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Translating Bukowski

With all of its irregular spellings and punctuation, slang and local references, Notes would seem a challenge to translate, but Weissner was an enthusiast and self-taught, untroubled by theoretical issues: “He is easy to translate when he is colorful and uses a lot of adjectives. But he is difficult when his language becomes very bare, short sentences and stuff,” Weissner said, a sentiment that would leave today’s translation theorists scratching their heads.53 Weissner left place names and some slang in original form, a form of “foreignization,” but he standardized spelling and punctuation, “domesticating” the appearance of Bukowski’s prose for German readers.

When he finished translating Notes, Weissner and Bukowski “decided to invent a review quote by Henry Miller in a desperate attempt to boost sales.” Bukowski had resorted to this practice often, but in this case Weissner seems to have been the instigator, for Bukowski wrote back: “I’m not too happy with the fake H. Miller quote, and I would not tell [John] Martin about it or he’d flip—maybe. But if you think it will make the difference in selling 2000 or 5000, go ahead. It’s best that we survive.” But this first translation would only sell 1,200 copies, probably because it appeared in hardcover only: “It earned Bukowski next to nothing,” wrote Sounes.54 Amateur entrepreneurs make errors; it turned out that the only professional in this effort, Melzer, saw the mistake immediately, telling Weissner that Bukowski’s next book should be a paperback.55

Like a good agent, Weissner downplayed this when he wrote back, emphasizing the new contract, to which Bukowski replied: “tremendous terms! What did you do, get a hammerlock on Melzer?” He clearly did not know what was happening, but he woke up when he now actually “read the [old] ESSEX HOUSE contract—they get 25 percent of anything I make on a foreign [sic] translation—the bastards! ... must phone in tomorrow and see what I can do with them.”56 But the contract had already been resold to Weissner via Ferlinghetti. This was material outside of Bukowski’s exclusive contract with John Martin.

Weissner changed Notes of a Dirty Old Man extensively for the German publisher and the translation is revealing. Let’s look at a section with some slang and sexuality, always challenging for a translator. This is the fourth section of the original:

it was hot in there. I went to the piano and played the piano. I didn’t know how to play the piano. I just hit the keys. some people danced on the couch. then I looked under the piano and saw a girl stretched out under there, her dress up around her hips. I played with one hand, reached under and copped a feel with the other. either the bad music or copping that feel woke up the girl. she climbed out from under the piano. the people stopped dancing on the couch. I made it to the couch and slept for fifteen minutes.

I hadn’t slept for two nights and two days. it was hot in there, hot. when I awakened I vomited in a coffee cup. then that was full and I had to let go on the couch. somebody brought a large pot. just in time. I let it go. sour. everything was sour.57

Weissner, first of all, used standard German capitalization for nouns and to begin sentences. Everything becomes more focused and discrete.

Es war heiE in der Bude. Ich ging ans Klavier und fing an zu spielen. Hatte naturlich keine Ahnung vom Klavierspielen; ich hammerte einfach auf die Tasten. Ein paar Leute tanzten auf der Couch. Irgendwann schaute ich zufallig mal unters Piano, und da hatte sich ein Madchen lang gelegt, ihr Kleid war bis uber die Huften hochgerutscht. Ich spielte mit einer Hand weiter und langte mit der anderen runter und fummelte ein biEchen. Entweder war es mein haarstraubendes Geklimper oder das Fummeln, jedenfalls die Dame wachte schlagartig auf. Sie kroch unterm Piano hervor. Die Leute auf der Couch horten auf zu tanzen. Ich schleppte mich ruber zur Couch und haute mich fur Viertelstunde hin. Ich hatte zwei Tage und Nachte nicht mehr gepennt. Es war heiE da drin, elend heiE. Ich wachte auf und kotzte in eine Kaffeetassse. Und dann war die Tasse voll und es fing an auf die Couch zu gehen. Jemand brachte einen groEen Pott angeschleppt. Grad noch rechtzeitig. Und ich fing richtig an zu reihern. Sauer. Alles war sauer. Ich stand auf und ging ins Badezimmer. Da waren schon zwei nackte Jungs drin. . . .58

Curious readers can check my reverse translation of Weissner into English in this endnote.59 In it they will see that Weissner removed the spatial and temporal vagueness of Bukowski’s original, supplying some proper names (Bude—room or joint—for “there”) and making words more specific (ham- merete for “hit,”haarstraubendes Geklimper for “bad music”), while retaining Couch (sometimes a French loan word in German). The sexual scene of “copping a feel” is almost completely effaced, and the girl becomes a “lady” as the scene ends. Then Weissner proceeded right into the next paragraph without pause. “Ich schleppte mich” (I dragged myself) replaces the original “I made it to.” Weissner knew exactly how much of Bukowski a German audience could tolerate. There had to be a touch of schmaltz and self-mockery mixed into the fatalism. This kind of translation complemented his promotion and marketing, as we will see.

Meanwhile John Martin, the patron, put his author to work non-stop on his memoir Post Office (1971). Bukowski edited and revised attentively for the first time in his life, because he finally understood his capital in the field. He was not just updating his early hero John Fante anymore, but rather attacking work, success, beauty, worldliness, and romance. The book would appear in German in early 1974 as the paperback Der Mann mit der Ledertasche [The Man with the Briefcase], indicating that the attentive Martin had spotted the market niche (or perhaps that Weissner led him to it). The translation, which Martin out-sourced to Hans Hermann, was published in Koln by Kiepenheuer & Witsch, and later by Deutsche Taschenbuch Verlag. That Martin published in Germany before any other non-Anglophone nation argues a pilot-fish function for Carl Weissner. Martin and Weissner achieved a symbiotic relationship, rather than a competitive one. Some gatekeepers and publishers were beginning to cooperate.

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