- Answer to an Inquiry
- Trans. Paul North
- Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010
Like a lot of bookish expats, I’ve become a subscription junky. It’s a progressive illness, and in 2011 I now receive books from four (four! What was I thinking?) presses. In an attempt to stem the alarming proliferation of piles of chapbooks on my tables and floor, I decided to read one ‘subscription’ book per day. Midway through Ugly Duckling Presse’s last 2010 shipment (they get to me a bit late what with the transatlantic journey and all), I came across Paul North’s translation of Robert Walser’s “Answer to an Inquiry.”
“Answer to an Inquiry” is a short instructional piece on how the actor can portray grief and anguish movingly. Absurd, comical, deadpan, Walser advocates howling, nose-picking, and self-mutilation, among other methods. UDP’s version includes illustrations by Friese Undine on each page.
The book has already been discussed at The Brooklyn Rail and elsewhere, but I wanted to talk a bit about the translation. “Answer to an Inquiry” was translated into English (as “Response to a Request”) in 1960 by Christopher Middleton. Middleton’s translation is stately, it foregrounds the deadpan, but also Walser’s elegance.
The original text has a certain inherent formality that contrasts with the at times low subject-matter, creating a delightful tension that is much easier to pull off in German than in English because German retains various levels of speech formality that now sound outmoded in English. In 1960, though, that was much less the case, and I could imagine Middleton’s translation coming off rather naturally. Or at least not as stiff as it sounds now.
English has changed a good deal since then, and Paul North’s translation takes a slightly different tack. It’s actually not radically different from Middleton’s, but in a contemporary context it highlights the strangeness, the awfulness, the trepidation that’s hidden a bit more between the lines in the German.
A brief look at a key line in the piece reveals North’s lurching (in a good way!) gait:
Middleton: “In order to obtain a tragic effect, you must employ the nearest as well as the remotest means;”
North: “To achieve a tragic effect one must seize both the nearest and the most extremely remote means;”
Retaining the “one” instead of the “you” for “man,” choosing “the most extremely remote” over “the remotest,” the brutality of “seize;” as North’s translation diverges from “normal speech,” the effect is alienating.
Of course Undine’s grim illustrations heighten the effect, and not just in their style. They pace the piece very slowly over 60-ish pages, transforming it from an advice-giving letter into a step-by-step instruction manual. Not bad, the text supports it — agony is always more agonizing if it’s drawn-out, right? Ultimately, by depicting the text, they disembody it. The speaker is not the one direct path to the content, we no longer have the connection with him that we did when he was just writing to us. We’re alone.
I think North has made some great tactical decisions here that don’t exactly update the text, but reassess our relation to it. His version definitely suits UDP’s pallet better than Middleton’s would have. North also added a lovely, mysterious little afterword that fits the spirit of the text and addresses the illustrations.
So all in all, a great find in the pile ‘o’ books. I’ll keep digging and I’ll let you know when I find something interesting.
Stay tuned next week when we give away a copy of “Answer to an Inquiry,” kindly donated by UDP.
Full disclosure: Paul North was a German instructor of mine back when I couldn’t tell my Arsch from my Ellenbogen as far as Deutsch was concerned, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t remember me from the sea of moon-faced undergraduates he had to deal with each day. And to be fair, I couldn’t understand much of what the man said at that point anyway.
This text by Amanda DeMarco is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.