on 15 June 2013
..but it has NOT 'taken almost four decades' (back cover) to be translated - unless a version published in the DDR (former East Germany) didn't count? Marc Linder's (subsumed under Hofmann's, as is Amazon's alas too familiar wont; my star rating perforce combines the two) appeared in 1976, a scant two years after the German original, Wander's seventh work. Linder's 'East German English' inflections, demotic vigour and plangent, almost magic realist cadences are vastly more evocative of doomed Yiddishkayt than Hofmann's buttoned-up (but sloppily structured) Anglo version. And my evidence?
He doesn't get about much any more, the old man, his bones are kaput [Linder]; He's not long for this world anyway, the old man, his bones are all crocked [Hofmann]
He died a senseless, undignified death. I don't want to talk about it. Forgotten are his verses.. [Linder]; He died a senseless and undignified death, let me pass over it in silence. His poems are forgotten.. [Hofmann]
But he is withdrawn, he marvels at the sublime face of the dead, and an ice crystal, he breathes the fragrance of pristine woods and searches, searches for the forgotten traces of beauty in his life [Linder]; But inside him he is alive, he is astonished by the noble expression on the face of a dead man, or the beauty of a crystal of ice. He fills his nostrils with the smell of the woods, and looks about him, looks for the vanished traces &c [Linder taking 36 words to Hofmann's hobbling 53]
You can say that I have lived like an idiot and was a snob, a damn snob. Good, I'll say you're right! But I have lived. And how! [Linder]; You can tell me I lived like a fool, that I was a snob, a bloody stuck-up snob. All right, I tell you, you're right. But I was alive. Deeply alive.. [Hofmann] 'I tell you'? Shades of Kenneth More or worse in 50s rep
They didn't get fat [Linder]; They didn't put on the weight [Hofmann, the guy who'll never say 'the doctors' when he can say 'the medical profession' and for whom the perfectly-respectible-in-two-languages wunderkind becomes 'boy genius'. Second rule of translation: never change needlessly. For first rule, see Addendum below]
I appreciate that these excerpts alone from the first ten pages, mainly (more below) may not in themselves make their case. Trust me, there are times when gentility is not enough. If you should happen on a Seven Seas version, grab it. Linder's also done versions of Bobrowski and who knows what else. Five stars each to Linder and Wander, nul points to the home team. It's because I value Hofmann so much - as poet, critic and 'our German' - that it pains me to see him diverted down pedestrian ways his heart is plainly not in. I'm not saying he doesn't admire the original - why should he not? - I'm talking about the work of transmutation, the blood, toil, tears and sweat. Sometimes the starving translator in the garret is a better bet. Oh, I forgot, they have to be accomplished linguists. Well, ditching grammar schools and replacing 'O' levels by GCSEs certainly put paid to that, didn't it? But they're still out there, the quiet heroes - Martin Chalmers for Serpent's Tail and others, or the towering figures of America's Samuel P Willcocks (Seagull's ambitious German List) and Ulster's Shaun Whiteside, who both translate from four languages!
Addendum (taking us just over half way!)
Hofmann sometimes bests Linder (my amended amazon.com review cites further instances) eg 'we shouldn't care' for Linder's 'it is indifferent to us' and the following 24 words (Linder, hitting a bad patch, takes thirty), but Linder generally employs the muscular term where he can - lackey or wangle where Hofmann has helper and extort - and Hofmann the stuffy, upholstered one. Where Linder has 'the oldest one, who carries about parts of a bible hidden on his body and is constantly quoting from it'; Hofmann plumps for 'concealed about his person' and 'incessantly'. Which do you prefer, 'Bovary can't hold a candle to her' or 'Bovary's a dwarfish figure by comparison'? 'Mumbling invocations like a medicine man' or 'muttering inaudible spells like a shaman'? Who sounds the more natural and convincing native English speaker? Hofmann moved here when he was four. He offers 'The mountain seemed to ring with a vast industry. The name Buchenwald lodged in our bones like a fever' for Linder's 'The mountain teemed with activity. The word Buchenwald was like a fever in our bones.' Is it complacency in his own bilingualism or simple laziness that causes him to write 'A demonstration against barbarism? Who can know' (no question mark) where Linder says 'Who would understand it?' Who can know, indeed - but this has all the makings of a rushed job. Can one have 'a light, barbarous sleep'? (Linder: 'a restless, wild sleep'.) A barbarous translation, now that's something else..
'Linder has, as a complete sentence, 'Rikje and he'. This is correct American usage. In England 'I' generally wins over 'me' in such a context, due to cookie-monster-induced paranoia, though both are permissable, but 'they' or 'we' would sound frankly absurd. So what does Hofmann go for? The excruciating and absurd 'Rikje and himself', a construction heard only by public speakers ('it's not about me' - except it is) and semi-educated broadcasters. AND THEN, amid the white bread, Hofmann socks us with the faux backwoodsism 'snuck up' (Linder has 'crept up'; the cute, hokey facétie hadn't yet insinuated itself into the wordpool) and the macho 'hunker' where Linder has crouch; I'd have gone with squat. These jarring Americanisms - 'gotten drunk on words' (Linder has 'reveled in words'); 'a boggy prostate' - feel like Norton inserts to pep up a bland mid-Atlantic text (Linder has no need of pepping up) yet I suspect the spelling in this Granta edition has been anglicized. Why? Ach, this misbegotten hybrid! (Hofmann is of course now America-based.) Linder's miserable louse becomes a flea-flicker. First rule of translation: please God let it sound like something someone might actually say! Linder can expand where necessary for the sense ('..as if with a divine presentiment' vs Hofmann's opaque '..sensing illumination') but above all he can soar: 'The sky, pale as a lily, above us, here and there like stars a light on the slopes' against Hofmann's limping 'Lily-white was the sky above, lights dotted about the slopes like occasional stars'.
Then there's the question of Yiddish. Hofmann excises longer passages but expects us to know (or guess) what bonkes, reboyne-sheloylem, Hert mikh oys, meshumed, khaver and yontev mean. Meshugge! Linder gives us all the Yiddish dans le texte as Wander intends with English tactfully as footnote or appendix. Hofmann's approach as translator is both heavy-handed and over-cautious. He can get it right - "We'll soon kill that little porker for you", of a Muselman's boil, where Linder has "We'll slaughter the pig all right!" and 'weakling' (but the term Muselman was not then widely known) - and Linder himself is not without quirks, besides omitting some Baudelaire on page 38 as well as 'the wagon was a game' on page 41 (Hofmann p40) and 'and not be cold' on page 49 (Linder and Hofmann) - unless Hofmann has added all these? - and preferring 'mate' for 'comrade' (presumably too exclusively communist by this stage), but as in all great translations these add to the effect. Bottom line, with Linder we're there