Michael Hofmann by Keenan McCracken

Deep language, the “silver” figures of literature, and reader as pit canary.

Roth Manuscript

Detail from Joseph Roth’s manuscript for The Radetzky March. Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute.

My first dealings with Michael Hofmann were professional—or should have been. The publishing house I work for was printing one of his translations, and so I wrote to introduce myself.

What started formally—“Dear Mr. Hofmann”—quickly devolved into an embarrassingly ingratiating letter, in part detailing my love for his recent translation of Durs Grünbein’s Ashes for Breakfast, but also asking him for any reading recommendations. I’m not entirely sure what I expected back from someone who has established himself as the preeminent translator of German literature, not to mention a brilliant critic and poet. Even a selected résumé of Hofmann’s work is formidable: translations of Joseph Roth, Gottfried Benn, Franz Kafka, Peter Stamm, Wim Wenders, Wolfgang Koeppen; six collections of poems; decades of writing for the London Review of Books. I received in return a modest email of thanks. And a PS: “Have you read any Penelope Fitzgerald?”

While Hofmann is certainly best known as a translator here in the United States, his reviews in the LRB confirm that his criticism is some of the most incisive and beautifully composed in contemporary literature. At times incendiary and seemingly ruthless in his critiques—his now infamous takedown of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig goes so far to describe Zweig’s suicide note as boring and reading “more like an Oscar acceptance speech”—Hofmann’s criticism is unpredictable, informed, personal, sensitive to inscrutability.

His most recent collection of essays, Where Have You Been? (2014, FSG), a compilation of  reviews and essays from the past ten years on poetry, film, painting, and translation, is an ideal introduction to Hofmann’s tireless mind.

Keenan McCracken In Where Have You Been? you mention that you had a kind of ambivalent relationship to poetry when you were younger.

Michael Hofmann Yes, I felt sorry for it. To use the awful word, it was “inappropriate.” Or the awful phrase, “not fit for purpose.” It felt like the very last medium you would go to if you wanted to write about anything acute or actual or youthful or contemporary. When they asked me in my university interview what I’d been reading on the train, I said “Yeats, absurdly enough.” Then of course I couldn’t explain what was absurd about it, but it was that: the old-timeyness of it. The Irish Airman, but no trains in Yeats. There are some poets—pure poets, or purer poets, even in English—and they always had poetry in mind: I’m one of the other sort, I came round to it. I was a fish who crawled ashore. I wanted to write prose. As one does, as one ought.

KM You came to translation out of what you describe as a sense of unfulfillment.

MH I just always thought whatever poetry was to me, it wasn’t enough to make a life from. It didn’t seem anything like enough to have to show for myself and my time on earth. Not in my case. One is a plant, and one has to bear. And I’ve never thought of myself as anything particularly exquisite. So: bear more!

I started taking on translations to eke out the weeks and months of no poems. Then it very quickly got away from me. I originally proposed to do maybe a book or two a year. Very soon, I was doing much more. And then, who am I to do Kafka? A rude Russian once said to me, “poor Kafka.” Actually, lucky Kafka, but he wasn’t to know that!

KM You essentially have two native languages: German, your mother tongue, and English, which you first read and wrote in. You describe German as an open wound and English as a kind of salve. Is translation then a bridging of the disjunction that comes with inhabiting two different languages so fully?

MH I was being a bit flowery and a bit provocative, but yes, in their relation to me, certainly. If everything goes into English, or is told in English in the first place, then everything happens inside the same picture frame. There is nothing secret, nothing unusual, and you know how much children hate being “unusual.” At the very least, everything becomes communicable. Which is a start.

When my father came up to me in my little poem (called “Catechism”), of course he didn’t say “Are you here?” as I have him saying. He will have said something in German. Maybe “Bist du da?” A freer and better translation would have been “Oh, it’s you!” but I was having fun with a literal translation. As a result, he sounds ontological or something, and the poem is subtly relocated to Heaven, and I don’t exist … But of course there’s the mild pretense that our interactions or my family life was sort of English, or off-English, when all the time we spoke German at home.

KM There seems to be a kind of fetishism among certain translators to remain “faithful” to the text. You argue that translators contaminate the text, either knowingly or not, and, to a certain extent, you actually advocate for that contamination.

MH I think “faithful” is a perfectly brainless reflex. Most good translators don’t think like that. It expresses all the guilt and bad faith of translating: you’re writing a book, except—hang on—someone else wrote it first! Faithful is a pretense at virtue. It’s like producing your passport at a frontier. Ideally you wouldn’t be there at all, but at least you’re able to identify yourself and say what the purpose of your visit is. I think “faithful” is as overrated a category with regard to translation as “mistake” is. Translating isn’t really about either of those. It’s about making a believable surface—with the appearance of believable depths.

An eccentric schoolmaster told us there were no synonyms in English except “gorse” and “furze.” In a similar way, I could stand here and tell you there are no equivalents among languages, except for numbers, and maybe not even those. Is “vingt-et-un” the same as “twenty-one”? Or what about “quatre-vingt-dix” for “ninety”? Only up to a point. Their composition, their associations, are different. Prepositions are different, pronouns are certainly different, even articles are different, while nouns and verbs and adjectives are startlingly different. For instance, I love the title of someone’s literary memoir from the last century: Meine Freunde, die Kollegen. Great, great title. “My friends, the colleagues.” It doesn’t quite do, does it? Your basic assumption must be that there are no equivalents, and everything needs to be made afresh. (Maybe you end up calling it “My Life And Acquaintances”—“acquaintance” has something of the wounding quality that “Kollegen” has. Collegiality isn’t writ large in English.)

Now I don’t really come out of that—or any other—philosophical basis. I would just like things to be as interesting as possible. For me to do, for others to read. I think because of being bilingual, I perhaps like the idea of something like “deep language,” something being pushed idiomatically and in point of naturalness and vocabulary and verisimilitude deep into a language. I have a horror of a sort of back and forth translation; a shallow shuffle here, a shallow shuffle back. German into not-really-English and back into not-really-German. And so on, and ever worse. A vicious circle. Punctuation of course intact (even though a German comma isn’t the same as an English comma either). But that’s what the faithful brigade seems to me to propose. I think the better a translation, the more untranslatable it is; the harder to translate back out of it; the more it is driven into the fussy and beautiful and idiosyncratic little capillaries of language.

KM Do you feel that there’s an antipathy towards translators among most readers? I read an interview recently with a rather famous editor who said he no longer reads anything other than works written originally in English. He doesn’t like the idea that something is inevitably lost.

MH Lord, yes. I make a point of asking people who are reading translations if they happen to remember the name of the translator. Books they are currently reading. I’d be surprised if anyone has ever known. Huge resistance, huge antipathy. Not impressed by your famous editor, though. He would never have said that a hundred years ago. He’d have been too ashamed of himself. Not to mention the fact that his French would have been too good. What does he do for Cavafy? What does he do for Tolstoy? Does he think he understands all the English that’s put to him?! It’s much better to proceed on the assumption that everything is a translation, and a degree of loss is inevitable. Even if you’re reading Marianne Moore (on account of the plain American that cats and dogs can read)—perhaps especially if you’re reading Marianne Moore.

KM You shied away from translating poetry until about ten years ago. Recently you’ve done Durs Grünbein’s Ashes for Breakfast and the selected poems of Gottfried Benn. What made you finally start translating poetry?

MH There’s a simple answer, and a more elaborate answer. The simple one is my twentieth-century German anthology that I put together in 2005, or whenever it was. That necessitated me making numerous translations, just over a third of the book. Poems that hadn’t been translated before, or poems where I didn’t care for any of the extant versions, or I just fancied having a go at something myself. That allowed me to begin to think I could translate Gottfried Benn and Günter Eich, who are my personal stars out of that book. (With Durs, he seemed to have simply endless faith in me. He liked the idea of me so much, and we got along so well. It went on over many years, and I kept wondering and kept doubting, and he just said: “Go on, you can do it!”)

The more elaborate answer goes: for a long time it felt good to keep a sort of cordon sanitairebetween what I wrote and what I translated. So I wrote poems and translated novels, and wasn’t at all confused. Lately that hasn’t seemed to bother me anymore. In a sort of dangerous way, I think, Well, it’s all me. (Of course I don’t really! Though maybe I do think: It’s all writing … )

KM Your criticism often strikes me as more personal than disinterested, but you’re always very careful to consider the historical reception of the poets you write about. In this collection you devote a lot of energy to rescuing writers from fixed, prevailing opinions of their life and work. Ted Hughes seems like the most notable example, whom you cite as perhaps the greatest English poet since Shakespeare. Hughes has a pretty poor legacy here in the US. I guess, depending on the context, you have the ability to be either enormously sensitive to or entirely unfazed by the mythology that surrounds the writers you discuss.

MH I would like to think it’s disinterested as well. My purpose isn’t to build ramparts for my own poems—any more than it was, say, Randall Jarrell’s in his criticism. But what you say is interesting. I guess there’s no one constant tendency. Where there is some kind of plaque or encrustation, I scrape it away; where there isn’t I start another one. Sensitive to or unfazed by personal mythologies—I like to think you’re right. But I think the quest for knowledge or understanding is like that: you get rid of old accretions and build something of your own.
You don’t want to be a captive—or whatever the correct metaphor would be—to some preexisting hierarchy or scheme of values. Walk into it and accept it. Hughes is a great poet.

KM Is it difficult parsing and confronting the occasional failures of writers whom you respect, like Lowell? You seem to feel that Lowell was great in spite of himself.

MH Yes, it is a bit shocking! But I’m not left with a pecking order. It’s not a race or a beauty contest. The essays/reviews are mostly urgings or commendings or suggestions to the reader. I think I can’t on the basis of them say who’s the greatest of them all. With Lowell it’s the strange phenomenon that when he started to write, at seventeen or whenever, it seemed pretty much a random act of will. And by the end he became a subtle poet who wrote musically with a huge vocabulary. That’s finally what attracts and impresses me. “Bright sky, bright sky, carbon scarred with ciphers.”

KM When do you feel that criticism begins to accede to the status of art itself? Are there works of criticism you feel have achieved that status?

MH I believe in a kind of inadvertence or misplacing. I respect the argument in Keats and Edward Thomas that takes against things done “too much on purpose.” If what I write, even outside the agar or test tube of a poem, has durability, can be read even without knowledge of the subject, bears rereading, continues to speak, does more than give grades or smacks, is companionable, and done with ingenuity and subtlety and grace, then maybe I’m getting a little bit close. Freedom from aridity and jargon is always the first step. Thereafter, even critical writing can take its chances alongside torsos, fragments, diaries, inédits, things like Malcolm Lowry looking out of the window and seeing “all the lost prose.” It’s a kind of lost prose. I think that’s the genre. My models then would include people like Brodsky and Zagajewski. I like the way Geoff Dyer writes. Jarrell hasn’t lost anything in sixty years.

KM As a poet, critic, and translator, do you feel that one is primary?

MH It’s like paper, scissors, stone—and I know one of those is called something else in the US. Poetry is primary—it’s what I did first. But translation bulks up the oeuvre like nothing else! And it’s what I’m mostly known for. Far more people read me as a translator than anything else (and therefore can’t name me, in accordance with the little game I play). Meanwhile, reviewing is the socio-historical thing, the public thing, the playing with others, the tour of the horizon, perhaps it’s even some ideal blend of “me” and “not-me.” So all three have something. It’s the most wonderful trinity.

KM You take up the work of some neglected or underappreciated writers in the collection: Gottfried Benn perhaps stands out. Why do you think Benn has gone so long without recognition in the US?

MH I think always. No fun and little point in leaving the reader’s ignorance—if any—and views unchallenged. (Though, admittedly, many readers would like nothing better.) So I give to some reputations, and take away from others. As you said with the mythologies surrounding certain writers. “Mythologized, demythologized”—someone wrote, I can’t remember who. Oh, Heaney, “The Skunk.”

I think with Benn, the period of cozying up to the Nazis in 1933 and 1934 terrifies people. Americans are apt to think of books as potential contaminants anyway. “My God, I’m not reading a Fascist here, am I?” A little bit the same with Pound, who was much worse. Of course you have it with all of the modernists: Eliot, Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Joyce. But you have to read them. You have to read worse people than that. You have to read Céline. Worse people than that—I can’t think who at the moment. You can’t be bien-pensant and care about literature.

So Benn makes people nervous. (Not Germans, mind you, and the Germans make much better, more rational, more historically attuned pit canaries than Americans, who are far too skittish and jumpy. If there was any weighty case to be made against Benn, do you think the Germans wouldn’t have made it?!)

Even the other book, my sole competitor, sixty years ago, Primal Vision, is a nervous and somehow half-hearted presentation of Benn. I’m not in the least nervous of Benn, and not in the least half-hearted either. It’s so pathetically easy to see how he might have fallen in with the Nazis; and it’s just as easy to see that it makes no sense at all. They will have regretted it instantly, and as much as he did! So basically I have a very simple basis with Benn: I straightforwardly adore him—which incidentally “has tradition” too: with Oelze, his correspondent and patron, with Walter Lennig who wrote a wonderfully personal and warm monograph about Benn not long after he died. The earlier presentations of Benn in English were not just nervous, they were frigid as well. So, here’s something new for y’all, I thought.

KM You describe some of Benn’s work as unsusceptible to translation. Do you think that qualifies that work as minor? Does great poetry and fiction need to be able to transcend its original language and place in order to be considered great?

MH I’m so unprescriptive—minor, major. Probably I would instantly gravitate to the gray areas anyway, where the one shades into the other. The minor of the major, the major of the minor. (Like the outside of the inside, and the inside of the outside.) That’s where things are interesting. I think everyone I like—everyone I love—is there: Brodsky, Lowell, Montale, Koeppen, Roth. Simple, incontestable, upper-case major doesn’t interest me as a category or commodity. I don’t warm to it. I don’t know what to do around it. “Literature bores me,” says Berryman in “Dream Song 14,” and then the killer, “especially great literature.”

I have a theory that the greatest writer—greatest poet—of a given language won’t translate into many other languages, or only poorly. As examples, Shakespeare, Pushkin, Baudelaire, Leopardi until very recently, Goethe, Heine. The others do, not the golden figures, but the silver ones, and I’ve always liked silver better anyway. With Benn, the things that I find don’t translate—or certainly I can’t do them—are song. They’re 1950, but they could have been 1850, almost 1750. I do speech, I like speech. I don’t do song, I’m afraid, just as I don’t dance. But the “dance of the intellect among words”—Pound’s invention, logopoiea, that’s another matter!

Keenan McCracken is an Associate Editor at Other Press.

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