Lost in Translation

February 9, 2018 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | Fiction, Poetry, WRITING & LITERATURE | 0 Comments |

(Thomas Bernhard, 9 February 1931 – 12 February 1989)

Lost in Translation‘ is an average film, but an excellent phrase. The Bridge between languages is (to cite another poor film) A Bridge Too Far, where literary translation is concerned. L may be close to mastering Classical Greek but this does not solve the problem of children in England who have to take a test on The Iliad.

Whether translation be ‘faithful’ or ‘loose,’ the rules of language suggest that most literary translation will be something else than the original.  If you don’t believe me, try reading The Odyssey by Alexander Pope, E. V. Rieu, and Richmond Lattimore in succession.

Michael Hofmann, in an incisive, incendiary and hilarious article in the London Review of Books,* called the difficult writer Thomas Bernhard “the bard of impiety, irreverence and…Austropathy.” Known in Austria as a “Nestbeschmutzer” (one who fouls his own nest), Bernhard’s difficult works have made for difficult entertainments, and difficult translations.  His bright and bubbly weltanschauung can be divined from the titles of some of his novels: Frost, Gargoyles, The Lime Works, Correction, The Cheap-Eaters, Concrete, The Loser, Extinction.

Hofmann’s article, “Out of Babel,” eviscerates a translation of Bernhard’s Collected Poems by James Reidel, with the comment “I have never read translations by anyone with less idea of what’s going on in the original,” then by citing several fairly compelling pieces of supporting evidence.  Ow!  Never mind.  Thanks to Poem Hunter online, we can sample a happy little dirge by Mr Bernhard:


The raven shrieks.

He has captured me.

I must go through the land forever

in his cry.

The raven shrieks.

He has captured me.

Yesterday he perched in the fields and froze,

and my heart with him.

My heart blackens more and more

because it is enfolded

in his black wings.

—      —     —

We can also take comfort in Bernhard’s observation on receiving an award from Austria, his begrudgingly adopted nation: “Everything is ridiculous, when one thinks of Death.”  An apt statement for repetition at the Oscars or the Nobels.

[*London Review of Books, 14 December 2017, pp. 21, 22.]



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