by Andrea Scrima
Andrea Scrima: Madeleine, you translate, write critical essays, and have been editing for Music & Literature for six years. Recently, all these areas of your expertise were called upon in a particularly rigorous way in preparation for a quietly sensational literary event: the publication of a mammoth portfolio of Swiss writer Peter Bichsel’s work in English translation. Can you tell us a bit about Bichsel, and what some of the difficulties were in producing this issue?
Madeleine LaRue: It did turn out to be pretty mammoth! How about I tell you, by way of introduction, about the first time I met Bichsel in person. He’d come to read at the Literarisches Colloquium in Berlin, the center of the grand old West Berlin literary establishment. It was November, it was dark and cold, and when he emerged at the back of the room and started walking up toward the stage, wearing the same black leather vest he’s been wearing for the past forty years, I think we were all a little worried about him. He was eighty-two then, and he looked exhausted. It had been a while since he’d been on such an extensive reading tour outside of Switzerland. He got to the stage and settled into his chair. The moderator welcomed him and asked how it felt to be back in Berlin—a simple question, a nice, easy opener. Bichsel still seemed tired, but as he leaned back and said, very slowly, in his lilting Swiss accent, “Ja, ja, Berlin,” his eyes lit up and he launched into a story about his first time in the city, in the early 1960s, and how he got caught in the middle of a bar fight with some people! Who turned out to be Swiss! And they all got thrown out onto the street together, and he’ll never forget it! And ja, ja, Berlin—and from his very first word, we all became like delighted children at Grandfather’s feet, totally enraptured, utterly unwilling to go to bed until we’d heard just one more story, pleeeease? And he himself became younger, full of life, charming and hilarious and genuine and profound.
At the end of the night, to close, he read us one of his short stories, called “Amerika gibt es nicht” (which appears in Music & Literature as “There Is No America,” translated by Caroline Schmidt and Daniel Levin Becker). It’s a very playful, ironic story—and a little bit melancholy, too—about a court jester who gets credit for discovering America even though, in the end, the narrator highly doubts that there is such a place: he claims that everyone who goes to America always comes back saying “the same things, which are always things they already knew before their trip. That’s really a bit suspicious, isn’t it?” It’s my favorite Bichsel story. The friends I’d attended the reading with and I spent a long time afterwards talking about it and how perfectly it represents Bichsel’s oeuvre. At first glance, it seems simple and light-hearted, a little fairy tale, but—like all good fairy tales—when you try to analyze it, you find you can’t grasp it. It eludes you like a firefly that’s just beyond the reach of your jar. And so you keep coming back to it, over and over, for years, and every time you find it’s gotten better, brighter.
So that’s what you need to know about Bichsel: he’s a storyteller in the truest, most magical sense of the word, and everyone who’s spent time with him or his work loves him. (One journalist who interviewed him in 2017 commented that he’d yet to hear anyone say anything bad about Bichsel.) He’s spent most of his life in a very small—and very beautiful—Swiss town called Solothurn, where everyone knows him and knows that he can usually be found sitting in the Beiz, the pub, trading stories with anyone willing to while away the hours.
Bichsel basically skyrocketed to fame in the 1960s with a short story collection about the everyday alienation of ordinary Swiss people, and ever since then, he’s been known as a master of the short form. In addition to his stories—many of which are taught in Swiss and German schools—he’s best known for his newspaper columns, which he wrote regularly from 1975 to 2014, and which are as brilliant and varied as Robert Walser’s feuilleton pieces. He’s a realist, mostly, but a lot of his work has an experimental edge, and the fact that he’s also written sermons and fables makes him hard to pin down completely. Because his style is direct and accessible, he’s often one of the first writers that students of German come to love reading in the original. (That was certainly true of me!)
The major difficulty with the portfolio, of course, was that almost nothing of Bichsel’s work has ever been translated into English (two editions of his early short-story collections did appear in the 1970s, but they didn’t do very well and have been out of print for decades). So we were essentially introducing him from scratch. That was exciting, obviously, but also quite daunting. We wanted to simultaneously represent Bichsel’s whole career—no small feat, given that he’s been writing prolifically for over fifty years—and give an idea of his range as a writer. We also wanted to select those pieces that would best resonate with Anglophone readers. On the other hand, his Swissness is essential to his work, so we had to make sure that came through as well, and to figure out how to provide historical context in a way that didn’t feel overwhelming.
What made this all a little more challenging is the fact that we only have two German-speaking editors on staff: me, and my colleague Daniel Medin. In those early stages, Daniel had his hands full with other projects, so my job became to read as much of Bichsel’s complete works as I could and start gathering pieces for translation. That was a great assignment, by the way, and I highly recommend it. It was a beautiful reminder that one never does anything alone, even reading; that it’s always shared. I was lucky to get in touch with two people early in the process, for example: Bichsel’s French translator, Alexandre Pateau, and his old friend and longtime promoter, the literary critic and professor Daniel Rothenbühler. They both not only have an encyclopedic knowledge of Bichsel’s work, which they shared generously and continuously, but were also my first fellow readers outside of M&L. (Incidentally, Bichsel himself knows all about the value of fellow readers: “Whenever I see two people embracing on the street,” he says, “I think: ‘They’ve read the same book.’”)
After that initial round of selection, there was all the usual coordination work: agreeing on the table of contents, recruiting translators, securing publication permissions and later images, plus editing the translations and producing things like editors’ introductions and footnotes. Once the table of contents was set, editing the translations was definitely the most work-intensive phase. We were lucky to be working with a lot of truly excellent translators, but ensuring that there’s a coherent voice throughout the portfolio is a different challenge than ensuring that each individual piece is well done. Moreover, Bichsel is deceptively hard to translate. His style is very clean and colloquial; his sentences seem so straightforward that you don’t realize how tightly constructed they are, what delicacy and specificity they achieve, until you write them in English and think, “Wait, why does this suddenly sound stupid?”
The second time I met Bichsel in person—last May in Solothurn, at the Beiz, of course—he mentioned that his translators will often write to him asking what he meant by this or that particular word. He said he always tells them, “Oh, that word’s not important. Only the story is important. As long as you get the story right, you can use whatever word you want. You can make up words, if you want!” It’s a very generous attitude, and one that we all tried to keep in mind as we worked.
A.S.: It occurs to me that you’re not merely translating, providing critical context, and performing the editorial work of selecting from a vast body of work, you’re also essentially acting as a cultural translator faced with the task of deciding how much of Bichsel’s work—light-handed, ironic, lyrical, and deceptively simple—is uniquely Swiss and difficult to comprehend out of context, and what additional information a reader might require to gain access to it.
M.L.: Absolutely—of course, this is always an issue that one encounters to some extent as a translator, but even more so as an editor. Since, as I mentioned, we were basically introducing an author to a brand-new readership and culture, the question of how, and how much, to contextualize him was constantly on our minds. It began with selecting the material for inclusion: some of Bichsel’s essays are incredibly dependent on their Swiss context, for instance, including the appropriately named “Des Schweizers Schweiz” (translated in the portfolio by Adrian Nathan West as “A Swiss Among Swiss”). That essay might be a little off-putting to readers who don’t know much about Switzerland and its oddities, but it was one of the essays that cemented Bichsel’s fame. It was published in 1967, three years after his wildly successful debut short story collection, and it’s extremely polemical. He pulls no punches in his critiques of his home country, and yet the essay is also about how much he himself feels he belongs to Switzerland: “What pleases and irritates me,” he writes, “what exasperates and amuses me, what matters to me, pertains almost exclusively to Switzerland and the Swiss.” That essay might ask some English readers to do a bit of extra work, but it’s an indispensable part of Bichsel’s literary biography, and so we decided it really had to be there.
As the portfolio developed, I also ended up being responsible for writing the bulk of the footnotes and introductions to the various pieces, and that was sometimes tricky, for precisely the reasons you mention above. How much background information is necessary to ground readers who aren’t familiar with the context at all, and how much is an imposition or an unfair guiding of their reading? We spent a long time talking about how to frame the issue of language in Switzerland, for example: Swiss Germans write in High German, the same version of the language as is written and spoken in Germany, but they speak in various forms of Swiss dialect, which is usually unintelligible to someone from Germany. Bichsel refers to and plays with this fact frequently in his work, so it was important for readers to know about, even if they’re only going to be reading Bichsel in English. References to the political and cultural relationship between Switzerland and Germany also crop up, and a lot of that history—particularly in the 1970s and ’80s, when Germany was still divided—is going to be foreign to Anglophone readers. We tried to find a balance between footnotes, introductions to specific pieces, and solutions within the translations themselves to help readers stay oriented. Sometimes I got a little lost myself, not only because I was so deep into Bichsel’s work, but also because I’ve lived in Germany for most of my adult life, so I’ve kind of forgotten what’s common knowledge for Americans. I kept texting Taylor, my fellow editor, who luckily does not speak German, with absurd questions like, “Do you know who Karl May is? Does the GDR mean anything to you?” And he would say no, and then I’d write a footnote about Karl May and replace all the instances of “GDR” with “East Germany.”
A.S.: What have been some of the trickier aspects of translating Peter Bichsel’s writing?
M.L.: Bichsel is great fun to translate, even though, as I said, it’s more difficult than you might think at first glance. One of the earliest and thorniest problems I encountered when I started translating “The Goshawk” (the title story in a collection from 1985) was the title. (Titles are such an underappreciated part of translation! I feel like my translator friends and I all owe a few of our grey hairs to the search for a good title.) I’ve written about this in more detail elsewhere, but essentially: the story is called “Der Busant” in German, which is a medieval—and, to most contemporary German readers, not immediately recognizable—form of the word for “buzzard.” The story is a sort of postmodern adaptation of an old Alsatian romance about two lovers who elope, only to be separated when a buzzard steals a ring from a necklace on the princess’s throat. Her lover runs off into the woods in pursuit of the bird, gets lost, and then they spend the rest of their lives trying to find each other again, until they’re finally reunited in old age. It’s a poignant, slightly absurd story about destiny and chance and love and frustration. The buzzard is the catalyst of the story, but not really the villain; it’s a wild animal, it likes shiny things, it’s just acting according to its nature. Bichsel re-imagines the story as taking place in his hometown of Solothurn in a time period that refuses to be specified—sometimes it seems to be the Middle Ages, sometimes it’s the early twentieth century, sometimes the present day. The buzzard has become Herr Busant, a nostalgic old aristocrat who wants to turn Solothurn into a kind of Disneyland-esque museum town for tourists. (One might also argue that Bichsel himself plays the buzzard here, as the storyteller who must keep the story going even as he seeks to give the impression that it’s out of his control.) In any case, so many important themes of the story coalesce around this image that the title in English really had to be something like “Der Busant,” but “The Buzzard” is terrible, and every other obvious variation just felt flat to me—“The Hawk” was boring; a comparable medieval English word like “hafoc” is too far from hawk and too close to havoc, etc. (Alexandre told me he’d wanted to call his French translation “L’oiseau de malheur,” The Bird of Misfortune, and I was like, damn! I wish I’d thought of that.) But instead I went looking through encyclopedias of birds of prey, trying to find something convincing. Now, a goshawk is not technically the same thing as a buzzard, but it is a member of the same family, and more importantly, it has featured in Chaucer and T.H. White and so has not only literary credentials, but even medieval ones. And Herr Busant could become Lord Goshawk without a wince (can you imagine a Lord Buzzard!), so it felt right.
A.S.: In a recent interview I did with Mui Poopoksakul, the foremost translator of contemporary Thai literature into English, she spoke about how much unseen work is involved in her profession: she is essentially a scout, agent, spokeswoman, interpreter, public relations person, gatekeeper, and translator rolled into one. Without this level of commitment, the authors she has translated—who have since gone on to receive overwhelming critical attention—would never have seen their works in print in English translation. How many invisible, yet crucial tasks are involved in editing a magazine like Music & Literature?
M.L.: Mui is wonderful and I admire her immensely, not only because she’s a brilliant translator, but precisely because she’s become such a tireless and thoughtful advocate for Thai literature. Translators always do a lot of unseen and unacknowledged work, and I can only imagine how much truer this must be for translators of less-common languages.
M&L is also a labor of love in this respect; a lot of work happens before an issue ever even starts to take shape, but it’s nebulous work like meeting people, making connections, forming relationships. One thing I appreciate so much about the project is how strong our commitment remains to all the artists we’ve worked with even after the issue is finished. These are really long-term relationships—especially my colleagues Daniel and Taylor Davis-Van Atta have worked very hard to continue promoting authors, composers, and performers we’ve worked with in the past. We believe in the people and the work we feature, and in my experience, that goodwill comes back around, so really, everybody wins.
A.S.: We also spoke about differences in the post-war dilemma of writing in German. In the years after Nazi Germany’s capitulation, for many German writers, the language itself continued to be a minefield; in his LTI (Lingua tertii imperii, the Language of the Third Reich), written during years of forced labor, the German Jewish writer and philologist Victor Klemperer analyzed, in detail, how Nazi propaganda and ideology had so corrupted the German language that critical thought had become nearly impossible. Bichsel, on the other hand, contends that he experienced none of this; to his mind, Switzerland was not an aggressor and did not carry the post-war guilt Germany had to contend with, and Swiss German had therefore remained untainted. Is Bichsel oversimplifying?
M.L.: Well, the distinction itself could be called oversimplifying, but many writers in both Germany and Switzerland do seem to have found it useful. It’s a fascinating and often fraught issue, and I think it’s important to note that different generations of writers in both countries have responded differently to it over time. Bichsel, for instance, tends to speak about the problem of language in fairly personal terms. He was ten years old in 1945; his generation didn’t experience the break or rupture in the language (let alone in the society!) that their counterparts in Germany did. Bichsel never had to make an effort “not to speak like Hitler,” as he says he knows his German friends did. But I think he often finds, or found, that position quite uncomfortable—he writes that being Swiss is like being “an innocent German,” but he was always quick to point out that Switzerland’s claims of innocence were absolute lies. Switzerland was famously complicit in a number of Nazi ventures—especially financial ones—and Bichsel had no illusions about that. So there’s a sense of shame underlying that “innocence.” And yet, it was true for much of Bichsel’s life that a German book would inevitably be read in the shadow of the war, whereas a Swiss book wouldn’t. Bichsel, simply by virtue of being Swiss, wasn’t expected to deal with the legacy of Auschwitz, yet he wrote in the same language as people who were expected to deal with it, and I think that fact never failed to strike him as strange and deeply significant.
A.S.: You’re an excellent essayist; when we first met, we’d both written essays for an issue of Music & Literature dedicated to Clarice Lispector, and I was immediately struck by your elegant analytical style. I also recall a beautiful piece on Tove Jansson published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. What were your favorite essays—and what’s next?
M.L.: Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say. You know I’m in awe of your own skills as an essayist! Yes, Tove Jansson has been a favorite of mine ever since before I could read, so it was wonderful to get to write about her. Although it can be very difficult to write about authors you love. I’ve tried to write about Anne Carson, for instance, and it’s a disaster. (I have to think of one of her own lines, a translation of Euripides: “It was ordained for me—catastrophe”—that’s the level of drama we’re talking about!) And sometimes I still struggle to write about Bichsel. But when it does work out, those are the essays I’ve enjoyed most. I wrote a more personal essay for M&L no. 6 about Dubravka Ugrešić, one of my absolute favorite writers, whose novel The Museum of Unconditional Surrender came to me, completely by chance, at exactly the right moment in my life. I loved writing about Can Xue. (Who is also an M&L author, but I swear that’s just coincidence!) And I think, way back when we first met, I had just published a long piece on Jáchym Topol—I still rather like that one as well. I can’t get enough of Eastern Europeans—always loved the Russians and the former Yugoslavians.
Otherwise, there are a couple of early twentieth-century English authors I’m obsessed with and would love to write long, gushing things about—Lord Dunsany and Hope Mirrlees. Bichsel’s observations on fellow readers come to mind again here, too: he said that the purpose of the critic is to be a public fellow reader, and so if what I really want is to find someone who loves The King of Elfland’s Daughter (which sounds ridiculous, I know, but trust me, it’s the most beautiful book) or Lud-in-the-Mist as much as I do, then perhaps I have to find them via criticism.
And speaking of Bichsel, I do hope to translate more of his work in the future as well. A friend and I are hatching a plan to maybe do a trilingual version of one of his sermons; I’d love for that to happen.
A.S.: I’d love for that to happen too! Madeleine, thank you for this conversation.
Madeleine LaRue is a writer, translator, and senior editor and director of publicity for Music & Literature. She lives in Berlin.
This conversation marks my eleventh month as a columnist for 3 Quarks Daily. I’ve talked to artist Joy Garnett about her famous Egyptian poet and beekeeping grandfather; Liesl Schillinger about literature and politics; and Saskia Vogel about sex, pornography, and her debut novel Permission. There’s also a conversation with Myriam Naumann that explores the connecting points between my book “A Lesser Day” and an installation I exhibited several months back at the Berlin gallery Manière Noire, titled “The Ethnic Chinese Millionaire.”
The series can be found in its entirety here.
My next 3Quarks conversation, which will appear on June 17, will be with the author Aimee Parkison.