I Made a Mistake in My Book and the Internet Went Nuts
Rebecca Schuman on Trying to Be an Expert and a Woman at the Same Time
“Then give it up, give it up,” he said, and turned away from me with a great flourish, in the manner of someone who wants to be alone with his laughter.
–Franz Kafka, “A Commentary,” translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
The poet Michael Hofmann, whose new translation of Kafka’s short stories appeared this past July, is the most acclaimed German-to-English translator alive. He is also unapologetic about taking liberties—prioritizing, as the Kafka critic Stanley Corngold mused to me over email, “fluency over fealty,” a description that would be an insult were it lobbed at anyone else.
The result? “The whole thing will appear automotive,” Hofmann told the Guardian in 2015. “Look, it’s running on English rather than limping after the German.” To another translator, the assertion that Michael Hofmann makes all of his translated authors sound like Michael Hofmann would be an insult; to Hofmann, it’s both a compliment and a fact.
The question of the translatability of a work has a double meaning. It can mean: Of all the readers of this text, can we ever find an adequate translator? Or, and more intrinsically: Does its essence lend itself to translation and therefore—pursuant the significance of the form—call for it?
–Walter Benjamin, from “The Task of the Translator”
I translated that Benjamin quote. On the scale between Hofmannian “automotive” prose and a robot doing it, I’d rate myself somewhere in the continuum. To answer Benjamin’s first question about whether I’m qualified? Well, I have a PhD in German, and I work as a translator of Sachbücher, nonfiction prose. I don’t generally translate literature; I find the task of bringing the unsaid parts of writing—the most important parts, as Ludwig Wittgenstein would say; the Stimmung, which means mood but carries within it the word for voice—so monumental that I can’t take the pressure. As to Benjamin’s second question, regarding his own translatability: Sure. His German’s not as sharp as a Wittgenstein’s, but nor did he make up his own language-within-a-language like Heidegger. That paragraph, at least, lends itself to translation.
The same cannot be said of Kafka, whose word choices and style fight even their original language, much less attempts at bringing them into ours. Take the middle sentence—a monster run-on—of the parable-length work “Gibs auf” (“Give it up”), alternately titled “Ein Kommentar,” or “A Commentary.” (The second is the title Kafka gave it; the first is Max Brod’s.)
Als ich eine Turmuhr mit meiner Uhr verglich, sah ich daß schon viel später war als ich geglaubt hatte, ich mußte mich sehr beeilen, der Schrecken über diese Entdeckung ließ mich im Weg unsicher werden, ich kannte mich in dieser Stadt noch nicht sehr gut aus, glücklicherweise war ein Schutzmann in der Nähe, ich lief zu ihm und fragte ihn atemlos nach dem Weg.
Kafka’s, shall we say, plasticity of grammar gives this sentence its Stimmung: instability, breathlessness, motion. It also offers no goddamned way on Earth into English without the dreaded limping. To this effect, Hofmann’s broken it up:
When I compared my watch with the clock on the bell-tower, I saw that it was much later than I had supposed and I had to hurry; my panic at this discovery made me uncertain of my route, I didn’t know this town at all well. Luckily there was a policeman standing there; I ran up to him and asked him the way, quite out of breath.
Unlike the policeman, who counsels our protagonist to “give it up,” Hofmann is willing to show English-speaking readers the way through this particular Teutonic tangle. I balk at some of Hofmann’s choices; with this one, though, I think he’s led us well.
But what do I know?
The book is patronizing because Schuman presents herself as the only real authority on Middle Europe that you will ever meet. The more I read the more I thought how little I would enjoy running into Schuman at a bar.
–from a two-star Goodreads review of Schadenfreude, A Love Story
All you have to do to sound patronizing is be an unfuckable woman in your forties with an earned doctorate in the subject matter about which you are speaking. Schadenfreude, A Love Story is my first work of commercial nonfiction; before it was published, I promised my brother $100 for every Goodreads or Amazon review I read. I currently owe my brother ninety bajillion dollars.
Reader, if you are a writer who writes for yourself, then I laud you, I admire you, and I call you out as being 100 percent full of horsebonkey. Truth: Writers, including and especially me, are both self-absorbed and desperate for praise. Anyone with a Goodreads profile and a book deal of less than seven figures not only reads their reviews, but composes lengthy unspoken rejoinders to them in the shower. Or, at least, they’re usually unspoken; Goodreads publishes an actual warning at the bottom of bad reviews: “We really, really (really!) don’t think you should comment on this review, even to thank the reviewer.”
Every writer thinks they’re going to be levelheaded about what other people say. But secretly, we all want the same thing: for everyone to love us, to acknowledge our mastery or expertise; to recognize us, in short, as genius, even if that’s not how we recognize ourselves.
Any true genius is naïve, or it is not genius at all.
–Friedrich Schiller, from “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry”
Genius. That was the word Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s friend Schiller used to describe him: the creative soul who simply was Nature without trying (hence, naïve in his gifts like a child), rather than having to labor to imitate it like us mere mortals, whom Schiller called sentimental. Goethe cared deeply about the opinion of Schiller, who died in 1805 (and didn’t even get to see Faust finished!). And that is why, in 1826, the most important writer in the history of the German language (Goethe) had his friend’s body (Schiller) exhumed, and what was once the giant, white-wigged head that created Die Räuber brought to his damn house. Whereupon, according to German scholar Albrecht Schöne, Goethe took Schiller’s skull, “cleaned it properly… and then placed it on a ‘blue velvet pillow,’ under a removable glass case, which he had made for this purpose.”
She then cites a story about Friedrich Schiller holding his friend Goethe’s skull. Other than it being a useless anecdote, I was surprised that a German PhD would write this. Goethe died in 1832. Schiller died in 1805. Most semi-respectable academics in German literature would know this by heart. Nothing in the book gave me much confidence that she has much beyond a tenuous grasp of the field.
–from a one-star Goodreads review of Schadenfreude, A Love Story
This is how I found out there is a rather embarrassing mistake in my book.
So offended was I by the above accusation—that some mansplaining fuckface would assume such incompetence on my part that I, an expert of German Studies, mixed up Goethe and Schiller—that I promptly searched the Kindle edition for Schiller skull. I did not like what I found.
“Will you,” said my husband after the ignominious discovery, “please go explain to our next-door neighbor that you’re all right?”
There had been a knock. I hadn’t heard it. I had been wailing so loudly that my doctor neighbor’s Hippocratic duty required her to come investigate. “I thought you were dying!” she said.
“Well,” I said, my voice now scarred from screaming, like a sorority girl at 3 am, Sunday morning, “I made a mistake. In my book.”
She looked at me.
“It’s a big deal!” I said, face tear-streaked, hair matted from pulling on it. “I’m supposed to be an expert.” She didn’t say anything.
“It’s in print!” I said, staring at her without blinking (also without a brassiere on). “There’s nothing I can do about it.”
It was true. I had fucked up my skulls. Given: It’s hardly a rousing soliloquy claiming Goethe’s finest work is Macbeth. But still.
Here’s how it happened. The chapter now marred by Schädel-gate is called Liebeskummer, a word for heartbreak that literally translates to “love grief.” I wrote it, in its entirety, with a newborn baby, a feat comparable to climbing the sheer face of a cliff using only one’s teeth. It’s a goddamned wonder I could remember Goethe’s name. However, I’m loath to share this fact; offering, as an excuse, my attempt at multitasking the impossible reveals me as a woman—and, therefore, someone whose expertise is brought into question by default.
This manuscript is a model of academic rigor and lucidity. I hope that Schuman is successful in ushering in the study of ‘analytic modernism’ as she aspires to do[,] and I have every reason to believe that her groundbreaking study has the potential to accomplish this.
–from a peer review of Kafka and Wittgenstein
Expertise isn’t like pornography. You can quantify it, and often you don’t know it when you see it. There are several modes: There’s knowing the big, significant things in your field (stylistic differences between Weimar-Classicism-Goethe and Sturm-und-Drang-Goethe). There’s knowing the small but significant things in your field, like why it’s important that Gretchen says to Faust Bin weder Fräulein, weder schön/kann ungeleitet nach hause gehn. There are also small, less-significant things, details that can be corrected with a trip through the spell-check or a visit to Dr. Wikipedia: the spelling of Backpfeifengesicht; the precise wording of remark seven of the Tractatus Logico-philosopicus; the date of a writer’s death.
Everyone, even experts, can make mistakes in any one of these three categories. Broad theses and theories are pilloried, sometimes stagnating careers. Narrow epiphanies are questioned and quibbled over, often for decades; it is what makes academic conferences, for some people, “fun.”
But it’s the small, less-significant mistakes—a mispronounced name; a misplaced significant digit—that are most visible to the most people, that make it seem like we really do know expertise when we see it. It’s these mistakes that delight the students of the logic professor who, deep in five trains of thought, writes the symbol for disjunction rather than conjunction on the whiteboard; the pupil of the violin teacher who, after berating her charge for failing to practice, says “sharp” instead of “flat.” These errata are held aloft like Hagen’s dismembered head, the charlatans vanquished at last. Especially if the mistake-maker is a woman in some sort of authority position.
The mistake-excavators cry Give it up, give it up! And then turn away, sometimes into the silence of Internet anonymity, alone with their schadenfreude.
When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed.
–opening sentence of the Hofmann translation of Kafka’s Die Verwandlung
There’s no better demonstration of Michael Hofmann’s translation bravado than the word cockroach here, a flattened-out literalization of the untranslatable German word Ungeziefer, which has confounded translators and readers of Kafka since its inception, and offers Gregor Samsa both visceral immediacy and deliberate opacity.
Cockroach is, some might say, a bold choice. Others might, uncharitably, call it a mistake, and a big, significant one, one that would signify Hofmann’s grasp of the field he dominates as tenuous. But as vehemently as I disagree with cockroach—I prefer Susan Bernofsky’s some sort of monstrous insect—I’m not saying that Hofmann’s a hack, not entirely.
Because Hofmann’s genius lies, after all, in his modus operandi: His entire claim to expertise is that he makes the right mistakes on purpose. And those mistakes, he insists, make the texts better.
Schadenfreude, A Love Story will be corrected in paperback.