City of Angels: or the overcoat of Dr. Freud, the final novel from German writer Christa Wolf, weaves us in and out of the life of anaging German writer who embarks on a year long journey of self-discovery. The narrator of the novel finds herself in Los Angeles among the rows of palm trees and an unwavering sun. It is here, in the city of angels, that Wolf’s spare prose and wit shines. Observing her surroundings and the quirks of American life, the narrator wonders how spies should dress, how to make small talk in elevators, combo dinners at sushi bars, and what to do with one-armed bandits (slot machines). As she asks a colleague whether or not what she is doing is typically German, she notes that question was, in itself, typically German. These perceptive observations from a foreigner add a keen whimsy to the book.
Translation is both an art and a science. When I find humor in foreign writing I often feel I want to tip my hat to the translator, for they are skillful enough to retain the author’s voice and, I’m guessing here, clever enough to ensure the book makes me laugh in my own language.
I recently met with Damion Searls, the English translator of this novel, who has described his past works on authors like Thoreau, Rilke, and Nescio, as “labors of love.” I met with the acute writer on a grey day in February at a café in Park Slope to discuss his close read and intense work with Christa Wolf’s final novel.
Larissa Zimberoff How did you first come to City of Angels?
Damion Searls Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux knew me and asked me to do a reader report on the German version of the book. Reader reports are interesting because they don’t necessarily take my opinion. I give them enough information to decide on their own. For this one, I think it’s her best book, or at least one of her very, very best books.
LZ That brings up another question, how familiar were you with her work?
DS Pretty familiar. I hadn’t read all of her books, but I knew who she was, what she was about and what she was important for. She has a very wide-ranging body of work: classical, political, feminist, and historical memoir-y stuff. Patterns of Childhood I think is the center of her work, which is her complicated autobiography of growing up as a Nazi girl. I thought the LA time capsule stuff (’92-’93) was just great. The LA Riots, the Bush/Clinton election that I hadn’t thought about, I mean it’s hilarious when she talks to the liberals in the book.
LZ Did you get to collaborate with Christa on this book?
DS No, I didn’t. It’s a bit of a regret. I think this book is very winning and really makes her seem like a good person. And I don’t mean “seem like,” I mean, she is.
LZ So you don’t look to collaborate with the authors of the work you’re translating?
DS I tend to do classic writing, which often means dead authors. I have one or two warm email relationships with authors, but the majority that I have translated are no longer alive: Rilke, Hesse, and Thoreau.
LZ I thought she was witty. How do you keep your German skills to the level where you still capture the wit?
DS Well, there is a range of spectrums that translators can be on, the super fluent, maybe even a native speaker in the language or super academic to the other side of the spectrum, where they don’t know German at all but can do the translation anyways. I mean, I do know German but I’m closer to the second side. I think it’s most important to be a good writer and to be a good reader in the sort of spiritual, artistic or deep sense. In other words you have to get access to the core of the voice of what you’re doing and you don’t have to be an expert in the language to do that. If you can do that and write well in English, that is the core of where I translate from.
LZ In the book there was a great deal that was already in English.
DS Yes, all of the italics were in English in the original. That was kind of interesting. She gets some English wrong, which brings up a good question, What do you do? For instance, she quotes a cab driver at the airport saying “You are welcome, madam” which no cab driver would say. It’s “You’re welcome, ma’am.” But she missed that, and I guess her German editor missed that too. And the question is, do you keep that? Do you translate her English into English. I decided to do the latter, the point of having the cab driver saying “Welcome madam” speaks more to her English and to leave it as such seems like more of a gotcha, than being artistically valuable. I mean clearly she’s putting the English in for the texture and because she finds it interesting and there’s no point of putting it in there [if it’s] wrong. It’s also distracting to American readers who might find it bizarre. There are some other things, like she gets a seafood salad and it’s one word because that’s how it would have been in German, I did finish translating her English into English which is not usually a translation job. Sometimes she gets American culture kind of wrong, but sometimes she’s super perceptive about things I wouldn’t notice like a couch has two end tables and two lamps. I didn’t know that was an American thing, I just thought that was normal. Or how big our apartments are.
LZ There was one thing that threw me, it was the “little machine.” I’m curious about what that was, was it a computer or a typewriter?
DS I’m glad you brought that up. I wanted to call it a word processor but the editor insisted on the more literal translation. It wasn’t a computer, but it was a big boxy computer that you could only do word processing with. Brother was the brand. So that’s what it was, and I wanted to call it a word processor, we argued but I finally let it go.
LZ Were there any other words that tripped you up, or that you argued about?
DS It’s not the actual words that are hard to translate. And, the more technical it is, the more there is just one possible word. The kind of thing that trips me up is the “satin bomber jacket” that the journalist wears. I don’t know that. That’s the kind of thing I’ll ask my wife, because that’s not a native German speaker question, that’s a native English speaker question. Like, okay, so there’s this character and she’s trashy and she’s wearing this and this and she says oh that sounds ’80s and I’m like right and then there’s this jacket that’s described and she’ll say it’s a bomber jacket. So that’s the stuff that’s hard to translate.
LZ It’s the scrunchy.
DS Totally. Because scrunchy will sound terrible if you say heavily pleated hair tie, which might be what the German word is … so in this book there is stuff where she talks about specific German words and their multiple meanings, and I’m glad you didn’t notice that you do have to put in extra words to get it across. My goal was to keep the surface smooth and make it not seem like I’ve thrown a boulder in there and you’re stopping to read a footnote or something. As long as I kept the voice sounding right, I can do that in German.
LZ Since you’re writing in someone else’s style, I thought you achieved a voice that seemed suitable to an older German woman. You achieved a spare voice, which I really enjoyed. Did her German read like that?
DS I think the basic thing about this book, it’s about everything, it darts everywhere in human experience, without it being difficult or unreadable, it’s just so masterful, she’s so good at it. In the way that Philip Roth is good. She can take you everywhere. It’s interesting that you call it spare. That’s not how I usually think of it. I think of it as transparent. She didn’t add stuff. It’s that she’s so poised and she’s able to make her points so subtly and because she’s able to make her points you just kind of go everywhere with her without noticing. I mean, if you go back and read five pages you’ll suddenly realize you’ve been brought from margaritas, to exiles, to East German exiles, to holocaust survivors, to her friend in the office, to her back problem. In five pages you go so far and you don’t notice it because she manages it all so well. I think that’s how I think of the voice of this book.
LZ As a writer, do you learn from your process of translation?
DS I think for me I learn as a writer by reading, and translation is a very intense way of reading. My book of short stories, even though you don’t find out until the end, but every story is a re-work of someone else’s story. It’s a very translator-y project. And I feel I have a very translator-y imagination. In that what I am doing as a writer is taking stuff that comes in to me and sharing it back out, I don’t see this inner voice out of nowhere inside me that I want to gush into the world, which I think of as the non-translator imagination. I see it as, I am relaying stuff that I have experienced, from life and books. So, it’s connected in my writing.
LZ So, you’re not a mind reader?
DS All novelists are mind readers. I feel I react to experience as opposed to producing experience. In that sense the practice of translation … I don’t feel that I’ve consciously written a scene because I’ve translated something like it before. I’ve translated Proust, so I can probably write lush lyrical sentences better if I want to, as a result of that, but it’s not like I’m consciously deciding to write a Proust sentence necessarily. It limbers up the toolbox, in terms of different kinds of sentences.
LZ This may connect to our discussion of your fixing some of Wolf’s English mistakes, do you feel you are part of the authorship of this English translation?
DS That’s a common translator issue or question. I mean, I did write all the sentences. So, it depends on what you think of authorship as being. There are books where I feel like that more strongly, either because I made the style readable which is an important part of what the book is. I abridged Thoreau’s journal. I feel I am responsible for that, even though I wrote none of the sentences, I just edited it. Thoreau’s journal was 7,000 pages and my version is 700. It was a labor of love. That’s a similar way in which I have ownership. Up until a few years ago, I was always picking the translation projects because they were all labors of love, they didn’t pay very much.
I think in that curatorial sense I feel ownership, it’s one of the ways that it’s part of my creative career, all these translations that I do, I’m curating Rilke and Christa Wolf and Thoreau and Proust, whom no one would think of together, necessarily, as well as Nescio and Herman Hesse, and others. It’s like that Borges essay, Kafka and His Precursors, that these six people had nothing in common until Kafka came along, and once he did we thought of them as all Kafkaesque and totally similar to Kafka, but no one recognized anything that they had in common until Kafka came along. So, in my lesser way, I’m turning Nescio and Proust and Wolf and Hesse, with my voice, I am showing the element that they have in common.
I do feel that, as you heard with the “little machine” answer, your question about ownership, it’s not like I’ve taken it over and it’s mine. But I do feel that ownership in a way that writers do too. Nothing about the plot or structure or the characters, because that stuff you don’t change. Where there’s a chapter break in the book is where there’s a chapter break. Which is not true of abridging. My Rilke book I sequenced and also chose the pieces for. Sometimes you do structural creation as a translator or editor but with a novel, it’s as long as it is and you don’t have control over that. But I can still feel proud of sentences. I think it comes across to you the way it does because of how I read it and because of being able to write in a way that conveys that; and those two aspects are ways in which I feel ownership.
LZ Do you feel that to get to the heart of the text you have to betray the text?
DS No, not at all, because I’ve read it and it moved me in German. Therefore it can move an American reader, and all I have to do is do that. I think people ask that question to translators who are working on untranslatable things and in certain elements you have to destroy it, but, as I wrote in my essay, Mamihlapinatapai and Plek: A Critical Essay about Translation, you’re only betraying the stuff that you decide matters less. In the essay I say that translators gerrymander, they tune in to what works for the reader and decide that that’s what they preserve at all costs. So, if it’s something about the rhythm and there’s no way to put a footnote in without ruining it, then you make sure you do it without a footnote. It just means you’re translating for rhythm and not something else.
One of my lines in that essay is that it’s like life. You decide what matters to you, sometimes it’s a joke, sometimes it’s a rhyme scheme, sometimes it’s a plot point, and sometimes it’s technical accuracy. As a translator I am making my choice as a reader about what’s most important, and if I’m a good translator then that’s what gets across.