On translating Joseph Roth

Michael Hofmann

Michael Hoffman

I was first offered a Joseph Roth novel to translate in 1988. The book was Right and Left. Roth’s previous translator, John Hoare, I think had died. I had been reading Roth for some years, reviewed some of the books – Weights and Measures, Job, Hotel Savoy, The Spider’s Web, Zipper and his Father – and written an introduction for a paperback edition of one: Flight Without End. A bit of Zipper had even made its way into a poem I wrote in the mid eighties: ‘Once, I left a bit of Joseph Roth bleeding on your desk’ (the pun on ‘Roth’, red, and ‘bleeding’). I had done some translations, and thought of it as something I would do from time to time, but I had no ambitions for myself as a translator.

I should perhaps mention that I was born in Germany, of German parents, came to England at the age of four, and was brought up in a German-speaking household; after my parents returned to Germany and left me in an English boarding-school, I spent the holidays there, and read German easily and relatively uncomplainingly. My German is familial and somewhat literary: that of a child who’s read Thomas Mann, as I’ve sometimes described it. There are things in German I find difficult or distasteful – contemporary slang, bureaucratic language, technical terms of all sorts – but it is not a language I’ve ever had to learn.

Perhaps this sounds like an ideal background for a translator, until I remind you that translating, in a bilingual family, was not something that ever happened. That reflex was missing. We spoke in whatever language we were speaking in – generally, at my parents’ insistence, German – and if we got tired or angry, or there was a better word in English, then we used that. The natural language for all of us was macaronics of one consistency or another. Translation was not a naturally occurring activity, and was in fact, probably, the last thing such a background equipped one for. I have subsequently acquired the reflex, and it’s a tedious thing: generally now when I read German, I translate it to myself as I go along. But it’s not something I ever used to do, and I presumably won’t ever have the messianic zeal of the basically monoglot translator, someone who habitually and by necessity moves things out of the relative darkness of other languages into the light of his own, where he can truly possess them.

Something came between me and the translation of Right and Left – namely, another Roth title. The publisher got wind of the fact that the Italian director Ermanno Olmi had made a film of The Legend of the Holy Drinker – Roth’s last work, from 1939 – assumed that this was another novel, and got me to do it first, so that they could have the ‘movie tie-in’ and Rutger Hauer  (in the title role, a natural following his work with Guinness) moodily gracing the cover. What he had neglected to find out – the estimable Jeremy Lewis, then working for Chatto & Windus – was that The Legend of the Holy Drinker was a long story or a short novella, not more than twelve or thirteen thousand words, way below anything of publishable length in English. (It has long been one of my grouses against publishing in England that short books – and hence short literary forms – are thought to be impossible: the public is allowed to exercise a tyranny based on ‘value for money’ analogous to the theatre audience’s ‘right to laugh’. In either case creative freedom is stunted. Well, not many dead.) In the event, a large type-size was chosen, the layout left space wherever possible, I was obliged to throw in a Translator’s Note at no extra cost, and, weighing in at an unlikely forty-nine pages, the book was published in 1989. A little later, a Sunday paper editor, not having troubled to see that I had translated it, asked me if I would like to review it. I confessed my part in the book, offered my acceptance anyway, and was of course not allowed to write about it. All this strikes me as pretty much par for the course; the history of the translation and publication of foreign books can probably best be seen as a series of well-intentioned blunders.

All my previous engagement with Roth’s work seems to have left me unprepared for its variety, and, in this instance – it’s a strange word to use – its plumminess. I took no decisions of principle – I rarely do, it’s usually the province of uninformed editors, saying they want a book (which they are not in a position to read) to turn out in such and such a way – but found myself moving in unexpectedly arch, ironic and polysyllabic territory. In my ‘Note’ I even, unusually, tried tore explain myself:

It is customary – and usually correct – to praise Roth’s style for its simplicity. But Roth is not monosyllabic and not Hemingway. He is a thoughtful, quirky and refined writer. Simplicity in English is apt to be taken for rawness, simple-mindedness or blandness, and Roth is very far from being any of these. Nor would he have allowed simplicity to obstruct him in what he was saying. Therefore, after little hesitation, I have decided to plump for a style that gives expression to Roth’s ironic capacity, flexibility and qualities of thought. In English, this means using French and Latin words, and this I have very occasionally done, conscious all the time that Roth would have deplored such a practice (and even more the condition of the language that necessitates it), but thinking that in the end he too would have had to adopt it.

In fact, fourteen years and seven Roths later, I’m not so sure he would have deplored it; my sense of him then was perhaps overly influenced by his early plainness and brightness of language, and I think I felt guilty at following my own predilections of vocabulary. The fact is that Roth’s hero Andreas Kartak – a Polish ex-miner, murderer, gaolbird and vagrant wino and ‘illegal’ – is a man possessed of a medieval sense of honour and Absurdist punctilio. He and his associates – other vagrants, whores, shop assistants and casual labourers (oh, and ‘the celebrated footballer, Kanjak’) – express themselves with exquisite courtesy and genteelness; they are as solicitous and forbearing as a bunch of knights. (I wonder whether Beckett might not have known the book.) I fell, therefore, into courtois parlance, and, partly because of that, partly because of the Parisian setting (Andreas sleeps under a different bridge every night), into a lot of French: confrère, bagatelle, quartier, patronne, foulard. The originals, in most cases, were German words. When Andreas has some good fortune and comes into some money, he ‘decided unhesitatingly to follow some good, yes, some noble prompting, and for once not go to the Tari-Bari, but instead, newspaper in hand, to seek out some classier establishment, where he would order a roll and some coffee – perhaps inspirited with a jigger of rum’. Here, the original was French, ‘mit Rum arrosiert’ (i.e. ‘arrosé rhum’), but I went for the very high-toned ‘inspirited’, tempered, or perhaps diluted, by the ‘jigger’.

I had the feeling I had to stay on the move, as it were, take German into French, French into Latin. The translating itself became vagrant and courtly. There is, I think, often something to be said for not adopting the obvious ‘equivalent’. The translation asserts itself, throws over the traces, refuses simple obedience. Later on, when I came to translate Roth’s Rebellion, for instance, the first sentence came out as: ‘The 24th Military Hospital was a cluster of shacks on the edge of the city.’ There is a perfectly good English word, ‘barracks’ – that was the German – but I didn’t want it. I imagine something of the second-hand status of the word would somehow leak through into the English. ‘One is always nearer’, Thom Gunn says, ‘by not keeping still.’ For me, there has to be some fun, something erratic, something discretionary – otherwise someone else might as well be doing it, if not (the translator’s nightmare) a machine. These moments of departure, surely utterly harmless for the most part, are enough to set one’s chilly pedantic blood racing.

There is one in The Legend of the Holy Drinker that still worries me. Andreas, as I say, is a drunk. On the second page, he receives an astonishing offer: ‘The vagrant took a step back, and for a moment it looked as if he might fall over, but he managed to stay on his feet, if with a little local difficulty.’ Those last words – I can’t remember whose they are, but a very famous tag from British history: Palmerston, Gladstone, Churchill, Eden? – still alarm me. How did I dare? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t do it now. It was opportunism, a spree, something not – obviously – in the original, but available in English, a signal, hence, of what I once called ‘the strange bi-authorship of translation’. If translation is often best likened to performance, this is the actor or violinist winking at the hall, or something like the phrase ‘larking with the mails’ in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’.

Up to the late eighties, my translations had been one-offs, hit-and-run exercises. Because of the circumstances in Roth’s case, where I was given a second book to do ahead of the first, Roth was always going to be a serial engagement – though, of course, I could never have guessed I would end up doing eight books and counting. This must have improved my morale and deepened my identification and my interest in the role; to stick to the performance metaphor, it was like learning that one’s engagement had been extended, or that one was going to tour a production. Right and Left, published ten years before The Legend of the Holy Drinker, comes out of Roth’s Neue Sachlichkeit period: brisk, satirical, contemporary. Its particular interest for me was the circumstance that its central figure, Paul Bernheim, was sent to Oxford by his nouveau riche anglophile father. This has a certain piquancy for the translator, as it was to have for me later as well, when I translated Kafka’s Amerika / The Man Who Disappeared. The translation has the rare opportunity to be more echt than the original! In the case of Kafka, whose America is of course deeply unecht (the word exists in German, though not in English), that meant eschewing all Americanisms, no twang, no elevators. But with Roth I could indulge myself in the mimicry of upper-caste Oxonian.

It begins with the preposterous self-identification with England of a group of citizens in a landlocked little burg in Mitteleuropa: ‘For a time it looked as though there was a little Anglo-Saxon enclave growing up in the town, perhaps ultimately seeking its absorption into the British Empire. In this town, with its thoroughly Continental character, where there was never any hint of fog, they had to eat, drink and be clothed as though they were on the roaring sea-coasts of England.’ Some of the pleasure of this for me lay in writing veiled self-mocking autobiography: I was once like this town, a thoroughly Continental (always a semi-poisonous word in English) little boy, who from the age of four did indeed suffer his own anglicization. Once at Oxford, Bernheim, like many of Roth’s characters, writes wonderfully inadequate letters home: ‘The tone of these letters of Paul’s was strictly conventional. Sporting expressions and bewilderingly alien terms for rowing and sailing boats alternated with the names of distinguished families, while the short, monosyllabic names of his friends, “Bob”, “Ted” and “Pete”, went off like bangers in the text.’ The fact that this passage would remind me ruefully of what letters I wrote home from Winchester is probably a source of purely personal – invisible – gratification, but it does count in the way that the translator has to find in himself all the various gestures and tones of his original, and these I found particularly easy and congenial. The actual letter, when it comes, goes like this:

Well, old chap, the time’s come! Cavalry, dragoons with any luck. Telegraphed the old man right away. Two years’ grace, by then my riding should be up to snuff for the Wild West. Bought a horse over here, call him Kentucky, licks my face, as much character as a tomcat. Medic was a brick. But then I was the fittest fellow there, some feat, all the rest were pen-pushers, one labourer. Poor specimens. Still, all taken. As though there was a war on. Then spent two days in London, touring the dives. Saw the female sex again, after the monkish life in college. Thought of the old catechist, what a terrific chap he was. He alive still? Well, old boy, another year, and I’ll be home for a fortnight. Got to go out now, practise for next week. Big day! Fencing tournament, with ball to follow. Completely forgotten how to dance, will have to learn again from basics. You see, all go. Oh well, cheerio!

The combination of telegraphic urgency, exiguous content and utter self-complacency was irresistible to me: you can practically hear the twittish monocle. This is, if you like, translation as revenge.

Not much of the book is set in England – that’s just a bonus – but the rest is so swift and vivid and incisive, it doesn’t much matter. Plots and characters and settings veer impulsively. There seems to me to be so much drudgery involved in translation that staying interested is a problem for the translator. In particular, most descriptive passages seem to exist purely for the benefit of the writer; to the reader, they transact little or nothing. How much preferable, then, are short, fast-moving books like Roth’s. To someone coming from poetry as I do, flashes of intensity, local beauties, balance, surprise, memorableness, concision are all especially cherished values, and Roth, who took a lot of his prose style from Heine, has them in wonderful abundance. I used to talk about him with Joseph Brodsky, who said there is a poem on every page of Joseph Roth. Equally, the epic qualities like structure and form matter less, and the fact that Roth’s novels burn up their material with ill-concealed impatience doesn’t matter at all: I’m impatient as well! I don’t care, for instance, that Right and Left was supposed to be about a pair of brothers, one on the right, one on the left, but that Roth lost patience with them, and introduces instead (‘In stepped Nikolai Brandeis’) the enigmatic figure of Brandeis, a kind of ex machina character from the East – that East that is sardonically described as beginning at Katowice, and extending as far as Rabindranath Tagore – or that at the end of the book, as of many or even most of Roth’s novels, character and author simply walk away.

To advocates of, as it were, the ‘well-made novel’ – analogous to the ‘well-made play’ – these habits and these books are unsatisfactory (although exceptions can safely be made for The Radetzky March and Weights and Measures, perhaps for The String of Pearls). But, taking my lead from Randall Jarrell, who described a novel as so and so many thousand words of narrative prose ‘with something wrong with it’, I can’t say I find the ‘imperfections’ or ‘indiscipline’ of these books all that troublesome. One can either read them ‘lyrically’, like Brodsky, for the beauty and interest of individual sentences, scenes and tropes; or else in their totality. My image of Roth’s oeuvre is of a sort of Rubik’s cube: each plane – each novel – may contain stray or surplus material, but one can take them together and recombine them in one’s mind to make an incredibly rich whole. The ‘fault’, if it is a fault, is that Roth’s ‘fable’ – Edwin Muir’s term – is too complex and contradictory to be written in any single book, not even The Radetzky March. In his life and his person and his opinions, Roth was multitudinous and unresolved. Instances of this can be produced practically ad infinitum: he was ‘red Roth’, he was a monarchist and Habsburg apologist; he was a pacifist, he was an Austrian officer; he was a Jew, he was a Catholic; he loved women and enjoyed their love, he was a misogynist and feared their destructive power; he was a novelist, he was the premier journalist of his period; he was an alcoholic, he was a disciplined and immensely productive writer; he was fatherless, he was father-obsessed and circulated seventeen versions of his own paternity; he was ‘a hotel patriot’; he was ‘a Frenchman from the East’; and so on. Nor is it necessarily the case that he was in transit from one set of beliefs to another; rather, he held them all in unresolved suspension. (As I say, a lot of the novels and stories end with departure – one may well wonder whether anyone ever arrived. Roth himself, when he died, had in his possession an invitation from American PEN.) Hence, perhaps, the conviction and insight of this brilliant catalogue that is one of my favourite parts of Right and Left:

To escape it [emptiness], he surrounded himself with friends. They were people who sponged off him, shadows that had emerged from the fog of the time, and were formed from it. All of them moved in the vague, indefinite and constantly shifting terrain between art and gambling. They were connected with the theatre, with fine art, with literature, but they didn’t write, didn’t paint and didn’t act. One started a magazine that lasted for a week. Another took an advance for a newspaper article he would never write. A third set up a theatre company for young performers, and was arrested after the opening night. A fourth let out his rooms to a gambling club, could no longer stay at home, and gambled away the rent he was paid in other gaming clubs. A fifth, who had studied medicine, performed abortions, but in the interests of discretion only in the circle of his friends, from whom he could earn no fees. A sixth organised spiritualist meetings, and was denounced by one of his own mediums. A seventh spied simultaneously for the state police and for foreign embassies, cheated them all and was afraid of retribution from them all. An eighth fitted up Russian emigrants with false passports and genuine residence permits. A ninth passed false information from secret nationalist organisations to the radical newspapers, which a tenth bought before it could be printed, and was rewarded for doing so by moneyed conservatives.

This glorious, hilarious and utterly logical list would probably resist incorporation into most narratives – it reminds me of Kafka’s terrific story ‘Eleven Sons’ – but one could find others like it in any book of Roth’s.

There followed – for me – a gap of seven years during which I diverted myself in other ways. Chatto was bought up, stopped publishing translations; Roth fell out of print. Across the Atlantic, things were much the same. Of course I regretted this, but by now I had been made to understand that, as far as publishers were concerned, translations like mine were basically a short-lived and mistaken undertaking. During the eighties and nineties the very idea of a ‘classic’ book suffered grievous and irreversible harm. I had no expectation of ever translating Joseph Roth – or much of anything – again. Then, by coincidence – I am not enough of an optimist to read trend or providence in it – Robert Weil at St. Martin’s and then Norton, and Neil Belton at Granta separately but simultaneously took up Joseph Roth. I translated The String of Pearls (The Tale of the 1002nd Night in the US), Rebellion, the non-fiction book The Wandering Jews, The Collected Shorter Fiction, a selection of journalistic pieces about Berlin (to be called What I Saw in the US), and a Radetzky March for the UK (to be published this autumn). For most of the past four years I have had a Joseph Roth book in the works. It has, if not professionalized me, then at least given me routine and focus as a translator.

Roth remains a deeply impressive writer to me, working in a period – the twenties and thirties – that was at the very least a Silver Age of German letters (in the lee or the shadow of Kafka and Brecht and Musil and Thomas Mann, there were such figures as Heinrich Mann, Odon von Horvath, Alfred Döblin, Ernst Weiss, Wolfgang Koeppen, Marieluise Fleisser, the two Zweigs and several others). Within and among these writers there is a lively dialogue between left and right, east and west, traditional and Modernist-Expressionist, collective and individual. I don’t think subsequent generations have had much to teach them.

I am continually surprised by Roth. When I translated The Wandering Jews, it was his cleverness; in The String of Pearls the lightness of this Viennese confection (especially given that it was published in 1939); in the Collected Shorter Fiction the sheer variety, so that the seventeen different pieces seemed to require as many different keys to open them. He is still unknown to me, and probably unknowable. I realized this when a New York Times journalist rang me to collect information for a profile of Roth (which never was written, or at least never appeared). What would he have been like in a room? – a fair question. I had absolutely no idea. I have never heard his voice; I don’t think a film or recording of him exists. In the few photographs his face is either averted or else impermeably frontal – perhaps the most helpful shot of him I saw was the cover of the US Collected Stories, where the photograph was printed in mirror image, so that one has the sense of seeing him as he would have seen himself. He was short, ugly, well turned out (except when very drunk), formal, thin when young then with a drinker’s pouchiness and puffiness, of indeterminate hair-colour – a little blond moustache, a kiss curl like Bill Haley’s – prematurely aged. He collected pocket knives and watches, and liked to tinker with them. He is only two long generations away, and I have known people only a decade or so younger, but meeting Roth is quite unimaginable to me. He espoused such irretrievably historic things as the Dual Monarchy and the pre- and anti-Zionist distribution of Jews throughout Europe. Partly because of that, it’s as though at some point his life went into reverse, into the nineteenth century. He died when he was as old as I am now, not quite forty-five.

In the case of other authors I have translated – Wolfgang Koeppen, my father Gert Hofmann, one or two contemporaries like Zoe Jenny and Peter Jungk and Wim Wenders – I understood that what drew me to them was tonal and vocal. Their books were audible to me in a way that was familiar to me from poetry, my own and others’. Even this doesn’t hold for Joseph Roth, whose books (with occasional exceptions, like the short story ‘April’ or the novel fragment ‘Strawberries’) are written, rather than sounding. Translation involves vanity and delusion. The translator puts on a mask (otherwise known as the author), and admires his features in the mirror. I reread my translations endlessly, both before publication – at that wonderful stage when the drudgery is done, and each little tinkering change animates and improves the text – but also after. It probably sounds foolish, but on the other hand, if I didn’t and if I didn’t want to, then what right should I have to expect anyone else to buy them and read them? It’s my version of a guarantee, of after-sales care. I do it, I have to say, more often with the voice-based translations – Koeppen and my father and the rest of them – than with Roth. Perhaps it’s that the former provide a better mirror; perhaps Roth gives me less licence; perhaps, try as I may, I can’t find myself responsible for something so briskly and personally encyclopaedic:

Night is full of feeling and surprise, out of the blue, longings come to us, when the distant whistle of a locomotive catches in the window, when a cat slinks along the pavement opposite, hungry for love, and disappears into a basement window where the tom waits. There is a big starry sky above us, too remote to be kind, too beautiful not to harbour a God. There are the little things close at hand and there is a remote eternity, and some relation between them that escapes our understanding. Maybe we would understand it, if love were to visit us; love relates the stars and the slinking cat, the lonesome whistle and the vastness of the stars.

(‘The Blind Mirror’)

Our autumn consisted of molten gold and molten silver, of wind, swarms of ravens and mild frosts. Autumn lasted almost as long as winter. In August, the leaves turned yellow, in the first days of September already they lay on the ground. No one bothered to sweep them up. It wasn’t until I came to Western Europe that I saw people sweeping up the autumn into a proper dungheap. No wind blew on our clear autumn days. The sun was still very hot, and already very slant and very yellow. It went down in a red west, and rose every morning from a bed of silver and mist. It took a long time for the sky to become a deep blue, but then it stayed like that for the whole of the short day.


Most people, who only know corals from seeing them in shop windows and displays, would be surprised to learn how many different varieties of them there are. For a start, they can be polished or not; they can be trimmed in a straight line or rounded off; there are thorny and stick-like corals that look like barbed wire; corals that gleam with a yellowish, almost a whitish red, like the rims of tea-rose petals; pinkish-yellow, pink, brick-red, beet-red, cinnabar-red corals, and finally there are those corals that look like hard, round drops of blood. There are rounds and half-rounds; corals like little barrels and little cylinders; there are straight, crooked and even hunchbacked corals. They come as stars, spears, hooks and blossoms. For corals are the noblest plants in the oceanic underworld; they are like roses for the capricious goddesses of the sea, as inexhaustible in their variety as the caprices of the goddesses.

(‘The Leviathan’)

These passages – there are thousands more where they came from! – show what a harmonious writer Roth is, though without any of the defensiveness and pedantic limitations of harmony. Each sentence is instinct with mind and sensuality, with colour and form, with rhetoric and reality. They are technically beautiful – if not perfect – but it’s not technical prose, it’s never merely decorative. It’s too supple, too imaginative, too important: ‘not to harbour a god’, ‘sweeping up the autumn into a proper dungheap,’ ‘stars, spears, hooks and blossoms’. It’s closer perhaps to Zbigniew Herbert than it is to most other writings. Humour, whimsy, surprise, are always in the wings. Balance is subtly shifted to accommodate unexpected content. A little of the character and the predicament are dissolved in the telling: the virginal Fini, the rascally speaker of ‘Strawberries’, the innocent deist Nissen Piczenik. In truth, I don’t think I can claim much credit for them, but they are beatific sentences, and habit-forming.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 8 Autumn 2002