Translation as Activism: An Interview with Philip Boehm
Herta Muller’s translator on imagination as the key to empathy
Philip Boehm greets me on a Skype call from Texas where he is visiting his father and where, as he says, smiling thinly, narrowing his eyes, “there are neighbors who voted for Trump.” As a critically acclaimed playwright, founder of the Upstream Theater in St. Louis, and multiple prize-winning translator, Boehm has built an astounding career giving voice to a whole host of German and Polish writers whose work is growing increasingly prophetic, and thus mandatory, by the day. Philip Boehm surrounded by Trumpists is an absurd image I’ll cherish for a while.
Boehm began his theatre career at the State Academy of Theatre in Warsaw, Poland, where he lived through the last several years of the Jaruzelski regime. Fluent in German and Polish, Boehm’s own biography, theatre training, and uncanny ability to “hear voices” in foreign languages make him a maverick in translating for an American audience the darker sides of humanity as recorded by Franz Kafka, Berthold Brecht, Christoph Hein, Gregor von Rezzori, and Nobel Prize-winner Herta Müller. Boehm’s work is the art of literary diplomacy—quite literally, and sometimes hilariously so, as the self-proclaimed “man from Texas” who was “raised to be nice” assured me during our conversation.
Philip Boehm is in conversation tonight with Tablet literary editor David Samuels, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.
Jennifer-Naomi Hofmann: The obvious question: How did you get into literary translation, what were the steps that led you there, and how did you learn to speak German and Polish well enough to translate them?
Philip Boehm: I got into translation by complete chance. I’m not trained as a translator. It started when I was living in Poland, where I was directing plays at the State Academy in Warsaw. A friend in New York told me they were looking for someone to translate Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina. It sounded like something I could do even while living in Poland, so I submitted a sample and, lo and behold, they chose it. So I translated Bachmann and once that happened people started coming to me. That’s how it’s been since.
I learned German in high school. My grandfather was from Austria, but I didn’t know him, so we didn’t speak German at home apart from a few snatches of it floating about in my father’s world. Polish I learned in Poland, where I’ve lived a lot longer than in any German-speaking country. But I translate a lot more from German because there is a market for it.
JNH: I have heard people claim that one does not have to be fluent in the source language to translate it. Do you agree?
PB: Speaking the language is a necessary but insufficient condition. You don’t just have to speak the language, you absolutely have to understand it. Otherwise how are you going to get the nuances right? And that’s only step one. The other thing is you have to be able to write it in your own language. This would be the sufficient condition. And this is where I talk about the overlap between my work as a theatre director and translator.
JNH: Tell me about how those two disciplines cross-pollinate.
PB: It’s a lot about envisioning. As a director there is usually a script and I have to imagine how to stage it and put it into a new world, or rather, create a new world. So it’s moving from the language on the page to the reality on the stage. Of course, in translation you’re also moving from one world to another world. It’s not just from word to word, but worlds have to be reimagined. So I spend a lot of time imagining these concrete details. Like what implement would Leo Auberg [in The Hunger Angel] be eating from? Was it an aluminum cup? Was it this, or that?
When I am staging a play I like to create a world that is concrete enough for a prop to be able to portray the world, not just fill the set as stage dressing. The rehearsal process is like the translation process, where I play around with different possibilities, ultimately settling on something. Sometimes I will rehearse the first scene until I find the right musical key. And that’s often what I find myself doing in translation, as well. I often rewrite the first pages over and over until I find the musical key. So there is imagining another world, and also the willingness to let yourself be taken somewhere. That is something I like to do.
But it’s also all about hearing voices. When I direct a play, I have to be able to hear the voices in the script in order to help the actors find it in themselves. And I also have to hear the voices in a text and make the translation work in English. There is a lot of talk in the theatre world about voice workshops. But I’ve always advocated for “hearing workshops” because I think the art of listening and hearing is important.
JNH: Hearing voices in your own language is one thing, but how did you learn to channel them from a language and culture that is not your own?
PB: I worked on a farm in Bavaria once, which was quite an experience, linguistically. And I lived in Berlin and worked at a foundry for a while, so I was exposed to a wide variety of Germans. But I’m sure I’ve also made terrible mistakes that will haunt me at some point.
JNH: Now I am curious to know what they are.
PB: In that first book I translated, Malina, I remember some “Germanist” wrote a paper on that translation and they took me to task for my translation of the word “Todesarten.” I was trying to work within the framework of what I thought Bachmann was doing at the time, playing with contemporary ad-speak, incorporating a lot of things in her prose. Instead of translating it as “ways of dying,” which seems so flat, I was trying to come up with something that Bachmann would have called an “aura,” and I came up with “death styles.” I’m not sure if I’d do that today. People got polemic about this word. Ingeborg Bachmann has this following that has very strong ideas about what should and shouldn’t happen with her work, and the same goes for some of my Kafka decisions.
JNH: Going through these texts with such a fine-toothed comb, you must encounter the occasional blooper on part of a Nobel Prize winner, as well.
PB: Yes, even the first edition of The Hunger Angel contained some mistakes with the Russian words she was using. I think Herta Müller was recording things and just writing words down as she had heard Oskar Pastior say them. The German editors should have looked it up but, you know, when Herta Müller writes something, German editors don’t tend to suggest corrections. My editor on the other hand, Sara Bershtel, doesn’t hesitate to offer suggestions to Herta Müller, or anyone else for that matter. Which is one reason she is brilliant at what she does. It was actually thanks to Sara that Herta Müller came into the English speaking market. She was publishing Herta long before she won any of these prizes.
JNH: What is your relationship with the living authors you translate? Can it get difficult?
PB: I usually have very good relationships with the people I translate. Some of these friendships I’ve maintained for over a couple of decades now. Ilija Trojanow is supposed to come over and we’re supposed to romp around Texas together. You know, go canoeing or something. That’s the latest plan. I can call most of them when I’m in the process of translating their work, but I try to limit the number of questions I have for them. The big authors know that at some point they are going to have to trust me. Also, Herta Müller and Christoph Hein don’t really speak English. But Ilija Trojanow speaks beautiful English. He could write in English actually, so I could send him passages and he could make suggestions others would not make.
There have been a couple of people that just weren’t accessible. And if it’s a first-time author who doesn’t understand the process, or if someone is armed with a dangerous amount of English, it can get a little complicated.
JNH: Speaking of complicated: Both Herta Müller’s original Atemschaukel and your translation, The Hunger Angel, had an immense impact on me, but in very different ways. One could say you have created an independent, brilliant work of art. Do you take ownership of your work’s artistic autonomy or do you have a different relationship to the text?
PB: Ownership is a strange word in these cases. Certainly, as many people have pointed out, as translators we strive for anonymity, but also for recognition. There is some tension there. I think, yes, it is important to take credit for work that is both autonomous and derived. These are not mutually exclusive things. Let’s say, just because I happen to like him, Carlos Kleiber would conduct a piece by Brahms. You’re hearing Brahms’s symphony, but in Carlos Kleiber’s version. They both have a claim there.
It’s tricky in the publishing world. For instance, in many cases publishers are reluctant to recognize the translator on the jacket of a book. Generally speaking, publishers used to want to downplay that the book was translated. There was a prejudice against translated literature, and I think there is still a vestige of this. But now, with the bourgeoning of translation programs and some growing interest in the actual act of translation from the academic world, it’s changing. And we’re thinking they should push for it, for the profession as a whole, but it’s awkward for me. I don’t have this self-marketing gene.
Personally, let me put it this way: A few years ago, Herta Müller and I were giving a reading at the Library of Congress. While we’re walking to the venue, she stops, bends over, and finds a perfect four-leaf clover—yes, she’s just remarkable like that. She gave it to me, and I keep it in my translated copy of The Hunger Angel. That is symbolic for how I feel about our collaboration.
JNH: In the afterword to The Hunger Angel you write that, in the novel, “innocent expressions are frequently filled with lethal content,” and that your task was to “preserve this fundamental displacement without adding undue dislocation.” Translating an author like Herta Müller, who is known for her metaphoric richness and semantic precision, what is the basis for your understanding of such coded texts and how do you adapt these elements into the English language?
PB: For some reason, which may have something to do with having lived in Poland, a lot of the work I have done, both in translation and in theatre, goes into very dark places: Into the holocaust, into the camps. I translated these accounts from the Warsaw Ghetto, for example—that took forever. It was a big book, so I’m familiar with their use of language; the state-sponsored euphemisms to cover up crime. Herta Müller shows people caught up in a linguistic world where the language doesn’t match the reality. In a way, for her, there is a kind of primal echo from when she was little, when she encountered words that not only did not match reality but actually masked it or were in opposition to reality, and were thus loaded with all sorts of potentially “lethal content.” She was used to living with that tension and it is something she portrays very well in her characters.
So for me it was, again, about being sensitive. It’s a matter of hearing, listening to that disconnect, and respecting the silence. The elisions in a sentence. I’m a man from Texas, and I try to be nice. I’m often softening my own speech. We’re all soft spoken in my family. My tendency is to want to soften something by having a word in front of what I’m saying. But I have to fight that tendency. That’s not Herta Müller’s world. And I have to hear what that is. Her sharpness, her strength is partly due to what has been cut out.
JNH: Not only do you have to teach the English-speaking public what that world sounds like you also have to make them understand why it is important. How is that going?
PB: Yes, and you do have to ask yourself: If Herta Müller hadn’t won these awards, would these books have been translated? And if they had, would they have been accorded the same critical reception? We’re lucky in a way. John Freeman, for example, has this insight into these books and what they are doing. But how many critics are like him? I sent the book to a couple of critics and there was no response. They don’t even care. I once translated a German radio play based on The Hunger Angel, and gave it to the NPR station in St. Louis. They didn’t care at all. The fact that this could be the premiere of a radio play by a Nobel Prize-winning author, and they couldn’t care less. So there is that. So it’s not just teaching the culture about this world, but also making it interesting to people.
JNH: Given the current political landscape in the US, it’s now more important than ever to be reading literature from countries that have traveled this treacherous political path before us. As a translator of such works, where do you see your responsibility as diplomat and educator?
PB: I think that responsibility precedes the act of translation. In fact, I have published a couple of op-ed pieces in the past year. The last time I was in Germany, we went to the Leipzig Book Fair and I wrote a short piece about how impressed I was that a couple of hundred thousand people were visiting this book fair. The whole city had shut down. Wouldn’t it be something if, in St. Louis, instead of traffic jams when the Cardinals are playing, the highways were backed up because there is a book fair at Busch Stadium? But that’s not all, the grounds for that book fair were used to house temporary refugees before they were resettled. That was the theme of this past year’s book fair. They were really putting their money where their mouth is because they are actually doing this. Compared that to the fear mongering—at that time it was still the primaries—of Trump, Cruz, et al.
A neighbor tells me that he hears “the Mexicans want to do this, they want to do that.” And I ask him if he speaks Spanish and he says, no. It is our job then to say, “Well, this is what this person is actually saying.” Translating becomes a way to help people with limited vision. Elsewhere I have written about the necessity of imagination. Imagination is the key to empathy, and if we’re not able to imagine peoples’ lives, then our empathy diminishes. Translation is a bridge that serves to enlarge imagination, to connect to the world. We’re impoverished without it. This is something I have been saying for years.
So yes, as translators we are both diplomats and activists. The sheer act of translation is one of engaging with a world outside of whatever world we’re in. You’re not going to find a lot of translators that are in favor of Brexit. I feel we need to be increasingly outspoken; the more insular cultures become, the more outspoken we need to be, lest that insularity makes our fears come true—which is actually what is happening right now.
JNH: One could say translators are literary diplomats.
PB: Quite literally, yes. There is a funny story. I was asked to translate a German screenplay by a Romanian author living in Berlin. He had written a play based on an American author’s film, lifting full passages from the original script. Because they had mutual friends it was understood that it was all going to fly. So I translated it and sent it off to the American writer. I get a call a few days later and he says something like: “You… I… I don’t know what to say about this. I mean, you obviously know, but this… half of the script, no, more than half is my writing! I don’t even understand cubism, much less postmodernism if that is what this is supposed to be!” There was a whole back and forth, with the Romanian author saying, “I don’t understand. Already in Romania in seventh grade we learn difference between character and author. What is this? I am comparing him to Lampedusa! Do they not understand how flattering that is?”
I was trying to calm them down. The American was talking about intellectual property and the Romanian had a completely different view. This was not a successful diplomatic mission. In the end, the American did not allow it and the Romanian said, “In that case you are no longer invited to play in my film!”
JNH: You recently translated Herta Müller’s essay “Germany and Its Exiles” for Freeman’s forthcoming “Home” issue. In it she revisits not only her own experience leaving Romania as a political refugee, but the bureaucracy and nomenclature of exiling as a whole. She coins the term “appropriate” (“zweckmässige”) immigrants, describes a state of “inner exile” for dissidents within their own countries, and criticizes the shameful treatment of exiles post factum. You translated the essay before the primaries. From the works you have been translating to your own experience living in Poland, did you see parallels to what is happening in the US right now?
PB: Yes, I thought the essay was a great choice for the issue, and I was very aware of how appropriate it was when I was working on it.
Just from my own experience living in Poland, I remember I had to report to the police when I wanted a visa, or sometimes they would call and were pretty mean to me. They were just these types of people; that kind of vanity mixed with power. Now I’m in touch with these Polish and other Eastern European writers, people like Oksana Zabuzhko, and I’m getting notes about how to survive living in an autocracy. Because they’ve experienced it.
Herta’s piece is about those people who made the decision to leave very early on, and claims that they should be the first to be applauded. So who are these people now? And how do we make sure this doesn’t go further? I just spoke to a friend in the State Department, and he said he believes in American institutions and that the weight of our democratic tradition, checks and balances, and government are strong enough to withstand this challenge. But, as you know, I have seen shaky things before. So at what point do we challenge that notion?
The weight of banishment is lost on us today, but for those who are banished it has profound psychological effects. In one of the first plays we did at the theatre, some 12 years ago, there is a scene where a woman goes to an unnamed Middle Eastern country and has an encounter with a Palestinian refugee who says: “What about my children’s future? Did it get lost somewhere, did it fall out of your shoe somewhere?” And Herta [Müller] has this line, “homesick for a future.” That is the theme here. The people who are asked to leave their own countries and those who are not being admitted into others, they are “homesick for a future.” How can we reduce their situation to a simple, “They want to get here because they want everything we have?”
JNH: Looking back to successful resistance in the past, the public protests that helped bring down the Berlin Wall in 1989, for example, grew out of a collective need, a desperation that was able to create a critical mass. Protests today, however, are based purely on moral and ideological arguments—much less effective reasons to mobilize the masses. What have you learned translating authors familiar with the first twitches of authoritarian regimes? What can we do?
PB: Great question. Critical mass is a good term. When the Iron Curtain fell, energy had been released elsewhere, starting with Gorbachev. The critical mass receiving that energy propelled that. But there was also a lot of self-interest in the protests. In our situation, however, I don’t think enough people feel sufficiently threatened. I think we need to work on various fronts: artistic, intellectual, as well as calling senators, voting, all of those things, and of course, protesting. I don’t have any illusions that the people who come to the theatre in St. Louis will become enlightened, but that happens to be where I’m working. And Herta Müller’s article, for example: the piece was chosen and maybe someone will read it. Then again, the people who read it are probably already in line with the argument.
But what do I do with the neighbor who voted for Trump? A designer I work with says he thinks the country should just break up because he doesn’t want to deal with the people who voted for Trump. I don’t think you can say that.
JNH: A large part of the work that needs to be done is, of course, making foreign literature accessible to American readers. Other than the translation prejudices you’ve mentioned, what are some of the roadblocks in terms of the American audiences’ tastes and preferences?
PB: American audiences are used to realism and logic. European audiences, because they have more practice perhaps, are able to take in things that are not necessarily linear, logical, and realistic. The American reader, I believe, usually wants the well-made book. The plot has to move. A German reader, on the other hand, will tolerate the digressions, the philosophical exposes of, say, Gregor von Rezzori. It’s similar to what happens in theatre. In Poland I staged three-hour plays with no problem. In the US, they all said, “We can’t sit through that!” I translated supertitles for a piece at Lincoln Center of a famous Polish adaptation of a Thomas Bernhard novel—four hours long, brilliant staging. The New York Times called the aisles “escape routes.” The same production won awards in Poland. The US audience is not willing to go on that ride. And it makes no sense, because these are probably critics who claim to admire Leonard Cohen, for example. But how can you accept a Cohen poem or accept Cubism and Surrealism in a museum, but not accept the same in literature?
If I’m going to make a generalization, there is a more pragmatic understanding of literature in the States, and what might be considered high literature here still has less reach than it does in Europe. These writers exist in the US, but do they get published? And if they are published, where and how? Hopefully that will change a little bit, people are more interested in translation nowadays. An interesting paradox is that someone like Roberto Bolaño, for example, has a big following in the US. But if he were a US writer, would he have gotten published?