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Behind the Book: David Burnett

Posted 11th Apr 2017

On this week’s Behind the Book, we caught up with brilliant translator David Burnett. David has most recently translated the brilliant The Last Bell by Johannes Urzidil, the first time Urzidil’s work has appeared in English.

Read on to find out David’s translation routine (split between ‘fun’ jobs and ‘onerous’ jobs), why Kafka may (or may not) be the best historical figure to be stuck in a lift with; plus discover a veritable glossary of unusual German words.

Do you have a particular translating routine?

I have many translating routines, and they tend to change every couple of months, depending on what I’m working on. Right now I’ve decided to divide my time between “fun” jobs in the morning (literature, often unpaid) and more onerous paid ones in the afternoon. I’m a morning person, meaning I have the most energy and inspiration between about 8 and 2 o’clock. I’ve noticed that when I start my day with the “unfun” work, I just end up looking for distractions – and always find them. So if I put off the slog till the afternoon, I have to work under pressure and manage to get it done in half the time I would otherwise. Plus I have the satisfaction of having done something useful (for my soul) during the first half of the day.

If you mean the actual translation process, I usually work about ten times faster once I’ve got about fifty or a hundred pages behind me – that is to say, once I’ve found the voice and it flows. So I take my time at the start, and really struggle to get it right. Some translators do the opposite: they dash off a quick and shabby first draft just to get it over with. I couldn’t do that. Because the worse the first draft is, the harder the revision is going to be and the more likely mistakes are going to creep in due to carelessness. I generally try to revise things at least three times, preferably six or ten times if I can. I also insist on doing at least one reading on the printed page. It’s a different experience than reading on the screen and you always notice certain things you wouldn’t otherwise. I also read it out loud if I can.

Finally, when I’m doing my last revisions, I always try to read a “kindred spirit” in English, something that meshes well with the language of what I’m translating. You’d be amazed how that helps you find the right words and expressions. And the pairings can be surprising. For the East German novel New Glory it happened to be Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.

Where are you at your happiest?

In bed each afternoon taking my 20-minute nap. Or on the couch reading a good book. Or simply doing nothing for a while. I’m a big fan of the idea of getting your greatest inspirations in the bathtub. I also love to cook, especially after a long and productive morning.

Which person (living or dead) would you most like to be stuck in a lift with?

Definitely with my 8-year-old daughter Isabella. She’s the best. Fluent in three languages (English, German, Spanish), spoken and written, and always full of bright ideas. Sometimes when I’m with her I feel like Kafka in that anecdote Paul Auster tells in one of his novels, about how he (Kafka) met a devastated young girl in the park one day who was searching in vain for her lost doll. Kafka couldn’t find it either, but he told her the doll had written him a postcard which, sadly, he’d left at home. He then made sure that the ownerless runaway doll wrote a steady stream of postcards to her. Eventually the doll got married and was too busy to keep up the correspondence. (You have to draw the line somewhere, don’t you?) I feel like that with Isabella. She always pulls a story out of me. And, anyway, how could you let down a wide-eyed child? She loves to let her imagination run wild, and I love to watch it go.

But I assume you meant which well-known living or historical person. Well, maybe Kafka, why not. He supposedly talked very little, and when he did open his mouth it was only to say something worth everyone’s while. So, yes, probably Kafka. But I’m not sure I’d want to be stuck in an elevator with someone I’ve never met before and who might not use deodorant. I’d probably rather be stuck with a book.

What is your favourite word and why?

In Polish it’s got to be wihajster (English: thingamabob or whatchamacallit), a phonetic rendering of the German phrase “wie heisst er” or “what’s he called.” Yes, two-thirds of present-day Poland was once occupied by the Prussians and/or the Austrians. Incidentally, the Germans don’t have the word Wieheisster or Wieheisstes. They say Dingsbums.

In English? Maybe “discombobulated.” I never seem to find an occasion to use it. Now I’ve got one. I also like the term “naturalized,” as in “naturalized citizen” and Department of Immigration and Naturalization, which I’ve always imagined as being responsible for making all those funny immigrants (my mother included) act more naturally, that is to say like “real Americans.” Once you’re natural and inconspicuous, you’re entitled to be a citizen.

In German – so many! I keep a list in fact, called “nice German words.doc.” How to choose? I kind of always liked how German is a very graphic language, whereas English has many more abstract words on account of their Greek or Latin origins. For example, we say cosmos or universe while the Germans have this lovely word Weltgebäude – literally “world building” or “structure of the world.” The examples are endless. Take, for instance, what we call the bursa in English, a fluid-filled sac in your elbows and knees. In German it’s called a Schleimbeutel, literally “slime bag.” I learned this the hard way when mine broke, after I slipped and fell on the stairs, and almost felt offended by the diagnosis. To stick to medicine, and speaking of Kafka, there’s also Schwindsucht, the “addiction to disappearing.” We call it tuberculosis nowadays. It used to be known as consumption.

A couple more examples of neat concepts in German, ideas neatly encapsulated in a single, strikingly blunt word: the personality traits maulfaul (“mouth-lazy”) and schreibfaul (“write-lazy”) meaning reticent, not very talkative in the first instance and too lazy to write to someone in the second. Then there’s the emotional state, historical in usage, called europamüde – “tired of Europe” with all of its wars, persecution and famines, the best reason to go to America back then. Finally, there’s a fantastic verb perfectionists should really take to heart: the writer who can’t stop revising, or the painter who can’t stop daubing at his canvas (like in Malamud’s “A Pimp’s Revenge,” one of his Fidelman stories). In German they say verschlimmbessern, to “worsen-improve,” i.e., to make things worse by trying to improve them.

What does being a translator mean to you?

Being a cultural emissary and an actor on the written page. Being a pedant and proud of it. Remixing literature.

Click here to buy David’s translation of Johannes Urzidil’s incredible lost gem The Last Bell.