Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Michael Hamburger’ Category

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.

Death Nestled within Death

Michael Hamburger’s desk, as shown in The Rings of Saturn.

A little while ago (well, March, to be exact), the poet Will Stone put up on his website an essay he had written in 2007 upon the death of his friend and fellow poet Michael Hamburger. [The website is no longer available, regretably.] “Unpicked Apples – Memories of Michael Hamburger” is a moving and admiring remembrance of Hamburger and a tribute to one of the last survivors of that “‘civilised’ generation of, for want of a better expression we might call ‘men of letters’.” Hamburger was the translator of two of W.G. Sebald’s books of poetry – After Nature and Unrecounted – and he appears as a character early on in Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn.

Embedded within Stone’s memories of Hamburger are his recollections of Sebald’s sudden death in 2001 and some moments Stone and Hamburger shared as they tried to come to terms with that tragic accident.

I also remember an exchange following his attendance at Max [Sebald]’s funeral in Norfolk in which Michael sought to express the severity of the sudden loss of Max, to articulate the onerous sense of vacancy left by his passing, which was that much more than the premature loss of a well-loved creative man in late middle age. I always had the feeling from his often guarded reverence for Max that Michael realised astutely the true reach and sacrifice of Sebald’s vision, not only the writings that had made him an icon in the Anglophone world, but the painstaking assemblage of an entire work through long gestation, the vital consequence of his uncompromising labour of literary absorption…

Skimming Waterlog 3 – The Artists


…the museum and the gallery are those spaces where obscurity may become the condition for enlightenment. [Brian Dillon, writing in Waterlog]

I have never been much good at skipping stones across a pond. Nevertheless that is the image I had in mind when I thought of writing about the monograph Waterlog: Journeys Around an Exhibition over the course of three posts – here, here, and now here.This final post deals with the visual artists in the monograph, although several, due to the hybrid nature of their works, have already been mentioned in the post on the poetry of Waterlog. (There are also additional illustrations in that same post.) Keep in mind that I am not reporting on the exhibition itself (which I have not seen), only its manifestation in the form of this monograph.

In the books of W.G. Sebald, the twin powers of nature and history overwhelm whatever pretensions and inadequate defenses mankind can muster, inevitably bringing insignificance, loss, and death.The only lasting power that mankind itself wields is destruction – a destructive attempt to dominate nature and a endless knack for self-destruction in the form of war. For the most part, the artists in Waterlog choose to meditate on our dialectical relationship with nature rather than with history. Marcus Coates is the only artist to address, even if obliquely, mankind as an agent of destruction. As I have mentioned earlier, his project Britain’s Bitterns circa 1997 Population – 11 Breeding Males is an elegy to England’s bittern population – and by extension the animal kingdom – brought to the level of near extinction by human encroachment.

In a gesture that is both playful and quixotic, Alec Finlay throws poetic life buoys to the city of Dunwich, an important port during the middle ages that became completely lost to storms and erosion over the course of centuries and now lies underwater. His project The Sunken Bell also included a number of color photographs by Guy Moreton of ruins, flooded marshes and other reminders of the power of nature. Simon Pope’s project The Memorial Walks, which was part installation and part performance, involved the selection of landscape paintings from area museums which were displayed draped in black and only occasionally unveiled.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much that any publication can do to adequately translate video art onto the printed page. The film stills and short descriptions included in Waterlog give only the most skeletal sense of intriguing works by collaborators Alexander and Susan Maris and by Tacita Dean. In Alexander and Susan Maris’ video piece Silentium, Arvo Part’s composition Tabula Rasa provides the background music for their exploration of two key places in the life of composer Benjamin Britten: his long-time residence at Aldeburgh and the later residence in Horham, which he took up in order to find respite from the noise of air force planes flying overhead.

Tacita Dean is represented in Waterlog by two works, only one which was included in the exhibition. For Waterlog, Dean created a video on Sebald’s close friend the writer and translator Michael Hamburger, who died earlier this year.

Unwilling, perhaps unable, to talk of his past and his migrations, most especially fleeing Nazism in 1933, [Hamburger] talks poignantly, instead, of the apple trees in his garden…

Sebald had written his own lengthy profile of Hamburger on pages 175-190 of The Rings of Saturn, including two grainy photographs of the interior of Hamburger’s house. Stills from Dean’s video show scenes which clearly reference Sebald’s photographs.

Tacita Dean, still from Michael Hamburger


From The Rings of Saturn

Dean’s second work in Waterlog is a welcome reprint of a photo and text piece on Sebald which I have written about earlier. As far as I know, until now this work could only be found in a slim volume entitled W.G. Sebald as part of a boxed set of seven softcover catalogs produced in 2003 for an exhibition of Dean’s work at the Museé d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. The version in Waterlog is not only a complete reprint of Dean’s fascinating piece on Sebald, but it also contains a brief Postscript that she added after the French publication.


Consisting largely of newly commissioned works from artists, the exhibition Waterlog is a clear indication of how Sebald’s writing can be inspirational material for artists in many media. As the exhibition’s successor in print form, Waterlog: Journeys Around an Exhibition does a fine job converting the exhibition into a book that is can stand on its own. I only wish that Waterlog included a full exhibition checklist, which would have documented the contents of the show.
simon-pope-memorial-walks-2.jpg Simon Pope, from The Memorial Walks

Collecting W.G. Sebald’s Unrecounted

In 2003, Sebald’s German publishing house Hanser posthumously released a volume reminiscent of his 2001 book of short poems For Years Now. The new book of poems, Unerzählt: 33 Texte und 33 Radierungen was also a collaboration between Sebald – again writing as a poet – and a visual artist. But here, instead of being paired with the colorful geometric abstractions of Tess Jaray, the poems are paired with photo-realist images by his long-time friend Jan Peter Tripp. Tripp’s images each depict the narrow midsection of a face – a pair of eyes and nothing more. The subjects of his images, the owners of these visionary eyes, are all identified in the book and range from authors (William Burroughs, Truman Capote, Marcel Proust, Samuel Beckett) to artists (Jasper Johns, Francis Bacon, Tripp) to friends of the two collaborators, and even Sebald himself, his daughter Anna, and his dog Moritz.

The British reviewer Tim Adams provided a small glimpse into the collaboration between Sebald and Tripp. “Michael Krüger, the German publisher of Sebald, remembers the pair of them coming into his office to propose the idea for their book, two schoolfriends, excitedly explaining a project. ‘Max [Sebald] talked a lot about looking, about the little pieces he would write about looking. Some of the pieces would be old, some new, but they would all be about the way we viewed the world.’ While Sebald was talking, Tripp stood up and started taking photographs of Krüger. ‘We will, of course, have to include your eyes in the book, too,’ he explained. Tripp’s subsequent etching of the publisher’s eyes carries with it a typical fragment of Sebald’s verse, what he called a ‘micropoem’: ‘They say / that Napoleon / was colourblind / & blood for him / as green as / grass’.” (Tim Adams, “The Eyes Have It,” The Observer September 19, 2004)

The Hanser volume is an elegant tall quarto bound in gray cloth with a reproduction of Tripp’s portrait of Sebald pasted onto the front cover. A clear plastic dust jacket is imprinted with authors’ names, book title, and publisher. But once the volume is opened, all of the pages, including the title page, are printed horizontally to give more room to Tripp’s extended horizontal images. In addition to Sebald’s poems and Tripp’s images, the volume contains a poem by Sebald’s frequent German editor Hans Magnus Enzensberger “Ein Abschied von Max Sebald” (A Farewell to Max Sebald) and an essay by Andrea Köhler. Appropriately, the endpapers are black.

In addition to the first trade edition, Hanser released two limited edition versions of Unerzählt: an edition of 333 copies each containing a loose etching by Tripp called “Max” that is titled, signed and numbered in pencil, and an even more limited edition of thirty-three copies each containing all thirty-three of Tripp’s original prints.

Sebald Unerzahlt
In 2004, Hamish Hamilton brought out the British edition, now called Unrecounted: 33 Texts and 33 Etchings by W.G. Sebald and Jan Peter Tripp (although the inside front flap of the dust jacket refers to Tripps works as “lithographs”). Several items are new to the English-language edition: a “Translator’s Note” by Michael Hamburger; a second poem by Hans Magnus Enzensburger called “Tripp’s Cabinet of Prodigies”; and an essay by Sebald “As Day and Night, Chalk and Cheese: On the Pictures of Jan Peter Tripp,” which deals with trompe l’oeil, memory, and other Sebaldian subjects, originally published in Logis in einem Landhaus. Hamish Hamilton continued the practice of using horizontally-printed pages within a vertical book format, but reduced the book’s size considerably from Hanser’s 11 1/2 by 7 inches to a handier size of 8 3/4 by 5 1/2 inches, ending up with a book that is less generous to Tripp’s images and – well – more ordinary. It is bound in textbook blue boards with gold-stamped spine and has a dustjacket that reproduces Tripp’s portrait of Sebald.

Sebald Unrecounted British

Perhaps the most striking aspect for the reader of Unrecounted is Michael Hamburger’s “Translator’s Note”, an almost confessional, slightly stunned piece that is full of insights and mysterious revelations about the poems and about Sebald. After Sebald’s death, Hamburger discovered that he didn’t know his friend as well as he had thought. Among other things, Hamburger reveals that Sebald had completely kept him – his current translator – unaware of either of his two book collaborations involving these “micropoems.” And when, posthumously, he began to translate Unerzählt Hamburger discovered that some of the poems for Unrecounted were what he calls “overlapping” but “different” texts that Sebald had used previously in For Years Now. Hamburger speculates that Sebald himself must have made the translations for the earlier book and he discusses his decision to retranslate them anew whenever he encountered a previously published piece.

For example, the first version below is the poem “Blue” from For Years Now (presumably Sebald’s own translation), followed by Hamburger’s translation from Unrecounted:


a wafer
thin layer
of frozen


through a thin
of frozen

A few months later in 2004, New Directions released an American edition: Unrecounted: 33 Poems by W.G. Sebald, 33 Lithographs by Jan Peter Tripp, further confusing the question of whether Tripp’s artwork was created through etching or lithography. (The use of “radierungen” in the original German title clearly indicates that they are etchings, and since Hanser had published a limited edition containing Tripp’s original prints one would assume they knew what kind of printing technique he used.) New Directions included everything from the British edition, but also generously threw in the original German texts for Sebald’s 33 poems. They also returned some of the spatiousness to the book, which is 10 1/4 by 6 1/2 inches in size. It is bound in gray cloth and displays a nice hint of red threads at the top and bottom of the book block. The spine is silver-stamped and New Directions returns to the use of memorial black endpapers. But not all of New Directions production choices seem to be improvements on the Hamish Hamilton version. Both the German and British editions had used slightly yellow matte-surfaced papers and had printed Tripp’s images in a warm brown or sepia ink. New Directions use of glossy paper and a cold black ink sucks the warmth out of Tripp’s images and works against the deliberately antiquarian feel of these images.

Collecting W.G. Sebald’s After Nature

Sebald After Nature British Edition

After Nature, published by Hamish Hamilton

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”. The English language volumes also lack the four 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 (below) 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.

Sebald After Nature American Edition

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.

Sebald Nach Natur

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.

Tacita Dean and W.G. Sebald

The British artist Tacita Dean (b. 1965) happens to be one of my favorite contemporary artists.Winner of the 2006 Hugo Boss Prize (and hence a 2007 exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum), her work is simultaneously visceral and intelligent and nearly always involves seemingly incompatible opposites.She often uses banal objects such as found photographs or common postcards to explore profound issues of life, death, history, and memory.Much of her art is based on historical or biographical research, yet chance and coincidence are everpresent factors. Since 2001, Dean has referenced Sebald in several of her works.


Tacita Dean: W.G. SEBALD (2003)

Although chronologically not the earliest piece on Sebald, her 2003 Paris catalog provides the perfect entrée to examining the connections between Tacita Dean and W.G. Sebald.In September 1999, while recording ambient sound in a bus stop on the island of Fiji for a commissioned art project, Dean found herself reading the section of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn which deals with Roger Casement, the Irish nationalist who was executed by the British for treason in 1916.Before becoming fatally entangled in the Irish nationalist movement, Casement was best known for his service as a British diplomat in Africa.His Congo Report (1904) exposed Belgian atrocities and was probably influenced by Joseph Conrad’s great 1899 novella Heart of Darkness.When Dean read the pages in which Sebald describes Casement’s trial for treason, she realized that the presiding judge who had condemned Casement to death was her great, great uncle.

Dean reveals this startling anecdote in a slim volume entitled W.G. Sebald, which is part of a boxed set of seven softcover catalogs produced in 2003 for an exhibition of her work at the Museé d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.The “story” that she tells in W.G. Sebald, is – appropriately – full of those coincidental moments when genealogy, personal experiences, and world events intersect with oddly illuminating results.Her story not only involves Casement, Sebald, and Dean’s own ancestors, but also the aerial bombing of Germany during World War II, the Marconi Telegraph Company, and a missing family painting by Van Gogh.Like Sebald, she punctuates her story with contemporary snapshots, family photographs, historical images, found postcards, and artless photographs of objects to create a narrative that seems to meander aimlessly toward a conclusion that finally seems inevitable. Intrigued by the Casement connection to her family, the resulting artwork is more or less a document of her subsequent research.But, like Sebald’s fiction, Dean’s art is also a semi-fictional form of documentary.

 The 32-page Paris catalog is bi-lingual – English and French – and delightfully uses different illustrations in each section.Some version of this piece apparently appeared in a piece that Dean published on pages 122-136 of the Fall 2003 issue of October magazine from MIT Press (surprisingly impossible to locate second hand).

Tacita Dean: THE RUSSIAN ENDING (2001)

A second volume in the Paris boxed set of catalogs is called The Russian Ending and reproduces twenty photogravures that Dean had created in 2001.While the Paris catalog makes no mention of Sebald in connection with this work, when this series was first exhibited in the U.S. at the New York gallery of Peter Blum from December 8, 2001 to February 2, 2002, the gallery issued a four-page brochure that included a quotation from Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, which one assumes Dean herself selected.In the quotation Sebald describes the sensations of being enveloped in a sudden sandstorm.When the whirlwind dissipates into an eerie quietude he muses: “This, I thought, will be what is left after the earth has ground itself down.”

For The Russian Ending, Dean used flea market postcards to create large prints via photogravure, which serve as treatments (complete with etched-on stage directions) for an imaginary film about failure and disaster.Jordan Kantor, reviewing the exhibition in Artforum (March 2002), called the imagery of explosions, shipwrecks, and funerals a “melancholic iconography,” which would succinctly define the writings of Sebald as well.“The Russian Ending” apparently refers to a practice in which movies were once made with different endings for different markets – the Russian audience requiring the more tragic ending.



Die Regimentstochter is a 64-page signed and numbered book designed by Dean and published by Steidl in Göttingen, Germany in an edition of 2,000 copies.The book’s title, of course, refers to the Donizetti opera known in English as The Daughter of the Regiment.The book itself reproduces a series of Nazi-era opera programs that Dean found in a Berlin flea market, all of which had sections of pages mysteriously cut out, creating a sequence of oddly evocative “found” collages.As the publisher’s website says: “Each programme gives a tantalising glimpse of a title or a face through a small window cut into the embossed cover; we recognise Beethoven, Rossini, the face of a singer perhaps.When and by whom this incision in the cover was made, very neatly one might add, even more why these disfigured programmes were kept remains a mystery. A swift search in an archive would easily show what has been removed; most likely an embossed swastika, for these performances all happened during the Third Reich. Why they were removed is left to our imaginations; perhaps an avid theatre-goer livid at the co-option of culture by the regime, perhaps someone afraid they might be misinterpreted as fascist memorabilia, while wishing to retain the memories these performances triggered.”

I have no direct evidence that Dean knowingly linked the subject of Die Regimentstochter with Sebald.Nevertheless there is a marvelous connection between Dean’s book and a short section in the “Air War and Literature” chapter in Sebald’s book On the Natural History of Destruction.From pages 42 – 45, Sebald briefly ponders the role of culture – specifically music – “in the evolution and collapse of the German Reich.” Sebald quotes a number of sources who wrote about the presence of opera and classical music – both live and on radio – in the very midst of the Allied bombing of Germany and the total devastation immediately after the end of the war.Sebald includes a photograph of war-time German audience intently, if not raptly, listening to music in a concert hall, perhaps to one of the very programs included in Tacita Dean’s book.

Tacita Dean Phaidon Monograph

Jean-Christophe Royoux, Marina Warner, and Germaine Greer: TACITA DEAN (2006)

In 2006, Phaidon published a very useful introductory monograph on the work of Tacita Dean in their Contemporary Artists series.Tacita Dean discusses and illustrates many of her projects including all of the ones relating to Sebald mentioned above.In a section called “Artist’s Choice,” which recurs throughout the series, the artist under discussion is asked to make a selection from another artist or two.For her volume, Dean chose William Butler Yeats, whose 1939 poem “One-Legged Fly” is reproduced, and W.G. Sebald.Dean chose one of the most remarkable and telling paragraphs from The Rings of Saturn which begins: “As I sat there that evening in the Southwold overlooking the German ocean, I sensed quite clearly the earth’s slow turning into the dark.”What follows is a beautiful, dark meditation on landscape, dream, memory, and the power of transformation.The extract concludes: “What manner of theatre is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter and audience?”, which seems a near perfect description of Dean’s art.

Dean continues to produce art work that relates to Sebald.As one of seven British artists commissioned to respond to Sebald’s writing and to the landscape that inspired him for an exhibition in Norwich called Waterlog, Dean has created a film on his close friend and translator, the poet Michael Hamburger.

Click here to go to my earlier post on Waterlog.