In the Sueddeutsche Zeitung from this Christmas I read a short story, Schnee by Ferdinand von Schirach. He works as lawyer in Berlin. The man’s writing is cristal-clear, he constructs his text well. And I like his point of view. I learned that von Schirach has published a collection of shortstories this autumn and it was received well by critics and readers. For an interesting interview with the man go here (German only).
I translated the story and hopefully can give you an impression of the original text (it’s the post below). Von Schirachs text is seemingly einfach and that is far away from simple. He changes the view, the perspective, and is near to his personage – although the text prima facie is distant and reserved. A distant observer who allows himself some empathy. The titel of his book Verbrecher litteraly would be given as “criminals”; I’d prefer “wrongdoers” (Uebeltaeter). There is no discussion about that sinking the axe in the wife’s forehead is a crime, but why did he do it. Explaining does not mean excusing. It helps to find the adequate, the just sentence.
Words are important, can be fascinating. They can be charged with meaning, with power, unknown to the user. Nation for example. And words can discharge, explode in one’s face, like humans. Von Schirach uses words cautiously. And changes the view. As lawyer one has to keep distance to the accused, to their stories, but at the same time the only chance for a good defence lies in there, in the story and its telling, the explanation. Again: no excuses, explanation only. In his stories the author bridges this distance, lets the acting person speak, shares his or her point of view. Hassan drives through town and thinks of Jana, describing her as einfach und klar. These seemingly simple words are difficult to translate, especially einfach. It is not “simple”, Jana is not a simple person. I thought about a German replacement – reflecting the author’s intention and interpreting – and decided myself for gerade. So it is “straightforward”. Another seemingly simple word is schön. I find it untranslatable.
I am sure that von Schirach’s stories will be translated to English and probably other languages, and really wonder how it will be done.
One has to weight it out. A lot is in a single word and by translating you give weight to one or another meaning, subtext, variation, accent – how you may call it. So the translation always – always – shows how the translator read the text. And in the best case he carries the subtext of the writer with it.
All I’m saying is, that words are dangerous toys. They come along innocent enough, but their results can be cruel. And again an explanation is needed, another story has to be told. Another just sentence is needed.