The winner of the prestigious 2011 Austrian Cultural Forum Translation Prize was renowned American translator Damion Searls. Searls received the award for his translation of Austrian playwright and novelist Elfriede Jelinek’s essay her not all her (on/with Robert Walser) [er nicht als er (zu, mit Robert Walser)], first published in 1998. Jelinek was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004.
The Austrian Cultural Forum celebrated this occasion on Monday, January 9, 2012, with an evening dedicated to Austrian literature in translation. Michael Orthofer (The Literary Saloon) and Martin Rauchbauer (Deutsches Haus at NYU) presented the winner of the 2011 ACF Translation Prize.
Damion Searls is a writer in English and translator from German, French, Dutch, and Norwegian. He has translated writers including Proust, Rilke, Robert Walser, Ingeborg Bachmann, Thomas Bernhard, Kurt Schwitters, Peter Handke, Christa Wolf, Stephane Hessel, Jon Fosse, and Nescio and edited a one-volume abridged edition of Thoreau's Journal; his translation of Hans Keilson's Comedy in a Minor Key was a New York Times Notable Book of 2010 and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in Fiction. His own work includes What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going (short stories) and pieces in Harper's, The Believer, n+1, Bookforum, The Paris Review, and elsewhere.
The ACF Translation Prize winner is chosen by a distinguished Transatlantic jury of literary critics, writers, and academics. The ACF Translation Prize trophy is sponsored by SWAROVSKI.
In 2013, the translated play was published by >> Sylph Editions.
The winner of the 2010 ACF Translation Prize was David Dollenmayer, who was honored for his translation of Michael Köhlmeier’s Idyll With Drowning Dog (Idylle mit ertrinkendem Hund), first published in German in 2008. David Dollenmayer was presented with the SWAROVSKI-sponsored crystal trophy by renowned critic Daniela Strigl in a ceremony on December 6, 2010, at the Austrian Cultural Forum. The event included a conversation between Mr. Dollenmayer and Fatima Naqvi (Rutgers University), followed by a short reading of the award-winning text and a reception honoring the winner.
David Dollenmayer, a literary translator and professor of German at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, has translated works as varied as Dearest Georg by Elias Canetti (2010), Crossing the Hudson by Peter Stephan Jungk (2009), and House of Childhood by Anna Mitgutsch (2006).
Michael Köhlmeier, author of the panoramic 2007 novel, Abendland, is a major Austrian writer whose works deserve wider attention. Only a few of his works have been translated into English. The novella Idylle mit ertrinkendem Hund was enthusiastically reviewed in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (October 1, 2008), the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (November 8, 2008), the Neue Züricher Zeitung (January 27, 2009), and Die Zeit (April 23, 2009). Its combination of compelling story, sharply drawn characters, and exquisitely subtle narration has universal appeal.
Richard Duckett wrote about the 2010 award for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
The inaugural Translation Prize was awarded to three translators: Jean M. Snook, Uljana Wolf, and Christian Hawkey. Wolf and Hawkey collected and translated the works of distinguished author Ilse Aichinger in an anthology of short prose pieces titled Bad Words published by Fischer Verlag. Bad Words includes a large selection of Aichinger’s texts from the sixties onwards that had not been previously published in English. Jean M. Snook’s outstanding translation of Gert Jonke's novel The Distant Sound conveyed the literary and linguistic intricacy of his work in English.
** UPDATE: Uljana Wolf and Christian Hawkey's Translation of Ilse Aichinger's Bad Words will be published by Seagull Books in early 2014. **
Gert Jonke, The Distant Sound.
Originally published as Der Ferne Klang by Residenz Verlag (Salzburg/Vienna) in 1979, 263 pages. The Distant Sound (Dalkey Archive Press, June 2010). Translated by Jean M. Snook. 289 pages.
Reviewed by Simona Sivkoff
In 2009, the Austrian literary scene lost one of its most esteemed authors, playwright, novelist, and poet Gert Jonke. Widely considered to be his most significant novel, The Distant Sound is the second book in a trilogy. The English translation by Jean M. Snook won the first prize in the 2009 competition for the Austrian Cultural Forum Translation Prize in New York.
The novel opens with the lyrical laments of a lover whose beloved has left him only to reappear briefly and leave him again waiting indefinitely for her next return. The poem ends abruptly and the narrator’s intimate thoughts take over. His inner dialogue is anxious and indecisive, as evinced by his hesitation whether to address himself in the informal Du or the formal Sie.
From the inner world of the young composer who has lost the ability to compose music, we are transported to a psychiatric asylum where he is held after an alleged suicide attempt. He recalls nothing of it, and the first page of his medical record is missing. We witness a frustrating episode in which the doctor oscillates between calm politeness towards him and vehement criticism towards his employee. A quote from the forthcoming English translation presents the comical and disjointed scene through the narrator’s eyes: “Of course he is talking about unavoidable consequences for the personnel; conclusions will have to be drawn. In passing he mentions the name of a wild animal you don’t know that he intends to send down into the files room right after the conversation, until then you haven’t heard anything about its existence, but it does seem frightening to you, because the emphasis with which the doctor speaks the name of the unknown animal into the mouthpiece cannot be denied. In conclusion, then, once again, immediately, the first page, that right at this moment is more urgently needed than anything else in the entire world, but one should note one thing above all else: a file without a beginning is always also a file without an end! The receiver bangs down onto the cradle, and in the following minutes you sit silently across from him. To you, he doesn’t even indicate that he has become unsure of things, but rather indicates his firm conviction that the missing file page will be dished up for him right away as dessert.”
The narrator’s story cannot begin; the captive composer wanders around in an institution that claims he poses a danger to himself and society. In the files room he meets a young woman, a former singer whose voice was “broken” and who would like him to compose music for her. They fall in love, but she disappears without a trace shortly after their meeting. Convinced that she has access to the missing first page of his medical history and hence to the beginning of his life, the composer escapes the institution in order to look for her.
Together with an old friend, an overweight poet with a taste for alcohol, he embarks on a journey to the neighboring town, where the woman presumably resides. The train ride is a meandering narrative through the picturesque landscape that often assumes the contours of a human body bestrewn with fragmented thoughts on the importance of one’s homeland, nostalgia, and playing the perfect musical note. Jonke’s dialogues are told from the second person perspective and flow organically into his greater observations on the immensely innovative power of the human mind as well as its inconsistency and fragility. The duo is faced with paradoxical and fantastical twists in the travelled scenery. For example, their train never reaches the neighboring town but simply returns to its original point of departure because the wooden poles have been cut down for lumber and the train cannot continue in the direction it was heading. This does not seem to trouble any of the train employees, nor do they find it strange: it occurs regularly. The narrator ponders over the meaning of social progress, widespread apathy, and public vs. personal responsibility in contemporary society while witnessing a bickering match between a theater impresario who avoids responsibility at all cost and a director who is not allowed to assume responsibility.
The journey through the homeland continues, only to reveal destroyed mountains replaced by gaping holes, leafless trees, and a powerful whirlwind that sweeps away the ashes. The grotesque mixture of Jonke’s serene and lyrical language with a morally and ecologically collapsing world speaks to the author’s sensitivity to probe the hidden corners of our psyche and entice us to look at ourselves. For instance, Jonke turns a spontaneous street fest into a paper revolution – the people in the crowd, a motley cast of characters, seem to be able to undo decades of information obfuscation. They throw countless pages gathered in governmental institutions out of the windows and onto the streets: secret files and secret orders for everyone to read. Jonke’s narrator demands transparency and vocal addressing of social failures. He critically examines human society with its growing negligence towards the environment and the individual, his main concern being the pervasiveness of keeping silent about these issues. Thus, as the translator Jean M. Snook aptly says, the distant sound coming from the corn fields devastated by insects or fungi that surround the city “is open to many interpretations, one of which is a timely warning of ecological disaster if the ‘roaming city shotguns’ continue to hunt the rare songbirds. But Jonke is not primarily a doomsayer.”
Perhaps Jonke is not a prophet of ecological disaster, but he is not filled with boisterous optimism about the future of humanity either. Nor does he easily let the reader off the hook. On the contrary, he suffuses us in the music of destruction that slowly spreads around the planet, and his dreamy, lyrical narrative burns in the flames of a wildfire. With a sarcastic remark, Jonke tells us that the people watching the wildfire with the distant sound coming from the hollowed out corncobs in the background lament not so much the irreversible destruction of the woods, but the fact that they did not cut down the trees themselves and use them for lumber earlier. Sharply, and with underlying humor, Jonke examines human insatiability and recklessness towards self and environment. He creates a lyrical crime novel where the main crime is apathy towards oneself, others, and nature, where the reader often has to wonder whether the narrative is recounting a bad dream or reality, an open ending to a story that is missing the beginning.