The Translator Martin Chalmers

I met the translator Martin Chalmers in the fall of 2013 in Berlin. I had written him in advance of my coming, in case he might have time for a coffee; I had left my previous employment only a few months before, with the possibly quixotic but at least up to this point practicable notion of translating professionally, and I was eager for whatever counsel I might glean from more seasoned practitioners. Martin had translated one of my favorite short stories, Is it a Comedy? Is it a Tragedy? by Thomas Bernhard, as well as several novels by Elfriede Jelinek, a writer I pretend to like, because there does seem to be something meritorious in her project, though in fact her books exasperate me. That said, I have never forgotten the part in Women as Lovers, Martin’s translation of Die Liebhaberinnen:

they sew. they sew foundations, brassieres, sometimes corsets and panties too. often these women marry or they are ruined some other way.

I had a certain curiosity to ask Martin about an unkind review of Greed, his translation of Jelinek’s novel Gier, by Nicholas Spice in the London Review of Books. Toward the end of what is actually one of the better essays on her work in English, the author devotes a paragraph to lambasting Chalmers’s version:

With its constant shifts of tone and register, the slippery sideways movement of thought through wordplay and punning, the frequent allusions to other German texts, the idiom of Greed poses almost insuperable obstacles to good translation. Jelinek herself took years to translate Gravity’s Rainbow and it would take a comparable labour of love to translate Gier adequately. As it is, doubtless under tight economic constraints, the publishers have paid for a hit-and-miss, standard, ‘by the page’ translation and the result is a disaster. It’s hard to imagine that Jelinek’s reputation in the English-speaking world will ever recover. It would have been better to have left the novel untranslated.

When we touched on the topic, though, Martin said he would have liked more time to work on the book. He did not seem uncomfortable with the topic, but I saw no point in pursuing it. I have the translation open on my desktop now; I do not see what is so contemptible about it, though I am not comparing it to the original. In any case, six years after the essay in the London Review of Books, it seems clear the book did no damage whatsoever to Jelinek’s standing, which is more secure in the Anglophone world now than in the opprobrious aftermath of her reception of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004.

(In passing: how often, in reviews of translation, does cursory allusion to the original text or to some often trifling solecism serve mainly as a surreptitious allusion to the writer’s own linguistic facility? And is not such dysphemism over allegedly bad translations perhaps misplaced? It is fashionable now to kick the corpses of Constance Garnett, Helen Lowe-Porter, and C.K. Scott Moncrieff, but I would not care to imagine the impoverished state of twentieth-century English-language letters, let alone my own intellectual development, had their work not existed. Even a less than ideal translation is often a bridge to the original. No translation of Dante renders the complex sonority of the end of Canto V, “E caddi come corpo morto cade.” And yet I knew no Italian when I first noticed this line in the bilingual edition of the Divine Comedy translated by John D. Sinclair. Because it was an en-face version, I could manage a fumbling approximation to the original. Probably many are spurred to learn a language by the insight into such discrepancies afforded by what are often decried as inferior translations.)

When I first wrote Martin, he replied he was in Oregon visiting his daughter, and I answered something about the wine there –– a perennial point of interest for me. He said he had just read the curiously titled Die Realität, so sagen, als ob sie nicht wäre, oder die Wutausbrüche der Engel. We met in Berlin shortly after he had left the hospital. He lived near the Hermannstraße metro stop. Like most Americans, I have a poor sense of geography, in the abstract sense of locating Tajikistan on a map and the concrete one of finding a destination and then finding my way back from it. From the days when our cities were founded as grids of numbered avenues and streets marking off blocks of uniform size to the present, where an application guides us between two points and we navigate by looking into the palm of our hand rather than at our surroundings, the American relationship to space has consisted rather of imposition than of interrelation, and European cities, with their curving roads responding not to the needs of the incoming stranger but to historical circumstances of which I am normally quite ignorant, always leave me perplexed; particularly Berlin, where the avenues are so long and their curves so gentle that they often delude you into thinking they run straight. As soon as I left the station I got lost and I arrived to Martin’s building several minutes late

His apartment had a bohemian aspect that reminded me of the communal houses where a close friend of mine had lived in West Philadelphia. His office had a large television beside which was a box of DVDs for a television series –– The Wire? –– and floor-to-ceiling shelves. He explained he had been in the hospital and wasn’t feeling well, although his doctor had advised him to move around. He mentioned how much he paid for his health insurance –– it seemed staggeringly costly; I believed the cliché, widespread among Americans that residents of Europe enjoy unlimited free healthcare.

We met twice: once we went for an ice cream and a coffee, and another time for a beer and a retsina. I cannot separate the meetings clearly in my mind, though I believe one was in the early afternoon and one a bit later. He talked to me about the resort town in the Crimea where he’d been, I believe because his partner, a translator, was to attend a conference there; about a house the two of them either had owned or continued to own in Hungary, possibly his partner’s country of origin. We talked about the advantages and disadvantages of life in continental Europe and the differences between Spain, where my wife is from, and Germany. He went to a market to buy some cheeses; it took an inordinately long time before we were served, and I was bothered by the everpresent yellowjackets. He pointed to a long series of elegant homes, which he explained had belonged to the managers of the railways in the early twentieth century, and he talked about the many buildings that had housed both workshops and the workers employed there. We went to a wine shop where he bought a Riesling and something else, one of the lesser German varieties, a Sylvaner or Kerner maybe –– he found white wines more agreeable, he said –– and I decided against a good but expensive bottle, a Ribera del Duero, Bodegas Alión, I think, either for reasons of economy or not to appear extravagant.

He had little advice to offer, beyond the inducement to demand fair payment. I have heard the same numerous times. It is a delicate matter: established translators are no doubt correct in fearing that a crop of eager upstarts, willing to work for little or nothing, is likely to chip away at their income in the long term; if, however, an inexperienced translator demands the same sort of contract terms as a highly sought-after one, publishers have little incentive to take a gamble on the former. There has to be some flexibility. A translator cannot hope to succeed without attracting some sort of notice, and this is often impossible without a period of working for free or for a pittance; however, many publishers, particularly certain small ones who consider the nobility of their artistic mission to exempt them from the responsibility of establishing themselves as a fair and viable enterprise, are more than happy to let idealistic writers and translators work for nothing or for royalties that never actually materialize.

We talked a bit about Sebald, Chalmers said he had tried to convince Serpent’s Tail to publish Sebald in the early nineties, he said he admired Sebald but that Sebald’s borrowings were far more obvious in German than in English, and that prejudiced his reception in the German-speaking world; he also felt he had been unnecessarily cruel in his essay on Alfred Andersch.

He expressed great enthusiasm for cinema, but I could not follow much of what he said, I don’t have my own opinion about films, which I almost never see, I depend on those of my wife, who watches everything.

Edmund White says it is always the minor writers who matter to us most. I think of this as I read the incidental pieces collected on Martin’s webpage. In tone, they remind me a great deal of Michael Hamburger’s little-known but quite beautiful memoirs, String of Beginnings, which in their turn have about them something of the economical clarity of the first chapter of another minor classic, Harold Nicolson’s Some People. They say nothing, and that is what is so striking about them: their irreducibility. Shklovsky says that a machine has no place in art, because it takes shortcuts. When I think if Knausgaard, who has become famous and whom I have been reading these past three weeks, it occurs to me that so capacious a work allows for a great deal of error, the shortcomings are lost in the work’s magnitude. It cannot be like this for a translator; every translator is of necessity a miniaturist, no matter how long the original text in question, the work succeeds or fails on the basis of the fine details and the harmony they establish; and this feeling for fine detail and the slowness Shklovsky deems necessary for art are evident in Martin’s casual writing.

In the era of hashtag activism translation has become much more prominent, there is the #namethetranslator campaign, and  many advocate for translators to receive what is said to be their due recognition. This is not something I can complain about, because it is to my benefit as well, and yet what attracted me to translating early on was the humility of the office, its relationship to craft in the old sense. The precedence taken by listening over speaking.

Through tortuous channels I heard that Martin was unwell and I wanted to devote a few words to him here in thanks and admiration.