• Germany's news in English
 
app_header_v3

John E. Woods: Bringing German literature to the world

Kristen Allen · 10 Jun 2010, 18:25

Published: 10 Jun 2010 18:25 GMT+02:00

Literary translators don’t get much respect. They fight to get their names on book jackets and often scrape by on meagre fees that bitterly belie their labour of love.

But not John E. Woods. For more than three decades, the Indianapolis-born translator has not only made it possible for English speakers to read some of Germany’s greatest works of fiction, he’s managed to make a living and a name for himself in what is usually an anonymous endeavour.

Though he’s had plenty of success, Woods says his is a lonely profession that shouldn’t even exist.

“It’s dangerous and it should not be allowed. I’m serious,” he told The Local over tea at his favourite neighbourhood cafe in Berlin. “Any translator worth his or her salt knows precisely how impossible it is, but it’s there. It calls out to be done and has been done since the very beginning.”

Without translators, the dapper 67-year-old says, there would be no world literature, but the personal nature of literary expression means that avoiding some parts of the work being “lost in translation,” as the adage goes, is impossible.

What can be salvaged is just a shadow of the original, Woods said.

“If you’re working with serious authors, there are five resonances, whether what you hear is the echo of Goethe’s Faust, or that flashy, nasty Berlin German that I love, there’s all these levels happening in any good text,” he said.

On a good day translators can preserve two out of five of these “resonances,” Woods explained.

His metaphor: “Here the author has created a beautiful meadow with a cow, a landscape worthy of a Dutch master, and what I give you is a very good steak.”

Publishers must find Woods’ word-steak tasty, because over the years he has been contracted to translate some of the German-language's greatest literary works.

A living legend

Since coming to Germany to study theology, and marrying his Goethe Institute language course teacher, Woods has Anglicized the words of Arno Schmidt, Thomas Mann, Patrick Süskind, Döblin, Raabe, Dürrenmatt, Grass, Ransmayr, Dörrie, Treichel and others.

Katy Derbyshire, a Berlin-based translator currently tackling the überhyped novel “Axolotl Roadkill,” by controversial teen author Helene Hegemann, told The Local that Woods is a “living legend” in the field.

“He’s one of the few that people who know about international literature would know,” she said. “If you’re the kind of person who would notice a translator’s name – which is few and far between because we are always a step behind the writer – then John will be a big name up there in lights.”

But his career started with a “fluke,” Woods said.

In 1976, he was an aspiring novelist “getting nowhere” when he began reading a copy of German author Arno Schmidt’s book Abend mit Goldrand, which many had considered untranslatable up until that point.

“He is, for lack of a better handle, the German James Joyce - really complicated meta fiction,” Woods said. “Instead of staring at the wall with writer’s block, I said, ‘Ok, I’m going to translate this.’ And the snowball got rolling.”

After it was published under the English title “Evening Edged in Gold,” in 1980, Woods was awarded his first PEN Prize for translation.

He went on to win a second PEN in 1987 for Süskind’s “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,” which director Tom Tykwer turned into a feature film in 2006. Then in 2008, Woods was awarded the prestigious Goethe Medal for his enormous body of work in a role the institute characterised as a “cultural mediator.”

“It’s not that I’m the most accomplished translator of German into English, I can name 10 people at least as good if not better, but I hit it right,” he told The Local.

With the first Schmidt translation, Woods hit the professional equivalent of a bull’s eye when he came to the attention of Helen Wollf, the widow of innovative German publisher Kurt Wolff, a woman that Woods described as the “Grande dame” of translated European literature. The couple had made their big break in English-language publishing with translations of German-language authors Karl Jaspers, Walter Benjamin, Günter Grass, Max Frisch, and other European greats.

Wolff made sure the first translation was published and helped form other contacts that led to the Süskind job and many others, including exclusive contracts to translate Thomas Mann and Arno Schmidt works.

“I’ve gotten respect and I’ve also made a living at it, and I may be one of the only translators I know who isn’t also a professor somewhere or working another job,” Woods said, explaining that his unusual contracts led to not having to “hustle” his work, which left time to actually get it done.

His favourite translation has been Thomas Mann’s “Joseph and His Brothers.”

“It’s the most beautiful thing Mann ever did, his ‘Divine Comedy,’ it’s spectacular,” he said, describing the challenges of working through an ending that was so sublime he shed tears over his keyboard.

Thankless work

Meanwhile other translators of Woods’ acquaintance are struggling. The VdÜ association for Germany's literary translators, an organisation fighting for better compensation for those in the sector, recently reported that many “successful and busy” translators earn an income of between €13,000 and €14,000 per year, which is below the poverty line.

Story continues below…

And though world literature would not exist without translators, those who manage to get their work noticed by a wider audience are generally overlooked by critics.

“Usually it’s the one-adverb review, ‘marvellously’ translated versus ‘stodgily’ translated,” Woods said.

“Then you get a discussion of this author’s marvellous prose, and of course that was his prose. But it’s what the translators do with our mother tongue that makes that book either sing or end up as a dreary puddle on the floor.”

Another difficulty is a relative lack of interest in foreign literature in the English-speaking world.

The German Book Office reports that compared to the more than 50,000 foreign titles published in Germany each year, only about 3,000 German books make it into translation worldwide. Of these, fewer than 40 works of fiction are translated into English each year, Woods estimated.

For three decades Woods’ award-winning work has often topped this short list, but not for much longer. He plans to retire within a year after finishing Arno Schmidt’s 1,330-page opus, Zettel’s Traum, which will be titled “Bottom’s Dream,” in English.

“When I’m done with ‘Bottom’s Dream,’ I’ve done my work,” he said. “I plan to enjoy Berlin. I love this city. It sparkles for me.”

Know someone who's "made it" in Germany? Email us at: editorial@thelocal.de

Kristen Allen (kristen.allen@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

11:13 June 10, 2010 by jinxgelb
Thank you for such an illuminating report on such a brilliant personality and the outstanding though underestimated performance of literary translators!
04:55 June 11, 2010 by rsrobbins
This is why you should learn to read German. You are missing out on a lot of great books. Unfortunately, you need a very large vocabulary to read anything other than children books. I like the idea of reading something that nobody in the English world has read.
01:05 June 15, 2010 by berniebird
I have read all of the Arno Schmidt books translated by John and am highly anticipating Zettels Traum in English as there is no other way I could possibly have ever gotten inside that writer's head otherwise.

I wonder if Dalkey Archive are publishing again?

Thank you for your amazing work and retirement will be very well deserved after such a great achievement!
Today's headlines
Germany-denying beauty king fights cops with guns, teeth
Left: Adrian Ursache in his glam days as the 1998 Mr. Germany. Right: Police trying to evict him from his own 'country'. Photos: DPA.

Former Mr. Germany winner and founder of a group that denies the existence of Germany refused to be evicted, provoking a shootout - and bite-out - with police.

Politicians renew call to bring Snowden to Germany
Photo: GUARDIAN / GLENN GREENWALD / LAURA POITRAS.

Green and Die Linke (Left Party) politicians are asking that NSA surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden be allowed into Germany for an ongoing investigation.

Merkel urged to address Turkmenistan rights record
Angela Merkel with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. Photo: DPA

Human Rights Watch on Thursday urged Chancellor Angela Merkel to bring up major rights violations, including a "policy of disappearances", when Germany hosts the president of Turkmenistan next week.

Epic father-daughter comedy picked for Oscars success
A scene from film Toni Erdmann. Photo: DPA

German Films has chosen Toni Erdmann, a beefy comedy about a father's struggle to save his daughter from her isolating career, as its 2017 Oscars choice.

Germany mulls pullout from Turkish airbase: report
A German Tornado jet at the Incirlik base in Turkey. Photo: Bundeswehr/DPA.

Germany's military is preparing to pull out from a Turkish airbase as a row between the two NATO partners escalates, Der Spiegel magazine reported on Thursday.

German man arrested over Bali meth lab
Bali. Photo: DPA

A German man has been arrested on Indonesia's Bali island for allegedly making crystal methamphetamine in a secret lab, officials said Thursday, with authorities seizing bags of powders and bottles used to produce the drug.

Giant 2-metre catfish attacks woman in Bavarian lake
A wels catfish. Photo: DPA

When a young woman went for a swim in an idyllic south Bavarian region, she got more than she bargained for.

Mayor fires refugee project intern for wearing headscarf
File photo: DPA.

A Palestinian who was hired to work as an intern on a refugee project was fired by a town hall this week because she wouldn't take off her headscarf.

President who pioneered Moscow ties dies aged 97
Former Cold War President of West Germany Walter Scheel. Photo: DPA.

Former West German president Walter Scheel, who helped pave the way for his country's rapprochement with the communist East, has died aged 97, his party's spokesman said on Wednesday.

Former East to lag behind West for years to come: study
Poverty in eastern Germany. File photo: DPA

Eastern Germany remains economically anaemic with little prospect of catching up with the rest of the country by 2030, a study published on Wednesday said.

Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
Gallery
Germany's 17 Olympic gold medals in pictures
Sponsored Article
Why expats choose international health insurance
Culture
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Rhineland
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
Culture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
Sponsored Article
Life in Jordan: 'Undiscovered treasure'
Lifestyle
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
14 facts you never knew about the Brandenburg Gate
Society
Ten times Germans proved they really, really love beer
Sponsored Article
Why Jordan is the ‘Different’ East
Lifestyle
What's on in Germany: events for August 2016
Sponsored Article
Five things Americans should know about voting abroad
National
Six things you need to know when moving to Germany
Travel
These 10 little-known German towns are a must see
Sponsored Article
Jordan Pass: your ticket to the experience of a lifetime
International
German scientists prove birds can sleep while flying
Sponsored Article
Jordan: where history meets adventure
Technology
London v. Berlin: Which is better for startups?
Lifestyle
13 mortifying mistakes German learners always make
Sponsored Article
6 reasons expats use TransferWise to send money
Travel
Enter if you dare: Berlin's best abandoned haunts
Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
Lifestyle
10 rookie errors all Brits make when they arrive in Germany
Sponsored Article
Five things Americans should know about voting abroad
National
How to get German citizenship (or just stay forever)
Sponsored Article
Jordan: where history meets adventure
Technology
Brexit will turn Berlin into 'Europe’s startup capital'
Sponsored Article
6 reasons expats use TransferWise to send money
Travel
Six soothing day trips to escape the bustle of Berlin
International
'Germany needs to make UK come to its senses'
Features
Six odd things Germans do in the summer
Features
How two gay dads cut through German red tape to start a family
8,576
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd