Summer Blog Post Twelve

Translation; Oscar Wilde discovered in Donna Leon

Summer Blog Post Twelve

Summer Blog Post Twelve

Dear readers of my blog,

working in several languages is my bread-winning job. Mostly, I change between German and English, German and French. Recently, however, a fourth language has returned, Italian. Eighteen years ago, I was delighted to spend about a mid-winter week in Bologna where a Ford Madox Ford conference was held which I attended realizing that among the forty odd speakers I was the only one in my late thirties not to have a proper university job. Since the publication of an illustrated biography and the translation of the first version of The Picture of Dorian Gray in an uncensored edition had not allowed me to breathe more freely owing to a sharp increase of royalties, this insight into my economic situation as a translator and writer kept me busy for another few months until I realized that it was time to change professions.

In May 2002, I started teacher’s training, beginning a relay race between several European languages at German gymnasia and continuing my separate life as a writer and translator with two languages at his disposal. It was in early 2018 that a friend at Bologna university was kind enough to find a translator for my edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray into Italian. I recall from my own beginnings that commissions to translate – not least those both well remunerated and interesting – were few and far between, that I had to wait for certain occasions to arise, which I then gladly took advantage of. In 1992, I had started off as an interpreter at a conference of NGOs taking place at the same time as the G Seven Preparation and G Seven Main Summits in Münster, Westphalia, and Munich, Bavaria, respectively. A doctoral candidate at the time, finishing my dissertation on James Joyce, I had simply responded to a call for interpreters placed in the English Department – it was a hand-written note. Since I was asked three times the same year to act as interpreter at similar conferences, my address had been preserved by one of the NGOs when in the summer of 1994 they were looking for a translator able to turn Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s volume of essays Moving the Centre into German.

While I could continue in that vein, what I want to point out today as well is that reading and re-reading the same material in many different contexts means that you begin to understand the workings of a writer’s mind in micro-contexts. I set out to study the image- and text-building process in James Joyce’s works thirty years ago, and I am still doing this when, for example, I read Donna Leon’s twenty-seventh novel of the Commissario Brunetti series. I did so first in German, for I had received a copy for my birthday. Even so, Wilde cropped up once. I am going to discuss this passage soon. When starting to reread the novel in English, The Temptation of Forgiveness (2018), that is, I was much more attentive to detail, discovering a passage that had not struck me in German: “Uncertain how to respond to Patta’s remark, Brunetti returned his glance to his superior’s jacket and the hand-stitched buttonholes. Beauty was where you found it, and it was always comforting to see.” (p. 13) In German, I did not recognize the reference to Wilde. In English, it is there on two levels: first, “buttonholes” is a term regularly used with the sense of it being decorated by a flower; second, “beauty” is a very frequently discussed concept both in Wilde’s fictional and non-fictional prose. Patta, of course, is a dandy, but not a Wildean one, an Italian one rather. “Fare bella figura” is a stereotype that Patta fulfils not only in this scene. And it is intriguing to read what Brunetti realizes: “this was the first personal conversation they’d ever had – two men speaking as equals – and they were talking about buttonholes.” (p. 14)

What this boils down to is that reading a novel in a translation, how ever well done, may mean that you fail to construe correspondences extant in the original which owing to the fact that no two translations of any one writer are alike fail to ring the same bell you hear when reading it in the original language. Soon, I am going to continue in this vein, still inspired by the article from The Irish Times I read yesterday.

Leer, Tuesday, 18th 2019


Belgium has joined Argentina in winning their knock-out match in extra-time. So both sides have now beaten four teams by the margin of one goal before they meet in the quarter-finals. While the Netherlands, also credited with four straight wins, face Costa Rica, the latter and Brazil having won and drawn two games each, the hosts must play the formidable Colombians with James Rodriguez as the only player to have scored in all matches so far. In one of my predictions, I had also said someone from Brazil would be top-scorer. This could easily evaporate, too.

       Another balanced tie is that between France and Germany, both with three wins and a draw so far. The one German player to be involved in scoring goals in all four matches, Thomas Müller, is said to show symptoms of the same infection that had ruled out Hummels’s participation on Monday.

In the round of the last 16, only three matches were over and done with at full time, with two being decided in the shoot-out. It has rarely happened that this round is dominated by the winners of the group stage. The only convincing win, however, I saw was that of Colombia vs. Uruguay. Switzerland will regret having failed to score in the first half as well as immediately after Angel di María had made the Argentinian goal, whereas Algeria can be proud of having forced Germany to field a sweeper again, in the person of Manuel Neuer who was claimed to be a worthy successor to the likes of Beckenbauer and Lothar Matthäus in the English press. Not amused by their performance, the German Home Secretary, Thomas de Maizière, present at Porto Alegre, complained about this terrible match – excluding extra time, of course.

A lawyer by training, the politician joined the number of people who turn their judgment of a performance they had not expected into a sentence before having analysed any but the emotional evidence available when speaking to the moment. Rather than causing them relief, this method of letting off steam boils down to aggravate their own negative feelings. It’s not comic relief either, that well-known effect of scenes in Shakespeare’s tragedies following after a moment of violence, since such commentators avoid at all costs to perceive the humorous side of having seen Müller almost falling over the ball when three players tried to perform a free kick they had practised in training sessions.

A giant, the saying goes, who stumbled without, however, falling altogether. That is what this situation and the match as a whole stood for. And once again, Müller was involved. The TV reporter can at least be credited for having mentioned that this, like many of Müller’s post-match comments, links him to the Bavarian comedian Karl Valentin, a remark which can only be understood with hindsight, not at the moment of play.

Mustafi needs an operation but he will stay with the team until they go home together. When this became known, questions about why he had not been nominated in the first place arose once again. In disappointing a little known defender and for a time deceiving the public – and perhaps himself about his true intentions –, Löw had avoided the media shit-storm he would have been in for had he left out any one of the much better-known creative midfielders who, like Götze and Özil, have not actually played as well as expected. So, once Marco Reus had been injured, Löw was alert to where he might have needed a re-enforcement of his squad had he had to nominate 24 players instead of 23.

Wednesday, 2nd July 2014, on the train to Norden


Writing one day before the start of the quarter-finals, I discovered that the predictions for that round printed on the last few pages of my World Cup guide were absolutely right for three of the four ties. But for Spain vs. Italy, which has become The Netherlands vs. Costa Rica, I could have based my own match and over-all predictions on those ideas for the last quarter of the tournament. I didn’t since I was too far away from all the facts and views presented to the public prior to the opening in order to be able to distil my own plan for the potential evolution of the World Cup. Nor did I ever pay any attention to the odds listed opposite to the actual tie as some people with a much better result later admitted to have done.

       If Brazil reaches the semi-final, as most people in our group foresee, this will earn me another bonus. In Argentina’s case, I went for a Belgian win, recalling both 1986 when they lost by two goals to nil with Maradona scoring twice, and their performances this year which I consider superior to what the South American favourites have shown so far. In the quarter-finals, this year’s tournament witnesses a replay of the semi-finals played in Mexico in 1986. Should Belgium not win, I would still earn the bonus points for having seen Argentina accede to the last four – which would be their first time in 24 years.

Whoever one hears or reads, all the experts and lay people are disappointed by the way either the Brazilian or the Argentinian side plays. This may be due to the fact that none of the matches they have disputed so far easily went their way by means of an early goal or an early red card, as it had been the case in Brazil’s Confederation Cup campaign last year.

Like the other favourites, the two South American sides had to fight hard, to wait for the magic or not so magic moment and rely on luck, chance, fortune, or what you will, in the last resort, as well as on their own talent. One ex-international for Brazil, who also played in the Bundesliga for some years, even doubts Scolari’s ability to control both the set-up of his team and the way they play, given the difficulties there are in bridging the gaps between an apparently rock-solid defence and a midfield rarely in harmony with the forwards who they feed with too few balls. Another criticizes them for being too emotional and almost always on the brink of tears, while Neymar finds himself universally acclaimed for fulfilling everyone’s expectations. At the same time, a look at the top scorers shows his inability so far to allow his team-mates to profit from his passing talent – James Rodriguez, for example, and Thomas Müller have two assists each to their credit on top of having scored five or four goals respectively. Besides, it is also interesting to look at the list of yellow cards, headed by Brazil with eight to date. Last in that list are Colombia and Germany with three and two cards each, one of which was given to skipper Lahm for tearing at his Algerian adversary’s clothes. The rule is clear in that case and it was literally obeyed by the referee but one cannot compare such a tactical foul that only stops play but never hurts anybody to all those that went without sanction in the Brazil vs. Chile match last Saturday.

Thursday, 3rd July 2014, on the train to Norden


Ringing up a colleague for classroom business, I also mention the possible semi-final on Tuesday, 8th July 2014. If Germany qualified, I would be grateful if I didn’t have to commute from Leer to Norden early the next morning. At the moment, I consider their chances to be slight, given the news about seven players suffering from influenza – probably a result of their move up and down the country from the tropical zone in the North to Porto Alegre in the South with just 13 degrees Celsius and back again the same day, with the air condition everywhere another factor to take into account.

       Health and defensive problems hit the headlines on the Internet and in the print media, so that Löw runs the gauntlet in his press conferences when he or his associate coaches are continuously pressed for information as to how the game will be played differently in the match against France. Football experts in Germany’s best-known bi-weekly sports paper, Kicker, however, try to argue the case of that at a World Cup, this year’s edition in particular, there are no weak teams any more that can easily be beaten.

Consider only France vs. Switzerland or Germany vs. Portugal. Both games went the way they did because an early goal was quickly followed by a second, in Germany’s case also by the red card for Pepe, and in France’s case by a third before half-time. While the Dutch sensationally beat Spain by five goals to one, when everything went their way after the holders had failed to extend their lead before half-time neither Brazil nor Argentina easily defeated a side considered their equal in this tournament. Colombia have more than fulfilled prior expectations, and Belgium are said to have played well whenever they needed to and particularly in their knock-out match against the US. So predicting the outcome of the quarter-finals as well as of the World Cup seems more than difficult than ever before.

       A former colleague who taught Greats and had been a footballer himself and is a bibliophile who also keeps encouraging me to write about football and who likes to lunch with us agreed when I recounted to him Spain’s campaign in 2010 which was quite arduous and allowed them to win four games by a margin of just one nil. Nor did Germany when they last won the World Cup in 1990 always play brilliantly and win easily.

I clearly recollect, however, an academic from York teasing me about Germany having lost their second match to United Arab Emirates on a rainy night when we had dined at Monte Carlo when, in fact, they had easily won by five goals to one. I must have looked foolish enough for him to think I had taken him by his word, so he was in for a hearty laugh at my expense.

Thursday, 3rd July 2014, at Leer, East Frisia


Go back