I’ll never forget reading Christopher Middleton’s translations for the first time. This was in New Orleans in 1982 or 1983, and the life-changing book that a teacher at the school for the arts I attended had just assigned to us was entitled Selected Stories of Robert Walser and had just come out, with a foreword by Susan Sontag and a jacket cover sprinkled with crudely magnified images of Walser’s microscript handwriting. In her foreword, Sontag described Walser as “A Paul Klee in prose – as delicate, as sly, as haunted. A cross between Stevie Smith and Beckett: a good-humored, sweet Beckett.” He was, she wrote, “a truly wonderful, heartbreaking writer.” And in Middleton’s translations, he really was. I remember how thrilled I felt reading the sentence: “I am thrilled to be writing a report on such a delicate subject as trousers, and thus to be licensed to plunge into meditation upon them; even as I write, a desirous grin, I can feel it, is spreading over my entire face.”
Since I had been studying German for two years at that point, my teacher helped me find some of the texts in German, and so I found myself sitting in the damp heat of a New Orleans afternoon out on the tiny interior patio of our house (walled in by blond bricks in all four directions beneath a postage stamp of sky), attempting my very first translations ever. I was assisted in this endeavor by the venerable Cassell’s German Dictionary
, printed in 1909, that my father had once used to learn German as a young biochemistry student; I am eternally grateful to that dictionary, which taught me to read German Fraktur
script before I realized that it was hard.
The translations were quite another matter. I would plod through sentence after sentence with the dictionary, arriving at English renderings that were invariably devoid of charm. “How beautiful it is that to the winter every time, spring follows,” I would write, then turning to Middleton to find this ungainly assertion replaced by an exclamation of delight: “How nice it is that spring follows winter, every time.” Of course this “every time” should come at the end of the sentence: that’s the very wonder of it, that year after year this same miracle occurs.
Or this one: “The songbird songs that already a long, long time ago were heard by people!” Yes, the sentence really did end with an exclamation point. I worked particularly hard on that one, and was unable to find any way at all to twist its words into a statement that seemed in any way meaningful or moving. But yes, Middleton understood just what the speaker was saying: “All the songs of singing birds heard by people such a long, long time ago!” The songbirds suddenly came back to life as “singing birds.” What’s more, the assonant spondee “birds”/”heard” produces a caesura that gives this line of prose a cadence that helps us actually to hear and feel what is being said. The sentence is brilliantly, virtuosically translated.
Christopher Middleton is first and foremost a poet, and he goes on writing poetry when he is translating – a circumstance under which it is particularly difficult to do so. His own poems are breathtaking (a favorite of mine ends “with a wicket gate of muscle / to shield from shock his hungers”), and his translations show us, over and over again, how to make the ostensibly impossible look easy. For this I am infinitely grateful.
I never studied formally with Christopher Middleton, but of all the many, many things I have tried out in my long (and ongoing) quest to learn how to translate, none has been more useful or enlightening than those early attempts of mine to copy his translations, like a child trying to walk in the footprints stamped out by a grown-up in knee-deep snow.
And so I could not be more thrilled that the organizers of the Bridge Series
have invited me to read this week from my translations of Robert Walser on a double bill with my translation hero. This event will be moderated by Edwin Frank of New York Review Books Classics
, and will take place at 1:00 p.m. this Wednesday, April 6, at the Swiss Institute
in SoHo. I hope to see you there. You will also have a second chance to hear Middleton the following evening, reading and speaking about his work at Poet’s House in conversation with John Yau.