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John E. Woods, Translator

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Of Fiction and Fairy Tales:
An interview with John E. Woods
 
 
Talking to distinguished translator John E. Woods about his work, his books, his authors, you are struck by the number of ‘wows’ you hear, by the wonder and awe that he has not lost in over twenty-five years of intense translation, and by his constant analogies of translation to some kind of game. For Woods, it seems, the work that he has made his life has also always been ‘play’, and for that he thanks serendipity.
 
It was this serendipity that gave Woods the opportunity to be the sole translator of the works of Arno Schmidt, the celebrated but intensely difficult post-war German author. Woods’ initial ambition was to be a writer, and yet he experienced ‘a tidal wave of writer’s block’ and turned to translation. The book that broke the spell was Arno Schmidt’s Evening Edged with Gold, ‘a piece of meta-fiction of incredible complexity’, and it was here, again, that serendipity played a part. Woods’ version found its way to legendary American publisher Helen Wolff, who took it on, and – as he remarks – ‘if you got Helen working on your side, you were in good shape’.
 
It was not long before Woods also had U.S. publishing great Knopf ‘working on his side’, as well as the Arno Schmidt foundation itself, intriguingly financed by the inherited tobacco fortune of Jann Philipp Reemtsma. It is at this point that one starts to wonder whether it is really serendipity that gave Woods these breaks, or a combination of absolute commitment, conviction and talent. Either way, the arrangement that Woods reached with Knopf, to be a kind of in-house translator, as had been the norm during the 1920s and 30s in the big publishing houses, set him up ‘to translate myself silly, which is what I did for about twenty-five years’.
 
That word ‘silly’ is not just a turn of phrase for Woods. His passion for the written word and for the possibilities of play and creativity that translation allows is patent in everything that he says, and never more so than when talking about Schmidt. With this author, says Woods, ‘I can put on my fool’s cap and play with words, and make puns and all kinds of things happen’. Translation is not just a transaction, it is ‘a wonderful way of expressing your love of your mother tongue’; it is ‘a puzzle, a game, a linguistic maze’.
 
The two writers that dominate our conversation are the post-modernist Schmidt and contemporary author Ingo Schulze, who grew up in East Germany. And once again, it is a sense of playfulness that brings these two authors from such different traditions together. Schmidt, Woods insists, writes ‘fairy tales’ for adults – albeit a tale that you reach by ‘grabbing reality, stem, roots and all – not just the flower on top’. Likewise, Woods was first drawn to Schulze, whom he now describes with awe as a ‘master’ of the short story, through his first collection Thirty-three Moments of Happiness: ‘E.T.A. Hoffmann dancing in modern robes!’. I can’t help thinking that there is something of the fairy tale about one of Woods’ other great successes, too: Patrick Süskind’s Perfume.
 
When Woods talks about Arno Schmidt, it makes you want to experience that idiosyncratic writing – and Woods’ translation – for yourself. In Woods’ eyes, Schmidt was a post-war writer, perhaps the post-war writer, par excellence. He recognised that ‘the Nazis had prostituted and betrayed his German language’ and so he created a new language in response. ‘He sprung the language right open’, going back to the colloquial language of the streets (‘real language’) and fusing that with an idiom inspired by the German Expressionists and, further back, the Romantics. It is this virtuoso treatment of language that makes Schmidt the subject of such fascination for his often fanatical readers, and so much fun for the translator to play with. Despite Schmidt thus far being seen as somewhat of a niche interest in the world of German literature, Woods is convinced that, when the history of twentieth-century German literature is written, Schmidt will be up there with Mann, Kafka and Brecht.
 
Since that initial congruence of Schmidt and Schulze in the fairy tale, Schulze has digressed – largely writing more sparse prose which, Woods explains, arises from his conviction that the material controls the prose, and not vice versa. There is therefore no ‘Ingo Schulze style’, just, for Woods, the ‘Ingo Schulze mind’, and it is a mind that the translator has immense fun exploring. He talks with relish of one particular Schulze story that he has recently translated (from Orangen und Engel), aware from his friendship with the author that it is based on real experiences – ‘the autobiography just given a light wash of colour’. Woods’ fascination with Schulze’s prose clearly rests in the writer’s ability to intertwine various elements, to spin a thread that draws the reader through often bizarre moments, and ultimately to suggest a kind of coherence in this jumble of impulses: ‘He’s a master, I swear, Ingo is a master!’.
 
The way that Woods talks about Schulze, and indeed Schmidt, not to mention Mann and the host of other authors that he has translated, makes you want to run to the nearest bookshop and start reading them immediately. The only question that remains, of course, is whether to reach for the original or the translation. The care and creativity that Woods has brought to his life in translation make this a tough call, and that – in itself – is his triumph.
 
By Charlotte Ryland
 
 
 
Woods’ translation of Ingo Schulze’s collection One More Story (Knopf) was published this year. He has also translated Schulze’s New Lives, Simple Stories and Thirty-three Moments of Happiness.
 
Readers interested in exploring Woods’ versions of Arno Schmidt may like to start with ‘Republica Intelligentsia’ (in Collected Novellas, Dalkey) and ‘Scenes from the Life of a Faun’ (in Nobodaddy’s Children, Dalkey).
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