Top critical review
Somewhat lost in translation
on 26 April 2016
There is no other writer in German literature quite like Fallada. His extraordinary life and the extraordinary times he lived in inform all his writings to a greater or lesser extent. He wrote about eight great novels containing many memorable characters and scenes. He also wrote a number of lesser novels, as well as short stories and quasi-autobiographical works. All of it is well worth reading both for its entertainment value and for the insights it gives into the man and his times.
A Small Circus, first published in 1931, was Fallada's third published novel. Whilst It's set in Germany during the Weimar Republic, it deals with themes that are universal: hypocrisy, corruption and opportunism both on an institutional level (e.g. the press, political parties, local/regional/national government), and on an individual level (e.g. newpapermen, politicians, bureaucrats, policemen, farmers).
Fallada presents an often bleak picture of human nature and does not exclude himself: he has clearly attempted at least a partial self-portrait in the character of Tredup, who is a wretched and mostly contemptible figure.
I first read the novel a few years ago in German. It's a fluidly written, compelling narrative with a cast of interesting characters. It's full of incident, drama, and humour.
I bought this translation by Michael Hofmann as a gift for a relative, but I could not resist having a quick read of it, before wrapping it up.
In my opinion, the translation is a bit disappointing. It reads rather too obviously like a translation. I thought there were many passages that sounded a bit odd, unconvincing, or stilted. I get the impression that the translator may not have been entirely comfortable with Fallada's style and language. I think this is particularly noticeable in the passages of dialogue/direct speech that make up much of the novel. Fallada was renowned for his ability to reproduce authentically and convincingly the speech of Germans from all walks of life. I do not underestimate the difficulty of translating this into natural sounding English.
For some reason, the translator gives literal translations of a number of German terms e.g. "bread-giver", "I'd rather eat a broomstick", "Swedish curtains". These are standard idioms in German, but they will seem odd to most English readers, I would think. In most cases, it's clear enough what's meant, but not always. For instance, there's a conversation which makes reference to putting fleas in somebody's ear. This is a literal translation of a German idiom meaning to put ideas into somebody's head, but how many readers will realise this?
On occasion, the translator uses (unhelpfully in my opinion) rather abstruse terms to render fairly mundane terms used by Fallada e.g. "ashplants" (for sticks/staffs), "swain" (for cavalier/lover), "flicker" (for cinema), "bate" (for rage).
I know the translator is based in the USA, so it may be that some of my difficulties with the translation are down to my unfamiliarity with American usage. Maybe phrases like "Was that earlier in practice?", "Now some of the farmers take up courage" sound all right to American ears? I cannot not quite make up my mind whether the translation is supposed to be 'settled' in American English or British English or somewhere between the two.
I think some errors have crept into the translation, for example:
Grete Schade is not the "youngest of our cleaning girls". She is 'the youngest (daughter) of our cleaning woman'.
"Like a hangman from the Middle Ages, who is despised, like a harlot with her parasol on her arm...". The word translated as parasol here is 'Rädchen' which literally means "little wheel". I think Fallada is alluding to the (supposed?) medieval practice of prostitues having to wear a "badge of shame" depicting a (spinning) wheel.
"Did you not belong to the Horse Guards and were you not on the staff of the Hotel Eden?" This question is addressed to a character called Henning by a detective. The detective is suggesting that Henning was a staff officer in the Horse Guards, not that he was on the staff of the hotel. The staff of the Gardekavalarie-Schützendivision (translated here as Horse Guards) were based in the hotel in 1919. The unit was responsible for the murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
"His old lady's just given birth to twins". The German original refers to "a twin". To talk about "twins" is, I think, to miss the point of the joke that is being made about the supposed infidelity of a farmer's wife.
All in all then, I think there are some issues with the translation. However, it is readable and for the most part it appears to reflect the original German reasonably accurately.