Everyone is potentially prone to homosexual feelings
Literary translation needs empathy for the linguistic work of art in which another person has expressed himself, needs empathy for the other, the potentially foreign, as Olga Radetzkaja did in her contribution Be aloneexecuted so beautifully and aptly. It also needs the right stylistic devices for the respective original text from the large linguistic toolbox that each of us has created, and linguistic inspiration for the individual tone of a very specific original. But when we talk about fear of contact (or appetite) when translating, it is not only, and not primarily, about the type of language we come into contact with, it is particularly about the other with which we have to relate and want to meet the other.
Of course, what life experiences we have and who we are plays a role here. In the context of the recent debate, there has been a necessary delimitation of questions of identity in literary translation. In various public statements on the subject, I emphasized that we can potentially empathize with everything and everyone, that is part of our job description. I have also said that “shorter empathy paths”, for which there may be biographical reasons, may be helpful when translating.
Today I would like to illustrate with two examples that this is not automatic, two offers on my desk that made me realize it once again. The foreseeable touch with the spirit and the attitude behind the voice of a text can actually call up fears, and it is our personal decision, a decision with our whole personality whether we get involved or not. In this respect, the following text is also more personal than anything I have said about literary translation so far.
Example number one is the Italian author Curzio Malaparte. I read one of his two main works, “The Skin” (1949), when I was 21 as a student in Rome. Malaparte (1898-1957) is a colorful, not necessarily sympathetic figure in Italian cultural history in the 20th century; an idiosyncratic dandy diplomat, war correspondent and writer, who tied up with the fascists, but was also uncomfortable for them (which brought him banishment to the island of Lipari from 1933-38), and who became a Catholic after World War II and at the same time a Maoist (He even bequeathed his spectacularly futuristic villa on Capri to China, the building permit for which Mussolini's Foreign Minister Ciani had given him in 1938 and which later became the setting for the Godard film “Contempt”).
"The Skin" is a highly charged book based on Malaparte's impressions in Italy in 1943/44, when he was a liaison officer of the Italian army with an officer of the US occupation forces in southern Italy. Mussolini has fallen, the Germans are still fighting in the country, and Italy is torn: what are we, winners or losers of the war? How is Europe doing during and after this war? These are the big questions that concern Malaparte every day.
Horror and despair lie beneath the sharp, often pointed-tongued reportage tone of the book, which comes across as an autobiographical report (told by an I named Curzio Malaparte with his biographically applicable characteristics), but is peppered with surreal and fantastic scenes that are historically not or hardly verifiable and were severely accused by contemporaries. Malaparte scolds a lot. To the Italians who throw themselves at the winners' necks; to the Americans who think that money can buy anything; to the inhuman Germans; on, so his occasional conspiracy tale comes up, all sorts of background ropes that are responsible for throwing the world out of balance. One could almost cynically say: the two classics - Jews and homosexuals - cannot be missing. Especially since that corresponded to the zeitgeist; Back then, it didn't really shock anyone, it was more or less explicit social comment.
When I first read it when I was 21, I read the indignant and at the same time polished nagging with amused distance, yes, with a certain pleasure about the linguistic power of this prickly 'diplomat', but anti-Semitism and homophobia began to feel violent uneasiness. That's not possible, I thought. I quote from Hellmut Ludwig's translation, first published in 1950:
“As is well known, the inverted form a kind of international brotherhood, a secret society that is determined by the laws of a receptive and deep friendship and is independent of the susceptibility and proverbial instability of sexual ties. The love of the inverted is, thank God, beyond the one and the other sex and would be a perfect feeling, completely free from any kind of human bondage - be it through virtues or through faults that are peculiar to man - if not whims and She was dominated by hysterics and certain malicious and regrettable evil traits, which can be attributed to her old maiden spirit. " 01
It's amazing how he claims to know his way around, I thought. And then: is that so? When I was 21, I had never met this brotherhood. Later, in a particularly grotesque scene, he describes them (in a rather twisted argument) to his American officer as "heroes of freedom" and says:
“You do not know how we have suffered because of this fine breed of heroes! You don't know how cowardly and vicious this breed of heroes is! They would take revenge, they would put me in prison, they would destroy me. Jack, you don't know how cowardly and vicious homosexuals are when they're out to be the heroes! "
I got hot. To me, who after dealing with the Nazis in history class at 15 had looked suspiciously at his neighborhood, teachers and classmates and thought: If the regime changes the day after tomorrow, which of you would me Not denounce and bring to the camp? So, I thought while reading Malaparte, do you think about us, about me? Not to mention the “treacherous rabble of rags”, “piercing screams of women and fistling moans” and such hefty attributions.
In short, I was disturbed. Reading “La pelle” (in Italian) scared me so much in 1981 that I read a few more chapters and then put the book down and pushed it aside. Complete. When Rowohlt Verlag asked me 38 years later if I wanted to translate “La pelle” and Malaparte's second major work “Kaputt” again, I remembered Malaparte's stunningly strong literary language, the intense historical snapshots, and grotesquely surreal scenes in general . I didn't remember the galloping homophobia and my defense against fear, no lie.
I signaled interest and preliminary approval and started reading it again. Then came the fourth chapter, "The Roses of Flesh".
“No sooner had the liberation of Naples become known than, as if called by a mysterious voice, as if attracted by the sweet smell of new leather and Virginia tobacco, that smell of blond women that seems to float above the American army, not only the languishing multitudes of homosexuals streamed Rome and Italy, but all of Europe on foot through the German lines (...) "
My memory opened like a sluice and flooded me with the old discomfort. Fucking shit, I thought, this time I'll bite through. And what can I say ... the fear was replaced by a kind of serenity. Of course, 38 years without a change to a terror regime and with some changes to a more open society make a difference. I can see Malaparte for what he was: a person of his time, torn by despair and existential questions about his own affiliation, also envious of everyone for whom affiliation looked easier than for him (whether the 'simple', 'Clean' Americans or the 'decadent', 'lustful' homosexuals). And a fascinating, unique stylist whose excesses of language I do not see as mannerist or pathetic, but as an expression of a genuine struggle to penetrate and describe his time with all its monstrosities. He no longer scares me; I often feel sympathy for his conflict - and real historical interest in that time eighty years ago. I suggested a classifying epilogue to the publisher, and after the affirmative answer, I said yes.
In other words: I did not ask Rowohlt to look for a more suitable, homophobic, anti-Semitic, desperate translator ... (Yes, I know. Nobody would have asked for that who or the equal access of all discriminated minorities to, for example, translation jobs demands. Nobody whose fight for equal opportunities I support regardless of identity issues.)
I am in the process of translating this Malaparte. It's intense and wild and often difficult, but I don't feel uncomfortable.
Yes, and sometimes there are coincidences that would sound too improbable for any novel. A publisher (whose name I do not mention here because it is unlaid eggs) asked me if I wanted to translate Oscar Wilde's “De profundis” again. That the fact of my obviously openly gay life might have played a role in this casting consideration did not need to be stated; a publisher would probably be reluctant to expose itself to the nowadays threatening criticism of having an Oscar Wilde re-translated by a heterosexual person.
Incidentally, I would not consider such an assignment problematic or inappropriate; Wilde describes his experiences and feelings after his life was destroyed by public humiliation and imprisonment so vividly that no one has to fathom any mysteries of homosexuality to know exactly what empathy with this literary voice needs. As always, it is important that the translator feels inspired and is able to create and rewrite a convincing German equivalent of the literary voice.
I had also read “De profundis” in my twenties, that is, in the eighties. Biographically, it wasn't that long ago that I had to decide whether I wanted to accept the risk of being an outsider in my life, which was still a threat at the time. At the time, only the narrative of homosexuality existed on television as a fate; if the "tendencies", often referred to as "secret" or "forbidden", were discussed at all, everything had to be in order in the end, in other words: the gay or lesbian was dead, was in jail or at least was hopelessly unhappy. With all the political rebellion of the rainbow movements, there was at best a tolerant “leave us alone”. AIDS was still rated as "gay disease" or "God's punishment", governments like the Ronald Reagans in the US were really failing to provide help, and public attitudes were far from being compassionate and more open in hearts and in politics turned over. That only came later, after other sections of the population were also affected, admired celebrities etc.
In this respect, reading a book like “De Profundis”, which documented a true case, was just excruciating. The complete dismantling, exposure and annihilation of a flashing spirit, the revenge perhaps also on a sharp-tongued and astute social critic, i.e. the total loss of bourgeois existence was the second horror variant next to Rosa Winkel and KZ (and the third, AIDS). “De profundis” had depressed, outraged and even roused me not to hide myself away, but to work on the matter of course that sexuality should not be a reason for discrimination.
The editor, who asked me a few weeks ago, had emphasized how much he cared both for the great, harrowing love story in this work and for the indictment against the unimaginable injustice of the society of that time and thus of every repressive society. Two concerns that I would immediately subscribe to! Could there be anything more joyful than, out of a no longer repressive today, reviving this tragic fate and letting it shine again, to find my own language for the polished words of the great Oscar Wilde, written with all his heart and soul?
I read the book again. Oscar Wilde is desperate to understand what happened to him. He showered his beloved Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas), who was responsible for the exposure of their relationship, with accusations, then also with declarations of love. It sounds increasingly crushed by the merciless severity of the punishment. He writes of humility and means the humiliation that he deepens (in letters and other material belonging to "De profundis") in appeals to the authorities for clemency, where he accuses himself of perversion and tries to describe it with his self-definition as an artist, to which nervous aberrations belong, to apologize halfway. And finally, since there is no longer any salvation in this world, he throws himself into the arms of Christianity. He, the critical free spirit, fools a religion, of whose church (s) and whose misdeeds we know enough to be able to assess the additionally tragic and quasi-mocking of this turn. It's unbearable.
And in the end, well, in the end “everything is fine” - the pervert is where he 'belongs', like in the old films and books, he is on the ground, he crawls, whines for mercy, which he is denied , he struggles for remnants of his dignity as an artist and as a person, no more funny, the court jester has to believe in it. The last time of his existence, in exile in Paris, in 'freedom', Wilde must have only been a shadow of himself, broken, so twice 'harmless' from the point of view of the 'normal' British world: out of the country and destroyed.
I read that and everything in me screams: I don't want to get into this feeling, I don't want to go back to this horror of fear of “We don't want someone like you”, especially since it would no longer be the fear of it, but the state after the fear became a reality. The sovereign composure towards Malaparte, whom I no longer perceive as an attack, is gone when it comes to empathizing with a battered 'brother'.
I was amazed at how violently I reacted to this book. And it showed me: I have experienced discrimination (and the fear of it) myself in infinitely lower doses and believe that I know exactly what it is about - but that's exactly why I'm the wrong person for this book. It's way too close to me. I would be able to find the words. But I don't want to look for them, don't want to get them out of me and send them through me. I don't want to be that voice.
And I hope the publisher will combine the new publication of “De profundis” with a newly translated collection of the most brilliant aphorisms and some of Wilde's no less brilliant essays and fairy tales, for example in a slipcase - so that all readers can see for themselves what a spirit the inhumanity and mendacity of these authorities have destroyed. And, like me, are happy that we are living in better times, whose values are worth fighting for. Just like the activists against discrimination and for equal opportunities.
Frank Heibert, Berlin, born 1960, literary and theater translator from English, French, Italian and Portuguese as well as lecturer, author, critic, jazz singer. Translations: approx. 100 novels and volumes of short stories, 10 non-fiction books and 110 plays, including Works by Don DeLillo, Richard Ford, George Saunders, Lorrie Moore, William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, George F. Walker, Boris Vian, Raymond Queneau, Marie Darrieussecq, Yasmina Reza, Michel Marc Bouchard, Karoline Georges and many more. Numerous honors, most recently Straelen Translator Award 2017 (together with Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel).
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