From Heaven to Haystack and Back: An Interview with John E. Woods

George Salis: Have you been keeping up with any new and innovative German literature, such as the novel Schattenfroh by Michael Lentz which The Untranslated describes as “the greatest German-language novel of the 21st century up to now”? If you haven’t kept up with this kind of literature, what have you been reading lately?

John E. Woods: You caught me. I must admit that for the last several years I’ve been reading English literature, seldom touching new German stuff. I don’t quite know how or why this has happened, but so it is. I’m a big fan of Ali Smith, Will Self, and Damon Galgut, to name three.

George Salis’ copy of Bottom’s Dream.

GS: Can you talk about some past or present German writers who you think deserve a wider readership?

JW: Well, there are of course the many 18th– and 19th-century writers that Arno Schmidt reintroduced to Germany in his radio programs and elsewhere. Of those, I suppose my favorites are Wieland, Tieck, and Raabe. Then there are several who have a certain solid readership in the English-speaking world like Döblin or Bernhard. And then there’s the curious almost untranslatable world of Jean Paul.

GS: I came across a German word when working on my second novel and it turned out to be perfect for my needs: zugunruhe.When I mentioned it to two Germans on separate occasions, they weren’t familiar with it. I’m wondering what are some of your favorite uncommon German words and why?

JW: I love “tüchtig,” which means something like diligent but is far more lively and less pompous. Etymologically it’s related to “doughty,” but that’s an archaism to be sure.

GS: You translated Arno Schmidt’s Bottom’s Dream over the course of a decade. Even for veteran readers, it’s an understandably daunting tome, boasting over one million words, almost 1,500 pages, and nearly 13 pounds of heft. What’s the best way to prepare oneself for tackling it, both physically and intellectually? Is it necessary, for instance, to invest in a lectern and read the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe?

JW: A lectern might prove useful. But the kitchen table serves just as well. Just starting in cold is indeed daunting, but in some ways the most fun. You just go with the flow. Once you catch on to the phonetic spellings and the obsessive sexual punning it gets easier. All sorts of literature informs it of course, Freud and Joyce in the foreground. As for Poe, probably reading stories that arouse your curiosity in conjunction with their discussion by Daniel Pagenstecher is the best way to go. You don’t need to be a Poe savant to follow Schmidt’s analysis. Ultimately, I suggest readers do what I did, put on a fool’s cap and enjoy the ride. I really do love the middle column best, Wilma is a delight and often right on when parrying Pagenstecher. All of these characters, including the elusive Franziska, are after all pieces of Schmidt’s authorial self.

GS: I’ve heard multiple people compare Bottom’s Dream to Finnegans Wake. Do you accept this comparison? Why or why not?

JW: I don’t think the comparison is particularly helpful. Yes, of course, in one sense both works are about language itself, how it defines how we think, how we see and hear and feel the world. But Bottom’s Dream is the easier read in many ways, far less dense in its encoding of language.

Arno Schmidt, circa 1960. Photo by Willi Michels.

GS: While we’re on the subject of comparisons, your first-ever translation of Arno Schmidt’s work, Evening Edged in Gold (a book in dire need of a reprint although I’m happy to own a copy that’s ex libris Steven Moore) was reviewed in Kirkus in 1980. The critic claims the prose is more akin to Ezra Pound’s “Murican English” than James Joyce’s style. Is this reviewer way off the mark or is there some credence to what they’re saying?

JW: Well, not being a Pound fan I can’t say he informed my work. Certainly, Schmidt’s ear is tuned to several dialects of German, Silesian, and Lower-Saxon especially. In Evening in fact Luxemburgian plays a substantial role in the character of AnnEv. Dialects per se are really not translatable, sociolects are perhaps. In all of my translations of Schmidt I’ve had my inner ear cocked to the broad Midwestern I grew up with, and thus it is Murican without a doubt.

Evening is of course the crown work, a world without borders or limits, it flows from heaven to haystack and back with a mighty, delicate roar. In many ways I’m sorry it was my first attempt at Schmidt because I know so much more now (or did know perhaps), but there is an exuberance to this first excursion into Schmidt’s universe. If readers take it on, I hope they enjoy its world of elementary spirits and arcane literary nooks and crannies.

GS: Translating Bottom’s Dream is of course a capstone achievement but I’m wondering if there are other works out there that you’ve wanted to translate but haven’t had the chance to?

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Photo by Martin Schutt

John E. Woods has specialized in translating German literature since the late 70s. His work includes much of the fictional prose of Arno Schmidt and the works of contemporary authors such as Ingo Schulze and Christoph Ransmayr. He also translated all the major novels of Thomas Mann (a feat comparable, in simple page count, to a wholly new translation of Proust) and works by many other writers. Woods lives in Berlin.

For his edition of Schmidt’s Evening Edged in Gold, Woods received the 1981 U.S. National Book Award in the category of Translation (a split award). He won the PEN Prize for translation twice, for that work and again for Perfume in 1987. Woods was also awarded the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize for his translations of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Arno Schmidt’s Nobodaddy’s Children in 1996; as well as the Schlegel-Tieck Prize for the translation of Christoph Ransmayr’s The Last World in 1991. He was awarded the Ungar German Translation Award in 1995, and most recently the prestigious Goethe-Medaille from the Goethe Institute in 2008.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagramTwitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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