Quarterly Literary Review Singapore
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Vol. 2 No. 2 Jan 2003

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On Translation

By Michael Zeller

Just one word on literary criticism. That will do, in fact, it might even be too many.

In more than twenty years of being a professional literary writer, I have seen my books receive several hundred reviews. Some were good, some were bad, some didn’t know what they were.

But when I die and I stand before the Lord and He does not know whether He should delegate me to paradise or to hell and He poses to me the one decisive question: What did you learn from all the reviews of your books, my dear, I shall answer:

My Lord, forgive me, I did not learn anything of them. Nothing at all. Neither about the particular book they dealt with nor about my writing in general nor about literature itself.

Whether the Lord sends me to hell or to heaven thereafter: this is the pure truth, my truth, at least.

So much for literary criticism. One word only, and probably already too many.


Literary translation is the very opposite of criticism. It is useful and creative and refreshing. It opens your mind to rich experiences. It is a thrilling adventure for anyone who cares about language. In the past, when my work was translated, I was not too concerned. I trusted, perhaps too much, in the ability of a professional translator. I took it for granted.

But now, in these great days of Iowa City, I have realised how much can be learned from the act of translation when you are involved in the process – how much I learned about my writing, my language, about language itself.

The following may be taken as my respect and my thanks to Cindy Opitz, Tegan Raleigh and Jan Weissmiller who have translated some bits of my work here.

In our discussion I was reaffirmed in my opinion:

Every word is a museum. A treasure of mankind’s beauties and rubbish, of its wisdom and the ashes of centuries. We, the poets, are the museum’s curator – the highest honour of our profession.

Let me give you just one recent example.

Tegan Raleigh of the CCL Translation Workshop translated an early short story of mine, ‘The Second Face In Manhattan’. In the story, two people happen to meet on a Manhattan street: a young professor from Germany and an elderly woman of the town, in her late sixties. In twenty minutes, she tells her private story to the stranger from abroad, especially about her frustrating sex life. Describing her I dissolved the traits of the woman’s face into those of Woody Allen’s. She also shares the balding pattern of his hair, on this very special area of the head that we call in German Geheimratsecken.

Geheimratsecken – taste it. Isn’t it a marvellous word? Privy Councillor’s corners, in its literal translation. Exciting! But what the hell does it mean?

Tegan Raleigh and I drank numerous cups of hot cider in the Java House while working to solve this fundamental problem: the loss of hair is the two corners above the forehead – a deeply depressing plague only men have been cursed with since the days of Adam. The Geheimratsecken on the head of this old woman from New York was, you see, a clue in my story. And there was a hole in the English vocabulary.

All the cider did not help. I could not even explain to Tegan what a Geheimrat is. I had to go to the Main Library to do extensive research.

Geheimrat(Privy Councillor) is the title of the highest official of a court in the days of kings and princes. It has its roots in 17th century Europe when governmental administration was established. Today we would call him a Secretary. Since 1918, when the kings and princes went out of fashion, since eighty years ago a Geheimrat does not exist any longer in Germany. But the word Geheimratsecken is still used today. Everybody understands it, there is no other word for it.

Isn’t that an amazing matter of life?

In 1982 I innocently wrote the word Geheimratsecken in my short story. It took me twenty years and I had to come to Iowa City to understand what is behind it...

After this I am totally convinced:

On the top of the Tower of Babel there is only one primary language to be spoken. The language of us human beings. Nobody in the cosmos shares it with us, this unique and precious gift. But the space on the Tower of Babel, somewhere in the Iraq of today, this space is pretty narrow (and dangerous, nowadays...). Therefore each of us can stand above for only a few moments to hear and to practise this one primary language of man. Then he has to give place to the other writers around the world and descend.

But those few seconds on the top, every one will keep in his mind, and for the rest of our days we shall write and tell about what we heard there on the peak of the Tower of Babel.

Thank you to Cindy and Jan and Tegan and to all translators everywhere.

Thank you, my friends and colleagues.

Thank you, Iowa City.

This paper was first read as part of the International Writing Program, University of Iowa, Iowa City, in Oct 2002

QLRS Vol. 2 No. 2 Jan 2003


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  Other Essay in this Issue

The Ink of Diverse Gods (Part II)
By Alice Mendoza.

Related Links

Vladimir Nabokov on translation
External link to the New Republic.

Seamus Heaney and Robert Hass discuss translating poetry
External link to UC Berkeley

Erna Bennett on translating poetry
External link to Translatum.

Jonas Zdanys on translation
External link to Lituanus.

External link to Altavista.


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