Trials and Tribulations Part 2

Adventures in Publishing
Of the four epics Döblin published before Berlin Alexanderplatz, only the earliest – The Three Leaps of Wang Lun – has been published in English translation (and now in its 2nd edition). Here for the first time I describe the twists and turns on the adventurous path to publication.
Part 1 of this series is here.

Part 3 is here.



At some point during the translation process, my day job brought me into contact with Mr T L Tsim, Director of the Chinese University Press in Hong Kong. He was interested to hear about Wang Lun, liked the draft so far, and encouraged me to write a longer Introduction. (As a timid amateur non-scholar, I was hesitant to stick my nose into professional territory…)

He also suggested that a distribution link with a UK-based publisher would help him persuade his colleagues to take Wang Lun on.

I tracked down the small publisher in London who was distributing John E Wood’s translation of Döblin’s massive November 1918 – a German Revolution (2 vols, ISBN 0-88064-008-1 and 0-88064-010-7) and sent him part of my translation. He was sort of interested, but wanted to see more of the draft before deciding.

Then, having seen more of the text, he was quite enthusiastic but wanted an outside opinion. He sought the views of someone he identified only as a UK-based retired professor of German.

On the basis of this reader’s comments, he declined to take a stake in the publication.

A professor finds fault

Here I offer the raw material for a case study about –

  1. the choices translators have to make, and
  2. the pitfalls that critics of a translation should really be aware of, and try to avoid.

The professor (I refer to him below as AFR ‘Anonymous First Reviewer’) wrote:

“A challenge, this. Here and there very difficult – difficult to be accurate, difficult to avoid sounding precious or sometimes writing near-nonsense by keeping close to the original. Though I’m sure it can be done.

“But my opinion on this translation, I’m afraid, is that it won’t do. Wherever I read I found I could not go more than two or three lines without coming up against an awkward phrase, something that struck me as ambiguous, or meaningless. When I went back to the original, I could see what was wrong and what the proper meaning was. In other words, the ambiguous or (to me) unconvincing phrase was not a reflection of the original but simply bad translation. This is the more annoying in that ‘atmospherically’ much of the translation is good – much of the drifting, impressionistic style comes across well.

“…It just won’t do, in my opinion. The Introduction is very nicely done, though.”

AFR attached three pages of “infelicities” from what he said was “a large collection”.

Red rag… Bull…

Well, I thought. Here I am, a mere novice, an amateur; and there’s a retired professor. Who should I believe? I smouldered for a few days, then drafted a riposte to the prospective London publisher:

“Your decision, coming after so many months, is of course a great disappointment. It is clear you have some doubts about the book itself – there is no reason after all why you should feel as strongly as Mr Tsim about its cross-cultural importance. But what makes your decision all the more disappointing is that it is based rather strongly on comments from your adviser which, in a majority of cases, are either worthless nitpicking or simply wrong. …

I attach my analysis, point by point. It shows that two-fifths of the adviser’s comments were either fully valid or reasonable. The other three-fifths contained an extraordinary mixture of carping, over-hasty imputation, and mistakes arising from a failure to approach either Döblin’s text or the translation sympathetically.”

To support my case, I took up the Wilkins/Kaiser translation of Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, and adopted the same approach as the professor to its first chapter:

“These three and a half pages of English text yield a couple of true defects, a couple of infelicities, an ambiguity, and a few opportunities to nitpick. I have refrained, however, unlike your adviser, from attacking defects which simply aren’t there.”

(My suggestions included:

First sentence: ‘noch nicht’ should be neutral ‘as yet’, not emphatic ‘still’;

‘Jahrbücher’ should be ‘almanacs’ not ‘yearbooks’;

‘Spannkraft’ should be ‘pressure’ not ‘tension’ – as every schoolboy knows, this sentence has to do with vapour pressure and relative humidity;

‘solid material of…’: the German Dative shows all the following nouns are covered by the ‘of’. The English is ambiguous: are the ‘laws and traditions’ solid, or only the ‘buildings’?

‘edge of the pavement’: don’t we just say ‘kerb’?

‘There are over… over there’: This won’t do! Should be ‘more than a…’)

I was especially annoyed at AFR’s “I’m sure it can be done”, and pointed out –

“for 75 years it hasn’t been done, and the chances of any individual appearing who has (a) the necessary knowledge of English, German and Chinese and (b) the inclination and stamina to complete the project must be pretty slim. To argue that it should not be done at all unless it can pass muster with more success than (e.g.) the well-accepted translation by Wilkins and Kaiser is surely to take perfectionism to ridiculous lengths.”

The London publisher was responsive enough to seek a second opinion, from none other than WG Sebald, whose 1973 doctoral thesis at the University of East Anglia was actually on Döblin, whom he found sadly deficient in various respects. (When Sebald published an adaptation of the thesis in Germany in 1980, it aroused hefty controversy. I’ve translated this very interesting account of Sebald’s longlasting tussle with Döblin.

Sebald, bless him, was more positive –

“The incidence of errors and infelicities on the first page is a little alarming, but it does not warrant the adviser’s categorical ‘it just won’t do’ which seems to me unhelpful. Most of the specific points culled from the opening pages are minor blemishes. The bulk of the work is well translated. It would be a shame therefore to simply write off the great deal of effort and energy invested in this translation. As the translator points out quite rightly, faults can always be found even in the work of recognised professionals. One also ought to take seriously the argument that the chances of anyone else producing a better translation must be pretty slim…

“The narrative, action and dialogue sequences are, for the most part, rendered quite impressively. I would also advise the translator not to defer too much to the author. Döblin’s idiosyncracies are not always intentional and the translator should feel free to seek less literal solutions where the original seems to preclude a readable translation.”

Dr Sebald supplied a page and a half of comments on the first page of the Prologue.

Finally, in print

The London publisher then offered to distribute Wang Lun if CUHK Press could offer a suitable subsidy. In the end, no deal was done, and CUHK Press published the hardback on their own in 1991 (ISBN 9622014704).

News of a second edition (the 2015 paperback from NY Review Books – ISBN 978-962-996-564-8) came quite out of the blue. CUHK Press had joined with NY Review Books to launch a new series called Calligrams of books ‘from and on China’. The series editor, Eliot Weinberger, chose Wang Lun along with two scholarly titles of Chinese literature; here’s a very good critical review of these three initial titles from Steve Donoghue at Open Letters Monthly.

It was good to see such a handsome physical product. Unfortunately the publishers gave me no chance to proofread the text (several typos had crept into the first edition: for some reason the letter ‘v’ kept appearing doubled), so several new typos passed unchallenged. I know how irritating typos are, but hope readers will not allow superficial defects to spoil their enjoyment of a remarkable work.


Part 3 of this series is a detailed Case Study of comments from the publisher’s reviewers, and my responses.