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12 Swiss Books

Translating French Swiss Authors

Six translators from French to German give us their insider views.

THE FEMALE FOREST

It wasn’t only Douna Loup’s treatment of her subject, nor the rhythm of the language she uses in this, her first novel, which fascinated me, but also the fact that a young woman could write from a male perspective. For the narrator – a confirmed loner – his encounter with a homeless woman migrant poses hard questions about his capacity for love. This passionate hunter’s first love was the forest, which in French is feminine (la forêt), something which was, for me as a translator, a hard nut to crack, as the word in German (der Wald) is masculine. Another tricky issue was the way the author’s language switches between the matter-of-fact and the emotional, especially because French literature handles descriptions of feelings better than German literature. In the case of some linguistic eccentricities, personal contact with the author helped me to find acceptable versions. If I wasn’t able to directly reproduce her word-play, alliteration, homophones and words with related sounds, I could achieve this through changes to the text. The final challenge was the book’s title: the French “Embrasure” means “doorway”, but also, more literally, “embrasure, crenellation in a parapet”; both senses refer to crucial moments in the story, where weapons are involved. But Douna Loup plays here on the sound of the words “braise” (embers) and “embrasser” (embrace). There was no comparable metaphor possible in German. So the German title, “Die Schwesterfrau” (“Sister Woman”) describes the narrator’s idea that, in spite of their differences, his new female companion is also his equal.

Peter Burri translated L’embrasure by Douna Loup (Mercure de France, 2010) into Die Schwesterfrau (Lenos, 2012).

 

TRANSLATING PASCALE KRAMER

After five books, you’d think I’d know how to do it. And yet every time, once again, it’s complicated. Well-nigh impossible. I despair.

What I write at the start is, by the end, unusable and has to be thoroughly reworked. Because it’s only as I get into the rhythm of the translation that I realise this idea must go here and that adjective there. Pascale Kramer’s sentences make up a dense web where everything meshes with everything else and every word counts; nothing is superfluous, nothing is there by chance. She uses the most precise observations, the smallest details, to create a mood, to provide the psychological and social space for her characters’ dramatic interactions. And that only works in the German when every word is just right.

Andrea Spingler has translated several books by Pascale Kramer, the latest one being Autopsie d’un père (Flammarion, 2016) into Autopsie des Vaters (Rotpunkt, 2017).

 

PLAYING THE LITERARY KEYBOARD

To translate a book, you have to strike the right ‘note’ – to translate Frédéric Pajak’s Manifeste incertain, it’s not a question of just one note, but of the whole keyboard. With his idiosyncratic and often puzzling combination of pictures and text, he has invented a personal genre: the images don’t just illustrate the text, he creates a dialogue between these two forms of artistic expression. This strikes you, as soon as you open one of his books – but once you start reading, it also becomes clear that the writing on its own doesn’t fit into any familiar genre either: several literary forms are interwoven. Not just prose and poetry, but essay, historical document, storytelling and autobiography are all in a state of active tension in the same way the text and images are. Added to this, the text is sprinkled with quotations, which are never easy to blend into the flow of the language and the sentence structure in German. Interestingly, the densest, most poetic passages appear on pages without images, suggesting that their linguistic complexity can only reveal itself in the absence of illustration.

Ruth Gantert translated the first three of the Manifeste Incertain series (Les Editions Noir sur Blanc, 2012) into Ungewisses Manifest I, II and III (Edition Clandestin, 2016 and 2017).

 

THE VIEW FROM BERLIN

I had expected that translating authors from French Switzerland would present me with all kinds of unfamiliar challenges arising from their linguistic idiosyncrasies and their typically Swiss way of life. But this foreboding disappeared with my first translation of one of Marie-Jeanne Urech’s novels. Le syndrome de la tête qui tombe was more of a challenge because of its breadth of imagination (in the claustrophobic confines of a Kafka-esque office-block), and its punning language. In the case of Olivier Sillig (La Cire Perdue), Barbara Heber-Schärer and I had to re-invent the colourful world of the medieval charlatan. The prose of Catherine Safonoff – so clearly located in present-day Geneva – presented me with the exciting task of plumbing the emotional depths of her prose and communicating that to the reader. And the train journey across Italy in Sylvie Neeman-Ramascono’s Rien n’est arrivé became for me a paradigm of the open-ness and limitless possibilities I have discovered in Swiss literature.

Claudia Steinitz translated two books by Marie-Jeanne Urech: Le syndrome de la tête qui tombe (Editions de l’Aire, ) into Mein sehr lieber Herr Schönengel (Bilger, 2009) and Des accessoires pour le paradis (Editions de l’Aire, 2009) into Requisiten für das Paradies (Bilger, 2013).

 

THE NEVER-ENDING BOOK

It was with some trepidation that I set about translating a novel that attacks the all-enveloping superficiality and desensitisation of an industry, to which I had actually devoted my entire professional life. But this feeling was outweighed by the exuberant power of the author’s imagination and by her use of irony, which is as sharp and sparkling as a freshly honed knife. And then there’s her deceptively ingenuous narrative style, the way she sprinkles her text with subversive, always unexpected nonsensicalities! Was I able to render all that into German, or have I just fallen honourably at the last fence?

Ralf Pannowitsch translated L’infini livre (Editions Zoé, 2014) by Noëlle Revaz into Das unendliche Buch (Wallstein, 2017).

 

THE SHIP

The ch-Stiftung, a Swiss Foundation, provides a bridge between Switzerland’s linguistic communities and its purpose is to preserve the country’s linguistic diversity and cultures. It has over the years organised some fine events, like the “Translation Ships”, which brought together Swiss authors and translators. On one such literary trip down the Rhine from Basel in 1995, I got to know the French-speaking writer, Daniel de Roulet, whose works I would find myself translating for the next twenty years, beginning with Die blaue Linie (2000, translated into English as The Blue Line). We pitched and rolled our way back and forth through the peculiarities and the pitfalls – both linguistic and authorial – typical of translating texts from Swiss (romande) French into non-Swiss (standard) German. Our subsequent meetings were on less hazardous terra firma: various Swiss institutions invited us both to take part in many conferences, joint discussions and school visits, all of which demanded mutual collaboration, which has remained both fruitful and friendly to this day.

Maria Hoffmann has translated several books by Daniel de Roulet, the latest one being Kamikaze Mozart (Buchet Chastel, 2007) into Kamikaze Mozart (Limmat, 2013).