Comparing Translations of Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities

It just so happens that I started to read Musil’s magnum opus, The Man without Qualities, in the Sophie Wilkins translation which was widely available in paperback when I bought my copies.  I was also lucky to find a first edition set of hard copies at a bookshop in Boston.  When a few of my fellow bloggers and readers on Twitter shared their copies of the Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser translations which feature the Egon Schiele covers, I decided to buy these as well and compare translations.  A few of my favorite selections that I am discussing here are from Volume I of the Sophie Wilkins translation and from Volume II of the Wilkins/Kaiser translation.

When Diotima and Arnheim, who are in love with each other but can’t decide how to move forward in their relationship, have a discussion about their feelings, Diotima says in the Sophie Wilkins translation:

Words can do much, but there are things beyond words.  The real truth between two people cannot be put into words. The moment we speak certain doors begin to close; language works best for what doesn’t really matter; we talk in lieu of living.

And in the Wilkins/Kaiser translation:

The word can accomplish great things, but there are things still greater! The true truth between two people cannot be uttered. As soon as we speak, doors close.  The word does better service to the unreal communications.  One speaks in those hours when one does not live.

In this first example I prefer the Sophie Wilkins translationsfor a few reasons.  The Wilkins/Kaiser use of the polyptoton “true truth” seems awkward in a prose translation, and “real truth” seems to flow better.  In addition, the translation of the second sentence in the Wilkins/Kaiser translation seems unclear: “The word does better service to the unreal communications.”  The Sophie Wilkins translation is more eloquent and makes the meaning of the sentence much more apparent: “Language works best for what doesn’t really matter.”  Finally, I think that the semicolons that Sophie Wilkins uses make the entire sentiment of the paragraph flow better whereas the periods in the Wilkins/Kaiser translation make the writing feel more disconnected in what is supposed to be discussion.

Next is a comparison of Musil’s satire of the media which I mentioned in a previous post.  Sophie Wilkins renders the paragraph as:

If he were alive today, Plato—to take him as an example, because along with a dozen others he is regarded as the greatest thinker who ever lived—would certainly be ecstatic about a news industry capable of creating, exchanging, refining a new idea every day; where information keeps pouring in from the ends of the earth with a speediness he never knew in his own lifetime, while a staff of demiurges is on hand to check it all out instantaneously for its content of reason and reality.  He would have supposed a newspaper office to be that topos uranios, that heavenly realm of ideas, which he has described so impressively that to this day all the better class of people are still idealists when talking to their children or employees.  And of course if Plato were to walk suddenly into a news editor’s office today and prove himself to be indeed that great author who died over two thousand years ago he would be a tremendous sensation and would instantly be showered with the most lucrative offers.  If he were then capable of writing a volume of philosophical travel pieces in three weeks, and a few thousand of his well-known short stories, perhaps even turn one or the other of his older works into film, he could undoubtedly do very well for himself for a considerable period of time.  The moment his return had ceased to be news, however,  and Mr. Plato tried to put into practice one of his well-known ideas, which had never quite come into their own, the editor in chief would ask him to submit only a nice little column on the subject now and then for the Life and Leisure section (but in the easiest and most lively style possible, not heavy: remember the readers), and the features editor would add that he was sorry, but he could use such a contribution only once a month or so, because there were so many other good writers to be considered.  And both of these gentlemen would end up feeling that they had done quite a lot for a man who might indeed be the Nestor of European publicists but still was a bit outdated, and certainly not in a class for current newsworthiness with a man like, for instance, Paul Arnheim.

And the Wilkins/Kaiser translation:

Plato—to take him as an example, because he, among a dozen others, is commonly referred to as one of the greatest thinkers—would, if he were still alive, quite definitely be enchanted with that world of ‘news’ in which every day a new idea can be created, exchanged for another, or refined, in which a mass of reports comes pouring in from all the ends of the earth, at a speed he never dreamt of, and where a staff of demiurges waits in readiness to test it all immediately for the quantity of reason and reality it contains.  He would take a newspaper office to be that topos uranios, that heavenly realm of Ideas, of whose existence he wrote in such details and so impressively that even nowadays all the better sort of people are idealists when talking to their children or employees.  And of course, if Plato were today suddenly to walk into an editor’s office and prove he was really that great author who died more than two thousand years ago, he would cause a tremendous sensation and be offered the most enviable contracts. Supposing he were then capable of writing a volume of philosophic travel-impressions inside three weeks, as well as a few thousand of his well-known short stories, and even perhaps sell the film-rights of one or the other of his older works, he would certainly do pretty well for quite a time.  As soon, however, as his return ceased to be topical and Mr. (as he would be now) Plato tried to put into practice yet another of his well-known ideas, which never really came into their own, the editor would merely urge him to write a nice little feature-article on the subject now and then for the woman’s or the book page of course not in that difficult style of his, but as light and readable as possible, with the paper’s readers in mind, and the feature-editor would add that he was sorry he could not use such a contribution more than once a month at the most, because there were, after all, so many other good men to be considered.  And after that both these gentlemen would have the feeling that they had done a great deal for a man who, although he was the father of European publicists, was nevertheless a little out of date and as regards topicality simply not in the same class as, for instance, Paul Arnheim.

In this example I prefer the Wilkins/Kaiser translation because of a few subtle differences that enhance the satire and humor: their capitalization of Ideas, for instance, and their aside in parentheses explaining Mr. Plato (as he would be now).  The Wilkins/Kaiser  use of the word “travel impressions” seems much more humorous, especially in relation to the great philosopher Plato, than the “travels pieces” that Wilkins uses. And finally, the Wilkins Kaiser use of “woman’s or book page” instead of “Leisure Section” is not only funnier, but is more fitting for Musil who goes on to satirize authors as well (he is especially disgusted with so-called “popular” authors and books.)  The Wilkins/Kaiser translation also uses a minimal amount of punctuation in the large, run-on sentence that makes up the bulk of the paragraph which, I think, lends to the hyperbole of the writing. As a side note, I did appreciate Sophie Wilkin’s use of “Nestor” in the final sentence, but this is a very specific Homeric reference that many readers might not appreciate.

One final comparison is a translation of Musil’s satire involving authors.  The Sophie Wilkins translation reads:

Meaning no offence, but dogs prefer a busy street corner to a lonely cliff for their calls of nature, so why should human beings who feel the higher urge to leave their names behind choose a cliff that is obviously unfrequented? Before he knows it, the Great Author ceases to be a separate entity and has become a symbiosis, a collective national product in the most delicate sense of the term, and enjoys the most gratifying assurance life can offer that his prosperity is most intimately bound up with that of countless others.

And the Wilkins/Kaiser translation:

Be it said without offence, where their natural needs are concerned bogs prefer a busy street-corner to a solitary rock; and how then should human beings, who feel the higher need to leave their name publicly behind them, fail to choose a rock that is noticeably solitary?  Before he knows that is happening the superman of lettersis no longer a being to himself, but a symbiosis, in the most delicate sense the product of national cooperation, and experiences the most exquisite assurance that life can give—namely that his own prospering is most intimately bound up with the prospering of countless other people.

In this final example I don’t have a preference as I equally enjoyed both translations.  The biggest difference between the translations is their rendering of the very thing that Musil is satirizing: Sophie Wilkins uses the “Great Author” with capital letters while Wilkins/Kaiser use the superman of letters.  Both serve their purpose and are humorous.

So in my final analysis I would say that we are lucky to have two excellent English translations of Musil’s The Man without Qualities.  I will continue with the Sophie Wilkins translation for the final four-hundred pages of the novel since I began with this one.  But when I reread Musil I will happily use the Wilkins/Kaiser rendition.  My analysis is not meant to critique the literal translation from English to German as I do not read German.  These are simply my aesthetic views and preferences as someone who has read well over a thousand pages of Musil in translation.  If you have a preference for one of these translations I would be delighted to hear about it.

 

14 Comments

Filed under German Literature

Failing to Honor the Best of the Achaeans: Musil on Writing and Intellect

In The Man without Qualities, Musil satirizes not only journalists (as I highlighted in my previous post), but writers and intellectuals of all types. He says about the “Great Author,” for instance:

The most indispensable condition for being a Great Author is always that one has to write books or plays that will do equally well for high and low. To effect the desired good, one must be an effective writer to begin with; this is the basic principle of every Great Author’s life. It is a strange and wonderful principle too, a fine antidote to the temptations of solitude, Goethe’s very own principle of effective action: if you will just get things done in a good world, everything else will fall into place. For once a writer has made his effect, his life undergoes a remarkable sea change. His publisher stops saying that a businessman who goes into publishing is a sort of tragic idealist because he could do so much better for himself by dealing in textiles or unspoiled paper.

Furthermore, he sarcastically observes:

Meaning no offence, but dogs prefer a busy street corner to a lonely cliff for their calls of nature, so why should human beings who feel the higher urge to leave their names behind choose a cliff that is obviously unfrequented? Before he knows it, the Great Author ceases to be a separate entity and has become a symbiosis, a collective national product in the most delicate sense of the term, and enjoys the most gratifying assurance life can offer that his prosperity is most intimately bound up with that of countless others.

And as far as the critic is concerned Musil has this to say:

The critics discover him [the Great Author] as a worthy subject for their labors, because critics are often not really bad people at heart but former poets who, because times are bad, have to pin their hearts to something that will inspire them to speak out; they are war poets or love poets, depending on the nature of the inward gleanings for which they must find a market, so their preference for the work of the Great Author rather than just any author is quite understandable.

Even librarians are not exempt from being the targets of his wit. The librarian that appears in the novel has this to say about his profession: “The secret of a good librarian is that he never reads anything more of the literature in his charge than the titles and tables of contents, ‘Anyone who lets himself go and starts reading a book is lost as a librarian,’ he explained. ‘He’s bound to lose perspective.'”

I spent several hours last night reading Musil’s Diaries, 1899-1941, in the hopes that they would shed some light on his feelings about his craft and his fellow writers and I was not disappointed. Musil’s entries throughout these years are filled with comments about his process and how serious and meticulous he was with his writing. It is important to him that his characters be drawn from real life and his own experiences and he spends countless hours composing sketches of his characters. In an entry from 1911 he writes, “In Torless, the unifying momentum comes from the desire to narrate a particular story that has been thought out in advance. That is the backbone around which all other things—my interpretation and conception of the story—are grouped.”

There are many remarks and comments about authors he admires—Nietzsche, Emerson, and, not surprisingly, Tolstoy. In my first post about Musil I felt that The Man without Qualities was similar in style of narrative to War and Peace. Musil says about reading Anna Karenina:

The way that Tolstoy removes the cozy “family magazine” quality from those fortunate average people—KatJa, Lewin, Oblonsy—is almost a trick, but it’s overwhelming nonetheless. He does so by not glossing over slightly ridiculous, or evil, minor impulses—for example, when Oblonsky is moved to tears when he comes from Karenin and feels glad about the good turn that he is trying to perform, but, at the same time, is glad about a joke that he is working on: what is the difference between me, acting as a peacemaker, and a commander in the field, or something of the kind. In all cases he sees his people as a mixture of good and evil or the ridiculous.

Musil also doesn’t hesitate to record notes about authors for whom he had no professional respect. Hermann Broch, Franz Werfel and Thomas Mann are among those he despises. He says about Thomas Mann: “Thomas Mann and similar authors write for the people who are there; I write for people who aren’t there!” This brings to mind Musil’s satire about the Great Author, the critic and the publisher who pander to what’s popular among the mob for the sake of glory or cash.

Philip Payne, the translator of Musil’s Diaries, points out that a leading Germanist at the time conducted a survey of noteworthy, contemporary authors and Musil himself was not among those named. For an intellectual man who studied not only literature and the humanities, but science and the social sciences this was a great snub. It also helps us to understand, a least a little bit, his sarcasm for contemporary writers. Put in Homeric terms, they failed to honor the Best of the Achaeans. I don’t blame him for being upset.

Leave a comment

Filed under German Literature

Topos Uranios: Robert Musil on Truth, Opinion and the Media

One of the threads that runs throughout Musil’s magnum opus, The Man without Qualities, is the lines that are blurred, especially by those in authority and the media, between truth and opinion.  The protagonist, Ulrich, is hired to be a part of the campaign to celebrate the 70th jubilee of Franz Josef’s reign over the Austro-Hungarian Empire and suddenly finds himself coming in contact with the Austrian social, political and economic elites.  One such character is not even Austrian, but a Prussian businessman and prolific writer named Arnheim whose celebrity status outweighs the fact that he is not from the mother country yet is helping to plan a nationalist campaign to celebrate Austria.  The media adores this man of industry, a veritable Renaissance man who is able to discuss and be knowledgeable on just about any topic.  When the Austrian media is supposed to be covering the Austrian campaign to celebrate its Austria emperor, it is Arnheim, the Prussian, that most interests them.  Musil’s commentary on the situation is clever, witty and still relevant 100 years later:

If he were alive today, Plato—to take him as an example, because along with a dozen others he is regarded as the greatest thinker who ever lived—would certainly be ecstatic about a news industry capable of creating, exchanging, refining a new idea every day; where information keeps pouring in from the ends of the earth with a speediness he never knew in his own lifetime, while a staff of demiurges is on hand to check it all out instantaneously for its content of reason and reality.  He would have supposed a newspaper office to be that topos uranios, that heavenly realm of ideas, which he has described so impressively that to this day all the better class of people are still idealists when talking to their children or employees.  And of course if Plato were to walk suddenly into a news editor’s office today and prove himself to be indeed that great author who died over two thousand years ago he would be a tremendous sensation and would instantly be showered with the most lucrative offers.  If he were then capable of writing a volume of philosophical travel pieces in three weeks, and a few thousand of his well-known short stories, perhaps even turn one or the other of his older works into film, he could undoubtedly do very well for himself for a considerable period of time.  The moment his return had ceased to be news, however,  and Mr. Plato tried to put into practice one of his well-known ideas, which had never quite come into their own, the editor in chief would ask him to submit only a nice little column on the subject now and then for the Life and Leisure section (but in the easiest and most lively style possible, not heavy: remember the readers), and the features editor would add that he was sorry, but he could use such a contribution only once a month or so, because there were so many other good writers to be considered.  And both of these gentlemen would end up feeling that they had done quite a lot for a man who might indeed be the Nestor of European publicists but still was a bit outdated, and certainly not in a class for current newsworthiness with a man like, for instance, Paul Arnheim.

In an age when one is just as likely to see or read a news story about world politics as the Kardashians in any major, global news outlet, this paragraph could just as well have been written about the current state of truth/opinion/media.

6 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

A Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil

I’ve spent the last couple of days immersed in Musil’s enormous, 1,400 plus, two volume, unfinished Magnum Opus and have been completely drawn in and captivated by his writing.  My reading experience reminds me, so far, of War and Peace, which I devoured the winter before last in a matter of three weeks.  Musil constantly switches his narrative back and forth among different characters, buildings layers of interest through his third person point-of-view.  He starts, of course, with his main character, Ulrich—the very man without qualities—and then gives us portraits of those with whom Ulrich has contact, from the maid of a distant cousin, to a convicted murder in the news headlines,  to important members of the Austrian government.  What makes an epic book like this, and War and Peace, a truly great piece of literature is the level of riveting detailed that is maintained throughout the writing.

Another initial impression I have from reading the first few hundred pages of A Man without Qualities is what a brilliant and amazing wit Musil possesses.  I didn’t quite detect it, not at this level anyway, from reading his shorter works.  The chapter titles, for instance, are cleverly  funny: Chapter 28 is “A chapter that may be skipped by anyone not particularly impressed by thinking as an occupation” and Chapter 39 is “A man without qualities consists of qualities without a man.”

In addition, when Musil is satirizing upper class society, intellectuals and the Austrian bureaucracy he uses bizarre and hilarious metaphors.  “But even at that time, as one got older and on longer acquaintance with the smokehouse of the mind, in which the world cures the bacon of its daily affairs, one learned to adapt oneself to reality, and a person with a trained mind would finally end up limiting himself to his specialty and spend the rest of his life convinced that the whole of life should perhaps be different, but there was no point in thinking about it. This is more of less how people who follow intellectual pursuits maintain their equilibrium.”  Ulrich has had failed careers as a soldier and an academic mathematician and now, while he tries to decide what he should do with the rest of his life,  he accidentally falls into a governmental position.  Ulrich is appointed to the committee that is planning a celebration of the 70th year of Franz Josef’s reign, a committee which has no real goals, no concrete ideas and isn’t quite sure what to call itself.  Musil’s wit reminds me of Dickens whose novel Little Dorrit, in particular,  is mixed with witty and serious commentary on the ludicrous nature of bureaucracy.

But Musil doesn’t go too far with his humor which would make his characters ridiculous and uninteresting.  Ulrich’s existential crisis and his inability to choose a career cause him to do a great deal of thinking and these passages are some of the most philosophical, and profound, of the novel:

Few people in mid-life really know how they got to be what they are, how they came by their pastimes, their outlook, their wife, their character, profession and successes, but they have the feeling that from this point on nothing much can change.  It might even be fair to say that they were tricked, since nowhere is a sufficient reason to be found why everything should have turned out the way it did; it could just as well have turned out differently; whatever happened was least of all their own doing but depended mostly on all sorts of circumstances, on moods, the life and death of quite different people; these events converged on one, so to speak, only at a given point in time.  In their youth, life lay ahead of them like an inexhaustible morning, full of possibilities and emptiness on all sides, but already by noon something is suddenly there that may claim to be their own life yet whos appearing is as surprising, all in all, as if a person had suddenly materialized with whom one had been corresponding for some twenty years without meeting and whom one had imagined quite differently.  What is even more peculiar is that most people don’t even notice it; they adopt the man who has come to them, whose life has merged with their own, whose experiences now seem to be the expression of their own qualities, and whose fate is their own reward or misfortune.  Something has done to them what flypaper does to a fly, catching it now by a tiny hair, now hampering a movement, gradually enveloping it until it is covered by a thick coating that only remotely suggests its original shape.

Some might find a novel with such a philosophical bent tedious, but this type of writing is what draws me to Tolstoy, and Dickens and now to Musil.

My friend and fellow blogger Tony is also reading A Man without Qualities and has an excellent post on the theme of mathematics in Musil that I encourage everyone to also read: https://messybooker.wordpress.com/2019/07/06/robert-musil-mathematics-and-infinity/

14 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

A Few Thoughts on Hadji Murat by Tolstoy

Even though this final work of Tolstoy’s, not published until after his death, is rather brief, the narrative techniques are similar to his greatest historical novel, War and Peace. The eponymous hero of the book is Hadji Murat, a well-respected, Muslim tribal leader. During the 1851 Chechen revolt against the Russians, Murat helped lead the locals in the charge against the Russians who claimed that they were bringing modern government and prosperity to an archaic, Muslim state. Tolstoy’s story constantly switches back and forth between characters that range from the lowest peasants in the Chechen villages to Prince Nicholas I. This incessant picking up and dropping off of different narrative threads is what causes me to devour his novels. What will happen to the soldier who is shot while on night watch? Which lover will Prince Nicholas choose? And how will Murat meet his tragic end?

Murat is drawn into an argument with Shamil, the leader of the Chechen revolt, and defects to the Russian side when Shamil captures and threatens Murat’s family. Tolstoy portrays both sides as flawed and Murat is caught between two ruthless, cruel and unpredictable dictators. There may be cultural difference between east and west—in dress, religion, social habits, etc. But one thing they have in common is the brutality of an all-powerful despot. My favorite passage in the book is Tolstoy’s description of Nicholas I, which could also just as easily describe many a world leader in the 21st century:

The flattery, continuous, obvious, completely divorced from reality—of the people around him had distorted his vision of himself to such an extent that he no longer saw his own contradictions, did not attempt to reconcile his actions and words with reality or logic or even basic common sense and was quite convinced that all his directions, however senseless, unfair and contradictory they might be, became unreasonable, fair and consistent with each other simply because he had delivered them.

11 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized