April 27, 2007
Nach der Natur: Ein Elementargedicht was one of Sebald’s earliest books. It was published in a small, almost luxurious volume by Greno (Nordlingen, Germany) in 1988. Nach der Natur was finally published posthumously in English in 2002 by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books), after the critical success of his four major works of prose fiction in the English and American publishing worlds. Obviously aware of how much importance Sebald placed on participating in the translation of his own works into English, the English-language editions include a Publisher’s Note stating that “W.G. Sebald approved a final version of the text before his untimely death.” (Update May 12, 2007. Another Sebald collector has told me that Greno also released a limited special edition of Nach der Natur known as a Vorzugsausgabe. It is bound in leather and has a cloth slipcase, but is neither signed nor numbered. He informs me that Franz Greno told him it was in an edition of 200. )
In English, the volume was called simply After Nature, without the subtitle Ein Elementargedicht, which literally translates as “an elementary poem”. Unfortunately, the English language volumes also lack the four stunning double-page photographs by German photographer Thomas Becker, which form a prelude and coda to the volume’s text matter. The American edition by Random House (above right) curiously omits the admittedly brief Contents page (there are only three poems), but feels the need to tack on three pages at the end for About the Author, About the Translator, and About the Type.
Random House issued After Nature in an Advance Uncorrected Proofs version, and it has at least one interesting variant from the final version as published by both Hamish Hamilton and Random House. The text of the middle poem “And if I Remained by the Outermost Sea” begins on page 43 in both English-language versions. In the Advance Uncorrected Proofs version the first six lines read as follows (the italics are mine):
Georg Wilhem Steller
born at Windsheim, in Franconia,
while pursuing his studies
at the University of Halle
repeatedly came across news
docketed (inserted) in journals
In the British edition, lines 5 and 6 read this way:
repeatedly came across
news items in journals
And in the Random House edition, those same lines read:
repeatedly came across news
items in journals
The small typographical admission of uncertainty that appears in the Random House Proofs version opens a window into the translating process. In the original German, the two lines quoted above in English are found on a single line which reads:
auf die in die Intelligenzblatter eingeruchte Nachricht,
Clearly, Sebald (or translator Michael Hamburger) was struggling with Sebald’s reference to the obscure 18th century newspaper the Intelligenzblatter and toyed with the possibility of suggesting that news items read by Steller were “docketed” or “inserted” into a generic “journal”. In the end, simplicity and clarity won out and it was decided to refer to “news items”, dropping any reference at all to the existence of a newspaper, specific or otherwise.
The original German publication by Greno is a stunningly beautiful slim volume bound in deep green cloth, with finely printed photographic endpapers of Becker’s photographs. The British first edition, although in unfortunate dull brown boards, feels better designed and more generous that the Random House first edition. It employs the typeface Monotype Perpetua and a larger font size, which provides elegant, bold Roman numerals for the frequent section headings of the three poems. The British version’s thicker, whiter paper gives the poems more gravitas, leaving the American version feeling thin and overly delicate.