The roots of my collaboration with Frank Beck on the translation of Lou Andreas-Salomé’s 1921 novel Das Haus go back 58 years, to my 1965 attendance at the Deutsche Sommerschule am Pazifik at Portland State University. My summertime classmates and I learned that the program’s director, Professor H. F. Peters, had recently published My Sister My Spouse: A Biography of Lou Andreas-Salomé, which introduced us to that fascinating woman’s interaction with famous men such as Nietzsche, Rilke, and Freud.
“Wer war Lou Andreas-Salomé?” became something of a mantra in the language courses I taught at the University of Alberta in the 1970s – the lead-in to short essay assignments meant to spur students’ reading and writing skills and to encourage an interest in the literature and thought of German modernism.
With the rise of feminist criticism during that decade, the prose fiction of Andreas-Salomé came to play a prominent role in my courses on literature and German-to-English translation and then, in the late 1990s, in research projects.
In the summer of 2015, my 2005 translation of her novella cycle, Menschenkinder, caught the interest of Frank Beck, a writer and editor who reviews poetry for The Manhattan Review and is an avid reader and translator of Rilke’s work. Frank was infectiously curious about why English had yet to see the translation of any of Andreas-Salomé’s six novels, and our ensuing exchanges led us to focus on the last in that sequence, which we considered the most mature and compelling, and also a good German “fit” with related fiction of the period – including that of Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, and above all E. M. Forster, with whose Howards End our novel seemed to share patterns and themes.
A Glimpse into the Process: “Two heads are better than one!”
What began with my plunge into the translation of Andreas-Salomé’s text – enjoying again her subtly subversive portrayal of the male would-be mentors and labeling controllers of another group of female protagonists, this time with Frank “at my elbow” via email, as editor, advisor, and anachronism-and-idiom policeman – soon evolved into a symbiotic interaction that called for both our names on the title page. That development unfolded electronically between two “strangers” who have yet to be in the same room together, shake hands, or even venture a “zoom” meeting.
A major insight emerging from that collaborative effort is: two heads can be remarkably better than one, especially if: (a) abilities and interests complement – rather than duplicate – each other, (b) both members of the team accept the fact that no translator can hope to write in cement, and (c) both recognize that close to 50% of translation involves tuning the English into an accurate rendition of the original that, read aloud, tends not to announce itself as having been translated from German.
Once I had brought my German-to-English skills to bear on a first draft of each chapter, Frank, with his writing background, ear for dialogue, and sense for the “poetry” of the novel’s bravura chapter endings, would start the back-and-forth sequence of six to eight drafts of each chapter. Our honing and tweaking sought to liberate the translation from the tyranny of the original without appropriating and domesticating it into the culture and times of the reader. In that endeavor, we were aided by colleagues who scanned the entire nineteen-chapter bundle for errors, inconsistencies, and other problems – examples of the latter being the translation choices for the German pronoun “man” and the absence of modern English equivalents of German’s formal and familiar forms of address, “Sie” and “du.”
Points to Ponder: “Found in Translation”
Finally, our closeness to the text as translators enhanced our awareness of details, themes, and patterns pertinent to understanding the novel – and thus worthy of any research-project “job jar.” A few examples:
By proceeding from the outer extremes of the novel inward, rather than chapter by chapter, we became aware of the echoes and symmetries through which Andreas-Salomé, while foregrounding the impression of the narrated time’s progression towards felicitous closure and preserved status quo, also subverted that impression with signs of change, even in the long-established marriage of Anneliese and Frank – and, in doing so, invited uneasy reflections on what lies in store for that older pair.
These intimations of the possibility of change in marital and familial relationships also intensified our understanding of other figural relationships pertinent to grasping the work’s vision of women’s place and potential. One salient example: the generational sequence of Drs. Branhardt and Mandelstein, whereby Andreas-Salomé breaks provocatively with her own and her generation’s tendency to portray the “Herr Doktor” (medical and otherwise) as patronizing, labeling, and controlling women. With the “intrusion” of the young Jewish physician Markus Mandelstein into the Branhardt’s family circle – and the reader’s consciousness – the novel strikes a blow against the anti-Semitic tendencies of its time; it also inscribes a positive and nurturing spokesman for the changes that both Branhardt women, mother and daughter, embody.
A related red thread was the network of reading and writing women evoked and portrayed in the novel. Anneliese’s liberated friend, Renate, is based on the author’s close friend and creator of the German “colonial novel,” Frieda von Bülow, while the love stories of E. Marlitt (Eugenie John), a popular predecessor of Andreas-Salomé, are cited in the first chapter and echoed in the last – arguably as a homage to the way the happy closure of Marlitt’s stories is subtly countered by intimations of lingering and evolving problems. (Our endnotes elaborate on this and other cultural references that even those reading the novel in German today might find puzzling.)
The author herself – in her role as young Rilke’s loving mentor – is evoked by Anneliese’s fostering relationship to her poetic son – and then intriguingly inscribed into the narrative as the family’s “androgynous” pet dog. Name-sibling of the author and namesake of the biblical epitome of male wisdom and author of the “Song of Songs,” little Salomo appears throughout the novel, most prominently in its opening and closing scenes, as the “familiar” of mother and daughter. “Her” presence signals the author’s approval of the liberating insights and creativity that evolve during their episodes of fictive reading and writing.
This guest post was written by RALEIGH WHITINGER, emeritus professor of German at the University of Alberta. He and Frank Beck, a New York City-based writer and translator, edited and translated Anneliese’s House by Lou Andreas-Salomé, now available in paperback.