's usually in their best interest to have the book represented properly.

Here is an article (in Norwegian) with Preben Jordal talking about translating Oblivion into Norwegian.
posted by mattbucher at 10:16 AM on March 4, 2010

Fascinating. Can't wait until I get home to read more about this!
posted by localhuman at 10:31 AM on March 4, 2010

I can['t?] sit here and come up with the obvious reasons why he'd take that position, myself.

I thought maybe it was some hardcore stance on authorial intent being unimportant? I think I've heard of cases before where authors didn't want to work with translators (or translators didn't want to work too closely with authors) while doing the first draft, because they wanted it to be as true to the text as possible. But I also had thought that most translators, if they did take such an approach, only generally did it while working on the first draft and would then work with the author or at least get some sort of approval before publication.

I have a hard time imagining an author being so insistent on anti-intentionalism that they would absolutely refuse to even talk to a translator working on what's arguably their masterwork ... that's dedication, if it's the real motivation.

Anyone know what DFW's thoughts on authorial intent were?
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:51 AM on March 4, 2010

no, it wasn't a typo. I meant that I can sit here and speculate and come up with the obvious speculative answers like "he didn't want to help someone do an inadequate translation for something he may have thought was not translatable" or "he didn't think it was worth his time because he only cared about english," or whatever. the point was that I'd be coming up with answers that, as languagehat pointed out, come down to dickishness and/or laziness, and would be based only on sheer imagination on my point rather than any real understanding of his thought process. so I hope that there's something out there that goes into what his thoughts were on this, because being left to my devices, the answers I come up with are unkind.
posted by shmegegge at 10:56 AM on March 4, 2010

Ah, understood, shmegegge. (I think the rest of my comment is still mostly relevant, though, although it's just me going through the same sort of speculation.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:25 AM on March 4, 2010

Awesome book design. Thanks.

You can see, and potentially buy, art by DFW's wife Karen Green here.
posted by FrauMaschine at 11:25 AM on March 4, 2010

I think the rest of my comment is still mostly relevant, though, although it's just me going through the same sort of speculation.)

yeah, totally. and I'm perfectly happy to hear people speculate, so do yo thang. I would just be balls out happy as hell to read an interview or something about his thoughts on it, because the "he refused to speak to me" thing is so out of line with what I would expect from him that my brain basically deflated with a sound kind of like "buh."
posted by shmegegge at 11:36 AM on March 4, 2010

I emailed Ulrich Blumenbach to ask him why DFW wouldn't work with him and if this is typical of the authors he translates. Here's his reply (posted with his permission):

"I usually try to get in touch with all the authors I translate. They tend to react differently to my questions, though, as one might well imagine. Some of them have a craftsman's approach and answer all questions in a straightforward way. In a novel by Linda Jaivin, e.g., there popped up a number of quotations from the Middle English Bible so I asked the author to please tell me where I could find those quotes in the King James bible because then I could look up the German version in Martin Luther's Modern High German translation and reference them to our Middle High German Bible. Within hours Jaivin sent me a complete list of references. Great! Just the kind of author I love! Other authors are shielded from their translators by their agents as was the case with Stephen Fry whom I could never talk to though I tried again and again.

Kiepenheuer & Witsch tried to get in touch with DFW early on, probably some time around 2003. He didn't exactly refuse communication but just didn't encourage it and wouldn't really answer the publisher's/editor's requests. Apparently he had had bad experiences with another
translator of "Infinite Jest" (I would prefer not to name his/her name and nationality as I don't know for sure whether the critique is justified) who asked silly questions and completed his/her translation within one year after the novel had been published in the United States. A fellow countryman of the translator told me that some of the harder words are missing in the translation. No wonder he/she was so fast ... and maybe no wonder DFW didn't want to work with his translators after that."

posted by mattbucher at 1:04 PM on March 4, 2010 [7 favorites]

This reminds me of my life's work: translating the Counting Crows song "Mr. Jones" into German. So far all I've got is:
Herr Jones wünscht dass er war jemand nur ein bisschen mehr funky
posted by kirkaracha at 2:56 PM on March 4, 2010

This is fascinating, and mattbucher thanks for getting in touch with him to get that great answer!
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:06 PM on March 4, 2010

I am reminded of the flurry of fluff magazine articles that came out when a pair of Chinese scholars had finally successfully translated James Joyce's Ulysses into Mandarin Chinese.

Most of Joyce already reads to me like it's been translated badly into Mandarin Chinese and back.
posted by empath at 4:52 PM on March 4, 2010

The gold standard for translation, in my mind, is that done by Michael Kandel for Stanslaw Lem.

Good call! That was exactly the thought that came into my mind. When I first read Lem as a younger dude I was fascinated by the wordplay and the neologisms - upon discovering the works were actually in translation I was doubly impressed, as those elements seem both effortless and seemless.

I've never, to my shame, actually read Infinite Jest, but I have had a beer with the MeFite of the same name. That kinda counts, right?
posted by Sparx at 1:25 PM on March 5, 2010

I LOVE the fact that this comes with two ribbons sewn into it as bookmarks, instead of the customary one. That's a really great touch.
posted by nevercalm at 9:31 AM on March 9, 2010

I don't like the design much at all. Too sterile. I thought the sky/clouds on the US version were great. Reminds me of Don Gately, lying on a beach. Or Hal on Bob.

I also don't like integrated bookmarks, so two would be double the annoyance. They get in my way when I'm reading. I have mild OCD and enjoy memorizing the page and footnote page that I'm currently on.

So get off my lawn, Kiepenheuer & Witsch.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:12 PM on March 9, 2010

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