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Sebald’s Translator Troubles?

W.G. Sebald’s annotations to Michael Hulse’s draft translation of the ‘Conrad chapter’ (Part V) of Die Ringe des Saturn.
(From Saturn’s Moons)

The other night I continued to make my non-sequential way through Saturn’s Moons: W.G. Sebald – A Handbook by reading short accounts written by two of Sebald’s English-language translators: “Englishing Max” by Michael Hulse and “Translating W.G. Sebald – With and Without the Author” by Anthea Bell.  A fair amount has already been written about turning Sebald’s German into English, a process that always involved the considerable participation of Sebald, who, of course, was extremely articulate in English.  The two essays in Saturn’s Moons add to the well-established image of Sebald and translator collaborating almost as equals.  As the illustration above shows, Sebald was perfectly capable of rephrasing – or even completely rewriting – the work of his own translator, which might well have been unnerving for those who took on the task of “Englishing” his German.

But Hulse provides a rare glimpse into the break-up of their professional (and personal) relationship that seems to expose a rarely seen side of Sebald.  Having already translated Die Ausgewanderten into The Emigrants in 1996 and Die Ringe des Saturn into The Rings of Saturn in 1998, Hulse “agreed against my better judgment to translate Schwindel. Gefühle,” which, in 1999, became Vertigo.  Hulse says he had already heard reports of Sebald complaining in public that he had had to “correct” Hulse’s translations.  Hulse, who was juggling multiple literary projects at once, also sensed that Sebald thought he slowed the translation process down too much.  Eventually, Hulse says, he informed Sebald’s publisher (Harvill) that he would not translate Sebald’s next book.  In January 2000, Sebald wrote Hulse to say that “Perhaps you would agree that, from your point of view also, our partnership has now reached its limits.”  After that they never communicated again.

This admission by Hulse immediately reminded me of Michael Hamburger’s oddly confessional “Translator’s Note” at the beginning of Unrecounted, the book of poems that he posthumously translated from Sebald’s German in 2005.

Although Max Sebald had given me copies of all his books published since our first acquaintance, he never so much as mentioned the writings of these miniatures to me and gave me no copy of For Years Now [the 2001 book in which some of the same poems had been previously published in English, apparently translated by Sebald himself].

Hamburger described the final period of Sebald’s life “as a time of crisis…full of enigmas, conflicts and contradictions he chose not to clarify.”  As a longstanding friend, Hamburger expressed some pique that Sebald was “readily accessible for interviews that probed matters he would not divulge to his closest friends.”

In an intriguing aside, Hamburger mentioned that his wife had received an autographed copy of the English edition of Austerlitz that, surprisingly, “contained emendations in his hand.”  Was Sebald unhappy with aspects of Anthea Bell’s translation, as well?  Bell, who has both written and spoken in interviews about her experiences with Sebald, has never hinted at any issues.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. It saddens me to read of Sebald’s apparent grouchiness about translations. Without having any German, the novels all read very well in English.

    As it happens, I’ve just read the second volume of Beckett’s letters which include lots of comments about his translators into English, Spanish, Italian and German. Now Beckett was a very polite and decent man but he is never entirely happy and one feels sorry in particular for Patrick Bowles who had to sit through hours of discussions over Molloy.

    No doubt it’s the obsessive nature of writer-artists like these two that makes such behaviour inevitable. In The Anatomist of Melancholy I read that Sebald was particularly worried about his German draft of Austerlitz – and I assumed this was because it seemed to him too close to Thomas Bernhard’s style. He would have been most aware of that of course. But *we* can see it’s uniquely Sebaldian. He’s too great a writer to be an epigone.

    To contrast the first paragraph above, I became a great admirer of Peter Handke through the translations of Ralph Manheim and, since he died, have never really enjoyed his novels as much. It may be that Handke hasn’t maintained the heights of his 80s work, or perhaps left me admiring the lower slopes while he carries on up. I hope and almost believe this to be the case.

    September 3, 2011
  2. Martin Shaw #

    I think the draft passage provided makes clear just what a facility Max had with English. Isn’t it just a case of tinkering, simply because you are able? And it’s clear Hulse’s choices are often very good ones, and Max changes them simply because an alternative happens to charm him more…

    As to your other points Terry re: the “enigmas, conflicts and contradictions” Hamburger detected, people like Richard Sheppard have touched on the subject, but I think this whole area must await Mark Anderson’s forthcoming biography. It’s the only proper place for it, based on interviews with Max’s Lebensmenschen etc.

    Heard anything about when Mark’s book might be appearing perchance? I always thought he’d be aiming for the 10th anniversary…

    September 5, 2011
  3. F.H. #

    In an earlier post about this book you said that Sebald owned a book about Beckett. Can you tell me the title of this work? I want so badly to buy ‘Saturn’s Moons,’ but I can’t afford it.


    September 13, 2011
    • According to Catling’s catalog of Sebald’s library, he owned: Klaus Birkenhauer, Samuel Beckett in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten, 1971.


      September 13, 2011
  4. Prof. Richard Sheppard #

    ‘For years now’ was launched on 4 December 2001, i.e. shortly before Max’s death, and I gather that he wasn’t particularly happy with it. So this may explain why he never sent a copy to Michael Hamburger (he didn’t send one to me either, which was unusual). Max had nothing but admiration for Michael’s work throughout his life and was responsible for getting him a D.Litt. at UEA in 1988: his write-up is printed in ‘Saturn’s Moons’.

    October 6, 2011
  5. Ian Powell #

    Very late to this but I’m slowly getting through your older posts and happen to be reading Saturn’s Moons at the moment. The Hulse article was really interesting when he talked about the contention that arose over passages from Conrad. Sebald obviously translated these passages into German but he also changed them to suit his purposes – so it was no longer Conrad! Hulse discussed that in translating back into English he wanted to use the original but Sebald was opposed to this – it’s an interesting dilemma!

    June 10, 2022
    • Ian, Thanks for the comment! I’m not at all surprised that Sebald co-opted Conrad. I think he pretty much co-opted any author he felt he had to or wanted to. You’ve just pointed out yet another fraught bit of territory for translators. It must be easier to translate writers who are already dead.

      June 10, 2022

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