After its writer, no one experiences a book as intensely as its translator, who goes through the text several times. Not surprisingly, then, I approached Max Sebald’s novel Austerlitz with pleasure at being asked to translate it, but also with some trepidation. W.G. Sebald, always called Max by his friends, was known by then as one of the finest writers of the late twentieth century. After thirty years teaching at the University of East Anglia, he could easily have written in English, but he preferred to write in his native language and be translated. How closely would I be able to reproduce his unique voice in English? That is always the translator’s aim. The process itself, I’ve found, cannot be described without the use of metaphor, so we speak figuratively of finding the right voice, or of translation as a performance art like acting, or of trying to get inside the author’s mind.
Of course I had read Max Sebald’s other prose narratives, Vertigo, The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn, written in the 1990s in his period of creative flowering. I was particularly fascinated by The Rings of Saturn, which I had read both in German and in Michael Hulse’s fine English translation, because I am a native of the East Anglian coastal area described in that book, and it was intriguing to see scenes of my childhood in the new light cast on them by Max Sebald’s keen, melancholy Central European mind. I say ‘prose narratives’ because there’s a good case for describing them thus rather than as novels – up to but not including Austerlitz, which is essentially two novels in one, with a framework story told by a typically Sebaldian narrator much like the narrator of The Rings of Saturn, and a core story told by the central figure, Jacques Austerlitz himself.
When Austerlitz first came my way, it was not yet finished. Max had just acquired a new agent, Andrew Wylie, who in the first place wanted a sample of some thirty pages to submit to publishers. It included the passage that I think of as the Welsh idyll, when the boy Austerlitz goes to stay with his school friend Gerald’s amiably eccentric family in their house near Barmouth. He finds it a wonderfully liberating experience after the stern atmosphere of life with his adoptive parents. As readers of the book will know, the child’s early upbringing by the couple has suppressed all recollection of his arrival from Prague on one of the Kindertransport trains, and only as the book progresses does he recover his early childhood memories and trace the fate of his birth parents.
On the strength of that sample, rights to publication of the book in English went to Hamish Hamilton in the United Kingdom and Random House in the United States. I had already provided a sample translation from Max’s book entitled in German Luftkrieg und Literatur. It is based on lectures that he gave in Zurich in 1997, in which his main thesis was what he saw as the reluctance of German literature to confront the horrors of the Second World War directly after it. There were some indignant responses to that proposition, and he adds an account of them. The book had already been published in German when Max began working on Austerlitz, and I worked on and off on drafting its translation while he was finishing the new novel, to which I then turned entirely. These days a translator usually corresponds with an author by email, but Max Sebald did not like computer technology, and indeed claimed, with a humorous glint in his eye, that when a computer was delivered to his room at the University of East Anglia it stayed in its box, still packed. So we corresponded by old-fashioned snail mail, Max in his beautiful handwriting, I typing my letters because it is unkind to ask anyone to read my writing, as we discussed various points of translation back and forth. Some of these points ran to several exchanges in our correspondence, and it was interesting to be working with an author whose own English was so good. Because of that very fact, I think, if occasionally I insisted that one phrase sounded better in English than another, he would accept it; I recollect explaining that the word ‘tome’ for a book always suggests a large size in English, so that to speak of a ‘little tome’ sounds like a contradiction in terms. Some authors ask a translator why a certain phrase can’t be used in English, as if the translator were to blame, but not Max; he knew that language develops of its own accord, and his account of Austerlitz’s nervous breakdown, when language itself fails him, is eloquently moving. I quote: ‘If language may be regarded as an old city full of streets and squares, nooks and crannies, with some quarters dating from far back in time, while others have been torn down, cleaned up and rebuilt . . . then I was like a man who has been abroad a long time and cannot find his way through this urban sprawl any more, no longer knows what a bus stop is for, or what a back yard is. The entire structure of language [was] enveloped in impenetrable fog.’
With a translator’s extra pleasure in a text, I enjoyed the way his mind dwelt on all manner of subjects, from vainglorious architectural styles in vast public buildings, which he hated, to botany and entomology. Max knew a lot about natural history. I think he was amused to find that, while I appreciated his descriptions of moth species on the printed page, in real life I would run from them in panic, being a lepidopterophobe – a phobia akin to arachnophobia if not so widespread. He told me that Graham Greene was phobic about birds, which I hadn’t known before. We shared a common interest in botany, and I was pleased when occasionally I could tell him some plant name that he didn’t know in English, for instance traveller’s joy as a name for the wild clematis, Clematis vitalba. He wrote in ‘What a lovely name’ on my first draft of Austerlitz.
Max inserted pictures and photographs into his prose narratives, not so much illustrations as glosses on the text. Fitting them into the right places in Austerlitz must have been tricky for the Hamish Hamilton designers. Max picked these pictures up here and there as they took his fancy, and many linger in the reader’s mind as well: the picture of the boy in fancy dress on the cover of Austerlitz, the little girl with a dog on her lap in the village later drowned to make way for Lake Vyrnwy. I had marked the approximate positions in the English typescript, but I could tell that it was not going to be easy, particularly in the long, nine-page sentence describing the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. An English translator’s instinctive reaction to such a lengthy sentence is to break it up, but as soon as I had done that once in my first draft, adding a full stop two pages in, I knew it was wrong and took it out. The convolutions of that mighty sentence are there on purpose to convey the busy, pointless activity of the Nazi authorities preparing for a visit to the camp by a Red Cross delegation. But Max bore his English-language readers in mind, and made a few changes especially for them.
When Austerlitz had been delivered, I turned back to Luftkrieg und Literatur, the other book by Max on which I had already been working. The question of the title arose; Air War and Literature, the literal English for Luftkrieg und Literatur, was clearly not such a good title in English, lacking the alliteration of the original. Ultimately, it became On the Natural History of Destruction. A little while ago I heard from an academic, let’s call him Academic A, who had read a denunciation of the title by Academic B; surely, said Academic B, wording so different from the original had been disgracefully foisted on Max by a publisher taking advantage of his death. Academic A was not so sure, and reasonably thought that I could settle the question, as indeed I could. Neither Hamish Hamilton as publisher, nor I as translator, I added, would have taken such a liberty on our own initiative.
At the time of his death, Max Sebald had been through all the Zurich chapters with me. An essay on the writer Alfred Andersch was also part of the book, and a few weeks later his notes on the translation of the Andersch essay were found on his desk. It was a strange sensation to receive them, like getting a letter from beyond the grave, and I spent a long, elegiac January Sunday incorporating the changes. For the English edition of the book, Max had chosen to add two other essays, one on the essayist and Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry, one on the dramatist Peter Weiss. Revising those in translation I was on my own, and I kept weighing up every sentence, wondering what Max would have thought of this or that phrasing.
The Améry and Weiss essays were then printed in the German edition of Campo Santo, a posthumous collection of pieces by Max Sebald never before published in book form – fortunately the English version was still long enough for a complete volume without the Améry and Weiss essays. Campo Santo also contains fragments of a book that Max had begun to write about Corsica; he then set it aside to concentrate on Austerlitz. Its title refers to a graveyard in a chapter describing Corsican funerary customs. I can’t help, greedily, wishing that we could have the Corsican book as well as Austerlitz, which also meditates on time, death and continuity – I quote, ‘If Newton thought, said Austerlitz […] that time was a river like the Thames, then where is its source and into what sea does it finally flow?’ There are similar ideas in the Corsican fragments, along with curious facts like Kafka’s mention of a military custom whereby, said Kafka’s informant, Napoleon’s tomb was opened once a year to let old soldiers file pass the embalmed Emperor, until the imperial face began to look rather green and bloated. The Campo Santo graveyard features ghosts who haunt the living and are – I quote again – ‘about a foot shorter than they were in life, they went around in bands and groups’ and ‘were heard talking and whispering in their strange piping voices, but nothing they said to each other could be understood except for the name of whoever they intended to come for next’. These figures of Corsican folklore have made an easy transition to Wales in Austerlitz, appearing in the ghost stories told to the child Austerlitz by Evan the cobbler, whose Welsh ghosts have faces that would – I quote once more – ‘blur or flicker slightly at the edges. And they were usually a little shorter than they had been in life, for the experience of death, said Evan, diminishes us, just as a piece of linen shrinks when you first wash it.’ They are surely echoed in the ‘little company of some ten or a dozen small people’ seen by Austerlitz and his friend Marie at Marienbad, ‘the sort of visitors sent to the spa because of their failing health’ by the Iron Curtain countries. ‘They were strikingly short, almost dwarfish figures, slightly bent, moving along in single file.’ Diminished in their case, perhaps, by the political system rather than death.
It’s ten years since his death, but we are celebrating the life and work of Max Sebald this year, not just mourning him. And it cannot be said that death has diminished his reputation. If anything, the passage of ten years has enhanced it, as more and more readers come to enjoy his poetry and his astonishing narrative works, which are unlike anything else I can think of in literature. He was the founder of the British Centre for Literary Translation, and the annual lecture that the Centre organizes, given when the various translation prizes are presented, has been named the Sebald Lecture in his memory. My own abiding memory of him is of the last time we were together, on stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London for the forerunner of that event; we gave parallel readings from Austerlitz, which had only just appeared. His warmth and quiet humour were very much in evidence, and are still to be found in his books, countering the general impression of austerity that readers may have of him.
Originally commissioned in 2011 for Radio 3’s The Essay, aired each week night at 22.45. Audio available at: www.bbc.co.uk