Sebald, Kluge & Competing Translations
Alexander Kluge’s writings clearly exerted a great influence on W.G. Sebald, especially Kluge’s important 1977 book Neue Geschichten: Hefte 1–18: “Unheimlichkeit der Zeit” (which roughly translates as “New Histories: Notebooks 1–18: ‘The Uncanniness of Time’“) . Neue Geschicten is written in a flat, non-literary prose that becomes a montage of voices, photographs, drawings, and charts. Last year, Seagull Books released Kluge’s book Air Raid, which includes what I believe to be the first English translation of a section from Neue Geschichten. The bulk of Air Raid, which is translated by Martin Chalmers, consists the the text titled “The Air Raid on Halberstadt on 8 April 1945,” which appears in Neue Geschicten as the second of the eighteen notebooks ,”Der Luftangriff auf Halberstadt am 8. April 1945.”About a third of Air Raid consists of related pieces by Kluge drawn from several of his other books. Air Raid then concludes with Sebald’s “essay” on Kluge called “Between History and Natural History. On the Literary Description of Total Destruction. Remarks on Kluge.”
[Front cover and page spread from Alexander Kluge, Neue Geschichten, 1977.]
In addition to his innovative inclusion of photographs and other types of visual material, Kluge, I suspect, gave Sebald a strategy for writing about traumatic, historic events that he himself had not experienced. In his remarks on Kluge, Sebald wrote: “The reader may learn [from Neue Geschichten] how personal involvement in the collectively experienced course of events…can only be meaningfully condensed, at least heuristically, through analytical historical investigations, through reference to the prehistory of the events as well as to later developments up to the present day and to possible future perspectives.” In other words, carefully researched hindsight can be more meaningful than an eyewitness account.
So far, there has not been much opportunity for competing English-language translations of Sebald’s work to appear. About ten of the poems that appeared in For Years Now (2001) – a book that was apparently translated into English by Sebald himself – also appeared in Unrecounted (2004) in translations provided by Michael Hamburger. And then there is Sebald’s essay on his close friend, the artist Jan Peter Tripp,translated for Unrecounted by Hamburger and for the essay anthology A Place in the Country by Jo Catling. At first glance, I thought that the Sebald essay in Air Raid corresponded with a section of Sebald’s longer essay “Air War and Literature,” which appears in both Campo Santo and On the Natural History of Destruction,both translated by Anthea Bell, thus letting us compare two translators approaches to a full essay by Sebald.
Alas, in a footnote, translator Martin Chalmers traces the complicated history of this excerpt from Sebald’s piece on Kluge.
Nevertheless, Chalmer’s translation of Sebald’s piece in Air Raid is pretty comparable to Anthea Bell’s version on pages 84-95 of the American edition of Campo Santo.So, just for fun, here is a comparison of page 85 of Bell’s version (top) and page 126 of Chalmers’ version (bottom).