Like musicians who paint or athletes who cross-train, tackling the challenges posed by translating literary and philosophical material gives me new perspectives on the German language and culture and how it intersects with and diverges from the American.
This summer I had the pleasure of a “journey” into new territory, working on a visual history of the art of the fourteen Dalai Lamas. An exhibition at the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich (4 August 2005 to 30 April 2006) entitled “Die 14 Dalai Lamas — Tibets Reinkarnationen des Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara”
(The 14 Dalai Lamas — Tibet’s Reincarnations of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara) is the occasion for the publication of a gorgeous book of essays exploring the interplay between the religious and political history of the country and the art of the Dalai Lamas.
[German link: www.unizh.ch/info/dalailama/ausstellung/ausstellung.html]
The English-language volume, titled The Dalai Lamas: A Visual History, edited by Martin Brauen, is being published simultaneously in German, French, and English and I was fortunate to work closely with the American publisher of the English addition, Serindia Publications, www.serindia.com/item.cfm/161
to translate the German essays and hundreds of captions into English.
The editor and curator of the exhibition, Martin Brauen, had this to say about my contribution:
Ebenso wertvoll waren die Dienste von Janice Becker, welche die Texte, die nicht in englischer Sprache vorlagen, mit viel Sachverstand und Einfühlungsvermögen übersetzte – angesichts der Komplexität und ‘Fremdheit’ vieler Konzepte und Begriffe eine anspruchsvolle Aufgabe. [Ihr] danke ich von Herzen für ihre wertvolle Mitarbeit.
Also invaluable were the services of Janice Becker, who translated the essays not written in English, applying understanding and sensitivity — a challenging task in light of the complexity and “foreignness” of many concepts and terms. My heartfelt thanks for [her] invaluable contributions.
Several of my literary translations have been published, including White Noise/Dis-Appearances, by Gunda Förster with essays by Alexander Tolnay and Ulmann-Matthias Hakert (Berlin, 2001) and an excerpt from Sherko Fatah’s Im Grenzland, which appeared in the New Writing in German special issue of Chicago Review (Chicago, 2002).
In November 2004, I was honored to share the stage at the New European Literature 2004 Festival in Chicago with Liane Dirks, who read a passage from her novel, Narren des Glücks [Fortune’s Fools], and I followed with a reading of my translation of a passage from the same work. Ms. Dirks commented, "Janice Becker ist eine wunderbare Übersetzerin, ruhig, einfühlsam und wortgenau, mit Gespür für die Musikalität und den Rhythmus der Sprache.” ["Janice Becker is a wonderful translator—calm, perceptive and precise, with a feel for the musicality and rhythm of the language.”]
In January 2004, I was privileged to translate passages of a work in progress by Peter Stobbe (author of Nach Delft gehen), who spent the winter in Chicago, and we read together at a program at the Chicago Goethe Institute.
Another recent translation of mine presented at the Goethe Institute was a passage from Ulla Hahn’s Das verborgene Wort, which was read during her visit there in June 2004. Here’s a taste of this sweeping novel, seen through my translation, which I hope will encourage you to read the original. The narrator is describing her childhood growing up in a working class family in the 1950s and the emancipatory discovery of reading and the power of the word:
That was the end of reading the sounds, sounds without meaning. There was no more separating the sounds from what they expressed, sound and sense were intermingled forever. Now when I didn’t know the meaning of a word, it made me unhappy, impatient, like standing in front of a closed door, the most wonderful treasures awaiting discovery behind it.
Writing words that already existed anyway no longer seemed superfluous after that evening. If the printed “cow,” like the spoken kau, stood for all the cows in the world, all those past and future cows, the reverse was true as well. I write “cow” and have all the cows of the world. I write “mother” and the mothers of all countries and times belong to me. I can make mothers to my heart’s content, according to my image. From words. I write “father” and put Joseph Palm in the farthest row in the back, where he disappears into the little hash mark of the r.
The thing words were followed by the doing words, and those by the description words. Then came the sentences. The doing words, or better verbs according to Mohren [the narrator’s teacher], like work horses, were the real lords of the sentence. A single doing word can even make a whole sentence by itself. Go! or Run! With an exclamation point for support, of course. Verbs had the say-so in the sentence. Ruling over not just the other words but time itself. In the next few months I learned that they were the ones that determined if I eat something good, or I ate it, or I will eat, or only would eat. And not just me, everyone else too. The verbs could send everything in the world back into the past, set it all down in the present, beam it all into the future or make it all seem to be just a daydream. Not one thing escaped their grip. I was enthralled by verbs’ tricks and dodges and sleights. It didn’t require much effort at all to vary their appearance, over and over again. If you changed an e to a u with dots on top or even just a plain u, you were sick, or you had been sick, or you might just have to go to bed for awhile. Like experienced handymen around the house, verbs worked away within the sentence, skillfully using the most effective means to achieve their purpose. Yes, at first they fascinated me, but then I began to grow tired of them, like the way you’re bored with a magic trick once you’ve seen through it. And I thought they were too powerful anyway, enslaving everything else.
I was loyal to the main words. Especially the ones that meant things, simple things like table, cow, house. The ones that made trouble for me were the thing words for things that weren’t really things, the concepts. I didn’t trust them, believed them only if I could see them. “Miraculous” was the monstrance the priest removed from the tabernacle and raised up over his head. Or my cousin’s bridal gown. “Punishment” was the blue stick behind the clock and “help” was grandfather when he went to the Rhine with us. That was “help” and “happiness,” but only as long as it lasted. Then the happiness was over. It took some time to come to terms with this kind of word, it took some time to get over my distrust of using them and I much preferred to go around them. Nothing for me, then nothing for you —they could detach themselves from events that didn’t exactly disappear with them but still, they faded and withered, while a tree, a book, a vase were solid, they couldn’t be made to disappear — real thing words.
Thing words began with capital letters. I liked that. I put up with the small ones but I would have preferred to write everything in CAPITALS. I sat near the chicken shed for hours, my board on my knee, scratching one new word after the other using my stylus on the slate. Sometimes I’d write all the words in capitals, sometimes everything small, and I felt an almost godlike power when, with a few swishes of the bit of sponge damp with spittle, I could wipe it all out again, destroy it, as if there had never been a House, a house, or a HOUSE, and I felt just as powerful when I began all over again, filling up the chalkboard like God filling heaven and earth at the creation. Language was omnipotent. More powerful than the Lord God. What was the miracle of the loaves, five thousand from a single one, compared to the infinite creation of words from twenty-six letters. Every book a new loaf, each word a slice of it.
Language was fair. Fairer than the Lord God himself. There was nothing good and nothing evil, just right and wrong. You knew what was what. No arbitrariness disguised as mercy. No “the last shall be first.” The last with ten mistakes in dictation were the last, period. Of course there were exceptions. I despised them. But you could learn them too. Malefactor, malicious, malevolent. Arbitrariness like this was the law. The law for everyone. There were no saints, no sinners. No devil. Grammar took care of that. It made letters the law, proscribed correct spelling, like the Ten Commandments proscribed the correct life. You could rely on grammar. A lot more than on the Ten Commandments. Honor thy father and thy mothe — a father with a small stick behind the clock and a mother for whom I was no more than a little demon