Brian Zumhagen has a commanding and mellifluous voice — it’s true. Weekend news anchor at WNYC, he’s kept countless New Yorkers well informed for almost a decade. But you haven’t heard Zumhagen until you’ve heard him order pancakes. We recently sat down for breakfast at an uptown diner and talked about his latest — and most surprising — project: the German-to-English translation of Benjamin Stein’s formally challenging, ambitious, and provocative novel, The Canvas. It’s a novel that has made quite a splash in Germany and is now a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary European literature. It’s also Zumhagen’s very first translation. Then again, given his long personal and professional history with that nation and its language, maybe it’s no surprise after all.
I saw Zumhagen and Stein read together at NYU’s Deutsches Haus on a weekday evening in October. The next morning, under the influence of 2nd Ave. subway construction and lots and lots of strong coffee, we talked about how Zumhagen got involved in the translation process, the role of Facebook in that process, specialized orthodox vocabularies, and the saving grace of certain Tina Turner lyrics.
Scott Cheshire: Could you tell me how you came to know about The Canvas?
Brian Zumhagen: It was a through a real accident of nature. I was in Germany on a fellowship for environmental journalists to go over there and be introduced to Germany’s public and private efforts to encourage sustainable construction. I was the only person there who wasn’t a seasoned environmentalism journalist. At the beginning of the trip I read an article about Benjamin Stein and the book. And the article sort of stayed with me. Anyway, fittingly, for a bunch of environmentalist journalists, we then got stuck under the great volcanic ash cloud of 2010. Stuck in Berlin for a week. So I decided to get the book and read it. I thought it was riveting.
How long have you been going there?
Almost 25 years now. I was an exchange student back in 1987. That’s how it all started. And before I had a family I would go back every couple of years to try and keep up with it. Now, having kids, I’ll go if I have work over there, or a fellowship like this last one.
Do you have family there?
No. I have a German name, but it’s a nineteenth century immigrant’s name. It was the language I learned in high school, and when I was given the chance to be an exchange student I chose there because I wanted to see it. One of the reasons I was so attracted to the book is because I had lived in West Germany in the 1980s, when education about the Nazi period and the Holocaust was being implemented widely. The way I experienced it at that time, Jews were seen primarily as an abstraction, as a loss. And reading a Jewish diaspora novel from Germany that puts all of that into a contemporary and living context had a profound effect on me. I also really liked the way Benjamin Stein uses elements of his own experience in the East Germany of the 1980s.
Last night, you mentioned that while first reading the book you already started thinking about how to handle certain language issues. That’s kind of remarkable, no?
I love the German language, and I’ve always had that that kind of relationship with it. It’s a very conscious relationship and I’m always thinking about linguistic problems and how German relates to English. And so it wasn’t a totally new experience for me, but it was the first time I’d read a book that way. And I don’t know why. I guess I just knew I would end up doing this.
How did you go from fan to translator? And how has it been working with the publisher Open Letter?
I just got really lucky. When I came back to the US after reading Die Leinwand, I became a fan of Benjamin Stein on Facebook. Not long after that, he posted something saying that Chad [Post, Director of Open Letter] had blogged that he hoped someone would translate The Canvas. I responded to Chad directly. I sent in some sample chapters, and they forwarded it to Benjamin. He liked what I had done, and from there it happened very quickly. I don’t know how common it is for a first-timer to get an opportunity to translate a great book like this one, especially one the press is so excited about. I was uniquely qualified to do it because of my background, but they could have easily gone with someone else. I’m perfectly thrilled to be associated with them. I think the physical book Open Letter has come up with is beautiful. I know Benjamin prefers it to the layout of the German edition. It’s a great thing they’re doing.
Were there any particular linguistic problems that made you want to tackle this?
Probably not, because I was sort of able to choose what I found interesting as I read, and I wasn’t imagining that I would translate the whole book. Once I started working on the book, it was like, hell, now I have to actually translate everything.
Pretty overwhelming, I bet.
I’d totally forgotten from that first read how many problems I was having with the specialized vocabulary. When I started working on one scene that involves watch repair, I thought to myself, wait, I have to figure out what all these particular terms mean. And that just kept happening. Oh hell, the rowing part. Oh hell, the part about building violins. I think maybe that was the most difficult: the real difference between a lacquer and varnish, between mastic, sandarac, and copal. I spoke with a violin builder and he had a talk with me about how several different parts of the violin are called different names in other parts of the world. I had to learn how to describe the kinds of cracks in the wood. It was hard to find the information.
So you had to educate yourself on different subject matters so you would know what specific language to use.
Yes, and there are a couple of layers to that like figuring out the words we don’t use much, or learning how specific processes are described. I have to say, Benjamin was of great help because he actually knew some about, say, watch repair because he often had to go to English sources and then translate back to German. I spoke with a Brit and an American about crew rowing even though I wanted to stick with U.S. usage. I consulted with a jeweler to learn about demantoids. The jeweler told me I was off when describing the way a gem shines. I had translated literally, and he said it wasn’t wrong exactly but the English term they would use was “fire and brilliance.”
Not to mention all the specialized religious language.
I consulted with one friend who is Modern Orthodox who also studies Yiddish, so he’s got a pretty good understanding of how people in different Orthodox circles would describe certain things in English. This was important because I wanted to use the going language, and especially because the two narrators have different levels of orthodoxy. Some of those things are built into the book like Zichroni being from a Haredi family and being Ashkenazi — he uses Ashkenazi pronunciation for Hebrew terms like tzitzes. Whereas Whechsler is relatively new to orthodoxy so he calls them tzitzit, the more Sephardic pronunciation, which has become more standard. And Wechsler says Jerusalem, whereas Zichroni says Yerushalayim. And in this case, the Internet, as bad a source it can be, is great for seeing if certain people use certain phrases. Like does anybody literally say “Dreams follow the mouth?”
I hope so. I love the phrase.
It turns out they do. And there were certain things that I knew as a former Yiddish scholar. For example my editor wanted me to change the word “learning” to “studying” in places where narrator Amnon Zichroni was talking about his education with Torah and Talmud. I said no, because in that atmosphere they use “learn” in a way that comes from Yiddish. It’s used in a different way, and it’s used that same way in German. And here too Benjamin was very helpful. There was a section dealing with one of the Talmud tractates, which I couldn’t find, and Benjamin was able to tell me the exact page and line. There was a kind of colloquial phrase used, people were “running down someone’s name.” I had to find a way to translate the saying.
In the case of an idiom like that, I’m sure you’re worried about losing meaning with an English version.
Any translator, or anyone who reads translation knows there will always be a loss. And there are certain things you can’t do it at all. You can use a new idiom and hope it’s not too bound up with your own particular moment in time. There are those cases when you know the translator was trying to be a little too hip. That’s really painful. There’s one expression where Whechsler is talking about going to Spain and he takes a bunch of unsolicited manuscripts with him in a suitcase, and he throws it out. And the expression is der Koffer mußte dran glauben, or “the suitcase had to believe in it.” What the hell does that mean? It actually means the suitcase had to go, that it had to die. It’s a euphemism that sounds like the suitcase is getting its last rights. I wound up choosing the suitcase had to “bite the dust” because it has a similar meaning and has a similar gangsterish feel. I guess that’s the one point where twenty years from now it may seem a little cheesy, I hope not.
But in the book it also has the feel of an antiquated expression still in use.
Yes, and it’s that way in German as well. That kind of thing was fun. I don’t think anything in the book required too great a sacrifice. Which is why Benjamin’s so happy with it. And most of the things that were really challenging linguistically were interesting to do. And most of them came up in chapter two. The biggest problem: Whechsler quotes a German translation of a Polish poem, and in that translation is a play on words that only exists only in the German, and it becomes central to his own explanation of life in East Germany. “They live in the basements of huge tenement houses, and only the shop-sign WRINGER HERE betrays their presence” — In the German, mangel means “shortage,” as in the food shortage sense, but it also means “wringer,” as in pressing rollers used for pressing water our of clothes. I could have used the British term, “mangle,” which means the same thing, but then I’d be going with UK usage when the rest of the book is American usage. And then I found that “Wringer” is in the English translation by Czeslaw Milosz. And you don’t argue with Milosz. The problem then is than that I had to invent a new sentence, reveal the proscenium arch a little bit, and explain to the reader that in German the word for “wringer” is the same for “shortage.” This is the last thing you want to do.
I don’t recall that particular moment in the book so it must have been pretty seamless.
It’s not a perfect solution because it interrupts the flow of narrator Jan Wechsler, but it’s fine.
How did Stein respond to it? I’m guessing he appreciated how faithful you were.
He was fine with it because it retained the meaning. I had to make a radical move but it worked out well. In that same chapter there was a more fun radical move, in which I had to quote Tina Turner. And in a way that does not appear in the original.
This one I remember!
There’s a section when Wechsler’s wife is cataloging all of her book purchases, and Wechsler comments on the stories the inscriptions in her books tell. In one used book that she found at a flea market, there’s a loving dedication between two women, and he wonders what may have happened? Did somebody die? Did the relationship end? Wechsler’s wife, in the original, says, “Someone has sold their heart out for cheap.” This is the expression. And immediately I thought of Tina Turner’s “what’s love but a secondhand emotion,” because the German here, vertrödeln, contains the word for junk like you’d find at a flea market. So what Wechsler’s wife is literally saying is, someone has second-handed her heart. The closest thing in English would be “someone has trifled her heart away,” but nobody talks like that, and it doesn’t sound antiquated in the German. It’s too lofty. Nobody in the novel is saying anything like “forsooth methinks someone hath trifled away her heart.” I really hated the way it sounded. So finally I asked to Benjamin if he thought Wechsler’s wife would quote Tina Turner. I’m not sure he completely grasped what I was asking at that moment. So I went with: “I guess sometimes love really is a second-hand emotion.” Not a literal translation but it got to the heart of what she was saying. And he thought it was perfect.
Well I remember it because for me it was charming, in that way when a non-English speaker makes an English pop culture reference and they don’t get it quite right. They often say it better.
Plus that song has always been popular in Germany.
Whose idea was the glossary? I ask because otherwise the book feels no compulsion whatsoever to explain itself. And I admire that about it.
Benjamin didn’t want a glossary, but the German publishers insisted. He was very frustrated by this, and so he got excited about the English translation figuring that, finally, in the country of Phillip Roth he wouldn’t have to explain. But Open Letter thought a glossary was needed, too. And its true, even for American readers, who are much more familiar with Yiddish, it’s such a narrow range of terms, and most of the things he’s talking about are in an orthodox context and very particular. Plus, the translation is also being distributed in other parts of the English-speaking world where readers might not be as familiar with some of the terminology.
There was a kind side effect for me with the glossary. The book is so singular and strange with regard to its physical shape, that the glossary lends a welcome “real world” feel to the book.
Oh I hadn’t thought of that. You mean it feels authoritative whereas the rest of the book is not.
That’s just what I mean. So will you translate again?
Absolutely. I’m trying to find another book now.
For the money, of course.
Oh yes, for the money.
I wonder, does your on-air experience help at all in the translating process? Is that a silly question?
I hadn’t really thought about it, which makes it a good question. I think my on-air work would have more effect on me if I write my own book because for good or ill you learn how to write economically for radio. Then again, I don’t know, you might have to unlearn that for a good piece of fiction. It was only last night, while reading an excerpt before an audience, that it felt like both finally came together.
Did you read aloud while translating?
Last night, when Benjamin read in German I tried to best follow in English, and it was amazing how the rhythms seemed so close.
Rhythm is very important to him, and sometimes you just can’t quite do it. But he’s very attentive to that and very particular about manuscripts and was very helpful all through the process. Sometimes I had to push back though.
He asked why I was reversing some sentence structures. You have to understand that German has a lot of what I would call reverse syntax when compared to English. In the case of “My wife is unrelenting about such things,” he wanted “about such things my wife is unrelenting.” And you could do that, but there are lots of examples like that in the book, and if you translate them directly, they wind up sounding like borsch belt comedy. ‘With such a woman you could go crazy” — that’s totally normal in German, but in English it reads very differently and plays for laughs. The tone of Zichroni is supposed to be more frosty. Also, if you maintain that reverse sentence structure, it can also wind up sounding like Yoda, as in: “Told you I did. Reckless is he.” Benjamin understood the problem once we talked about it, and he appreciated it.
You wind up sounding Yodish or Yiddish. And in what order did you translate the voices, and why in that order?
I figured I’d translate Wechsler first because he seemed more fun but then I realized when I was in it that one voice is not easier than the other, they’re just different. And there was a lot of complicated linguistics going on in Wechsler that I took for granted. And after I was finished with the Zichroni side, I looked back over it, and I just hated it. There was too much verbiage, it was clunky, and came across as pedantic and annoying. I pruned back a lot of the language until it was clunky in the way that sort of German voice sounds.
What I love most about the book is how specific this world is, and yet because of that it becomes universal. You can come at it from so many angles, political, religious, or social. The book allows for it all.
And I wanted to preserve that in the translation. For instance I have ideas about this book that I know Benjamin doesn’t agree with. I have interpretations about this book, about the characters, and motivations, and whether they’re even two people at all.
But that’s the beauty of fiction.
Exactly. It’s simply out of the author’s hands at some point.