Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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"Ah, Dorno. . . "

Yes, that's the real name of a Berkeley, California hair salon. If you're going to iron out the wrinkles in a writer who folds phrases with the zeal of madness, you might as well have a sense of humor about it. "Please, Mr. Stylist, take the kinks out!"

While the prospect of reified Critical Theory inspires a certain glee in me -- flatitude is underrated -- I come not to put a slab on Teddy but to restore some of his texture. You may remember the entry I wrote last week on a little number from his Minima Moralia called "Damper and Drum." I remarked the piece's predictably depressing turn, noting that, "the final sentence seals the deal, imagining a time when, 'no herbicide will prevail against the renascent springtime of song, and the national front extending all the way from barbaric Futurism to the ideology of the cinema, will go entirely unopposed.'" A little later, I returned to this image of "herbicide":
Further enhancing the brood in my mood after reading reflections like these is my realization that the translation seems to be flawed in that special way that translations from Adorno invariably seem to be. Take that final comma in the final sentence. I can't imagine a scenario in which it corresponds to the sense of the original German. It seems clear to me that we're dealing with two separate subjects and predicates, coupled with a coordinating conjunction. But I can't be certain because I'm unable to locate my German edition.

In addition, I have a slithering suspicion that the bit about herbicide is a play on the idea of Ausrottung, the Nazi term that conceives of genocide as a "rooting out" of weeds im Garten des deutschen Volkes. But I can't tell how overtly Adorno is troping on the concept without seeing which term he uses. Incidentally, any doubt about the horror implicit in this weeding metaphor will be immediately laid to rest by a visit to a German "wilderness" area, in which the trees are all pruned to the same height and the leaves are vacuumed up by a diligent forester. Needless to say, gardens are subject to even more stringent Reinigung in the Heimat.
Since making these words public, I've spent hours looking for my German edition of the book. And then, as I was sitting in my office today, talking to a graduate student about his upcoming exams, I saw it, sitting boldly on the shelf behind, as unconcealed as Poe's purloined letter.

I brought the book home, naturally, and read the German version of the piece, "Dämpfer und Trommel," as soon as I could. It was an instructive, if disillusioning, experience. Here's the final sentence from E.F.N. Jephcott's English translation: "Should it once prove possible to do away with nerves entirely, then no herbicide will avail against the renascent springtime of song, and the national front extending all the way from barbaric Futurism to the ideology of the cinema will go entirely unopposed." While I wouldn't call this sentence fluid, it does a decent job of capturing the tone for which Adorno is rightly famous. Had I not found the German, I could have lived with the translation despite the misgivings it inspired in me.

But I did find it: "Gelingt es einmal, die Nerven ganz abzuschaffen, so ist gegen die Renaissance des Liederfrühlings kein Kraut gewachsen, und der Volksfront vom barbarischen Futurismus bis zur Ideologie des Films steht nichts mehr im Wege." First off, I should point out that Adorno's prose actually sounds less elevated than Jephcott's. Adorno uses verbs and idiomatic expressions here that would not be out of place in a conversation between German farmers in Lederhosen. One of the trippy things about reading a book like Minima Moralia is the way that it leaps back and forth from formulations that fit the model of plumpes Denken that Bertolt Brecht advocated to ones that are bound to strike even educated Germans as excessively foreign, filled with "-tion" words derived from Latin, French phrases for which there are perfectly good German equivalents, and American English expressions that float on the surface of Adorno's sentences like the Coke cans and potato-chip wrappers that can make Europe's most romantic waterways resemble a river in Cleveland. In the final sentence from "Dämpfer und Trommel," however, he is clearly inclining toward the former mode.

Ironically, it is on the rocks of the sentence's everydayness that the translation ends up slicing open its bow. According to the Wahrig Deutsches Wörterbuch, equivalent to our Merriam-Webster English dictionary, the word Kraut certainly does mean something very similar to "herb." But the idiom, "dagegen ist kein Kraut gewachsen," is a far cry from Jephcott's, "no herbicide will avail." According to the Wahrig entry, Adorno's entry should be paraphrased as, "dagegen gibt es kein Heilmittel." The closest English approximation would be, "Against it, there is no remedy," or, less awkwardly, "There's no remedy for it."

Fine, you say, isn't that also the sense of Jephcott's sentence? Broadly speaking, the answer is "Yes." This is one case, though, where speaking broadly may do more bad than good. By transforming the "remedy" -- literally, a Heilsmittel is a "means of healing" -- into an "herbicide," Jephcott has shifted the valence of Adorno's sentence. The original German laments the absence, not of a killer -- "-cide" -- but a cure. Extrapolating from the connotations of the German sentence leads me, not to a free association about extermination as the English translation did, but to an image of someone out gathering herbs to use as medicine. Unfortunately, no plant has the power to break the spell of the reborn "springtime of song." The knowledge of the potion maker meets its match.

Here's how I would translate Adorno's sentence, striving for an English that retains the aura of the colloquial."If they ever manage to do away with nerves once and for all, there will be no remedy for the reborn springtime of song and nothing more will stand in the way of the Popular Front extending from barbaric Futurism to the ideology of cinema." It still doesn't roll off the tongue like a butterscotch hard candy, but at least Adorno's "healing herbs" are not transformed into their death-delivering opposite.

One of the many pleasures in teaching the course on post-1945 French and German culture with Eric back in 2003 was the way we repeatedly staged our different perspectives on translation for the class. When Eric was leading the discussion, usually on French material, he almost always left the original back in his office. It was a statement, of sorts, particularly since he was often reading the original for his own purposes. Because I am what Kim terms, "a Bertsch," however, his lack of interest in achieving the closest translation possible drove me batty. Several times during the break in the middle of the seminar I asked Eric to, "fetch the French," so that we could figure out what the author was really saying.

As this blog entry should indicate, I advocated a more traditional approach to translation, in which fidelity to the original is the sine qua non of the practice. Even though I understood Eric's reasons for resisting the impulse to compare the translation to the original -- I've been too influenced by post-structuralism to play dumb -- I still felt that there was more to be gained from a pedagogical standpoint by underscoring the flaws in a particular translation than by regarding it as a self-contained work in its own right.

I've since learned to soften my stance on the question of translation. But when I run across an example like the final sentence in "Damper and Drum," I feel a twinge of vindication. Jephcott's translation put me on the wrong track, a line with a terminus in Auschwitz. While this Endlösung is always on Adorno's mind in Minima Moralia, the fact that he deliberately doesn't reference it in his final sentence strikes me as deeply significant. Sometimes word-choice matters immensely. By conjuring up the picture of a failed attempt to heal instead of a failed attempt to harm, Adorno plants his critique firmly on the side of life, a place of rootedness, not Ausrottung. As a detail, this one surely doesn't fall in the big-and-bold category. But it says something important about the care Adorno took in his writing, the caring he promoted, for all of his acid insights, in his attentiveness to form.

That's something I only realized by taking the time to write this. Had I not slowed down enough to register the reference to "herbicide" in the first place, had I failed to find a German edition of Minima Moralia, had I not bothered to look up every word in the sentence in the dictionary, I would have ended up reinforcing my pre-existing attitude towards Adorno's work instead of clearing the mental space in which a new one is starting to take shape. I don't mean to blow my own kazoo, here, but this is precisely the lesson I try to impart to my English 380: Literary Analysis students, class after class, semester after semester: the closer you look, the further your vision will take you.

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