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An Appointment with Romania’s Past

Herta Müller’s works were little known in the English-speaking world before she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. Lyn Marven takes a look at Müller’s life and work and considers the challenge of translating her writing.

In her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature 2009, Romanian-German author Herta Müller talks about the vicious circle of language: that it will always fall short of what it is trying to express. Müller’s work – which encompasses novels, short prose, political essays and collages – conveys the imperative to bear witness as well as the struggle for language. What makes her texts so fascinating is not only that they depict oppressive regimes, particularly the totalitarian Ceausescu, but that they do so in strikingly poetic prose. This makes Müller’s books challenging to translate, but at the same time makes it all the more crucial to bring them to a wider international public, as the Nobel prize recognises.
The first two collections were published in Bucharest under heavy censorship: Niederungen (translated into English by Sieglinde Lug as ‘Nadirs’) and the little-known Drückender Tango (‘Oppressive Tango’) contain child’s-eye views of rural Romania, satirical depictions of the German minority and political parables. Her first novel (also her first work to be translated into English) had to be published in West Germany: Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt shows the decay of rural life as families emigrate. Müller wrote it while she, like the main character, was waiting for permission to leave for West Germany. All three publications depict the effects of constrictive norms, repressive sexuality and violence visited upon children in a rural community, all conveyed in surreal prose where raspberry plants creep from garden to garden and apple trees eat their own apples.
Müller’s emigration under pressure from the Securitate is evoked in Reisende auf einem Bein (translated by Valentina Glajar and André Lefevere as ‘Traveling on One Leg’). Published in late 1989, the story of Irene, a psychologically fragile migrant from an unnamed Eastern European country arriving in a still-divided Berlin, is a remarkably prescient book about the seismic shift that was the end of the Eastern Bloc. Reception in West Germany drew the obvious parallels with the mass emigration from the GDR during the summer of 1989. It cannot have escaped the notice of the Nobel Prize Committee that 2009 marked the twentieth anniversary of this momentous year.
Müller’s next three novels, written and published after the fall of the Ceausescu regime, begin to detail the physical threat and psychological repression in that state: in Der Fuchs war damals schon der Jäger (‘The Fox was Already the Hunter Back Then’, as yet untranslated but bought by Portobello), protagonist Adina finds surreal signs that the Securitate have tampered with her possessions, such as a fox-fur rug whose limbs are severed one by one. Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet is a day in the life of a young factory worker caught hiding notes in the lining of the suits she sews for export; its English title, ‘The Appointment’, understates the intimidation of the appointment in question – an interrogation by the Securitate. Probably her best-known work is the densely poetic Herztier, which won the 1998 International Impac Dublin Literary Award in Michael Hofmann’s English translation as ‘The Land of Green Plums’. It focuses on a group of friends, based on the poets and writers Richard Wagner, Rolf Bossert and Roland Kirsch, who are targeted by the Securitate and are either forced to emigrate or die in suspicious circumstances. Like Müller, the narrator is betrayed by her best friend, who secretly spies on her.
Nominated for the German Book Prize, Müller’s new novel takes a departure from her own life. Drawing on conversations with poet Oskar Pastior and a joint trip to Ukraine, the novel follows a German-Romanian young man deported to the Russian gulag at the end of the Second World War. Its title, Atemschaukel, seems to recall the Romanian exile poet of the Holocaust Paul Celan’s Atemwende (‘Breathturn’) and, like Celan’s texts, Müller’s novel wrings sparse poetry from the deprivations of the gulag. Portobello Books have acquired the rights to the English translation, due out in 2011, as well as the rights for an as yet unwritten new book, potentially a memoir.
<em>The Passport</em>, translated by<br />Martin Chalmers, was reissued by Serpent’s Tail in 2009
The Passport, translated by
Martin Chalmers, was reissued by Serpent’s Tail in 2009
Müller emphasises that her own experience is only the background for her work: it becomes fiction through literary re-working. But Müller’s life also influences the very language in which her stories are told. Her work has been praised for her ‘alien gaze’: the precise observation which tips into defamiliarisation and which is mirrored in surreal, poetic language. It does not reflect her minority or outsider’s view but is rather the product of fear, of surveillance and superstition. This is the gaze of someone who returns to her flat and suspects that objects have been tampered with while she was out, or the distorted perspective of a gulag inmate, with few but precious possessions, starving and on the lookout for edible plants. Her language represents the precision of the powerless, at the mercy of their environment but determined to wrest some control over what happens to them by observing details, however fragmentary or incomprehensible.
It is these literary effects which are so hard to translate and so challenging in translation. Even those with no knowledge of German will spot the difference in the length of the titles of Müller’s books in German and English: Herztier (literally ‘Heart-beast’) is ‘The Land of Green Plums’; Atemschaukel, not yet translated into English, already has the title ‘Everything I Possess I Carry With Me’. Conversely, Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt (literally ‘Humans are great big pheasants in the world’) was translated by Martin Chalmers as ‘The Passport’; and Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet (‘Today I would rather not have encountered myself’) became ‘The Appointment’ in Philip Boehm and Michael Hulse’s translation. The English titles lose Müller’s invented compound nouns and the oddness of the long phrases: their effect in English is too alien, perhaps understandably in a market unused to foreignising translations; interestingly, translations into other languages such as French and Spanish tend to mirror the originals in their titles.
Müller’s linguistically inventive work challenges German readers too, not least with its poetic resonances from Romanian. Just as Kafka drew on Prague German and Yiddish, Müller derives poetry from the productive interference of the different languages: the pheasant in the novel’s title is a proud strutting bird in German but a loser in Romanian; the local dialect word for train, derived from Romanian, is the same as the standard German for teardrop – evoking the trains transporting Romanians to the Russian gulag in Atemschaukel; Herztier is a German ‘translation’ of Romanian wordplay: inima (‘heart’) and animal (‘beast’). Müller published her first work in Romanian in 2005, a collection of collages Este sau nu este Ion (which means ‘Is it or is it not Ion?’). The collages are her fourth collection of striking ransom-note style texts and images. They make visible the Romanian which echoes through her German and see her taking artistic control in the language in which she was once interrogated.
The award of the Nobel Prize has stirred international interest in Müller’s writing and appears to have secured her future in English translation, but many existing texts remain untranslated: the collage collections, her volumes of political and poetological essays and her early prose. Bringing these to a wider audience would further understanding of this multifaceted
writer and her work.
Lyn Marven
is Lecturer in German at the University of Liverpool, and has published widely on Herta Müller, including Body and Narrative in Contemporary Literatures in German: Herta Müller, Libuše Moníková, Kerstin Hensel (OUP, 2005). She is also the translator of Berlin Tales (OUP, 2009) and Long Days by Maike Wetzel (Comma Press, 2008).