Having grown up in Germany and gone on to spend almost all my university years in the UK, I have often thought about what it means to study my own language from abroad. Doing Modern Languages at Oxford, for me, has inevitably made translation a part of both my daily life and my academic self-expression. I have used English to say what I think and feel about literature in my native language, often triangulating with French as a third pole on my linguistic planet.
In the largely joyful (yet sometimes disorienting) linguistic muddle of these years of study, I have found a strange kind of reassurance in the example of W.G. Sebald. The German-born novelist, who lived in the UK until his death in 2001 and spent decades teaching his native language at the University of East Anglia, draws an extraordinary wealth from a life spent navigating between multiple languages and cultures. I believe that he has taught me a lot about what can be gained from integrating a sensitivity to translation into the study and the practice of literature, about what a successful life in translation can look like, but also about what remains untranslated, unsaid, incomprehensible, at the very core of our personal histories.
Earlier this summer, I had the chance to teach a seminar titled ‘Translating W.G. Sebald’ as part of Oxford’s UNIQ summer school. With a group of young Germanists about to enter their final year of sixth form, we spent our session discussing a 2011 essay by Anthea Bell, translator of Sebald’s last novel Austerlitz and namesake of The Queen’s College Translation Exchange Prize for young translators, before turning to a passage from the novel where translation itself takes centre stage.
Bell opens her essay by questioning the necessity of her own role. She notes that Sebald was completely fluent in English and could easily have self-translated, or indeed written in English in the first place. It was due to personal preference alone, then, that he let his texts pass into the English language through the hands of a translator. In the seminar, we asked ourselves what might have been the reasons for this choice. Did Sebald want to keep the English-speaking mainstream audience in the country where he lived at an arm’s length, letting them access his writing through a third-party translation alone? Did this mean that Sebald himself could remain elusive, at a distance, freed from taking responsibility for writings which were no longer fully his own? Such a view imposes itself so long as we see the translated novel as a lesser version of an original, which represents the text in its purest form. This would make the bilingual author’s refusal to self-translate appear as an almost cruel decision, deliberately excluding English-speaking readers from accessing the full truth of his writing. Throughout our UNIQ session, however, the possibility of a second, more hopeful version of events emerged.
Bell speaks very fondly of the exchanges she had with ‘Max’ Sebald, as his friends called him. We learn that the very writing of Austerlitz became enmeshed in these interactions between author and translator, complicating the assumed chronology of a pre-existing original and derivative translation. When Bell was given her first sample to translate, the novel was in fact not yet finished. The typed and hand-written letters traveling back and forth between the two (via snail mail, for Sebald refused to use computers) transformed writing and translation into simultaneous, collaborative processes, in which the translator’s questions and concerns could directly impact the shape a still-unfixed original takes. In this exchange, Sebald was happy to give up much of his authority, accepting that his text would be transformed by its passage into another language, and embracing the value which could be gained in the process. Bell describes: ‘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 fails him, is eloquently moving’.
Bell suggests that Sebald saw failures in translation as the expression of a more fundamental break within language itself. A sense of deep-seated untranslatability, which is not limited to a text’s movement between languages but relates to all forms of linguistic expression – paradoxically – emerges at the very core of what Austerlitz seeks to express.
This concern is closely connected with the novel’s subject matter. The text reconstructs the life of Jacques Austerlitz, who survived the Holocaust thanks to the Kindertransporte scheme settling Jewish children from German-controlled territories in the UK. Austerlitz himself is a character who constantly risks getting lost in translation. Having grown up with an English-speaking family, his native Czech has become an almost forgotten language to him, resurfacing spontaneously and uncontrollably as he returns to his childhood home in Prague. Digging deeper into his family history, Austerlitz must confront yet another – uniquely threatening – linguistic universe: that of the German language, which is forever marked, it seems, as the language of the Nazi perpetrators.
As we witness Austerlitz gathering evidence about the fate of his mother by studying H.G. Adler’s German-language account of life in the ghetto of Theresienstadt, it becomes clear that processes of translation are embedded in the fabric of Sebald’s novel. A fragmented story travels through H.G. Adler’s German account into the protagonist’s English and back into the German of Sebald’s narrator, before finally passing into the hands of Anthea Bell, whose translation, one might say, simply adds a link to a much longer chain of transmission.
In the passage which describes Austerlitz’s reading, the traumatic history of the Holocaust coincides with those utterly normal struggles every learner of German will have faced: ‘The long compounds, not listed in my dictionary, which were obviously being spawned the whole time by the pseudo-technical jargon governing everything in Theresienstadt, had to be unravelled syllable by syllable.’ Bell’s translation decides to preserve these words in their original German form. She keeps terms like Barackenbestandteillager, Zusatzkostenberechnungsschein, and Menagetransportkolonnen as foreign bodies in her English text, set apart on the page in italics. Her English-speaking readers will therefore have to do as Austerlitz does and decipher them syllable by syllable. Or they will leave them untranslated altogether, perhaps feeling that more fundamental kind of incomprehension in front of the horrors of life in Theresienstadt, which no dictionary or translator can remedy.
In a way, we might say that the protagonist’s experience is rendered more faithfully in English than in German. A reader of the latter may quickly brush over the words which challenge Austerlitz’s comprehension, barely slowed down by the monstrosity of those compound nouns. Readers of Bell’s translation, on the other hand, will live through the incomprehension experienced by the protagonist. They might make the same attempts to translate and decipher – and yet, will be led to the recognition that they can never fully grasp the historical reality to which these words relate.
The passage powerfully demonstrates that translation and its failures, literary expression and its breaking points, are integral parts of Austerlitz. Anthea Bell’s English translation gives new life, new linguistic and cultural realities to what may be called a pre-existing, translational potential in the text. The hierarchy between the original novel and its translation is thus dissolved. The author and the translator alike circle around a centre of truth which can never be accessed in full, incessantly reminding the reader of the limitations of all attempts to make sense. Despite these frustrations, an extraordinary collaborative process takes place, creating unexpected possibilities for empathy and connection across time and space.
I believe that this painful-yet-fruitful process can provide a great deal of encouragement to aspiring linguists and translators. Against the gnawing feeling that, even as they master grammar rules and struggle through vocabulary lists, the perspective of non-native speakers will remain inferior, approaching but never reaching the native speaker’s natural familiarity with a language, the case of Austerlitz suggests that much can be gained from it. The non-native speaker is uniquely attentive to language precisely because it causes trouble and requires effort. New dimensions of meaning develop as the text travels between languages. The very notion of the original is transformed as it is placed within in a longer chain of mediation which reaches across time and space, spanning multiple human minds and linguistic systems. Once language is no longer assumed as a natural given, we may start to see some of the troubling cracks in its surface, the moments where making sense becomes impossible and a more fundamental kind of untranslatability seems to affect all forms of linguistic expression.
I am glad to have experienced this precious outsider’s position with the languages I have learnt and grateful to have glimpsed it even in my native language, through the contributions of my teachers, course mates, and students throughout the years. I hope that I was able to share some of this feeling with this year’s UNIQ cohort and am convinced that the Anthea Bell Prize and The Queen’s College Translation Exchange will enable many more such moments in the future.
Hannah Scheithauer (BA, MSt) is a DPhil candidate at The Queen’s College, Oxford, pursuing a Clarendon-funded research project on transnational memory landscapes in contemporary French and German literature. She can be found on Twitter @HannahScheitha1.
The photograph is of St. Andrew’s Church, Covehithe, by Isabella Cullen.