In the most recent issue of The Quarterly Conversation, we ran a very positive review of December by Alexander Kluge. Here, that review’s author, Madeleine LaRue, engages the book’s translator, Martin Chalmers, with five questions.
Madeleine LaRue: Alexander Kluge’s distinctive style often seems to resist going into English. You have translated Kluge before, and you have also translated some of his most prominent contemporaries (Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek, Herta Müller, among others). What strikes you as unique or special about Kluge’s writing?
Martin Chalmers: What resists going into English in Kluge? I think it’s less a question of style (though his use of legalistic language—cf. his training as a lawyer—a necessary dispassion combined with an underlying emotional response, is certainly distinctive. One can think of the boy who survives a devastating air raid shortly before the end of the war, as described in “The Air Raid on Halberstadt on 8th April 1945,” and who then spends his life as a theorist, as a writer, as a film-maker trying to come to terms with that destruction of all that is familiar, but in the knowledge of the crimes that have preceded that rather pointless air raid—an experience, of course, shared with millions of Germans and other Europeans)—well, then, less a question of style than of form, specifically Kluge’s use of short forms, an accumulation of short forms. Short forms and not simply the short story are much more central to German literature than English. The tradition perhaps begins with an admiration of Johann Peter Hebel but continues through the Brothers Grimm to Robert Walser, Kafka’s short prose, Benjamin and so on. English writing is much more bound by a division between novel and short story and has left little room for anything else, exceptions notwithstanding. And I think it’s in this accumulation of anecdote, incident, item, quotation, adaptation, (anti-)illustration, novels in pill form that the difficulty for the English-speaking reader lies (in the first instance the English-speaking publisher and critic). The difficulty is already there on the page in the layout, in the apparent lack of a narrative. Perhaps some English-speaking readers even have a difficulty taking such an “illegitimate” mixing of forms seriously as literature — as seriously as they would a novel.
MLR: Kluge strikes me as an unusually consistent writer, both in his stylistic oddities and in his intellectual preoccupations. Many of the themes and motifs in December appear in his other works (time, accidents, the relationship between good and evil, etc.), and some stories—such as “3 December 1931,” which relates Hitler’s near-fatal car accident, are taken almost verbatim from the earlier collections you have translated. Given Kluge’s consistency and your extensive experience with his work, does he ever still surprise you?
MC: Kluge’s themes are consistent indeed throughout his career. Central, for example, is the concern with the decline, the collapse of power. The moment when power shifts, when the gods abandon the once-powerful, as in the story from 2nd December about Gorbachev. Or I find the stories about the end of the GDR in Chronik der Gefühle at once impressive and enlightening. Yes, I think one’s always learning from Dr. Kluge. Another central theme across his work which is always moving from, say, the German particular to the universal are the re-workings of the return of Odysseus.
Odysseus has killed the suitors, but how will life go on now, after 10 years’ absence in which no one has remained the same? Or: a young soldier marries his childhood sweetheart in 1941, returns home twice on brief leaves before 1944, two children result, but he doesn’t return from captivity until 1954. His wife, his children are confronted more or less by a stranger more or less determined to assert his authority. Or he returns having been declared dead and finds his wife married to another. (The essence of a Balzac story which Kluge retells about a French officer gone missing during the course of Napoleon’s Russian campaign.)
How does a society cope with such returns, which also have plenty of legal ramifications?
In some authors the re-use of material in different books might seem like a lack of inspiration. With Kluge, given the sheer volume of material he’s produced, it’s more a matter of deploying a story, an anecdote in a context where it fits.
I think the range of sources, the breadth of interests of Kluge are always capable of springing surprises, of creating surprising juxtapositions. One of my favourite stories (one of many) is one in The Devil’s Blind Spot which I translated as “The Lost Command.” A small German force disappears into central Africa during the Second World War and survives there until the Congo Crisis of the early 60’s. An impossible story, a comic book story (one imagines the young Alexander Kluge devouring comic books of the old style when the family moves west from the Soviet Zone of Occupation), certainly a surprising take on the Second World War, but one that asks questions about how Germans see and write about the Second World War (and is at the same time enjoyable as a condensed comic strip).
MLR: December is full of references to religion, history, politics, science, philosophy and critical theory, as well as to pop culture (particularly music and film). How much research do you do while translating him? Do you consult the works that Kluge makes reference to (the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, for example, or Dante’s Inferno), or do you base your translation solely on Kluge’s own text?
MC: Research for translators has on the whole become much easier with the advent of the Internet. With something like the quote from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, I think I just looked it up, found it and incorporated it in the translation. In the case of the “Old Dragon Beneath the Temple Mount,” I re-used the translation I had done for The Devil’s Blind Spot. That’s a few years ago now and I can’t remember whether I did any checking of Dante, although I’ve certainly read The Inferno. Inevitably there are limits to the amount of research a translator does or can do. He or she is working to a deadline (either the deadline the publisher sets, the deadline imposed by the need to earn money or usually both). Translators in Britain and Germany are usually full-time translators, in the United States they often also hold academic posts. For the latter, a translation may become a ‘project’; for the former, however great the commitment to book or author, it’s also a job.
MLR: I’m curious about your take on the relationship between image and text in the book. The English edition preserves not only the same order of Gerhard Richter’s photographs as the German edition, but also their placement within the stories — image A to the left of story B, for example, or image C in between pages two and three of story D. Did Richter’s photographs influence (for better or worse) your translation? Did you feel that anything changed in the relationship between image and text once the text was in English?
MC: I assumed the order of text and image was something that Kluge and Richter had agreed on and so felt that arrangement should be retained, if at all possible, in the translation (and the photo with the deer still follows the poem which refers to a deer, e`ven if the doe of the poem is fairly metaphorical).
MLR: Kluge occasionally quotes, as I mentioned above, from popular songs, particularly, in December, songs from the 1930’s and 40’s. Usually these are given in English translation, but in the story “22 December 1943”—about a soldier returning home to his unfaithful wife—the lyrics to the song the children sing appear in the original German as well. Was there a special reason you wanted to preserve these lyrics?
MC: In the story “22 December 1943” the songs are part of the action and not a comment. For density, let’s say, for atmosphere, I give the original and then the English words, as if they were subtitles in a film. Apart from that, because of the nature of the story it’s impossible to be free with the translation of the lyrics and they’re never going to have the flow of the original and so for that reason, too, I included the German here. I first encountered Alexander Kluge as a film-maker. I saw Yesterday Girl (Abschied von Gestern) in a Glasgow cinema, in a double bill with a Godard movie, some time around 1970. It may well make a difference whether a translator comes to Kluge as a writer alone or also has a knowledge of his work in film, of his theoretical texts, of his long-running TV programme. Anyone who knows the TV work and some of the films will also have Kluge’s softly insistent, deeply ironic, dead-pan voice and questions in his or her ear while translating.