Translating Jean Améry

I first encountered Jean Améry’s name in an essay by W.G. Sebald in A Natural History of Destruction. I had no German at the time. Four of his books had been translated into English (excluding the journalistic works and popular biographies the obligation to execute which he seems deeply to have resented); I bought those and read them immediately, and then ordered two in French translation, Lefeu, ou la démolition and Charles Bovary, médecin de campagne. The first I gave away unread to a friend and the second I failed to finish, largely, I think, because that particular edition was of an awkward, oblong shape, uncomfortable to hold; but also because I was busy with other things.

Years later, I began translating, wisely without any thought of monetary benefit, but rather because I was coming across an increasing number of writers whose absence, partial or compete, from the anglophone literary imagination struck me as lamentable. I had the somewhat naive idea of addressing this shortcoming; and anyway, to translate them kept me from cheating while I read, because I was disallowed from passing over anything.

Jean Améry was one of the writers whose obscurity I found most reprehensible. It is not that his work is unknown; perhaps worse, its recognition is fragmentary and colored by the Améry’s Jewishness and his Holocaust experience which, while of relevance, do not exhaust its scope. When he was a young man, he was elated to see his writings praised by Robert Musil, and he seems to have been convinced, even if this assurance was vitiated by doubts about his capacities that preceded his torture and incarceration—doubts that were common to writers in the western world when an acquaintance with one’s literary forebears, and not mere raw authenticity, to use Trilling’s term, was thought obligatory for those disposed to exercise literary craft—that a future in letters was waiting for him. But his late youth—a time of gestation, of the acquisition and shedding of influences, of bluster and misgivings—was aborted; torture, imprisonment, and forced labor in Auschwitz transformed him in a matter of years from a brash stripling into an aged infirm; an impression that is double confirmed insofar as, removed from the web of friendships and favoritism that is, in all likelihood, more important to a writer’s success that talent and sedulity, compelled to take up residence in a country neither of whose languages he could call his own, and grappling, moreover, with the recent death of his beloved and the Philoctetian wounds the death camps had left in his heart, Améry did not embark on his true vocation until he was nearly sixty years of age.

A year ago I wrote an essay on Améry for Asymptote, in the hope of showing English-speaking readers that the scope of his work extended past the justly famous essays on Auschwitz, aging, and suicide, and I translated the suicide notes he left behind for his wife, the police, and the staff of the Hotel Österreichischer Hof, where he was found dead. Recently I was offered to submit a selection from an ongoing project of my choice to Dalkey Archive’s Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Améry’s book on Charles Bovary came immediately to mind.

The section I decided on, Die Wirklichkeit Charles Bovarys, is slightly thorny to the extent that it centers on the German word Wirklichkeit, which variously describes reality as a general condition, the realist esthetic for which Flaubert is famous, and actuality—the term I wished to use for the chapter’s title, as it strikes me an apter description for the lived condition of a person, but which I discarded because it was ill-fitted to the other considerations in the chapter. Mulling over my options, I picked up my old copy of the French version to see what its translator had done.

I found the style of the French quite different from the original’s, not necessarily to its detriment. In Améry’s essays, there is a play of abruptness and elegance that mitigates his erudite and often peremptory tone, giving it a humbler and more personal aspect. In his fiction, the same technique can prove clunky and even grating. In the French version there is an overall lighter feel, at once chattier and more musical, the tone of someone who must have grown up reading La Fontaine (or not; perhaps this is only an imaginative projection).

Great quantities of ink and thought, if rather more of the first than the second, have been devoted to the meaning of fidelity in translation. This is typical of the baleful tendency in the humanities to try and kill off its motley irreducibility in favor of an authoritative posture reminiscent at once of scientists and bureaucrats, according to which art, poetry, and prose, those safe havens of the embattled soul, are becoming ever-more sanitized and uncongenial. If translation is an art, as so many of its advocates contend, then the choices of translators and the preferences of their readers are contingent upon sensibilities that are largely immune to methodical codification.

For example, I have read Josef Winkler’s Wenn es soweit ist in four versions: the German original, Miguel Sáenz’s Spanish, Bernard Banoun’s French, and my own English. To state a preference from among them would be to assert that the solutions hit upon to the problems presented by the text were more proper in one case than in the others. In fact I thought the French and Spanish translations excellent, regardless of their differences or their divergences from the original text. Such departures are often culturally justified, even requisite, to render a book suitable to foreign readers.

To be more specific: the numerous German verbs that share the same stem, the meaning of which is determined by a prepositional affix, often have direct counterparts in the phrases verbs of English, excessive reliance on which yields a text that becomes, over the course of several pages, diffuse and even colloquial. With Latinate languages, the opposite occurs: resort to the first synonym suggested by the source text will result in a translation so rife with polysyllables as to seem at once pompous and etiolated, rather like Business English.

No native English speaker can fail to be bored when confronted with a Spanish orator: the apparently limitless adduction of examples, clarification by accretion of synonyms, the resort to a solemnity that seems inevitably to surpass by several degrees the importance of the occasion, combined with the customary lack of air conditioning, cannot but bring one to the verge of tears. And yet it is clear that in its context, this is the right way to speak and that it is we, the listeners, who have fallen into a kind of error which also has great relevance for the theme of translation. If eloquence is demonstrated in a certain way in a given culture, this must be honored when carrying over eloquence from another culture in which its expression is otherwise; to fail to do so is a graver infidelity than toying with a writer’s lexicon or syntax.

Yesterday I was translating an interview from Italian. I always do a first, very bad draft in which every word of the original is rendered literally and the structure of the sentence is represented clearly in English regardless of grammaticality, then I go back and clean it up. The preponderance of quindi, infatti, piuttosto, anzitutto, which I trust to have been appropriate in the original, quickly became intolerable in translation and had to be omitted or reconfigured. The leniencies of languages are broadly divergent. Even a single tongue may lack consensus in this matter: to Latin Americans, the frequent resort to the imperative in continental Spanish appears brusque, whereas many Spaniards find Latin Americans’ frequent employment of what appears an overly polite register tube cloying, suspect, and possibly duplicitous.

I have strayed too far from Améry.

After the war’s end, he settled in Belgium. His knowledge of French was exemplary, and France remained, till the end of his days, the beacon of his intellectual life, yet he never found a voice in that language adequate to what he wished to express, and remained chained to his mother tongue, the truculence and hatred that freighted it notwithstanding. On several occasions, he laments not having applied himself with greater diligence to his other languages.

If the French then is airier, more refined and expository, is this infidelity to Améry’s text, or merely a hewing to the French Améry might have written, had he been capable, or, if he was capable, as I believe him to have been, had he not been consumed by intimations of his own worthlessness? Might such a translation then comprise a service rendered to the spiritual reality of this deeply frustrated writer?

I have used the word expository on purpose here, to inspire thoughts, not only of exposition, but also of exposure, of denudement. The need to be known is a profound one and yet the trust in others, in continuity, and even in one’s own psychic and physical integrity necessary to lay oneself bare is often shattered in those who have been subject to trauma and degradation, and in many cases it can never be repaired. When I read Améry, particularly his fiction, the at-times misplaced curtness, the refusal of elaboration, is off-putting, and in translation, there is a temptation to smooth things out. Whether this is right or not, one cannot say; it is a question of the writer’s ultimate identity, his ontology. When we cry at a child’s dying, it is not only for the impotent immaculate being lying vulnerable on white cloth but also for the many-petalled flower of its possibilities that minute by minute are extinguished. Our voice is not our ideal voice but nor is it merely the distortions that have been effected upon this ideal by material forces that were directed toward our destruction.