Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Prelimary Post on The Sleepwalkers

Earlier this year I read Hermann Broch's massive novel of ideas, The Sleepwalkers. Unlike with Despair, I did mean to write a semi-cohesive review of it here, but it kind of got away from me, and now that it's been several months, I'm afraid I'm too far removed from the reading of it to do what I had intended. Instead, I'm going to post what I can about my reading of the book in irregular installments. For now, a very brief note about the translation.

The novel was translated by Willa and Edwin Muir (best known to me as translators of Kafka). Divided into three sections, in English the section titles are rendered as “The Romantic”, “The Anarchist”, and “The Realist”. As far as I can tell the Muirs' translation is well thought of. However, there are some questions. In their review of the novel, The Complete Review complains, rightly I think, about the translations for the three section titles. I don’t know German, so it’s not like I’m any kind of judge generally. Except that it’s clear that the name for the main character in each section is included as part of the original German title—for example, "Pasenow oder die Romantik", which becomes “The Romantic”, features the name "Pasenow". But, as they say, that one fares better than the other two. When I first picked up a copy of The Sleepwalkers my interpretation of the title of the second section was that the main character in it would be something like a political anarchist. Indeed, that was an element that piqued my curiosity, given my nascent interest in Anarchism. How, I wondered, would a major German novelist of the interwar period depict a political anarchist in fiction? Well, I needn’t have worried, because the main character, Esch, is nothing of the kind. According to The Complete Review, the German for this section title ("Esch oder die Anarchie") should translate as “Esch, or Anarchy”--which is quite a different thing, referring, it seems clear to me, not to political anarchism, but instead to the idea of anarchy as “chaos”. This kind of thing tends to make me wonder what other meanings I'm missing by reading in translation. Naturally, there's no way to avoid this completely. But the question remains.

That's about it. As I said, the translation is well regarded. It's certainly rendered into a good, solid, literary English, for the most part quite readable (ignoring for the moment the problem with valuing "readability" over all else in a translation). The only times I was made aware in the reading that it was in translation were multiple instances of English slang, like the word "what?" at the end of a sentence. (Unfortunately, I didn't make note of these instances, so I can't provide an example.)

I hope to get my more substantive posts on the novel (which may or may not be in three parts, one for each section of the novel) up before the end of the year.

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