Working with Wolfgang
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Comparative Critical Studies 1, 1–2, pp. 19–25 © BCLA 2004
Once upon a time, people believed that texts had one meaning – one
specific line of thought which the critic had to root out in order to
justify his existence. The author, it was claimed, must have intended
something, so let’s find out what he intended. Then along came a new
group of literary critics who pointed out that texts could have lots of
meanings, and that you could never find out what the author intended
unless he actually told you, but even then maybe you couldn’t trust
him, or maybe he didn’t know what he was talking about. It was
therefore old hat to look for the meaning or intention, and instead one
needed to find out what the text did to the reader, how the text did it,
and what was the nature of the interaction between text and reader.
Well, yes … but what happens when the text has to be translated?
The translator has no choice. He must settle on one meaning, on one
specific line of thought, on what he thinks/hopes/prays may have been
the author’s intention. That’s not old hat – that’s the essence of the
translation game. If you’re not a mind reader, both you and the author
are in trouble, and anyone who has compared original texts to
translations will testify to the extent of the trouble. Ask Wolfgang. Not
long ago, he was challenged about a statement he’d made. ‘But I never
said any such thing!’ he protested. ‘Oh yes you did,’ came the reply –
and there it was, in black and white. In Korean.
There are two basic kinds of author-to-be-translated: type (a) wants
nothing to do with the translation, because he/she doesn’t know your
language, can’t be bothered, or is dead. Type (b) welcomes the chance
to work with you. There are two basic kinds of type (b): type (b1) wants
absolutely every word translated exactly as he/she wrote it, nothing
must be changed, and your job is simply to transcribe his/her words
into English. Type (b2) realizes that you have a brain of your own,
welcomes any comments or suggestions you might have, and accepts
that if the text is to be anglicized it will have to be changed. Type (b1)
will engage you in a monologue, and type (b2) wants a dialogue.
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Let’s be careful here. You’ve probably got the impression that type
(b1) is a villain (you see how you automatically fill in gaps, jump to
determinate conclusions, establish meanings of your own … you fit
perfectly into the Iserian pattern of the implied reader). What you have
forgotten is that there are also different types of translator. Some want
nothing to do with the author, some want only to translate every word
exactly as it is written (so they love author b1), some are bullies … And
let’s not go into the problems of editors and deadlines. Suffice it to say
that each author/translator relationship is different, and if you’re both
alive and in contact, the pair of you must find a satisfactory modus
operandi or another partner. That’s right, it’s just like marriage.
You might think the image goes too far, but the fact is that if the
two of you do work together, there can be no secrets between you, and
you will argue, try to impose your will, eventually win or be forced to
give in, or – as is often the case – find a compromise. ‘Win’ and ‘give
in’ may make the wrong impression, because in a good relationship of
whatever kind, the solution needs to benefit both partners. It shouldn’t
be a battle – it should be a joint search.
That, I think, is the essence of working with Wolfgang. It is all in
the nature of a quest, and anyone who knows him will confirm that
this is as true of his life as it is of his work. He is constantly open to
new ideas and experiences, and there is a curiosity in him that never
flags. Add to that a formidable intellect, a huge range of interests, an
encyclopaedic memory, a charismatic personality, and you will begin to
get some idea of the force behind the writing. But there is also a
problem here. He loves the challenge of the quest, and the challenge
that he has set himself throughout his academic career is to explore
processes that by their very nature almost defy verbal expression. What
are the ‘somethings’ that take place between text and reader, that
emerge from the interaction, that drive us to embrace fictions, that
trigger, modify, transform our responses? Through the very nature of
these investigations, he has to use language to define the indefinable,
and although the language he uses may be familiar to others who have
tried to plumb the same depths, it is a tangled web to those on the
outside. This is where I come in.
In theory (that has a double meaning), our ‘marriage’ should be a
disaster. He is the towering intellect, and I am the bear of very little
brain; he revels in abstraction, and I need concrete clarity; he is the
many-sided man of ideas, and I am a one-track explorer of the
imagination; he is always on the move, physically and geographically,
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Working with Wolfgang 21
while I dream at home; he uses language to investigate, and I use it to
evoke (as an author) or explain (as a teacher). We are poles apart. Even
as teachers of literature, we went separate ways – with him guiding his
students towards analysis of processes and effects, and me burrowing
into the human, psychological experience which for me is virtually the
be-all even if not the end-all of literature. He is modern, and I am old-
fashioned. His way is right … and my way is right. That’s why we
should never have hit it off – with a right and a wrong way, you can
easily make a judgement, but with two rights you have problems. I
shall mention one more obstacle, just to prove how impossible our
partnership should have been: along with all these radical differences,
we are both perfectionists. What could be worse?
Perhaps now you are thinking to yourself: ‘marriage of opposites’,
but how does a marriage of opposites work if its offspring has to be a
text that will please both partners. That it has worked is, I think, clear
from the fact that not only have we been friends for over 37 years, and
there has never been a cross word between us, but also Wolfgang’s
books have sold in vast quantities and have been translated into many
languages using the English versions as their basis.
Wolfgang will no doubt have his own explanation, but I think the
key to our understanding is his open-mindedness, allied to a rocklike
patience, a passion for his subject, a wonderful tolerance to my obtuse-
ness, and – crucial for both of us – a sense of humour which despite
the passion and perfectionism also enables him to laugh at himself.
Some brilliant men are arrogant and pompous, but these characteristics
are utterly alien to Wolfgang, and I can honestly say that it is a
pleasure to work with him. I will go further. It’s fun.
There are two points to be stressed here: it is a pleasure to work
with him. I did not say with his texts. They are fearfully complex, and
the howls of anguish and frustration that have greeted my wife’s ears
have, over the years, been matched only by the howls of anguish and
frustration that have greeted Lore’s ears as Wolfgang has latched onto
yet another misinterpretation of his words. Of course, it’s all his fault
because his ideas are so convoluted and his German language is so full
of abstract, compound nouns that even other Germans would despair
of their dictionaries. But no, it’s all my fault, because I’ve confused a
Meinungserscheingsverfeinerungsverarbeitung with a Meinungserscheinungs-
versteinerungsverarbeitung, which of course any idiot can see is a totally
different phenomenon. (Sorry, I made those terms up. It’s my creative
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The other point that needs to be stressed is that I have learned an
enormous amount from working with Wolfgang. It is a privilege to be
shown into a mind of such brilliance, and I am not so stupid as to turn
away from ideas that – for all their complexity – shed light on the very
field in which I am so deeply involved myself. He has revealed profound
truths to me which I would never have grappled with, and there is no
doubt that some of them have had an influence even on my own
We first met in 1964, at which time Wolfgang was an up-and-coming
young professor in Cologne, and I was a Lektor. We became friends
quite early on, and when he was offered the chair in Konstanz, he
invited me to join him, which I did in 1967. By then I had a young
family, and it was a not insignificant factor that the friendship had
widened to include Lore and Lisbeth, who have always got on just as
well as Wolfgang and myself. In Konstanz, I saw a new side of my
friend. He is a great negotiator. Institutions can be dangerous places,
but I had a suit of armour unlike any other: I was made a ‘Beamter’
(which gave me tenure), I was protected from the interfering busy-
bodies you so often come up against in such places, I was given every
assistance in establishing a student theatre and a literary magazine –
both impossible without the input of the Great Negotiator – and when
the time came for me to take my family back to England, he pulled off
his greatest coup, which was to set up an exchange scheme with Bristol
University. It involved my belonging to two institutions, and even the
top échelons of the Administration thought it to be legally impossible,
but Wolfgang did it. There is a lot to be said for having a formidable
intellect and a charismatic personality on your side.
In those early years, he wrote only in German, and when I had
wrestled with the impossible, and he had wrestled with the hopeless,
we would sit together for hours going through all the problems. Lore
would ply us with food and drink, and would laugh at the battles
(sorry – joint searches) going on, and gradually we would reach a
consensus. No, not because of the drink … I only take what Wolfgang
calls ‘cissy drinks’, and it would require a lot of liquor to make him
give way against his will. On matters of language, I remained the
authority, and on matters of content, of course the final decision was
always his, but the grey areas were always the fascinating ones: possible
interpretations of texts, the logic of an argument, the Wilsonic cry for
clarity opposed to the Iserian love of complexity. I would take things
out, and Wolfgang would put them back in – but not all of them. I
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Working with Wolfgang 23
would break an argument down to make it clearer, and he would build
it back up to make it more comprehensive – but not as bulgingly
comprehensive as it was before. We would always, without fail, strike a
During the second phase, when I had gone back to England with my
family, and I had cut my Konstanz trips from four to two a year, we
did a lot more of our consulting by post and telephone. By then we had
got so used to each other’s way of thinking that the battles had
dwindled into mere skirmishes. It has to be said also that Wolfgang’s
English has always been excellent, and as the years have rolled by and
his American career has flourished, it has got better and better. So much
so that in recent years he has taken to writing directly in English, with
the result that my task has become one of polishing instead of translat-
ing. The time-saving for both of us is enormous, and even though his
work has become increasingly philosophical, it seems to me that the
discipline of writing in English has actually helped him to crystallize
his thoughts.
Is there a difference between translating Wolfgang and translating
other authors? Emphatically yes. You would expect fiction, guidebooks,
art books, children’s books, and documentary and commercial films to
be more straightforward anyway – and I’ve worked on all of these - but
even the other academic books I’ve translated have used language
conventionally. By that, I mean that arguments are linear, the vocabu-
lary can be linked to concrete references, there is a solid base on which
the words can build. Wolfgang’s base is abstract, theoretical, constantly
shifting, and so the language becomes self-referential, because it is all
about defining definitions. Just as lawyers and linguists have created
their own language, so too have philosophers, as I know only too well
from the many other thinkers that Wolfgang quotes – English as well
as German. He is not alone. But he is unique in my translator’s world.
Let me give you just two examples of the problems. The first of
these actually seems quite simple initially, because there are no recon-
dite words, and the subject-matter is perfectly recognizable.
Wer lügt, muss die Wahrheit verschleiern, und das kann heissen, dass in der Lüge
die Wahrheit oftmals bis zu dem Grade anwesend ist, in dem die Verschleierung
ausschliesslich dem Verdecken der Wahrheit dient.
Let’s try a straight translation: Whoever lies must conceal the truth,
and this can mean that in the lie the truth is often present to the extent
to which the concealment serves exclusively to hide the truth. Does
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that make sense? Well, it didn’t to me. In such cases, I try – as a
faithful implied reader always does – to fill the gaps with reasoning of
my own: The liar has to conceal the truth, which may mean that the lie
often contains that degree of truth necessary to make the concealment
convincing. Not what Wolfgang wrote, but it was an argument that I
could understand. It was not, however, what Wolfgang meant, and the
version we ended up with was: The liar must conceal the truth, but the
truth is potentially present in the mask which disguises it.
I have taken this example out of context, of course, but it will give
you some insight into the problem, the solution, and the absolute
necessity of author and translator working together. I shudder to think
(and so does Wolfgang) what the Korean translator might have made
of the German.
One more example from the same text:
Die Gleichzeitigkeit des mitten im Leben und zugleich an dessen Horizont zu sein
macht das Fingieren zu einer Figur innerweltlicher Totalität. Denn das Mittend-
rinsein im Leben wird durch das Fingieren für dieses Mittendrinsein inszeniert
und gewährt damit einen Zustand, den es in den Lebensvollzügen sonst nicht gibt.
The beginning is clear, and the end is clear, but how do you link the
beginning to the end? This time I was able to fill the gap fairly
accurately by condensing the two sentences into one: This simultan-
eous involvement in and detachment from life through a fiction which
stages the involvement and thereby brings about the detachment,
offers a kind of (intramundane) totality that is (otherwise) impossible
in everyday life. The two bracketed words were inserted after Wolfgang
and I had discussed the problem in detail.
This is not translation at all, but rethinking, and that is why
working with Wolfgang is unlike any other translating work that I have
done. In the first example, my version would have been wrong, in the
second I was almost right, but in both cases I was able to take certain
risks because I knew that Wolfgang would correct/supplement/explain
whenever necessary. Sometimes, as with a word like ‘intramundane’,
we even agree to take risks together! I would like to think that between
us we have generally come up with versions that are as clear as such
difficult ideas can be, and it was always reassuring – at least to me –
when German students told me that they read Iser in English rather
than in German because they found it more straightforward. The
comparative is, of course, important because Iser is never going to be
straightforwardly straightforward!
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Working with Wolfgang 25
Nowadays, as I have mentioned, the task has changed, because
Wolfgang writes his own English. The lecture that begins this book is
one that I only had to polish, but it was the first time in 37 years that
I had heard Wolfgang actually deliver a lecture on which I had worked.
There were a couple of language mistakes which were painful to my
ear – my oversights, his later additions, a slip of the tongue? I don’t
know. There were a couple of points I disagreed with too. Why didn’t
I spot them earlier, when we were liaising on the text? You can never
achieve perfection, I suppose, but you have to try. This was not my
abiding impression, though. I attended the event along with Lore, my
wife, and two of my grown-up children (the third was in America), and
we all sat there riveted, despite the difficulty of the subject-matter.
The lecture was followed by questions, and we all marvelled at the
charm, tolerance (some of the questions were pretty silly) and absolute
mastery with which Wolfgang dealt with them. It was a special occasion
for all of us, and what I felt more than anything else was an immense
sense of pride, as I do whenever he tells me about the latest
conference, translation, publication, honour. How does one put that
sort of feeling into words? It’s the translator’s pride, the collaborator’s
pride, but far more profound than that, it’s a kind of family pride. The
Germans, of course, would find a single compound noun for it.
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