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.



Filed under German Literature

18 responses to “Comparing Translations of Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities

  1. I read “The Man Without Qualities” about 20 years ago, and I am quite sure I read the Sophie Wilkins translation which I thought was wonderful.
    (Strange how there are two Wilkins translators of this novel.)
    Then I read your first example. I too much preferred the Sophie Wilkins version. Just take the first sentence:
    ” Words can do much, but there are things beyond words.” – Sophie Wilkins
    “The word can accomplish great things, but there are things still greater!” – Wilkins/Kaiser
    The Sophie Wilkins version is perfect and succinct while the other one seems to me a cobbled mess.
    By the way, I recently read the first tiresome pages of ‘Intimate Ties’ by Robert Musil (Translator = Peter Wortman) but gave it up because I did not want to have to lower my opinion of Robert Musil who I consider one of the greats based on the rest of his work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s a useful comparison. A German reader’s advice to me was to read the Wilkins/Kaiser, not because the translation was “better” as both are elegant and of a high standard, but because it better preserved Musil’s rhetorical idiosyncrasies and precision of language, without intrusion.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Always useful to see translations compared like this. Polyptoton was a term I didn’t know; looking it up took me to the related ‘antanaclasis’ – repetition of the same word in different senses. Your argument is sound, nothing but sound- B. Franklin

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Liz

    A fascinating comparison, Melissa, thank you! And by the way, Musil gets a passing mention in this brilliant article about Iris Murdoch, so I thought of you when I saw it!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sophie Wilkins’ translation sounds more ‘English’, more target language friendly, so I can well believe that Wilkins/Kaiser is closer perhaps in rhythm and style to the source language. I have to admit I haven’t read either of the translations, so I should compare your passages with the original to make up my mind. Sadly, for most languages I cannot do that…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. So interesting! I often find that the translation you choose can have a profound effect on your experience of reading a book and I do tend to ‘shop around’ if I can. We’re very lucky to often have the choice of more than one version.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Shaun Rigney

    I prefer the older translation because the idiom is closer in time to Musil’s time, which preserves the patina, the light and the fragrance of the era more faithfully than the later translation.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Cheng

    This was useful in helping me to decide which to go with; thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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