On 30 May, Margaret May enjoyed a rewarding encounter at the Institute of Modern Languages Research between the Ukrainian-born author Katja Petrowskaja, and Shelley Frisch, her New York-based translator into English. She reflects on the experience of being part of an enthusiastic audience of translators, scholars of translingual writing and lovers of good literature.
I was particularly excited by this opportunity to meet and hear Katja Petrowskaja, the award-winning author of the genre-defying Vielleicht Esther (‘Maybe Esther’), since I explored an aspect of her work as part of my MRes dissertation. I also knew from various interviews that the audience could expect a stimulating discussion.
The encounter between author and translator followed a well-established format – consecutive readings of passages from the book in each language while the other language was displayed on a screen – but this was only the framework. Right from the start it was clear that the author, who writes in a language she only learned as an adult, was keen to explore, explain and expound on the difficulties presented by various words and concepts, including the question of what kind of work we were dealing with. And Shelley Frisch, who has taught and written extensively on translation issues, was equally engaging in clarifying the challenges thrown up by this particular text. This encounter was truly a memorable meeting of minds.
In German, Petrowskaja’s Vielleicht Esther is subtitled ‘Geschichten’ (which can mean both ‘Stories’ and ‘Histories’), whereas the English translation dispenses with the subtitle altogether. Here the book is usually regarded as a memoir disguised as a novel (which gave rise to interesting questions about differences in the market for translated literature). It is a series of loosely connected episodes resulting from Petrowskaja’s real and metaphorical journey in search of her partly Jewish roots across Europe – a journey exploring language and muteness, imagined and created identity, fiction and documented history.
The great-grandmother of the title, who may or may not have been called Esther, stands for the unreliability of memory and family myths. Petrowskaja herself rejected any ‘concept’ to define the book, calling it rather a ‘stumbling over history’, an intuitive search, an attempt to counter not only ideology but the resistance of material reality. And, perhaps surprisingly, given her background, to restore the ‘innocence of the German language’, while trying to avoid the ‘minefields’ of both this and her first language, Russian.
Despite the title, there is nothing provisional or uncertain about Petrowskaja’s linguistic precision. Throughout the event there was repeated emphasis on the associative power of words, sounds and structures, within and across languages, and consequently on the importance of listening to language, on hearing the power of language to conduct the writer (and reader) in part through serendipitous similarities, such as the untranslatable pun ‘Wer gehört wird, gehört dazu’ (‘To be heard is to belong’).
The rhythmic, musical quality of this work had clearly attracted Shelley Frisch too. She has referred to herself as an acoustic translator, interested in exciting words that resonate and in the way metaphors change between languages. This was reflected in her translational decisions.
Among those singled out by conference convenor Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex, was her change from an image of place to one of time, in translating Petrowskaja’s pun on ‘Wort’ and ‘Ort’ (‘word’ and ‘place’) to ‘phrase’ and ‘phase’ to preserve the assonance. This occurs in one of several remarkable, and remarkably narrated, dreams, recounted in a breathless stream of unconscious associations, with no capital letters or full stops: words that morph through auditory connections – ‘scheu, schau, schoah’ (‘shy, show, shoah’). Another example was the way Frisch dealt with the connotations of the name ‘Stern’ – problematic in German Jewish history.
Neologisms (or perhaps translingual words) abound in this work. In a key passage, a fixation on the putative role of a (possibly) fictive ficus plant in the story of the family’s flight from Kiev during the war gives rise to the concept of being ‘fikussiert’ or ‘ficusated’. Typically for Petrowskaja, the punning wordplay (a term she rather objected to because of its implication of mere playfulness) had a serious purpose: a meditation upon the decisive role of fiction in family history.
In another exchange, she explained that her use of the term Familienbaum instead of the more normal Stammbaum for family tree related to her sense that the latter suggested solidity and rootedness, which were inappropriate for her circumstances. From there the discussion moved seamlessly to the different resonances of the Tannenbaum or Christmas tree in Ukrainian, Soviet Russian, English and German culture.
Indeed, one of the recurring themes of the event, pursued further in the Q&A session, was how the author navigated the problem of German not being her native language – something she has described elsewhere as a ‘slightly disturbed, non-functional aspect’ or a ‘delirium between languages’. She explained how help from native speakers was supplemented by sensitive editing that retained the ‘strangeness’ and sense of wonder in her language that is so apparent in the book.
In Shelley Frisch, Petrowskaja has found a thoughtful and understanding translator. For instance, in recalling her 11-year-old self, she imaginatively associates the word ‘elf’ with the magical ‘Elfe’ of childhood, which Frisch translates as ‘the elfin age of eleven’. It was clear from their exchanges that this relationship between author and translator was one of especial empathy.
For those of us, in particular, for whom our mother tongue is not in fact our mother’s tongue, this was a thought-provoking event, challenging us to reconsider our belief that we ‘know’ our own, familiar language. It showed how language can shape identity and suggested ways of exploring the ‘Zwischenraum’ or space between languages, as well as providing insights into the benefits gained from a creative and collaborative approach to literary translation. This is something that can clearly be related to authors like Yoko Tawada who featured in the conference presentations.
If you haven’t yet read the book (whether in the original or in one of its dozens of other translations), then – with intriguing section titles ranging from ‘Thank Google’ and ‘Facebook 1940’ to ‘Goethe’s Secret Service’ and ‘Lunch Break in Mauthausen’ – you have a treat in store!
About the author
After taking a modern languages degree at the University of Oxford and bringing up her family, Margaret May spent most of her career as an academic editor, focusing on international affairs. A few years ago she gained the Institute of Linguists’ Diploma in Translation, and since then has also become involved in translating and editing art and other cultural publications. Last year she completed an MRes degree at the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR), writing her dissertation on three German-Jewish authors. She is interested in all aspects of modern German literature, including translating, and performing, poetry.
Cover image: © Deirdre Byrnes