Goin’ Backstory

“Translation is, we’re told, something that’s supposed to be invisible,” Shelley Frisch *81 tells PAW’s Carrie Compton. “I don’t think that that’s so. I think that a translator needs to inject a voice into a text in order to make it live. It shouldn’t read like plain vanilla translation-ese.” Frisch explains her work translating biographies from German to English and the specific case of Reiner Stach’s three-part biography of Franz Kafka. The last and most recent volume, Kafka: The Early Years was nominated for a Plutarch Award by the Biographers International Organization shortly after this interview.

Also, in an abbreviated version of our regular discussion of Princeton history, Brett Tomlinson and Gregg Lange ’70 talk about the 1960s critical languages program and a modern-day analog.

Shelley Frisch *81
Frank Wojciechowski

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Brett Tomlinson: I’m Brett Tomlinson, the digital editor at PAW, and welcome to Goin’ Backstory, our history-themed podcast. Later in our January episode, Gregg Lange ’70 will join me for our regular discussion of Princeton history.

But first, my colleague Carrie Compton speaks with Shelley Frisch *81, who has an often overlooked and underappreciated job in the world of history: translating biographies of notable historical figures. Carrie, I’ll let you take it from here.

Carrie Compton: Hi, this is Carrie Compton, associate editor of PAW. This month, we’re speaking with Shelley Frisch, who got her Ph.D. in Germanic languages from Princeton in 1981. Shelley is a former professor at Haverford College, Rutgers University, and Columbia University, and she’s been translating books for 20 years. She has translated more than 20 books, including biographies of Einstein and Nietzsche. Most recently, she has translated a series of three biographies on Franz Kafka. Shelley, briefly, let’s touch on how you became interested in pursuing the German language.

Shelley Frisch: Oh, like most paths in life, it was meandering. My father was a refugee from Germany. And he didn’t really speak much German in the house. My mother didn’t know any German. There was a lot of Yiddish in the house, which is similar, although I didn’t know that until later. And then, when I went to junior high school, we were to sign up for a language class. And the choices were French, Spanish, and German. And I signed up for French. But, having been born just a few years after the end of World War II, I was in a situation that didn’t really favor the study of German, and the German teacher didn’t have students in the class. And so, anybody whose parents didn’t strenuously object to the study of German had their children placed in the German class. And that’s how I started.

I really liked it, and I kept up with it. We used very old-fashioned textbooks in the New York City public schools. They were written in the old-fashioned gothic script. I had no idea that German was written in modern script until I went to college. I thought of being a math major, but a calculus course, of course, quickly disabused me of that idea. And I continued with German. Added French, by the way, also. And then, when I was finished with college, graduating with a major in German, I just sort of free-floated into graduate school. And here I am with a Ph.D. in German.  I’m not sure that there was much of a conscious decision to do that, but it was something I always enjoyed. I think it’s mostly because of the wordsmith in me. I love linguistic puzzles of all kinds. I thought, at some point, of being a lexicographer. How many people do you know who’ve had that dream? (laughs)

CC: Not very many. (laughter)

SF: And I love puzzling out words and constructions. And I found German — maybe the very challenges of German syntax — quite intriguing. And just kept up with it, and here we are, doing this podcast on German.

CC: You’ve translated all three books in Reiner Stach’s Kafka biography, the last of which, Kafka: The Early Years, came out last year. Talk a bit about what led Stach to write the three-part biography out of chronological order.

SF: I’m glad you asked that question. This is topsy-turvy in the extreme. (laughter) When Reiner Stach had the idea of writing the biography — there are remarkably few biographies of Kafka, and he was surprised and dismayed at the paucity of material about Kafka’s life. There were plenty of studies of his works, but not of his life. In investigating some of the particulars of Kafka’s childhood, he realized that because some papers in Israel were not accessible to scholars, that there was a treasure trove there that he could not gain access to. So, he decided to start with — and there was a court case in the — in the Israel courts about making these papers accessible to the public. So, he decided to start with the middle years, where the archival material was available to scholars — and then to write about the final years. And his calculation was that, in the meantime, these papers would become available that applied primarily to Kafka’s childhood and that he’d be able to fill in the gaps there. Well, it didn’t happen exactly like that because there were various appeals in court. Even after the women holding onto these papers did not prevail in court, they appealed and the papers were still held in abeyance and nobody could get to them. So, Reiner Stach was able, through various — basically anonymous sources that I can’t name either — gain access to three volumes of Max Brod’s diaries, his literary executor’s diaries —

CC: Which were the ones being held up —

SF: Exactly.

CC: — in court.

SF: And an inventory of the materials there. This inventory alone came to 170 pages, so it was quite an extensive inventory. So, he could find out which things were relevant there, and actually surprisingly little was relevant. There weren’t, for example, new Kafka stories to add to the corpus of Kafka’s writing. So, by the time he got to the final volume, he had this semi-access. He had plenty of materials that he couldn’t fully acknowledge in the footnotes or elsewhere. But he could evaluate them and work with them and integrate some of the insights that didn’t need direct documentation. It was a balancing act. He was, as it were, writing on eggshells, if you will.

CC: Yeah.

SF: So, now that the book has come out in — first in German and then in English, the courts have finally rejected the final appeal for these women's rights to hold onto these papers. And the papers in question are being transferred to the National Library in Israel. So, obviously, the question comes up: does this volume have to be rewritten? It doesn’t. He’s quite sure. But there could be follow-ups as certain things come to light, which remains to be seen.

CC: Right. You found a surprising Princeton connection to Kafka’s life. Talk about that a little.

SF: Yeah. Translation is really a very personal pursuit for me. And living in Princeton has been a dream in terms of access to people in the most arcane fields. No matter what I translate — when I was doing the Einstein biography, I had physicists whom I would ambush in McCaffrey’s supermarket to find out whether what I was writing about physics, you know, made any sense. And I found that for many of the writings that I’ve done, also my scholarly writings — but for the Kafka, I assumed there would be no connection to Princeton, because Kafka, despite having written a novel called Amerika, never visited America, had no connection to America. He was somebody who lived with his mom and dad in an apartment in Prague much of his life, didn’t live very long, and had very little travel experience. Nonetheless, turned out that his best friend in school, Hugo Bergmann, who later emigrated to Palestine which then became Israel, had two granddaughters who live right here in Princeton. And I was in touch with one of them, initially to get a family photograph for the book, and we’ve become fast friends now. And I see her, she goes to the library every day to play online Scrabble. (laughter) And we run into each other, and she’s given me wonderful insights into the family dynamic, which have helped me understand the story and integrate that perspective into my translation. So, Kafka was present, however remotely, in Princeton.

CC: You said in past interviews that, as a translator, you prefer your authors alive as opposed to translating the words of dead writers. Describe for us your collaboration with Stach for these books.

SF: OK, yeah. My authors are very relieved that I prefer them alive, and — as am I. I always contact an author at the beginning of a project, not to bombard the author with questions, but simply to introduce myself and say that I’m doing the project, just to open the door a crack and see how they respond. And typically, they respond almost instantly and say how excited they are that the book is coming out in English, because English is not only an important language for readership, but it’s also a gateway language to further translations of the book. If somebody wants to translate the book into I don’t know what language, they may well, then, use the English edition as their basis rather than the German edition. So, it’s a key language for globalizing a book. But apart from that, on the personal level, I wrote to Reiner Stach, as I do with my authors, and he was very receptive. And now we’ve been working together for a long time. Many, many moons. And we — I like to say we finish each other’s sentences. We’ve worked through this biography together as the different volumes — not the first volume, which was already complete when I first got the project — but now we’ve worked together on bringing this thing into being and talking about the subjects that come up in it. And we’ve become very close friends. Every time I go to Germany, we meet at a restaurant called Mythos, which means myth, (laughter) a Greek restaurant, and spend the whole afternoon talking Kafka. And we have come to a very interesting meeting of minds about this book and about life in general. So, it’s been very, very nice, and I think we both enjoy that collaboration.

CC: What are some of your guiding principles to translation, and how might they differ from your peers?

SF: OK, translation is, we’re told, something that’s supposed to be invisible. If you do it well, nobody notices it. Of course, if you do it badly, it jumps out of the page at you. I don’t think that that’s so. I think that a translator needs to inject a voice into a text in order to make it live. It shouldn’t read like plain vanilla translationese. And the only voice I have is my own. (laughs) So I think my translations — I know my translations bear some of the hallmarks of my vocabulary, my idiolect. And there are certain words that fascinate me, and I try to find a place for them. If I’m having coffee with you, let’s say, and you use an interesting word, I’ll say, hmm, that’s a word I’d like to find a home for in my next translation. And I do, invariably. When you’re translating a book, there are all kinds of words floating around, and your context almost disappears and it’s just text, text, text everywhere. There are words everywhere. And I like to find the exciting words, the words that resonate in interesting ways, and put them together. And along those lines, I like to emphasize the sound of the words. I’m a very acoustic translator, and I don’t think that every translator feels that way. It’s mostly to others about getting the message across. This is a medium message issue. Is it the medium? Is it language? Or is the message? Is it the information that’s being conveyed? And I’m very much a medium person. I discovered, in translating myself once, how very hard it was to do, because so much of what I’d written was about the sound of the words and how they fit together in English — I was then to translate it into German. I found it very tough, because the words didn’t sound the same, and I was very wedded to the sound of my words. And so, the old saw about knowing an author better will result in a better translation was belied, I guess, when I was translating myself, because I couldn’t figure out how to do that process. So, I like to read over the drafts aloud and make sure that they resonate in a pleasing way. And I think that that’s not necessarily what other translators are going for. And others feel strongly that one should not reveal oneself in a translation, and I believe one must. So, that’s a difference.

CC: Talk a little bit about what goes into the fact-checking portion of your work.

SF: There’s quite a bit of it. (laughs) Contrary to what one might think, editing in Germany is quite cursory. And I see you’re surprised by that.

CC: That is surprising.

SF: (laughs) And books are pretty much published as is. Very little editing goes into them. So, it really depends on the author himself or herself to have done that work, independently of the editorial process, in Germany. Quite in contrast to the American process, where production takes a full year and does involve some very detailed fact-checking. Again, this is contrary to stereotypes about, oh, Germans and Americans. But I found the exact opposite to the clichéd view. Luckily for me, Reiner Stach is meticulous about details. He does not make errors. He doesn’t make punctuation or spelling errors. He doesn’t make factual errors, and I’m thrilled. And he also sets a very high stylistic bar.  He’s a supreme stylist. So, that — my challenge was not to correct his facts, but rather to rise to the level of expository beauty that he had sent out. With some of my — with most of my other authors, that may not necessarily be the case. I do a lot of fact-checking and alteration of facts, sometimes in collaboration with the author. Other times, I will have written to them about certain facts, and if they seem ready to give me carte blanche, which they typically are, interestingly, I just go ahead and change the facts. For example, in the Einstein biography, the author described Einstein’s daily walk to the Institute for his workday. The particular building that was described — and the author actually came to Princeton and walked this — but that particular building had not been built during Einstein’s stay here in Princeton. So, I had to reroute him, as it were, through the streets of Princeton. That kind of thing happens all the time. And then there are the issues of dates and facts, all kinds of things that one, after a while, silently corrects and just — to avoid, then, the next stage, which would be — my editors would never let me get away with the sort of loosey-goosey fact-checking. So, I’m preempting struggles on the editorial end by doing that.

CC: Talk about how, as a translator, you go about portraying different voices in a particular work. In this case, you have Stach as a biographer. You also have Kafka as a writer of letters, and then as a writer of his own diary. Talk about how you approach that.

SF: Many people have asked me if I’ve used published translations of Kafka’s works, and I have not. I’ve retranslated everything I see there. The translation situation of Kafka’s works is very spotty, and we’re also finding out, with each passing year, new things about what Kafka intended. You probably know that many of Kafka’s works were either unfinished or unpublished in his lifetime. And his literary executor played with these texts and turned fragments into full texts in rather serendipitous ways, let’s say. So our understanding of what’s in the texts has evolved, which is part of the reason that the older translations don’t quite work. The newer translations tend to be philologically correct but a little bit sort of dead in the water. And so, I thought it’s important for me to retranslate all these texts. Also, there are copyright issues, which is a whole other kettle of fish. If you get permissions for all of these things, it can be very cumbersome and possibly expensive. So, I did all of them myself. Kafka is thought to be a Prague-inflected writer. He was, after all, writing German in a country that spoke Czech. I haven’t seen much evidence of that, but there are some southern German and Austrian renderings in his writing that are sometimes a little tough to deal with. But Kafka is very plainspoken. His texts are straightforward. They’re very — they’re seemingly simple, but they’re — although they’re not, in any way. Kafka, of course, wrote endless numbers of letters in all kinds of different voices, most famously the letter he wrote to his father, which was, itself, book-filling length. A letter of anger toward his father, toward his hated father. Essentially, an enormous laundry list of every alleged (laughs) transgression on his father’s part. It’s a very nasty letter. We think he nev— his father never actually saw it. But he writes in one tone there, a tone of unremitting anger. He writes love letters to Felice Bauer, who was his fiancée not once but twice. And he writes to Milena, another long-standing lover, in different levels of emotional connection that are hard to capture sometimes. I struggled with that, but tried to keep tweaking the register to make it reflect what he had in mind. Then, of course, there are the characters in his novels, who feel very autobiographical. They — in fact, when Kafka wrote The Castle, he wrote the first three chapters in the first person. He wrote I, and then changed his mind and backpedaled. And we see in the manuscript that he changed everything from I to third person he, moving away from a personal identification with the book. But the language is there. It’s very much Kafka’s outpourings. So, it was a — and then, of course, there’s Stach, as you mentioned. There’s Stach, the writer, who has many different registers himself. In fact, there’s an outside reader, supposedly anonymous reader of the manuscript, although I know exactly who it is, who wrote, in reading the manuscript before it was published — he wrote, “Let me say in advance that the task of the translator is very difficult in this case, because Stach writes with a quite special voice. Better, a quite special voice inside a fine and normal one. This fine and normal voice conveys social and historical data coolly and lucidly. But in this other voice, Reiner Stach aims for psychological and literary critical brilliance in a racy diction exploiting the vernacular and illustrated with overabundant figures of speech.” So — and I agree that there are different registers. The author likes to insert, seemingly randomly, billiards metaphors to describe — Kafka did not play billiards — to enhance the diction. And I actually wound up taking those out, because they didn’t seem to work in English the way they did in German. So if he talked about Kafka spielt über Bande, Kafka was ricocheting, I changed that to Kafka went from word to world in terms of trying to figure out whether he was writing an autobiographical novel or a third person, coolly detached novel. So I talked about word and world instead of a ball ricocheting across a billiards board. One changes the text, paradoxically, in order to preserve its original quality for a new readership. So, that’s the voice challenge, I think: to try to keep it genuinely intact, but for new readers who need to have it filtered in a different way to get to the same place, if that makes any sense. (laughs)

CC: Yeah, absolutely. In the past, you’ve advocated for greater compensation and recognition of translators. Are things getting better? And if so, what still needs improving?

SF: On my Twitter bio, I write that I’m a translation activist. (laughs) And I was when I first set up that account and I remain so. Translation — of course, it goes without saying that I think this — is important and needs to be compensated the way other activities are, professional activities are, and isn’t. And I have not seen, in the 20 years I’ve been translating, I have not seen compensation improving. In fact, if anything, with outfits like Amazon Crossing and whatever, there’s some bidding down to find the cheapest person to take on an assignment. There’s some of that going on. But, at the same time, translation is in a wonderful phase now in terms of intriguing people. And I think we may be turning a corner with new translation programs, such as the one at Princeton, with more recognition of the translator’s role by — and this is important to me — having the translator’s name on the cover. These are the words you’re reading. When you buy this book, it’s — these are the words that come from this particular translator. Before I started translating, I didn’t realize that myself, how very different the texts could be. Now, I look for the work of translators whose work I admire, even before I look at who is the author of these books. That may be unusual. (laughs) But I’d like to see more of that. I’d like to see publishers of translations build on the excitement in the translation field, and help them even with their marketing, that these are translators whose works you want to read because their words are exciting.

CC: What is the greatest joy of translation?

SF: Words. (laughter) I love words. (laughs) If I see a word — I think I’ve mentioned this previously, but if I come upon a word — "ensconced" or something like that — and it’s just a beautiful word, and I get to play with it. And I get to find a home for it, and I get to juggle the words and make them land in a very interesting way. There’s also, of course, plenty of content. I’ve sort of been, in this whole interview, I’ve been downplaying content —

CC: Right.

SF: — and talking about how words resonate. But all the books that I’ve translated, all the non-fiction books I’ve translated, have brought me into new worlds of inquiry. I’ve learned so much about physics, which I never even had as a high school student. I’ve learned about — in translating the Kafka biography, I’ve learned about the Spanish flu epidemic. I’ve learned new things about World War I. I’ve learned about séances at the turn of the century. I’ve learned about back to nature movements and how important they were in Kafka’s time. It — it’s like taking crash course in all kinds of things. So, translating allows me to speak in the voice of authority — which, by the way, is quite a leap, and quite a bit of hubris. But it allows me to speak in that voice, quasi-assuredly. And at the same time, I’m teaching myself in an autodidactic kind of way. I’m teaching myself about all kinds of new fields that I never would have learned about. It reminds me very much of when I was teaching at Columbia and we were required to teach the core humanities courses. And I thought who am I to teach Dante one week and Cervantes another week? And these were literatures that I knew as a reader but not as a teacher or an expert. And it’s the same thing with translation. You get to talk the talk of somebody who’s an expert in that field and channel that expertise, and jump for joy that you’ve mastered that lingo. It’s — so, it’s not just — in fact, it’s not even primarily about German to English. The German has to be there, but you’re writing a book in English, and that’s something that I think needs more emphasis in talking about translation. You’re not so much translating from German as creating a work in English. And that English allows you to explore all kinds of things in your target language, in your native language.

CC: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today.

SF: Oh, it’s my pleasure.


BT: We are back our online history columnist, Gregg Lange, from the Great Class of 1970. Gregg, happy new year.

Gregg Lange: And the same on yours, Mr. Editor.

BT: Thanks very much. The last time we spoke on the podcast, we talked a great deal about Princeton during wartime, and that was very much front-of-mind because of the 75th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor.  

If you look at any number of items in the new issue, you can kind of see how the campus is influence by world events beyond the campus at all times, to some extent or another. Princeton students love to talk about the Orange Bubble and the isolation, the perfect little world that they inhabit. But in some very curious ways, global politics have an impact on Princeton students and their daily lives. Gregg, I know you had a few examples that stood out to you.

GL: Not just to mention the things that are currently online but other things we’ve discussed in the past. And things you often don’t really think about as being directly connected with University life, and not necessarily just with politics or the Wilson School and stuff like that. One of the most vibrant in the memory of current living Princetonians is Alger Hiss in 1956, whose lecture at the University created a firestorm nationwide. President Dodds stood firmly in favor of open discussion and freedom of speech in that case. Alger Hiss spoke on campus despite his reputation as a Communist sympathizer and so on during the Red Scare era of the Eisenhower years — and bored everybody to death as it happened, at Whig-Clio, but that’s sort of beside the point. He was allowed to speak. A year later, when Sputnik went up, an animal was created, sort of in a panic almost, called the National Defense Education Act, on the fear that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union in the sciences and a lot of other educational skills. Among other things that that created, outside of huge support for scientific efforts that eventually included NASA, was a critical languages program to educate college students in language skills that were regarded to be underrepresented in the United States. That’s the program under which Princeton brought in transfer students for a year in the 1960s to study Asian and Middle Eastern languages at Princeton, and that happened to include women, because they couldn’t be excluded from the program, so they became basically the first undergraduate women to study at Princeton, and became sort of a trial run for the eventual coeducation in 1969. They also include nine of my classmates in the Class of 1970, the first class to have women alumnae. And we mention them in my column that’s online right now.

BT: And also in the new issue, there’s a brief item on language study today. For the last decade or so the State Department has offered summer scholarships for study abroad, and several Princeton students each year take advantage of that program to study things like Arabic and Chinese and other languages.

GL: Very much along the same kinds of concerns in terms of security. That’s actually part of the Patriot Act, following 9/11. The same thing came up and was re-emphasized by the government.

BT: Well, I think that brings us to the end of this episode. Gregg, as always, thanks, and I look forward to talking with you in February.

Goin’ Backstory is a podcast from the Princeton Alumni Weekly online.