Translation Spotlight: On Kafka and Müller

Article by mark

Philip Boehm has translated some of the world’s great German-language authors, from Franz Kafka’s LETTERS TO MILENA to numerous books by Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller (THE HUNGER ANGEL and THE FOX WAS EVER THE HUNTER). His newest translation, THE LAMENTATIONS OF ZENO by Ilija Trojanow, has just been published. Besides translating over thirty novels and plays, Boehm is also a stage director and a playwright based in St. Louis.

I had the chance to interview Boehm and ask him about his life’s work as a translator and author, the difference between translating a play and translating a novel, as well as what rendering Kafka into English is like.


Brazos Bookstore: So, you had gone to college in Poland?

Philip Boehm: Yes, I was at the Theatre Academy in Poland. I run a theatre now in St. Louis—Upstream Theatre.

BB: Is theater your first passion, before translation?

PB: You know, there’s a big overlap for me in the two, in the way that I’ve learned a lot about translating through the theatre. In both cases, you’re taking a text and you’re bringing it to some other place. You’re taking this so-called “original” material and then moving it into something else. In both cases, you have to be able to hear the voices, which for me is the real key in translation. And in the case of the theatre, I also have to imagine where this is taking place and what the temperature is when they’re sitting down, all these things.

And there is a type of architecture in translation, you know. But the theatre world—there is that overlap. Musicians are the same—a conductor is doing the same—but in this case, the medium being words, there’s a different range of where your imagination has to focus.

BB: And with a text, all you have are the words on the page—there’s nothing else you can use, whereas a play, you might have the tone of the actor or whatever. You have nothing but the words.

PB: Yes. In fact, translating plays is another topic entirely, because if you’re sitting in the audience, you can’t flip back and see, “Oh, what was that character?” You only have one chance to get it. When you translate plays, the shelf life is different, especially since a lot of plays are so contemporary and they’re so connected to an immediate present, whereas with novels, there’s a wider range of imagination.

BB: I read an interview a few days ago with Natasha Wimmer—she’s translated Bolaño. She said the novels that are more slang-y, more contemporary, are a lot more difficult to translate.

PB: Yeah, the translation page is different than the original because no one is going to complain about it. Imagine translating Shakespeare! The Germans had translated Shakespeare. They did it at the time; they became classics. For us, it’s one thing, but if you look at other translations of Shakespeare, trying to reach their audience—it’s...trying to get something else, and Shakespeare winds up meaning something different but also the same.

BB: And of course, you’ve got all the different slangs of region to consider. So I think when Wimmer was talking, she was talking about the slang of Mexico compared to peninsular Spain.

PB: Exactly. That’s something you have in Spanish, those differences, and in German, you have a lot of dialects. In German, they sometimes attempt to render, say, a Bavarian dialect into something else, but that doesn’t—can you imagine?

The Lamentations of Zeno Cover Image
By Ilija Trojanow, Philip Boehm (Translator)
$19.95
ISBN: 9781784782191
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Verso - May 3rd, 2016

This latest book I translated THE LAMENTATIONS OF ZENO by Ilja Trojanow, there’s some little lines in Bavarian. Now, imagine if I set that in “Texan.” You can’t do it that way so you have to negotiate. I have this theory of balance: I accept the fact that something is gonna be lost. So I look for opportunities to hint at it in some other way—how can I convey that Bavarian-ness in some other way? The foreignness in translation is another thing to consider. And in this Kafka, which is a whole set of problems there. I translated a Polish novel that had a lot of German phrases in it. And the German sounds different to the Polish ear than it does to the Anglophone, and there’s all these ramifications, you know. So trying to get those, and then how do I do that all in English, and neither German or Polish?

BB: The first interview I did when I started doing this was George Henson. He’s translated from the Spanish for that Dallas press Deep Vellum. He translated Sergio Pitol and I got to speak to him. He was the first one that mentioned the whole idea of the exoticism, the foreignness. You know, back in the 60s and 70s, they would try to stress how different it is and there’s that belief of you would try to make it as flat and American as possible. There’s all these different schools of thought.

PB: I know very little about translation theory. What I do—and this is what I do with the plays, I think each book is its own being, and I try and figure out what works best for that particular book.

BB: That to me makes sense. Every book, every novel, is kind of its own universe.

PB: It is its own universe, and I dunno. Sometimes, I hear these academic school of thought—“We want to feel the roughness of the translation!”—but most readers are just gonna say, “That’s just basket translation! It’s a mistake. Something was messed up in the translation.” And sometimes, you know, they talk about improving or not improving, you know, but an author doesn’t…

If an author makes a mistake, as they might, then they usually are grateful that you can correct it. You know, if you catch a name that wasn’t followed through two hundred pages later or something, they go, “Oh! I didn’t see that.” And the editors are different, in different countries—there’s a different degree. I’ve been very fortunate to work with Sara Bershtel, who’s like wow. She’s...

BB: Is she here? Is she in Europe?

PB: She’s here. She’s the publisher at Metropolitan Books. She’s just remarkable, really. I mean, she sees things, and she always improves things. She hones in, right on—“We can make this sharper and keep it with that.”

BB: That’s a great editor. That’s a gift.

PB: Truly.

BB: I’m not sure how it came about that you were able to translate Kafka’s LETTERS TO MILENA. Was there a self-induced pressure because you were translating Kafka?


Letters to Milena Cover Image
By Franz Kafka, Philip Boehm (Translator)
$16.00
ISBN: 9780805212679
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Schocken Books Inc - November 3rd, 2015

PB: It came about this way. A new edition had come out in German. The original letters had been published, and the story was that something had been entrusted with the letters. He then published them. But his version...it’s as if you took them through a blender. I mean, they were little fragments and they weren’t dated, all this stuff. So, these German scholars—very organized, very specific. They even used chemical analysis on the paper just to date it, and they were able to reconstitute this order of letters. In some cases, they weren’t sure, but also, someone had left out a lot of stuff, just randomly or some of it understandably.

BB: So when he left it out, it’s not as if he destroyed anything. He just edited.

PB: He edited. In particular, his wife was one of the people who edited. But these German scholars, they published this new annotated version, and I looked at that. I can also make my way through Czech a little bit, because of Polish. I talked to Sara, who was publishing this. At first, we were talking about just updating it—I said, “You can’t do that. You have to do the whole thing.” You can’t have different styles. And also, I wanted to add those things that we ended up adding, like Milena’s obituary of Kafka. I looked around and the Germans had published a few things by Milena in their book, but I had a slightly different suggestion. Anyway, so that’s how it happened, and it kind of mushroomed. The funny thing is that I was living at that time in Poland, and it was still communist Poland. So the communication back and forth was challenging. This is way pre-internet. I would have to go to a friend’s house, wait hours for the phone call go through.

BB: That’s its own novel right there.

PB: I know. I think at one point, I was going to the airport to get somebody a manuscript because it was going to the United States, because the government was suspicious of all these...Anyway, so that came out—it must have been 1990. They had just gone through all these changes in Prague—they were still going from 1989 on—and I was in the middle of all this stuff. There was a strange circumstance that I found someone who had a connection in Prague, and someone had found a book in a used bookstore and a bunch of letters that fell out. They were a bunch of letters—they weren’t to Milena but they were bunch of letters to his parents!

Anyway, the book came out and we had to decide what to do with the Czech, since it was these letters, and I wanted to keep the fact...People don’t think about Kafka being bilingual but of course he was. Whether or not his Czech was really good or not is another matter, but he still was bilingual. He talks about it. Milena also was a translator—that’s how they met, because she was translating one of his short stories. So, you know, what greater gift can there be to a translator than this book? Also, I was an unknown translator at the time—this was my first.

BB: Really? Wow. To come out of the gate with this! This is probably my favorite book of his, because I think you get a window of his soul, a lot more than his fiction. I mean, it’s fiction but it’s exquisite—the writing! A good, good, dear friend of mine, a really great reader, says, “I don’t like reading him because I get claustrophobic.” So I would say, “Read the letters!”

PB: There’s an intensity applied to the prose. He’s crafting things—you see him starting, scratching it out, and starting again while he writes the letters.

BB: So Herta Müller—I’ve read about her and she sounds incredible. The new book that’s coming out THE FOX WAS EVER THE HUNTER.


The Fox Was Ever the Hunter Cover Image
By Herta Muller, Philip Boehm (Translator)
$28.00
ISBN: 9780805093025
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Metropolitan Books - May 10th, 2016

PB: Well it’s way before THE HUNGER ANGEL. It’s one of her first novels. It’s much more about Romanian dictatorship than anything else.

BB: What’s it like working with her? Do you work with her directly?

PB: I know her very well. We went on tour together once. I was hoping, actually, that she’d be coming. We’re friends, you know, but she doesn’t necessarily like to travel very much. She has...You know, some people change a great deal, when they these big prizes like this, but she’s very much her own person. She has an integrity to her and she has this electricity about her, and she has this energy. When it got the Nobel Prize, it was very...Obviously, it catapulted her. To Sara Bershtel’s credit, she had been publishing her for years and there had been very little resonance—you know, ‘Herta who?’

BB: Not anymore.


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