Last week the Modern Language Association announced that this year’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for an Outstanding Translation of a Literary Work would go to Breon Mitchell for his retranslation of Nobel laureate Günter Grass’s masterpiece The Tin Drum. This hefty tome (nearly 600 pages of quite dense prose) includes a Translator’s Afterword in which Breon discusses particular problems he faced in reworking the earlier translation by Ralph Manheim. Günter Grass is famous among translators for his revolutionary practice of convening an Übersetzertreffen or “translators’ summit” whenever he has a new book out. He invites all the translators working on the book to come spend several days discussing the book’s most difficult passages with each other and with him. If only all authors did this! But think of the expense – it’s probably really true that only an international bestseller like Grass could pull off such a utopian project. Still, it’s heartening to see an author so aware of and interested in the translation of his books.
An amusing story about Grass and his translators used to circulate at the Europäisches Übersetzer-Kollegium (which deserves its own blog entry), a translator’s colony in Germany near the Dutch border where I spent a lot of time in the early 1990s. At one of the early translators’ summits that was held there, translators reported having difficulty with Grass’s description of a man mounting a bicycle in an idiosyncratic way. “Not possible,” the translators protested. “But I see it clearly in my mind’s eye,” Grass reportedly responded, “that’s how he gets on the bicycle.” Whereupon the translators wheeled a bike in from the courtyard (I did say this was near Holland) and challenged the master to show them how it was done. And, yes, the great Günter Grass fell on his tuchus, not once but twice, after which – or so the story goes – he gave his translators carte blanche to alter the passage as they saw fit.
Correction: I’ve since learned I remembered the story all wrong: the author in question wasn’t Grass at all, it was Uwe Johnson. Mea culpa!