Baader-Meinhof in translation

This blog entry is going to be about yet another book that I haven’t read yet, one that is on the list but will have to wait until I’ve suffered through my own personal version of George “Slasher” Osborne’s austerity drive. (Hopefully I’ll come out of it on the other side with more robust finances to meet the challenges ahead, and not an utterly fucked bank balance with the threat of long-term unemployment.)

In common with most of the reading public, I bought and enjoyed “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink when it came out back in the heady days of 1997. It didn’t transport me or beat a new path for literature, but I thought it was an engrossing account of Germany’s Nazi legacy, and the attempts of the country to come to terms with it. I haven’t read anything else by Schlink, but his new novel, “The Weekend”, could have been written with me in mind, taking in as it does the poisonous (and, let’s be perfectly honest, dangerously glamorous) history of the Baader-Meinhof gang, the Marxist terrorist organisation properly known as the Red Army Faction. I’ve been fascinated by Baader-Meinhof ever since misanthropic pop legend Luke Haines named one of his side-project bands after them, and Stefan Aust’s superbly detailed history of the group is well worth reading (it was made into a reasonably good film a couple of years ago). Schlink’s book therefore ticks most of the boxes of “things I’m interested in”, but what has really fascinated me about it was the fairly equivocal review it received on Radio 4’s Saturday Review yesterday. The guest critics agreed that it didn’t really work as a novel, and existed more as a philosophical discussion, a Socratic dialogue between the different political positions that Baader-Meinhof had forced people into taking back in the 1970s. On the whole, they didn’t like it, but one of the critics (I think it was Louise Doughty, but I can’t be sure) said that when she was at a literary festival in Germany, all the political pub-discussions that inevitably followed the readings sounded exactly as Schlink has portrayed them here. Doughty suggested that their disappointment with the novel was perhaps an example of cultural dissonance; what they expected the novel to do was based on an Anglo-American experience of serious literature, and this expectation was not necessarily what the German or European novel would try to fulfil.

This would be an interesting aside in itself, but it got me thinking again about one of my major literary preoccupations, which is the validity or otherwise of translated fiction. While it’s perfectly normal for the vast bulk of anyone’s reading to be in their native language, I think it’s also a reasonable assumption that most of that reading would also be from your native linguistic tradition. The benefit of speaking English is that this tradition is overwhelmingly large – it includes English and Scottish literature obviously, but also includes American, Australian, Canadian, and most Indian literature as well. (And New Zealand – I’ve always liked Janet Frame.) I’ve never been entirely comfortable reading translated writing (writing translated into English from French, say, or German, Russian etc) because what you are reading is in no way what the author has written. No matter how skilled the translator, you are reading something converted into someone else’s words. This is less of a problem if the writer being translated is stylistic reticent or spare – Zola is supposed to translate well into English from the French, his journalistic style lending itself to a terse English rhythm – but the range of translations and revisions undertaken on Proust’s masterpiece demonstrates the difficulties when dealing with a more idiosyncratic style. This is mostly my fault, I accept, and Adam Thirlwell’s profound study of this very question (“Miss Herbert”) went a long way towards assuaging my concerns. But it’s not something I’ve been entirely able to shake, that you’re reading someone’s idea of a book, and not the book the author sweated over him- or herself.

Any comments, please make them below.


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