Tag Archives: Robert Musil

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.

 

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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.

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How Shall We Live?: Thoughts from Robert Musil on this Memorial Day

This long weekend in May in the United States is a federal holiday which is meant to remember and honor veterans who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.  As I was reading Robert Musil’s essay entitled, “Twilight of War”  I thought it sad and ironic that this holiday is called Memorial Day because we really do not seem to learn or retain the lessons that history has taught us.  What Musil wrote during the early part of the 20th Century is not only relevant, but good advice today for my country in particular:

If one wants peace, one has to do something, not just have a conference about it.  There is no radical defense against war.  Because there is no radical defense against the stupidity, fantasy, and bestiality of human beings.  But there are a dozen small defenses, and none of them should remain untried.  The weaker a person is, the more he will develop and pay attention to his intellectual powers, in order to carry on in difficult times.  The stronger he is, the heavier his fist, the sooner he will surrender his reason in order to finish off a difficult thing with his fists.  But that is not bravery. That is the obtuseness of brutality.  Little David was brave, not the strong Goliath.  He was nothing but strong, and he finished off nothing but himself.

No state has ever maintained of its army that it is kept for offensive purposes. Each one affirms that it is only there for defense.  For four years dozens of armies have defended something against something else. Only one thing remained undefended, that there is nothing which armies could defend that could justify such an expenditure of human lives.  It is a myth that disarmament would have to be agreed upon universally.  Those who make the assertion want, at best, to just talk about it.

This essay is in Musil’s collection of Thought Flights, brilliantly translated by Genese Grill.  Divided into three parts, the book includes short stories, glosses and literary fragments.  The extent of topics in the collection is impressive: art, fashion, politics, morality and love are just a few of his interests.  Genese Grill simply and eloquently describes these writings in her introduction, “As always, Musil is really asking: How shall we live?”

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The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil

In the introduction to Shaun Whitehead’s translation of The Confusions of Young Törless, J.M. Coetzee writes about Musil, “The education of the senses through a refining of erotic life seemed to him to hold the most immediate promise of lifting society to a higher ethical plane. He deplored the rigid sexual roles that bourgeois mores laid down for women and men. ‘Whole countries of the soul have been lost and submerged as a consequence,’ he wrote.”

When, as an adolescent, Törless is dropped off at one of Austria’s most prestigious boarding schools, he feels alone, untethered and confused. No longer under the constant guidance and moral direction of his parents, he must find own way—emotionally, morally and physically—among other boys struggling with the same issues. Törless’s loneliness and solitude weigh heavily on him throughout the narrative. At times his isolation seems to crush him. Musil oftentimes weaves natural images into his description of Törless’s emotional isolation:

Then a pleasant memory came to him. The house in the country where they had spent the previous summer. Nights in the silent park. A velvet-dark firmament quivering with starts. His mother’s voice from the depths of the garden, where she was walking with Papa on the faintly shimmering gravel paths. Songs that she sang quietly to herself. But again…a cold shiver ran through him…there was that painful comparison. What might the two of them have been feeling? Love? No, the idea was now occurring to him for the first time. Love was something quite different. Not something for grown-ups and adults; let alone for his parents. Sitting by the open window at night and feeling abandoned, feeling different from the grown-ups, feeling misunderstood by every laugh and every mocking look, being unable to explain to anyone what one meant, and longing for for someone who might understand…that is love! But you have to be young and lonely for that.

Törless’s mother and his conflicted emotions about her are also prominent in the book which is not surprising since, as Coetzee points out, Musil himself wrote about his own maternal confusions in his diaries. Torless begins to explore his own ideas of morality by exploring his sexuality. He visits a local prostitute, which is a common pastime of many of the boys at the school. He tries to explore mathematics and the philosophy of Kant in order to cast off his feelings of loneliness.

But his life takes a sinister and confusing turn at the school when he witnesses two of his classmates mentally, physically and sexually tormenting a boy that they catch stealing money. Basini has several debts which he can’t pay–his mother is a widower on a fixed income—and resorts to stealing from the other boys. Even among the upper classes there is a pecking order based on wealth.

The passages in the book that describe the boys tormenting and torturing Basini are difficult to read. Musil’s casual comment that such things are common among all male boarding schools in the late 19th and early 20th century was sad and horrifying. But in the end Torless rejects the mores of these bourgeois boys and makes the decision to leave the school. But, as his mother comes to the school to take him away, the book ends on an interesting note, reminding us of Törless’s continuing struggle with sex, morality and emotions: “And he breathed in the faintly perfumed fragrance rising from his mother’s waist.”

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Our Love, Tell Me, What Is It?: The Completion of Love by Robert Musil (trans. Genese Grill)

“Our love, tell me, what is it?” Claudine asks this heavy, direct, honest, complex question in a letter to her husband.  She is on a short trip to see her daughter, who was conceived during a brief affair with a dentist, at boarding school but is snowed in at her lodgings.  There are so many layers to the philosophical language of Musil’s stream-of-conscious narrative; but the one that stood out to me the most was his reflection on love, and how we experience another person through the self and internalize emotions that are created through this experience.

Musil explores the fact that Love is such a complex human emotion, one that can oftentimes be confused or mixed with pity, nostalgia or physical desire.  The opening scene in the book depicts Claudine and her husband as quietly content and presumably in love—enjoying a cup of tea, discussing a book, relaxing in their home.  But on her  journey, as she leaves her husband behind and encounters another man on her trip she reflects on this love that, up until now it seems, she has not questioned.  The translation of such a complex text could not have been easy; Genese Grill’s rendering of Musil was wonderful to contemplate and absorb:

So, they drove on, close to each other, in the deepening dusk. And her thoughts began to take on that softly forward-urging restlessness again.  She tried to convince herself that it was just a delusion brought on by the confusing interior stillness of this suddenly lonely amid strangers; and sometimes she believed that it was just the wind, in whose stiff, glowing coldness she was wrapped, which made her frozen and submissive; but other times it seemed to her that her husband, strangely, was very close to her again, and that this weakness and sensuality was nothing more than a wonderfully blissful manifestation of their love.

As she is drawn closer to a man on her journey simply known as the “commissioner” these thoughts of her husband and her love for him as well as her life before her marriage keep flashing through her mind.

She felt that she could never again belong to a strange man. And precisely there, precisely simultaneous with this revulsion towards other men, with this mysterious yearning for only one, she felt—as if on a second, deeper level—a prostration, a dizziness, perhaps a presentiment of human uncertainty, perhaps she was afraid of herself; perhaps it was only an elusive, meaningless, diffuse desire that the other man would come, and her anxiety flowed through her, hot and cold, spurning on a destructive desire.

And when she is alone at night:

And then it came to her suddenly, from out of that time—the way that this terrible defenselessness of her existence, hiding behind the drams, far off, ungraspable, merely imaginary, was not living a second life—a calling, a shimmer of nostalgia, a never-before-felt softness, a sensation of I, that—stripped bare by the terrifying irredeemable fact of her fate, naked, disrobed, divested of herself—longed, drunkenly, for increasingly—debased debilitation.  She got lost in it, strangely confused by its aimless tenderness, but this fragment of love that sought its own completion.

Claudine’s thoughts are blurred to the point that I felt they could equally apply to her relationship with her husband, her love affairs before her marriage, or her current situation with the commissioner.  This fragment of love that sought its own completion.  This last sentence, in particular, has given me much to think about.

I found Claudine’s response  jarring when the commissioner asks her if she loves her husband: “The absurdity in this prodding, his assumption of certainty, did not escape her, and she said, “No; no, I don’t love him at all,” with trembling and resolution.”  She obviously has some love for her husband, so why tell this lie?  The hint to this, I think, comes a few pages later:

And then the cryptic thought struck her: somewhere among all these people there was one, one who was not quite right for her, but who was different; she could have made herself fit with him and would never have know anything about the person she was today.  For feelings only live in a long chain of other feelings, holding on to each other, and it is just a matter of whether one link of life arranges itself—without any gap in between—-next to another, and there of hundreds of ways this can happen.  And then for the first time since falling in love, the thought shot through her: it is chance; it becomes real through some chance or other and then one holds fast to it.

I felt as though Claudine came to the realization that the “completion” (or “perfection” in other translations) of love is never possible.  She never sends that letter I quoted to her husband.  She has to learn for herself that if love is not returned—in word, in action, in gesture—it will die out.  Sometimes it suffers a long, painful death.  But, unless it is tended to and nurtured, it will indeed die out.

 

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