Your Heart of Ice is Hot as Vice

[ About the book]

Translating Rewenig. A Work Journal of Errors and Comforts

Several years back, I browsed through the German translation of an excellent English novel that I had just read.[*] Somehow, the German version seemed less voluminous than the original, so I took a closer look. To my great surprise, I realized that the translator had simply left out a good hundred pages of text, among them one of my favourite scenes which, in my opinion, was central to understanding the main character's psychology. Since then, I've often felt that a lot of translators simply don't put in enough time or effort to do a text justice. Well, isn't it easy to criticize. Since I set out to translate Guy Rewenig's dry wit and keen eye for human folly into English, I have come to realize that translators, inevitably and invariably, are forced to put in way too much of themselves. How can a translation be merely an author's work rendered in another language, when every word, every turn of phrase, yes every punctuation mark present or left out, is laden with so many different connotations? Translating the written word is one thing. Conveying every innuendo that may be there between the lines is quite another. No two languages, even if they are as closely related as German and English, offer perfect matches of every shade and meaning. So, while the words are there at the translator's disposal, to be molded and shaped as strikes her fancy, even the most skilful sculptor cannot alter a language's colour and texture. Or, in plain English: as always in life, there are choices to be made and trade-offs to be negotiated. These choices are inevitably the translator's own and, therefore, what you're holding in your hand right now can never be a 100% pure "Rewenig" in English, but remains, for better or worse, somehow, in some way, also a very original "Sandra".
After this rather long introductory paragraph (which most readers will probably not read anyway), I would like to point out (for those few who have patiently borne with me) one fact that I consider really important: Translating Rewenig was great fun. His four books, which I have privately dubbed his Compilations of Sage and Silly Flights of Fancy, cover a wide range of topics, from national and international politics to social and cultural follies, and, last but not least, our all-too-human quest for love and acceptance. Some stories, like the author's struggle with electronic love-making ("On the charm of handwritten love letters", in Your Heart of Ice is Hot As Vice), will especially appeal to those of us who remember a time when a mouse was just a tiny mammal that goes squeak. Your Heart of Ice is Hot As Vice was first published in 2001, but some of its ironic comments sound depressingly up-to-date, probably none more so than the one named "Capitalists": "When the ship is sinking, the capitalists cry out: Don't worry, folks! This is merely our brand new underwater adventure ride!"
Those who spurn capitalist shipwreck as too bleak a subject may want to turn their attention to "Cosy world view" (in: A Real Canoeist Paddles With His Hands), a literary gem which discusses, at least figuratively speaking, a much brighter subject, namely the human bonfires which illuminated Europe centuries before the Enlightenment. Being an author myself and very fond of witty poems, I find such nursery rhymes gratifyingly challenging to translate.
A poem is, by its very nature, dense in meaning, but short pieces of prose can be deliciously multi-layered, too. Like chili peppers, Rewenig's prose is most pungent when it's really small and condensed. This holds equally true for matters of the heart and politics, as the following two examples, named "Sense and sensibility, United at Last" and "The New Centre", show:
"Your body has gone to my head."
"The left is trying hard to do the right thing.
The right can do that left-handed."
Unfortunately, not all wordplays are that easy to translate. Sometimes, there simply isn't an English word or expression which truly does the original bon mot justice. A prime example which gave me many a sleepless night (figuratively speaking) is "A Slogan for National Rail", which you can find in the German version of Your Heart of Ice is Hot As Vice, but not in the English translation. The German recommendation was short and to the point: "Geniesse das Leben in vollen Zügen" – meaning both Live life to the full and Enjoy your life in congested trains. Congested trains being a constant annoyance for many commuters, the German sentence instantly puts a wistful smile upon the long-suffering reader's face. But an English translation proved frustratingly elusive: Trains brimming with life ... Filled up with trains ... Training for a full life .... nah, where's the joke in that? So sometimes, the obvious answer to the question: "How do you translate that?" is simply: "You don't."
Almost as hard to get to terms with was another Rewenig speciality: satirizing a specific sort of speech impediment - one feels tempted to call it bureaucratese - that afflicts the high-flyers of this world who are generally full of words, of themselves and of depressingly little else worth mentioning. Reading such spoof rhetoric can be highly amusing, but hyper-complex convoluted sentences coupled with interminably long word constructs tend to drive this translator round the bend. First, I asked myself: what the hell does he mean? That question solved, the next one arose: how in the world shall I translate such a grammatico-lexical monster into English? Wrestling with a linguistic Cthulhu of the likes of the aptly named "German disease", I was more than once overcome by an irrepressive urge not only to cut the anaconda-like sentence short, but also to throttle the neck of the one who spawned such monsters. Luckily for both the author and his translator, I valiantly resisted the temptation.
Jokes aside, let me turn to the last volume, namely the The Album of Errors and Comforts. When I first opened this book, I was immediately reminded of Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary. Like Bierce's dictionary, the Album offers a wealth of thought-provoking definitions on political equivocation, social travesty and garden-variety human hypocrisy. The German original was first published in 2002. That's fourteen long years and we do live in fast-paced times. And yet sadly, most texts are more relevant and to the point than ever before. The definitions of "Murder", "Refugee" and "Revenge" are a few cases in point. Here we read, for instance: "Murder - weapon-based restoration of general peacefulness. Profile of the murderer: upstanding citizen, highly concerned about justice."
That's just as close to home as this two-liner from With a Big Salute, the Stag Jumps into His Suit. It is called: "Beyond 9/11" and reads thus: "You just see the ones in darkness / Those in brightness board up tight."
From the oxymoron of protecting liberty, equality and fraternity with restrictions and boarded-up borders, I turn back to the very last page of Rewenig's Album. To my delight, I noticed that the book closes with a definition for Zyniker (cynic). The author assured me that this was completely unintentional and has no bearing whatsoever on the nature of his work. This may be so, but in any case, equally by chance, the last entry in the English version is Writer. A more general, yet no less important word to end a book with. But then I realized that, if you are being really picky, the last word of the book is actually fundamentalists. Couldn't let that happen. So we decided to put this epilogue after it, to finish on a brighter note.
That said, I would like to extend a big thank you to my friend Terry Adams for proofreading the book and, finally, I hope that you, as a reader, enjoyed each of the four volumes as much as I enjoyed translating them.
[*] For those nosy readers who like to pry into the private lives of authors: the novel I'm referring to is The Secret History, by Donna Tartt. I highly recommend it.



From A Real Canoeist Paddles With His Hands
Too Much Happiness
We were a happy couple.
Now we are happily separated.
Happily, the hapless times lie in between.
The World is Growing Too Fast
At the age of three, I was already a big boy.
At twelve, I was a bit smaller.
At twenty, I had virtually shrunk.
At thirty, I was a midget.
At forty, pocket-sized.
Now I'm over fifty and I fit into a matchbox, lately I've been fearing that a three-year-old might come and pocket me.

From Your Heart of Ice Is Hot As Vice
On the Charm of Handwritten Love Letters
Since your love letters have become love e-mails, I don't just have a problem with terminology. My GP told me that, sadly, the electrifying effect of your love mails is just plain PC smog. When I sniff as usual on your love messages, the sensuous crackling that I hear is just an electrostatic phenomenon. How come your perfume smells all of a sudden of burned circuits?
When the ship is sinking, the capitalists cry out: Don't worry, folks! This is merely our brand new underwater adventure ride!

From With a Big Salute the Stag Jumps Into His Suit
A World Divided
There are those who are unhappy.
There are those who are happy.
I side with those who are unhappy.
That makes me happy.
An Idea to End All Violence
Shoot every shooter.
Kill every killer.
Make war against every warmonger.
When every shooter is shot, every killer killed and war has been successfully fought against every warmonger, then at last we are at peace, we shooters, killers and warmongers for peace.
Whoever accuses us unpeacefully of shooting, killing and warmongering, will be peacefully shot, killed and drowned in warfare.

From Album of Errors and Comforts
Brown-noser - counterproductive subordinate. In the hierarchy, he holds the post of suppository, but his superiors don't give a shit.
Mountain of debts - only elevation in the depression of a consumer's life. Gives consumers who are constantly in the red the opportunity to enjoy alpine pleasures. Clambering up the sheer wall of the mountain of debts, the hyperdebtor gets the feeling that he's somehow striving for something higher and really moving up in the world. Expert debt mountain climbers like to linger on the summit of their negative balance.
Terror - energetic telling off of people who don't behave the way they should and who don't think what they ought to think. Constitutive part of all educational concepts. Terror as a means of education begins with the first spank that a misbehaving child gets.