Translator, playwright, theater director–Philip Boehm wears many hats. Winner of several translation awards, he has worked with some of the biggest names in the German and Polish literary scene. Herta Müller, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Hanna Krall are just a few notable authors whose words and thoughts Philip Boehm translated for the English-speaking world.
Darkness at Noon, the novel for which Philip Boehm won the 2021 Ungar German Translation Award awarded by the American Translators Association, has an interesting history. Written in German by Arthur Koestler, the novel was a huge success and has left its mark on generations of readers, one of them being Philip Boehm himself. The original German manuscript was discovered quite by chance in the Swiss archives in 2015, and Philip Boehm was commissioned to translate it into English.
I interviewed Philip regarding his recent award and to find out what goes on in a literary translator’s mind.
Congratulations on the Ungar German Translation Award for Arthur Koestler’s novel, Darkness at Noon. The way it first got published can be a novel in its own right; what motivated you to translate a book that has already achieved literary and commercial success?
I have Koestler’s biographer and Russian translator, Michael Scammell, to thank for this. He had learned of the discovery of an original German typescript that was thought to have been lost when Koestler fled the Germans in occupied France in 1940. A German edition based on this discovery appeared in 2018 (previous German versions had been back-translated from Daphne Hardy’s English). I had read the book in high school, and it had left quite an impression, so when Michael and Scribner approached me about a new translation, I was excited.
Did you read Daphne Hardy’s translation before receiving the original German manuscript? If yes, then what steps did you take to avoid this prior knowledge from influencing your translation?
Daphne Hardy’s translation was precisely what I had read years ago in high school, but I deliberately refrained from revisiting it before starting this project. Once I had a completed draft, I did check a couple of the more difficult passages against hers, just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything (and was relieved to see I hadn’t). While I hope contemporary readers find my version engaging, I would also like to echo Michael Scammell’s sentiment that her translation has served the book well for many decades.
Translating any work of fiction comes with its unique set of challenges. What were the challenging aspects of this project?
The novel contains quite a bit of philosophical rumination, which might threaten to disengage readers more accustomed to contemporary thrillers. But there is also an element of suspense, and I wanted to find language that would convey that, through word choice as well as syntax–the prose has to have movement. Voice and register needed to reflect the period, and here I drew heavily on my familiarity with the history, and with the contradictions encountered while living in a communist state. I was also grateful to my late father, whom I would ask about specific words or phrases, to check whether he would have used them in the 1930s and 40s.
For any literary translation project, is it the author or the novel that’s the driving force behind your choice?
These are not mutually exclusive, but I feel my first duty is to the specific text. If I were a pianist playing a Chopin polonaise I would want to learn about the influences informing the composer at the time of composition, but once I sat down at the piano my eyes (and especially ears) would be on that piece of music.
How do you plan your book translation projects? Is the process similar to writing a book?
My original work consists of plays, and the process for that is very different, as I tend to skip back and forth between scenes, adding or subtracting dialogue. For translations, my first step is to finish a rough draft of the English and then revise … and revise … and revise.
You mentioned in one of your interviews that training as a playwright and a theater director helped you in your work as a literary translator. Now that you have translated more than 30 novels, has your work as a literary translator influenced your work as a playwright and a theater director?
Translation starts with hearing the voices, the melodies, the rhythms of the original text. I’m certain this practice has helped me listen to the characters in my plays, so that I can better convey nuances of inflection. And translating different voices from different times has also expanded my range of expression. Translation also requires immersing yourself in the world of the text–the historical and social context. I’ve often revisited those worlds as background research for directing a play.
Our life experiences affect how we interpret a work of fiction, or, we might not agree with the author’s message. How have you overcome this challenge, and how can translators keep their individual biases aside to do justice to the author’s voice?
There’s actually another question lurking here, one you hinted at earlier when distinguishing between author and novel. I think many authors, and their novels, create worlds designed to evoke multiple interpretations. In the end, perhaps it is the translator’s sensibility–which may be linked to many intangibles, ranging from life experience to financial circumstance to acquired expertise to some innate sense of pitch–that can steer past individual or cultural bias.
Fact-checking is the cornerstone of any translation project. What are your go-to resources for fact-checking? Do you contact the author directly in case of doubts?
The internet has made research so much easier, although for the incurably curious it also poses a huge distraction. I’ve often contacted an author to help elucidate this or that passage–most are more than eager to assist. Several have become friends, and their trust means a lot.
An editor is a writer’s guiding light, which is true even for translators. According to you, what should a translator bear in mind when partnering with an editor?
My dear friend David Van Biema once reminded me that both author (this includes translator!) and editor are on the same side, in the service of the text. I have been fortunate to work with remarkable editors–such as Sara Bershtel or Barbara Epler or Drenka Willen–whose contributions typically receive even less recognition than we do as translators. Let us doff our collective hat!
Most of us have that one project or one client that is emotionally draining. Have you ever felt like dropping a book translation assignment halfway? If yes, how did you deal with it, and how did you get back on track?
Very long books can be draining. Especially when they are accounts of atrocities from, say, the Warsaw Ghetto. And yet … the people who penned those words deserve to be heard … and that is up to me.
Any recent translated books that have particularly impressed you?
Yes–for instance, Angela Rodel’s translation of Georgi Gospodinov’s Time Shelter, or Jessica Cohen’s translation of David Grossman’s Falling Out of Time, or Jackie Smith’s translation of Judith Schalansky’s An Inventory of Losses.
Lastly, any advice for aspiring literary translators?
There are many places to turn to for advice better than what I might answer: ALTA and PEN for instance. For those translating from German, this website is informative:
I would however note that few people actually earn their living through literary translation alone. Finding a second vocation seems like sound advice–and not necessarily in the academy. I know businessmen, lawyers, plumbers, and composers who translate beautifully.
It takes more than professional excellence to take a splendid piece of literature and make it even more exquisite: a deep desire to get the author’s message across, a sense of responsibility towards your craft, and the gratitude towards years of learning. What makes this even more worthwhile is when your peers come together to applaud your effort. Congratulations once again Philip, a well-deserved award indeed!
Thank you, Pavitra. I feel both honored and grateful for the recognition. I’m also appreciative of how much effort the ATA’s German Language Division has put into managing and judging this award for over thirty years.
Freelance translator and content writer.
I translate technical and medical texts from German into English. I write on topics related to science, technology and translation for ATA’s Science and Technology division and German Language division.