Larissa Boehning, Swallow Summer, translated by Lyn Marven (Comma Press, 2016)
Larissa Boehning’s debut collection Schwalbensommer is as short as it is rich in life experience. Lyn Marven made these short stories available to English readers, capturing the slippery, contradictory protagonists inhabiting. Marven strikes a fine balance between keeping the “Germanness” of Swallow Summer and teasing out the universal appeal of the stories.
Rebecca DeWald interviewed translator Lyn Marven in August about her Boehing translation, life as a part-time literary translator and her recommendations for #WITMonth.
How did you start out as a literary translator? Do you also translate other kinds of texts?
I came into literary translation through my ‘day job’ as a university lecturer in German, and specifically through my research on contemporary German literature. Short story specialists Comma Press, who published Swallow Summer, approached me some years ago to ask if I could suggest a short story set in Berlin for their collection Decapolis, and then asked if I would like to translate it for them. I leapt at the chance! Translating brings together the language teaching that I do at university – where I also teach specialist translation modules – and the close reading that underlies all my literary research, so it seems like a perfect way to develop all of my interests further.
Up till now I’ve translated short stories covering a range of styles, authors and historical periods across the 20th and 21st centuries. Almost all of it has been literary fiction, though I have also translated some poetry and art criticism, and very occasionally also from Dutch.
How did you come across Larissa Boehning? What made you choose her short story collection Schwalbensommer (2003) over any of her novels? And why did you choose to translate it now?
The short story set in Berlin that I proposed to Comma Press for Decapolis was actually one of Boehning’s from Schwalbensommer, ‘Something for Nothing’. I’d come across it previously in my research on Berlin literature in reunified Germany: it’s a text that is quietly memorable, with a rather ambiguous central relationship and a striking metaphor for the former GDR in the form of an abandoned factory in old East Berlin. Comma liked it so much that they decided to bring out the entire collection – it has taken a while to come to fruition primarily for reasons of funding, and I translated another collection (Long Days by Maike Wetzel) for Comma first, but the text certainly hasn’t dated. And in the meantime, I had the opportunity to invite the author herself over to Liverpool as a Writer in Residence, funded by the DAAD [the German Academic Exchange Service], and so got the chance to work closely with Larissa on translations in workshops with students and translators, which really helped to get a sense of her style. One of the short stories (‘Silent Fish, Sweetheart’) gives a brief snapshot of the three-generation history which Boehning develops further in her novel Das Glück der Zikaden (which together we decided should be called The Song of the Cicadas in English): like the best short stories, Boehning’s tales both stand alone and carry within them the kernel of a much bigger story, which is what makes them so fun to translate.
Boehning – aided by the form of the short story – creates “slippery” characters: we only get glimpses into their lives and motivations. In addition, many stories feature multiple protagonists, while in other stories the focus shifts to a different character from one paragraph to the next – Anna and Natasha in ‘Full Speed Ahead in Neutral’ seem to exchange places, “from the back and from the front”, A-N-N-A. How does the translator find voices for all these personas?
As a translator you have to have a good ear for differences in language: which characters will speak formally or informally in which situations, which will use slang or dialect, and the rhythms of their speech. I usually have quite a clear picture in my mind of the characters – what they look like, how they move – before starting on the dialogue, which helps to imagine how they will speak. Boehning’s writing is economical but very visual, so I could see scenes quite vividly as I wrote. Capturing the American voices in ‘North Star’ convincingly was almost as difficult for me as a British English speaker as the translation itself, and that story also threw up a different problem: German Tanja talks to Chris in English, so her speech couldn’t sound too fluent in my words either, otherwise it wouldn’t have seemed realistic. The only way to find the voices is to keep your ears open constantly, as it were, to be alert to the nuances of your own language and the ways that different speakers use it.
It strikes me that some (not many) situations Boehning treats describe particularly German dilemmas: The two sisters Anna and Natascha are out partying in Tel Aviv and are somehow “chatted up” by two young Israeli men, one of them reciting Paul Celan’s ‘Death Fugue’. The situation is deeply embarrassing, because there is no escaping the ghost of our (German) fathers. Another example is maybe German’s tendency to take things literally, as in the misunderstanding that forms the basic premise for ‘North Star’, where Tanja follows her American crush to Arizona, just to discover that he did not mean the invitation literally. How do you convey these “German” problems in translation?
‘North Star’ has such a great opening paragraph, setting up that invitation to come to Tucson, which Tanja takes at face value only to be left standing at the airport, that I’ve used it for creative writing classes, asking students to imagine “what happens next?” I think the cliffhanger draws any reader in, even if interpreting over-literally might be a particularly German tendency, and then the story unfolds slowly, excruciatingly, and touchingly from that point.
The Celan poem is a really important part of ‘Full Speed Ahead in Neutral’, though again its significance is underplayed. Like Anna, German readers of Schwalbensommer will probably be familiar with the poem: it’s something they might have been taught in school. Boehning doesn’t even name the author, just the title of the poem, so I added that in for the benefit of English-speaking readers. Translation needs to allow the reader of the translated text to have a similar experience to the reader of the original – so sometimes as a translator you need to add in extra information so readers get the picture. I also used Michael Hamburger’s translation in the story rather than translate it myself, because I wanted readers to be able to find the whole poem and read it themselves. ‘Death Fugue’ evokes the Holocaust in extraordinary sparse poetic language, and it’s a pretty strange, not to mention excruciating, thing for an Israeli to quote at a German girl in a bar to try to impress her! In a sense the awkwardness is all the worse because Anna can’t even remember what the poem is, she just has a sort-of memory of it which is an indirect comment on that generation’s institutionalised, halting relationship to German history. Reading Boehning in English might have a different resonance, but it also gives an insight into different mind-sets and hopefully the way the encounter between the Israelis and the Germans plays out will make English speakers reflect on the relationship between the two countries and the legacy of German history.
The syntax and plot of ‘Matchstick Cathedral’ is as slow and drawn out as two fingers stuck together by glue, as happens to one of the story’s protagonists Jott, who makes matchstick models as a hobby. What other stylistic challenges did Boehning’s short stories pose for the translator?
One of the elements which was surprisingly challenging was the use of punctuation: German has different rules for punctuation and this affects the rhythm of the text. It’s quite common in German to string lots of elements together in a sentence using commas rather than full stops or semi-colons, and it’s typical of Boehning’s style that she doesn’t use any explaining conjunctions like “because” or “in order to” or even “but”. This looks slightly odd in English, so I had to tone it down a bit, but the sense of disconnectedness is important: the reader has to work to make the connections between different clauses and to draw out what is going on under the surface of the words in front of them, and that is exactly what happens in the stories in general – the dynamics are often unspoken, the undercurrents not made explicit.
The other main challenge was the titles of some of the stories: ‘Something for Nothing’, for example, is a rather free rendering of the original ‘Zaungäste’ which literally means ‘fence guests’, or people who sit on the fence to watch things without paying for them, hence getting ‘something for nothing’. I thought about using ‘Onlookers’, or even ‘Sitting on the Fence’, because the main characters seem to be at a distance from events, from history, and even from each other, watching but not necessarily involved, hesitant to make up their minds about anything or act decisively. But the idea of taking things for free evokes very strongly the central image of the abandoned factory, which the main character raids for useful objects, so that’s what I went for.
Could you say a few words about the title?
The title of the whole collection was chosen by the publishers (German and English), and was in circulation long before I started to translate the stories so I didn’t have any input into that decision. It isn’t the title of an individual story, but it has most resonance with ‘Something for Nothing’, which ends the book (in English) and which has references to real swallows and to a Swallow moped which brings the two main characters together. The swallow summer suggests the transitoriness of time, the fleeting period that the migrant birds spend in the North, and their nomadic lifestyle – which land do they call home? – and evokes the saying “one swallow does not make a summer,” suggesting that happiness is elusive. All of which ideas find resonance in the stories across the whole collection: Boehning’s characters seem rather rootless, or are uprooted somehow by events, the moments described in the stories are over too soon or simply brief encounters, and of course they are also searching for something or someone that might make them happy.
Many readers of translations often think that literary translators have a lot of time on their hands to ponder stylistic and linguistic questions, to create the perfect literary work. Could you tell us about your approach to a literary translation and what your day-to-day life looks like?
I’ve got two young children, and a full-time job as a university lecturer, so I certainly don’t have much time on my hands! I wish I could ponder at length and come up with the perfect translation… although I’m not sure such a thing exists. But it does often take time for ideas to percolate and crystallise into a solution, so when I’m working on a translation I go through several drafts and will keep coming back to particular phrases time and again before they click. Words on a page aren’t enough: often I read what I’ve written out loud to see if sentences work – occasionally I even read them out to other people to see what they think, as sometimes you can get too close to the original and lose sight of what sounds natural in English. While I’m working I usually have to do research to follow up allusions or to read up on specialist terminology, such as the boating terms used in ‘Sealed Sea’. Luckily most of the authors I’ve worked on have been very generous in answering questions, which can help or can sometimes complicate matters further!
Which female German writers would you recommend we read for #WITMonth, both translated and not-yet-translated?
Where should I start?! Women writers in German cover a whole range of genres and styles, from the fantastic realism of Irmtraud Morgner’s comic, feminist epic set in the GDR, The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice, trans. Jeannette Clausen; through the haunting historical Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. Susan Bernofsky; or the naïve yet worldly diarist of the interwar Weimar period in Irmgard Keun, The Artificial Silk Girl, trans. Kathie von Ankum. For short stories, I have to recommend Judith Hermann, whose works have been extensively translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo, who kick-started the revival of the short story form in the mid 1990s. The two contemporary authors I would most like to see in translation are Ulrike Draesner and Annett Gröschner: their work is sharp, comic, knowledgeable and playful. Gröschner’s day in the life of Berlin, Walpurgistag (Walpurgis Day) captures the city through a motley crew of characters whose paths cross in inventive ways – her trio of marauding old women speaking broad Berlin dialect in particular would be a challenge for any translator.
Are you currently working on any other literary translations?
Recently I’ve been working on a translation of ‘Rose Beetle’ (‘Rosa Käfer’) by Ulrike Draesner, which is a contemporary take on Kafka’s Metamorphosis, updated for the digital age. I presented an extract with the author at an event recently where we talked about the difficulties of translating something that is already a kind of translation of another text. Given how well-known Kafka is in English, I’m sure there would be a market for Draesner’s modern remake.