“As a translator, your initial feeling is, ‘I want to inhabit this text.’ There’s a primary identification, a mirror effect, where you see your own creative possibilities reflected there, and want to realize them through this text.”
The 7th annual Festival Neue Literatur is Feb. 25-28, 2016 in New York, and this podcast is a Media Partner, so let’s talk to the event’s curator! Translator and Guggenheim fellow Ross Benjamin joins the show to talk about putting together “Seriously Funny,” this year’s FNL theme, and coordinating the 6 German language authors and 2 Americans who will be the featured guests. We talk about humor, German stereotypes, and the difference between reading a language and being able to speak it. Along the way, we get into the styles that different translators have, the challenges and joys of translating Kafka’s diaries, the pros and cons of translating living authors and dead ones, and the angst of trying to give meaning to a single word. Give it a listen, and get over to Festival Neue Literatur from February 25-28, 2016 in New York!
“In the early diaries, you can feel Kafka groping for a voice and a style.”
We also get into Ross’ history as a translator, what he’s learned about his mother tongue in the process, what other language he’d love to learn, the deep responsibility that comes from bringing a text into English, and more! Go listen.
“Most authors don’t mind answering ceaseless questions about their own work. It’s not just ego or vanity, I think it’s fascinating for them because authors don’t necessarily think consciously about all these aspects of their work.”
Also, if you want to find out who Ross is reading nowadays and get a list of the books we talked about in this episode, join our Patreon and become a monthly contributor to The Virtual Memories Show! At the end of February, the new episode of our patron-only podcast, Fear of a Square Planet, will go up with a bonus segment about who Ross is reading and why.
About our Guest
Ross Benjamin is a translator of German-language literature and a writer living in Nyack, NY. His translations include Friedrich Hölderlin’s Hyperion, Kevin Vennemann’s Close to Jedenew, Joseph Roth’s Job, and Clemens J. Setz’s Indigo. He is currently at work on a translation of Franz Kafka’s complete Diaries, to be published by Liveright/Norton. He is a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow. He was awarded the 2010 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize for his rendering of Michael Maar’s Speak, Nabokov, a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship to translate Clemens J. Setz’s The Frequencies, and a commendation from the judges of the 2012 Schlegel-Tieck Prize for his translation of Thomas Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog. His literary criticism has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, Bookforum, The Nation, and other publications. He was a 2003–2004 Fulbright Scholar in Berlin and is a graduate of Vassar College.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded in a conference room in Nyack, NY on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. Benjamin by me.
“[Reading Mein Kampf] I expected to find something totally crazy and full of poison, so disgusting you couldn’t stand reading it. And what I found was something you could bear: sometimes pragmatic, sometimes logical. I was expecting a “wrong Hitler”, as most people in Germany would expect: a monster, yelling at the reader. Not someone it would be easy to follow. That’s what I found out: it was easy to go along with him.”
Is it okay to make fun of Hitler? On May 6, 2015, the Goethe-Institut New York and the German Book Office brought in Timur Vermes, Gavriel Rosenfeld and Liesl Schillinger to discuss “Satirical Representations of Hitler in Contemporary Culture,” and they invited me to moderate the panel! Timur Vermes’ new satiric novel, Look Who’s Back (Maclehose Press), imagines Hitler mysteriously awakening in modern Berlin and trying to make sense of the world since 1945, and prompts us to explore what it means to laugh at Hitler (and laugh with him)! Give it a listen!
“If you have too many funny Hitlers, you don’t think there’s anything to be afraid of.”
The panel discusses whether Germany will ever be “normal”, the perils of using Hitler as the symbol of anything we don’t like, whether it’s okay for some ethnic groups (okay, Jews) to make fun of Hitler but not for other ethnic groups to do so, what Timur Vermes learned in the process of writing a novel in Hitler’s voice, whether Mein Kampf should be published freely in Germany, and more!
From left: me, Timur Vermes, Gavriel Rosenfeld, Liesl Schillinger.
Photo © Goethe-Institut New York / Jacobia Dahm
About our Guests
The son of a German mother and a Hungarian father who fled that country in 1956. Timur Vermes was born in Nuremberg in 1967. He studied history and politics and went on to become a journalist. He was written for the Abendzeitung and the Cologne Express and worked for various magazines. He has ghostwritten several books since 2009. Look Who’s Back (Maclehose Press) is his first novel. It has been translated into 42 languages and a film version will be released in Germany this fall.
Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based critic, translator, and moderator. She grew up in Midwestern college towns, studied comparative literature at Yale, worked at The New Yorker for more than a decade and became a regular critic for The New York Times Book Review in 2004. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York, The New Republic, The Washington Post, Vogue, Foreign Policy, The London Independent on Sunday, and many other publications. Her recent translations include the novels Every Day, Every Hour, by Natasa Dragnic, and The Lady of the Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas, fils. Wordbirds: An Irreverent Lexicon for the 21st Century, came out in 2013.
Gavriel D. Rosenfeld is Professor of History and Director of the Undergraduate Program in Judaic Studies at Fairfield University. He received his B.A. in History and Judaic Studies from Brown University in 1989 and his Ph.D. in History from UCLA in 1996. His area of specialization is the history and memory of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. He has written a wide range of books, including the newly released monograph, Hi Hitler!: How the Nazi Past is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015) and the forthcoming edited collection, “If Only We Had Died in Egypt!” What Ifs of Jewish History From Abraham to Zionism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015). He has also written numerous articles, is a frequent contributor to the Forward newspaper, and runs the blog, The Counterfactual History Review.
Credits: This episode’s music is O Just Suppose by Ute Lemper. The conversation was recorded at the Goethe-Institut New York on what looked like wireless Shure M-58s. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of the panel © Goethe-Institut New York / Jacobia Dahm.
“I should have led a more balanced life, but that’s easy to say at the end of things. When you’re caught up in what you’re doing, it’s very hard to be reasonable. And art isn’t really made out being reasonable.”
Clive James was diagnosed with leukemia and emphysema several years ago, but the poet, essayist, memoirist, novelist, TV host, and charter member of the Virtual Memories Show Dream List hasn’t let his ailments silence him. He joins us for a wide-ranging conversation about poetry, mortality, binge-watching Veronica Mars, writing Cultural Amnesia (one of my favorite books), being Australian despite 50 years in the UK, how his showbiz career hurt (and helped) his literary legacy, and a lot more. We talk about his two new books — Poetry Notebook (Liveright) and Sentenced To Life (Picador, UK only) — and the ones he’s working on, and how he faced two choices after his diagnoses: lie back on a couch, admire himself for his achievements, and sign off; or go on as if he had forever. Give it a listen!
“All that poetry comes in handy when you lie there, contemplating the end. The question is why: Why when your body is about to come apart, is there such appeal in reading such highly organized argument and imagery?”
We get into the role of culture, the future of the Middle East, his first encounter with a Jew, the books he made a priority of when he realized his time was short, why it’s okay for actors to be shallow, and how he wrote a critique of Daniel Goldhagen while dressed as a mariachi singer for a TV show in Mexico.
“It’s possible to say that if I’d just concentrated on my literary activities [instead of working on TV], I’d have had a less complicated reputation. The question never would have arisen: Is he serious enough to write seriously?”
We talked a lot of books in this one. Here’s a list:
- Poetry Notebook – Clive James
- Unreliable Memoirs – Clive James
- Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts – Clive James
- Inside The Whale – George Orwell
- Shakespeare’s Montaigne: The Florio Translation of the Essays, A Selection – Montaigne
- La Ronde (Modern Plays) – Arthur Shnitzler
- Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong – Robert Bryce
- Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino
- Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust – Daniel Goldhagen
- Latest Readings – Clive James
- The Songlines – Bruce Chatwin
- Dictionnaire Egoiste Litterature Francaise (French Edition) – Charles Dantzig
- Chess Story – Stefan Zweig
- Beware of Pity – Stefan Zweig
- The Hard Problem – Tom Stoppard
- Arcadia: A Play – Tom Stoppard
About our Guest
Born in Australia, Clive James lives in Cambridge, England. He is the author of Unreliable Memoirs; a volume of selected poems, Opal Sunset; the best-selling Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts; and the translator of The Divine Comedy by Dante. He has written for the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic. He is an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). You can find a longer version of his bio at his site.
Credits: This episode’s music is El Cholulo by Tosca Tango Orchestra. The conversation was recorded at Mr. James’ home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. James by me.