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A Translation Masterclass

A Translation Masterclass with Shaun Whiteside

As part of the London Review of Books’ World Literature events, Shaun Whiteside has been leading a series of translation masterclasses with literary translators at the LRB Bookshop in central London.

Shaun Whiteside
Photo: Jane Chilvers
Some works lend themselves by their very nature to translation. I set my eager and inspiring group of participants at the London Review of Books’ November translation masterclass the task of translating two stories by Johann Peter Hebel (1760 – 1826), from his 1811 collection Schatzkästlein des rheinischen Hausfreundes (‘The Treasure Chest’). These are homespun tales originally written for almanacs and calendars, some of them unremarkable, others a little odd, and nestling among them a few undisputed gems. The first story we tried, ‘Geschwinde Reise’ (‘A Swift Journey’), is a cruel, puzzling little narrative and a study in what we might now call passive aggression: an Italian (why Italian?) businessman tricks a series of postilions into driving him at breakneck speed to the fair at Frankfurt, by perversely insisting on being driven as slowly as possible. The psychology is twisted, the action violent, and it’s hard to see in the end who really benefits, or how. The story itself doesn’t sing, and the translation, while faithful, wasn’t about to convince anyone of Hebel’s greatness.

‘An Unexpected Reunion’ (‘Unverhofftes Wiedersehen’) on the other hand, is a quiet little classic without a superfluous word. It rests on a simple but exquisite narrative device that sets the impersonal march of history against the experience of a single lived life. Inevitably there were different techniques at work – Ruth preferred to retain as much of the original vocabulary as possible to retain the flavour of the German text, Marion deftly tweaked a couple of sentences, allowing the English to flow – but to my ear we managed to create a harmonious version that does justice to Hebel’s tale, which Kafka called ‘the most wonderful story in the world’. Many thanks to Marion Koebner, Barbara Holtz, Deborah Langton, Fiona Graham, Jamie Arrowsmith and Ruth Ingram for a genuinely rewarding collaboration. – Shaun Whiteside

‘An Unexpected Reunion’ by Johann Peter Hebel

Some fifty years ago in the Swedish town of Falun, a young miner kissed his beautiful young bride and declared: ‘Once the priest has blessed our love on the Feast of St Lucy we will be man and wife and can build our own little nest.’ ‘And may it be filled with peace and love,’ smiled his beautiful bride, ‘for you mean the world to me, and I would rather die than live without you.’ When before St Lucy’s day the priest called the banns for a second time, to ascertain if anyone knew of an impediment why these persons might not come together in holy matrimony, death announced himself; for when the youth passed by her home in his black miner’s clothing (the miner always wears his shroud), he knocked once more at her window and said ‘Good morning’, but then not ‘Good evening’. He never came back from the mine. She sewed in the self-same morning a black neckerchief with a red edge for him to wear on his wedding day. But when he never came back, she put it away and cried for him, and never forgot him.

The years that followed witnessed the Great Lisbon Earthquake, the ending of the Seven Years’ War, the death of Emperor Francis I, the dissolution of the Jesuit Order, the Partition of Poland, the death of Emperor Maria Theresia, the execution of Dr Struensee, the liberation of America and the failure of the combined forces of France and Spain to conquer Gibraltar.

The Turks imprisoned General Stein in the Veterani cave in Hungary, and Emperor Joseph died too. King Gustav of Sweden conquered Russian Finland, and the French Revolution and the Long War started, and Emperor Leopold the Second went to his grave. Napoleon conquered Prussia and the English bombarded Copenhagen, and the peasants sowed and harvested. The millers milled and the smiths hammered, and the miners worked the seams in their subterranean workplace. Shortly before or after the Feast of St John the Baptist in 1809, whilst trying to create an opening between two shafts some 300 cubits deep, some Falun miners dug out from the rubble and sulphuric acid the corpse of a youth which was quite saturated with iron sulphate, but was otherwise without decay and unchanged, so that one could still fully recognise his features and his age, as if he had died only an hour ago or fallen asleep over his work.

However, when they had brought him up to the surface, his father and mother, and all who had known him, were long dead, not a soul admitted to knowing the sleeping lad or what had befallen him, until the once betrothed of the miner who went to his shift and never came back approached them. Grey and bent, she hobbled on her crutch into the square and recognised her bridegroom. More with tender joy than grief she sank down and leant over his beloved body and, once recovered from a long, powerful wave of emotion, eventually said, ‘This is my betrothed whom I have mourned these fifty years and on whom God has allowed me to set eyes once more before my own end. He went to the mine a week before our wedding and never returned.’ Then all the people were seized with sadness and they stood weeping to see this once young bride, now a withered and feeble creature, with the flame of youthful love rekindling in her breast after fifty years, and the bridegroom still in the flush of youth. But he no longer opened his mouth to smile, or his eyes to recognise her. Finally she had the miners carry him into her parlour, for she was all he had, the only one with any rightful claim to him, while his grave was prepared in the churchyard. The following day, once the grave was ready, and the miners came to take him, she opened a little casket and laid the black silk neckerchief with the red stripe around him, and she accompanied him in her best Sunday clothes as if it were her wedding day and not the day of his funeral. Then, as he was being lowered into his grave, she said, ‘And now sleep well, another day or ten, in our cold wedding bed, but let not time hang heavy, I have little left to do, and I will come soon and then it will be day. The earth will not receive a second time that which it has once yielded,’ she said as she walked away, turning back to look once more.

‘This famous story was first published in English as ‘An Unexpected Reunion’ in A Romantic Storybook, selected and edited by Morris Bishop, Cornell University Press, 1971 (translation by Morris Bishop). Johann Peter Hebel’s The Treasure Chest, translated and introduced by John Hibberd, was first published in Great Britain by Libris in 1994. John Hibberd is Emeritus Reader in German at Bristol University and a recognised authority on Hebel, who accepted an invitation to address the Hebel-Bund in Lörrach in 2010. It is a large selection – some three-quarters of the original Schatzkästlein des rheinischen Hausfreundes of 1811 – and subsequently became a Penguin Classic. In the Libris edition, this story is entitled ‘Unexpected Reunion’, reflecting the slightly different usages of the definite and indefinite article in English and German.’ – Nicholas Jacobs, Publisher, Libris