Episode 374 – Philip Boehm

Virtual Memories Show 374:
Philip Boehm

“German language is like a big Lego set: there are component parts and you can take them apart and put them back together and they fit in neatly or at least with a lot of right angles. Polish and the other Slavic languages, have all these declensions, and the verbs have aspects, and Polish sounds like ‘autumnal rustling’.”

Translator and director Philip Boehm joins the show fresh off winning his second Helen & Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize. We talk about his prize-winning translation of Christine Wunnicke’s The Fox & Dr. Shimamura (New Directions), and the research and challenges that went into bringing the eerie historical novel to life in English, then get into his time in Poland in the ’80s, how it shaped his ideas on the role of the arts in society, and how he had to smuggle his work out of the country, the differences between translating for the page vs. the stage, his role as Artistic Director of Upstream Theater, the time he pranked a publisher with a fake letter from Kafka to Milena, the pressure of translating canonical works and the joy of meeting & befriending authors he works on, the parallels between Iron Curtain countries in the ’80s & America today, how every theatrical staging is an act of translation, regardless of the source language, why German is like Lego while Polish is like autumnal rustling, how he’s dealing with Pandemic Life in Texas, and more! Give it a listen! And go read The Fox & Dr. Shimamura!

“That sense of translation as a living body of work, and not relegated to some category or serving a particular work, that was more present in Poland when I was there in the 1980s.”

“That era instilled a sense of significance to the arts. It became a more vital presence, and I felt a more vital part of society.”

“As bankrupt as The Party was, there once was an ideology behind it. Here we have a demagogue who is feeding all sorts of populist resentment and fueling tensions in a way that functions very differently from the Iron Curtain countries.”


Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

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About our Guest

Philip Boehm’s career zigzags across languages and borders, artistic disciplines and cultural divides. He is the author of more than thirty translations of prose works and plays by German and Polish writers, including Herta Müller, Franz Kafka, and Hanna Krall. For his work as a translator he has received numerous awards, as well as fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation. As a director fluent in several languages, he has staged plays in Poland, Slovakia, and the US. His most frequent venue is Upstream Theater in St. Louis, which he founded in 2004. The company has produced dozens of works—mostly US premieres—from nearly twenty different countries.

Mr. Boehm’s plays have been seen in Atlanta, Houston, Sacramento, St. Louis and Banská Bystrica, Slovakia, and include Mixtitlan, Soul of a Clone, The Death of Atahualpa, and Return of the Bedbug, as well as adaptations of Büchner’s Woyzeck and Kazimierz Moczarski’s Conversations with an Executioner. For his dramatic work Mr. Boehm has received support from the Mexican-American Fund for Culture as well as the NEA.

Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded remotely via Zencastr. I used a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photos of Philip by Traci Lavois Thiebaud (the good one) and him (the pandemic-life one from a few days ago). It’s on my instagram.

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