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Posts from the ‘Unrecounted (Unerzahlt)’ 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.

Proust’s Eyes

proust-unrecounted.jpg
Jan Peter Tripp, Marcel Proust (etching), from Unrecounted

When W.G. Sebald’s book of poems Unrecounted was published posthumously in 2003, I was frankly puzzled and a tiny bit disappointed. I rather liked Sebald’s brief poems, just as I liked Jan Peter Tripp’s etchings; but I didn’t much like them together. To match every poem with an image of a set of eyes seemed overly deterministic. It’s one thing to feel that the eyes have a special quality as Sebald does in Austerlitz, where he speaks of “the fixed, inquiring gaze found in certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking”. But it’s another thing entirely to suggest that there is some value or insight that the reader can obtain by looking at many pairs of eyes. That struck me as just a little too mystical for Sebald. (For more on Unrecounted see my earlier post.)

On the whole, Sebald didn’t pay much attention to the physical traits of the people that appear in his books of prose fiction and he certainly didn’t give extraordinary powers to the eyes – though he might say that someone’s eyes “shone with sheer wonderful life” (The Emigrants) or something equally vague. This really came home to me as I started to read Swann’s Way (in Lydia Davis’ relatively recent translation) for the first time in, um, decades. Proust uses the eyes to transmit an astonishing amount of information about character and intention in a flash. Here is what the narrator says when he first sees and becomes enamored with Swann’s daughter, Gilberte :

I looked at her, at first with the sort of gaze that is not merely the messenger of the eyes, but a window at which all the senses lean out, anxious and petrified, a gaze that would like to touch the body it is looking at, capture it, take it away and the soul along with it…

And here he is on the receiving end of a momentary, almost non-existent glance from one of his father’s friends:

Near the church we met Legrandin, who was coming in the opposite direction escorting the same lady to her carriage. He passed close to us, did not break off his conversation with his neighbor, and from the corner of his blue eye gave us a little sign that was in some way interior to his eyelid and which, not involving the muscles of his face, could go perfectly unnoticed by the lady he was talking to; but seeking to compensate by intensity of feeling for the somewhat narrow field in which he had circumscribed his expression, in the azure corner assigned to us he set sparkling all the liveliness of a grace that exceeded playfulness, bordered on mischievousness; he overrefined the subtleties of amiability into winks of connivance, insinuations, innuendos, the mysteries of complicity; and finally exalted his assurances of friendship into protestations of affection, into a declaration of love, illuminating for us alone, at that moment, with a secret languor invisible to the lady, a love-smitten eye in a face of ice.

Or here, two pages later:

But at the name of Guermantes, I saw a little brown notch appear in the center of each of our friend’s blue eyes as if they had been stabbed by invisible pinpoints, while the rest of the pupil reacted by secreting floods of azure.

Using the eyes as a window on the soul or as a mouthpiece for true character is a great literary device with a long tradition, one especially suited to Proust, who always wants to leave us uncertain about the objectivity of his narrator’s perceptions.

W.G. Sebald on YouTube

Given the way in which W.G. Sebald combined text and images in his books, it was inevitable that he would somehow make his way onto YouTube. Recently, two short videos about him have been posted. The first is by Nordica Libros and serves as a short book promotion for Sin Contar (as Sebald’s book Unrecounted is called in Spanish). In a fairly rudimentary way it interweaves Jan Peter Tripp’s images and a few of Sebald’s poems into a kind of book tease with a spare piano accompaniment.

More ambitious is the “visual/verbal poem in memory of W.G. Sebald” by South African writer/artist Michael Cope called On Fire.For 9 minutes 59 seconds, the lines of Cope’s poem scroll upward across black and white still images and video clips. Cope’s somewhat haunting visual and verbal meditation on the Holocaust, terrorism, atomic bombs, and other destructive fires is interspersed with images and references to what appear to be his family. Both Cope’s poem and video struck me as simplistic for the opening moments, but as the minutes rolled by I realized that they were far more complex and effective than I could absorb in one viewing.

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:

Blue

grass
seen
through
a wafer
thin layer
of frozen
water

Blue

grass
seen
through a thin
layer
of frozen
water

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.

The Sebald Book Market

The statistical wonk in me always likes to look at things by the numbers, so I thought it might be interesting to informally examine the market for Sebald’s books over time. I visited Abebooks.com today (February 18, 2007) and jotted down a few figures. Abebooks.com claims to have 979 books for sale with W.G. Sebald as the author. The most expensive title is the extremely scarce edition of Unerzählt: 33 Texte und 33 Radierungen limited to 33 copies each containing 33 etchings by Jan Peter Tripp. This currently lists for US$3,750. There are 20 items with an asking price of $1,000 or higher and there are 146 priced at US$100 or higher. Abebooks.com lists 25 books for sale that were signed by Sebald.

Just for comparison, I looked at two other authors (chosen only because I happen to have some of their books nearby at the moment). Abebooks.com offers 3458 books by J.M. Coetzee, 13 of which are priced at $1,000 or higher, and 8683 books by Gunter Grass, 15 of which are priced at $1,000 or higher. At least in comparison with these two authors, the fact that 2% of books by Sebald are priced at $1,000 or higher seems rather startling.Perhaps it isn’t comparable to view Sebald in the context of two authors who are still alive and writing.

Of course, the real question is whether any of these books are changing hands – especially those priced over $1,000.I’ll try to check the numbers on Abebooks.com again in a few months and see if anything noticeable is happening.