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Thomas Mann translator John Woods in Mission Hills

Professor Horrdendo discovers on page 23 that I've called an orange a tangerine

John E. Woods: "I set up shop here in San Diego, found this lovely place where I live, and started translating Arno Schmidt." - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
John E. Woods: "I set up shop here in San Diego, found this lovely place where I live, and started translating Arno Schmidt."

I have asked John E. Woods what he makes of his life these days “Mona’s Law doesn’t hold.” and that is his answer. “Mona’s Law doesn’t hold.” I am puzzled. Woods explains that novelist Armistead Maupin writes in his Tales of the City series, “You can have a great job, a great lover, and a great place to live, but never all three at the same time.” Woods adds, “I defy Mona’s Law every day. I love what I do. I think there are few people on this planet who can say that.”

Since 1985 Woods has lived in Mission Hills in a mission-revival house that overlooks a lush canyon.

What John E. Woods does is translate. In the world of men and women who translate grand literary writers into English, Woods is an important name. The Manchester Guardian Weekly writes, “We have been spoiled by translators recently, what with William Weaver and John Woods and Gregory Rabassa.” Weaver is known for his translations of Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose) and Italo Calvino (If on a Winter's Night a Traveler). Rabassa is the translator of Nobelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude). Woods, who translates from German to English, is perhaps best known for his translations of Thomas Mann (The Magic Mountain), Arno Schmidt, Christoph Ransmayr, and the best-selling Perfume by Patrick Süskind.

Woods and Zepp. "Thomas Mann sometimes built sentences a page long. My task as a translator is to take each of those sentences apart piece by piece."

Since 1985 Woods has lived in Mission Hills in a mission-revival house that overlooks a lush canyon filled with opossums, skunks, and even an occasional fox or coyote. He works at a desk near a set of French doors that open out onto a deck. The deck holds his bonsai collection and orchids. His now one-year-old standard wirehaired dachshund Zepp guards the deck, demanding in repayment only a morning walk and an occasional game of fetch.

Mr. Woods explains about the name “Zepp.” “In Bavaria, which is very Catholic, up in the mountains all the girls are named Maria, and all the boys are named Joseph. And in Bavaria the short form of Joseph isn’t Joe. Instead, they take the second half of the name, ‘seph,’ or ‘sepp.’ But all over Germany, if you call somebody a stupid Zepp, it’s like our ‘Clem’ — ‘the country bumpkin, the hillbilly.’ ”

A Toshiba laptop sits in its docking port on Mr. Woods’s three- by five-foot mahogany desk. “I go back as a translator before the days of the computer. I can’t imagine making a living translating without the computer now, because it increases efficiency 400 percent or 500 percent.” When he still worked only on the typewriter, says Mr. Woods, “you did the rough draft and you corrected that and retyped, find then, again, you corrected and you retyped. Retyping ended up taking up most of your time. Now, of course, that’s all gone. I let the computer do all that.”

Two windows are open on Mr. Woods’s Windows 95 computer screen, modified to pleasant, eye-saving wheat tones. “The way I control the translation is first to work on the rough in one window, and then I open up the other window and type in the German original. That way I have all the search functions available in both texts.

“When I work with Thomas Mann, who loves to use a leitmotif technique, where phrases and words or whole clauses and sentences are repeated or varied, once I have the German text in the computer, I can immediately locate all the occurrences. You no longer say, ‘I remember that somewhere in chapter seven. Or was it eight?’ Instead, you have it there at once on-screen. It’s always very useful to have the entire German at your fingertips.”

Woods does his own typing of the German texts. “I could,” he says, “scan it in. I have a scanner and I tried that. It ended up costing me about as much time. I find I actually prefer typing in the German immediately after I’ve translated. It gives me a marvelous quick control mechanism. As I type each of the German words, I remember exactly what I’ve just done with them in translation. It’s the perfect way to double-check for accuracy.”

The ergonomic keyboard sits directly in front of Woods. Propped up above the keyboard is the German text from which he’s translating.

On Woods’s desk, at his right hand, sits the one-volume German-English dictionary that he swears by. “It’s one that’s out of print, it’s called the Wildhagen-Héraucourt. It’s one compact volume and it’s very good. It’s a little British-cy, but I know it inside out and it works for me. This is copy number two; my first one fell apart.”

At Woods’s left is his one-volume American Heritage dictionary and within easy reach, a three-volume Webster's. “And then,” says Woods, “immediately to my right is my reference library, which is really my soul. It’s two Encyclopedia Britannicas, one is the 11th edition from 1910. Mine is the little British edition, half-sized and bound in blue.” Woods also has a good thesaurus, “Although with an on-screen version,” he says, “I need it less nowadays. And then I’ve got most of the Oxford companions to whatever — English Lit, German Lit, classical antiquity, Christianity — and a Columbia Encyclopedia, plus a contemporary Encyclopedia Britannica, and my compact OED [the Oxford English Dictionary].”

There’s more. Woods regularly consults a 32-volume paperback version of the Grimm Dictionary, the German dictionary that is comparable to English speakers’ OED. He has Bibles and concordances, books of English and German quotations, an encyclopedia of mammals, Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang. He has references and guides to mushrooms, stars, plants, as well as French, Latin, Spanish, Italian, Russian, and various German dictionaries. And then there are books of nursery rhymes, a film encyclopedia, a good Shakespeare edition, a bilingual picture dictionary, books on German surnames and dialects, a rhyming dictionary. Close to 200 essential volumes, all within immediate grasp.

They come in handy. Only recently Woods had to trace down a reference to scalping in 2 Maccabees. Who got scalped by whom? Answer at least two of the seven sons of a widow (chapter 7), by Antiochus IV. And who was he? A Seleucid king of the Second Century B.C. Seleucid, what’s that? And on, and on.

I ask Mr. Woods if he came to feel that he almost inhabited, lived in, a text as he translated it.

“Less inhabit the text than inhabit universes” is his answer. “I get up in the morning, and it’s almost like opening a door and walking into this other world, one that I know very well by now. Whether that’s Arno Schmidt, or to a lesser extent Thomas Mann, or Christoph Ransmayr. Their worlds become my world. Or at least they are worlds that I can enter and delve all the little nooks and crannies. I know their exotic flora and fauna, the phases of their moons. Every detail is real to me. Then, at the end of the day I can close the door on all that. It’s a wonderful way to spend each professional day.”

When he takes up a new author for translation, does Mr. Woods begin by learning all that he can about that author?

“Usually not. Nor do I wade through all the secondary literature if it’s already a known author. I think that brings prejudices to what the translating task is about. I read the book. I try to read it the way any intelligent reader should read a book, and then I sit down and I start from page one to translate.

“I think, at least originally, and to a certain extent it is still the case, that what I am trying to do is to re-create for the American reader, for the English-speaking reader, something of the same experience that the educated German reader has when he or she picks up a book and reads it. I want that to happen for the American reader.

“Over time, however. I’ve come to believe that that’s probably an impossibility. That translation itself is an impossibility. Because what happens, of course, is that ultimately I end up creating a new text for new readers in a new context. The original and its translation are not the same. I cannot, to use a good old word out of my theology days [Mr. Woods, for several years, was a Lutheran pastor], I cannot repristinate the original experience.

“First of all, Americans are not Germans; sometimes I feel as if the two cultures are from different galaxies. Second of all, the languages are not congruent. When a German thinks a sentence in one way, that is not the way an American would ever think that sentence or put that thought together. So that no matter what I do and how well I do it, a new text is being shaped. Which gets us back to your question of whether I wade through all the secondary reading. No, because that new text is going to happen in any case, and what I’m trying to do is give the reader a reading experience, not a scholarly one.

“Being bilingual is only a first step toward being a good literary translator. Being a good literary translator is not anything like being an interpreter at the United Nations. I would no more know how to do that than I would know how to compete in a decathlon. It’s a whole different thing. I work with the written text. I sit and look at words and how they fit together, I wrestle with syntax, I listen to the melody and the rhythm of sentences, I try to understand what makes great prose. And I don’t touch poetry. I think only poets can translate poets. My skill, if I have one, is in creating good prose.

“One of the major differences between German and English is the syntax. Take a master of German syntax like Thomas Mann, who sometimes built sentences a page long. My task as a translator is to take each of those sentences apart piece by piece, dynamite the thing if necessary, and then reassemble it all in a vastly different order.

“One of the things that often happens in a great expansive German sentence is that it builds to its center and then dies away from it. A long sentence in English, in the classic tradition of a Gibbon period, tends to be additive and cumulative. It either starts strong and then dies away slowly or it starts and builds to that final moment of meaning. The two languages go about the task of thinking in long complex sentences so differently.

“So, once again, you’re creating a new text, and you’re looking at how that works and how to make what happened in the German happen in the English. You can’t reconstruct that, it’s not going to happen the same way. What you want to do is to make a comparable aesthetic experience out of a great sentence.

“For me, the proof of the pudding is always reading aloud. I read aloud everything I do at least a half-dozen times. One thing I discovered early on is that in reading a sentence aloud, if I stumble, there’s something wrong with the sentence.

“Reading aloud is one of my great pleasures. I happen to have a partner who loves to be read to. One of his pleasures in life is that he usually gets the daily rushes. When he comes home from work, we have our coffee and I read to him the day’s work, and that’s a way for me to proof my work, and also for us to share what I do.”

It’s not important, I ask, for a translator to know a great deal of autobiographical material about the author he’s translating?

“I won’t say it’s not important. I would say that certainly as your knowledge expands of what life experiences helped shape an author’s texts, a certain richness is added. That richness really only comes after a long, intense relationship with a particular author and his work. But if you superimpose a quirky, scholarly thing on him, however much a particular theory may appeal to you, you are probably going to wrench the text in certain directions that won’t be healthy.

“The other thing, of course — and this is a whole different matter — is ‘Had we but world enough, and time,’ as Andrew Marvell put it. Of course I would love the luxury of sitting down and reading all of Thomas Mann and all the scholarship about him, and then begin translating. Unfortunately, I’m under contract to people who want the product yesterday and aren’t paying me for five years of scholarship. They’re paying me for a translation of a text completed within a certain time frame as stipulated by the contract. Which means that translation is piecework. At the same time it is, of course, a very serious literary effort. But the utopia of endless time and endless thought is never there.”

Let’s make believe, I say, that you’re given a new text to do. What would be the first thing you would do?

“Read the book. I sit down and read it. Try to read it as an intelligent reader. I might make notes. Certainly make mental notes of how this particular language works, what characterizes this language. I’m looking always at that, at my craft. As for the larger thoughts and ideas, if I’m reasonably good at translating, those will surely get across. I’m not going to change the writer’s general outlook on the world. That’s going to come across no matter what I do. I’m looking more at surface texture, at prose style, at literary allusions. One of the things that is very difficult for me is to read any text in German, even a magazine article, without immediately asking myself, ‘How would I translate that?’

“I’m always aware of the little problems of how to do the thing I do, how to work with a word, a phrase, give it its appropriate idiom. The devil is in the details. But, generally, I read the book and form an idea of how I want to go about this. Then, I sit down at my computer and begin. I’m a very linear kind of guy. I start on page 1, and I translate doggedly onward to page 873, or whatever.

“One of the basic tools I learned as part of my training as a Lutheran pastor was ‘exegesis,’ the critical analysis of a biblical text. You sit there with the Greek or Hebrew text in front of you and take it apart piece by piece. Your questions are: How does the grammar work, what sociological context does this noun come from, was it used in the marketplace, is it from the world of farmers or warriors, and what did this verb originally mean before Paul or Luke adapted it for use in the early church? All those kinds of questions become very important when you’re preaching a sermon on a text. And they’re equally important when you’re translating a novel.

“And even after you’ve done all that, you may still not understand. Whenever I’m having trouble with a translation, with a phrase, with a metaphor, I sit there and try to visualize what it was the author saw, I try to conjure up the field of images out of which these words came. And sometimes, on my best days, I can literally see it. And suddenly I find the translation I need.”

About how many pages can you do in a day?

“Instead of pages, let’s talk words. It depends so much on the text. There are texts and there are texts. When I’m working on one of Arno Schmidt’s late novels, if I have 1000 words of rough draft after eight hours of work, I feel as if I’ve done my share for the day. There are lighter texts, of course, where I can do 3000 words without overtaxing myself. It’s entirely relative. Somewhere between, let’s say, 1000 to 3000 words a day, and most of the time something between 1500 and 2000.”

I ask if Mr. Woods does a first draft.

“I will print out what I have done that day, which is essentially a rough draft, corrected and recorrected on-screen. Then that evening, as I said, I sit over a cup of coffee with my partner and read him the daily rushes. As I do, I make a note of this or that change. At the end of the week, usually on Saturday morning, by the early morning sun on the back deck, I go over the week’s work, read it aloud, check the original for things that sound wrong, and do what I think of as the real editing. Then, about once a month, depending on how the text itself divides up, whether there are big chunks that belong together. I’ll take a day or two to do another read-through and revision. Finally, before I send it off to the publisher, I do one final grand pass. So that comes to something like four revisions.”

How long did it take Mr. Woods to translate Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain?

“Not long enough. I wish I could have had more time for it. I did The Magic Mountain in nine months. I pushed that one hard. That was a 60-hour-a-week job. I mean, I really laid in and dug in and did it.” (Mr. Woods in 1996 was awarded the first Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize for Translation for his translation of The Magic Mountain and Schmidt’s Nobodaddy's Children.)

Do you get paid well?

“I get paid quite well for what I do, and I’m incredibly lucky because I’ve made the right connections and somehow done the right things, been in the right places at the right time, whatever that’s all about. Generally speaking, translators are not paid well.”

May I ask what you made for The Magic Mountain?

“No, you can’t. I’m not a starving artist. If I were a starving artist I would find myself another profession.”

Is there much market for translators?

“Most people cannot make a living off this. I don’t think they ever have. Translation has always been poorly paid on the whole. Then there’s the state of publishing nowadays. The major houses, having been bought up by conglomerates, are looking more and more to their bottom lines and are doing fewer and fewer literary translations. The smaller houses and the university presses are not particularly picking up the slack. There isn’t a lot of money there to pay for translation, particularly now that Congress has savaged the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“Literary translating is about literature, it’s about being very, very skilled in your native language. Not only do you need to know the second language, and I mean know it well, but you have to love and work with and understand your own language. You have to know how to make it sing and dance. Being bilingual certainly is a leg up, but that doesn’t create a literary text “There are a lot of people out there who are bilingual. They think, ‘Well, I ought to be able to translate something.’ And the publishing houses know that there’s this vast pool of workers out there, and so they farm the stuff out in piecework. The results are haphazard. Some great and wonderful translations are produced, and some that are not so great and wonderful.”

Is there a community of translators?

“There are workshops and conferences, although less and less these days, because the money that funds them seems to be drying up. As I said, there aren’t many people who make a living off this. It’s a mixed bag. There are college professors who make this a hobby or see it as a way of meeting their publishing requirements or who simply have fun doing the work. There are people who do it to earn a little extra income, or as a hobby. And there are a few of us who struggle to make a living at it and a couple who actually manage to do so. Of the literary translators from the German, I suppose I know 25 or so, some of whom are dear friends, some of whom I’ve met at conferences and know to put a name with a face.”

I ask how the business of translation works.

“Well, first, let’s talk about translated literature in America. I delivered an after-dinner speech on the topic at an academic conference on postwar German literature a year or so ago. I was able to get hold of the records of PEN New York, which every year awards its PEN Translation Prize. All the publishing houses, from major conglomerates to mom-and-pop operations and university presses, submit works that have been translated from all the literatures of the world. We’re not talking here about cookbooks or tour guides or auto mechanics, but about what a group of people, after a great deal of wrangling, decide is probably ‘literature.’ I presume that most of the serious prose and poetry that gets published in a given year is on pen’s list. In any given year, at least over the past five years, that list of published translations, from all the languages of the world, has not exceeded more than 200 to 250 titles. So every year we Americans are getting no more than about 200 peeks a year over the literary fence into the world outside.

“Then, if you start looking at the individual languages, about 60 percent of the books are translated from five languages, and in this order French, Spanish, German, Russian, Italian. So that’s approximately 120 titles. All the rest of the world’s languages get the other 80. That also means that there are 20 to 25 titles a year translated from the German. There are at least 50 people who would love to have a contract for any one of those books. Which means, then, that almost no one can make a living at this.

“I feel myself extremely fortunate that, with some hard work and a great deal of amazingly good hick. I’m able to make a living. One major piece of good luck is a wonderful institution called the Arno Schmidt Foundation, which has been my bread and butter over the past ten years. Another has been a fine, long-term working relationship with my editor, Carol Janeway, at Alfred A. Knopf.” John Woods was born and raised in the Midwest. Woods’s father, a veterinarian, “was born in 1892,” says Mr. Woods, “so that he was 50 when I was born. I’ve always thought that one of the advantages I have with the English language is that both my parents spoke good Midwestern English, the way it was cultivated in little country schools almost a century ago now.” Woods’s mother and father, he adds, “both came from a small town in southern Indiana. She was the daughter of the town pharmacist. He had tuberculosis, and so in hopes of a cure the family homesteaded briefly near Clovis, New Mexico, but he died in 1912. They came back, and for many years she lived in a small town in southern Indiana.”

Woods spent his early years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Cincinnati and Lima, Ohio. He graduated from high school in lima in 1960. He went to a small liberal arts college, Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. The university was named for Wittenberg, Germany, the city where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the town church in 1517.

Asked how he happened to choose Wittenberg, Mr. Woods says, “Quite simple. I’d applied to several places and this was the best deal.” Mr. Woods’s parents weren’t particularly religious, and he had not had a traditional religious upbringing. But at Wittenberg, he says, “the first truly intellectual and interesting people I’d ever met, people who thought deeply and who could use words to express their thoughts, were Christians, existentialist Christians. These people were formative in my life, because they gave me a world-view. I’ve since abandoned that world-view, but it certainly was a way of getting at some of the larger issues of human history and culture.”

After graduation from Wittenberg, Mr. Woods went on to graduate school at Cornell University, with a major in English literature. “I didn’t like that,” he says, “and by some of the more whimsical twists of fate, I ended up at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. And even served as a Lutheran pastor for two years.” The seminary was associated with the LCA, the Lutheran Church in America, the most liberal of the Lutheran denominations at the time. Mr. Woods explains, “This was the old German, Fast Coast church. They take their theology very seriously. Philosophy and scholarship mean something, and that’s what interested me ultimately, the intellectual aspect. And I was in seminary in the late ’60s, a time when the main-stream churches were very involved in social issues. We seminarians were out demonstrating and working in the ‘inner city.’ Anyway, that’s my Lutheran connection, and that’s what got me to Germany.

“I went off to Germany to study theology and ended up staying for about eight years— that’s where the whole German connection got started. When I arrived in Germany in 1971, I really had little grasp of the language. I had taken a year in college.

“I went to Germany to study with Jilrgen Moltmann and Ernst Bloch. Bloch was a Communist philosopher, a heretic who had been thrown out of East Germany for redefining Marxism, seeing it as built on an ontology of hope. Moltmann was big on hope too, with an emphasis on eschatology, the study of last things.’ It was the theological fad of the day. It sounded good to me. I planned to do my doctoral thesis on the eschatological themes in Luther’s commentary on the Book of Genesis, I’ve long since left all that behind me, but it was important to me at the time. And besides, I was a real leftist in my politics — still am — and was happy to shake the dust of Nixon’s America from my shoes. The Old World was a new world for me, and I loved it”

I stop Mr. Woods and ask how old he was when he went to Germany to study. He thinks for a moment and says, “I was just short of 30, a tall, balding, gangly fellow. My German was more or less nonexistent, so I first spent two months in an immersion course at the Goethe Institute in Passau, a small city on the Danube near the Austrian border — a reactionary backwater, by the way, as I learned after I got there. It’s where the movie The Nasty Girl is set. The Goethe Institute provides language instruction in Germany and functions outside of Germany as the nation’s cultural representative, sort of like the United States Information Agency does for us.

“I ended up,” he says, “marrying my German teacher. I enrolled at Tubingen University to study theology and because my wife was connected with the Goethe Institute, the closest Goethe Institute that we could find was in a quaint little town called Schwabisch Hall, which was a three-hour commute by train from Tubingen.” For three years, Woods commuted back and forth three to four days a week between Tubingen and Schwabisch Hall. “So,” he says, “I got the German experience. I was as close to being amalgamated into that culture as you get, I think. One of the things about all European cultures — not just German culture—is that you are always a foreigner. These are homogeneous societies. Unlike America, where you plant your two feet on the continent and say, ‘I’m an American,’ and everybody says, ‘Okay, you’re an American.’ In Europe, whether it's France or Denmark or Germany, you can plant your two feet there and say, ‘I’m a Frenchman, a Dane, a German,’ but you will always be ‘the American.’ You will never be ‘a German.’ You can’t say, ‘I’m a German.’ You just aren’t. You are always where you came from.” I ask Mr. Woods when he began to think in German. “Who ever really knows that,” he says. “After about six months in Germany, I started to work more or less fluently in the language, and I suppose shortly thereafter, I started dreaming in German and thinking in German. And even now when I go over, within hours I’m talking to myself in German. English just gets shoved to the sidelines, until I get back here, and then English takes over again right away.

“I’m a type A personality, anyway — goal-driven, obsessive-compulsive. My friends on this side of the Atlantic think of me as a mini-Nazi. When I get over there, I find the Germans so well potty-trained and uptight that the Southern California laid-back part of me starts blossoming, simply in defiance of so much German rigor, which nevertheless is part of me no matter what I do.”

Did Mr. Woods come home during those eight years?

“Occasionally. My mother was still alive, so my wife and I would visit her. And then, there was one year in ’76, where my wife was on an exchange program with the University of Massachusetts. We were in Amherst, Massachusetts, for an academic year in ’76.”

Mr. Woods began translating when he and his then-wife were in Amherst, in 1976. “For our winter reading we had brought along Arno Schmidt’s Abend mit Goldrand, Evening Edged in Gold."

“Schmidt,” says Woods, “for lack of a better handle, is the German James Joyce. I mean, fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Mr. Woods began trying to translate the book. “I jumped in with both feet. I had been trying to write and was not being very successful, either in terms of finding an agent who liked what I wrote, or for that matter in terms of my liking what I was writing. I hit writer’s block and looked at a wall and said, ‘I’ve got to do something.’ “Schmidt’s late works,” says Mr. Woods, are “difficult to describe if you’ve never seen them. They are about 18 inches long and about 14 inches wide. These are typescripts, photo-offset typescripts of his work. They are multicolumned, there are inserted drawings and illustrations and quotes. It’s metafiction.”

I ask Woods for a minibiography of Arno Schmidt. “He was born,” says Mr. Woods, “in 1914 and died in 1979. He is a late-born modernist. He wrote nothing of consequence, and published nothing, until after the war. He was an auto-didact and did not himself discover Joyce until well into his career, in the late ’50s, by which time he’d been writing for 16 years. But in feet, in some ways, the way Bach was the culmination of polyphony after the age of polyphony was over, I think of Schmidt as the culmination of the modernist movement.

“He created a whole new world of postwar German fiction. Arno Schmidt’s readers have known all along that he belongs in the canon with Brecht and Mann and Kafka. I’m convinced that when the 20th Century has ended and we’re well into the 21st, people will look back at the century just past and say, ‘Mann, Brecht, Kafka, Schmidt — they define German literature.’ He is that important.

“But Schmidt is difficult reading even for Germans. The early works, to be sure, less so. And some of them, like Stony Heart and Lake Scenery with Pocahontas, are great fun, with marvelous quirky love stories that build on the earlier German Romantic tradition. And he was a great humorist, the only German writer I know where I suddenly just start guffawing. But it’s often difficult reading too. And everyone said it was untranslatable. Then, just to have something to do to justify my existence as a writer, I sat down and started to translate Evening Edged in Gold. And found, much to my surprise, that I could do this.”

In 1978 Mr. Woods took the beginnings of his translation of Schmidt’s Evening Edged in Gold to the legendary Helen Wolff. Editor and publisher Helen Wolff died in 1994 at the age of 88. Mrs. Wolff and her husband Kurt (Franz Kafka’s first publisher) fled occupied France and came to the United States in 1941. In 1942 the Wolffs founded Pantheon Books. Their first success at Pantheon was a new edition of the Grimm fairy tales. They went on to publish such writers as Boris Pasternak, Gunter Grass, Umberto Eco, Georges Simenon, Max Frisch, Stanislaw Lem, and Amos Oz. In 1961, after Random House acquired Pantheon, the Wolffs, at William Jovanovich’s invitation, joined Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. There, they continued to edit and publish under the imprint “A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book.” Kurt Wolff was killed in 1963 in a traffic accident in West Germany; Mrs. Wolff continued as the imprint’s publisher until 1986, when she retired.

Mrs. Wolff, in a 1980 New York Times article, spoke about her meeting with Mr. Woods. “About two years ago, John E. Woods, a young American who had been at Cornell University, visited me in Frankfurt and said that he was totally devoted to Schmidt’s work and was translating his latest novel. I also met Ernst Krawehl, who had been Schmidt’s editor for 25 years at Fischer and was also convinced that Schmidt had turned out a masterpiece. But without the translation by Woods, I would never have dreamed of publishing it."

Mr. Woods met Mrs. Wolff, he says, “at her famous hotel room at the Hessischer Hof hotel in Frankfurt, where she always stayed during the Book Fair, never appearing on the floor of the Book Fair, but limiting her contacts to the people she invited to her room. The who’s who of European literature would knock on her door. From Calvino to Grass — they all made the pilgrimage to Helen Wolff's door, and I had the privilege of being able to knock on that door too, as an invited guest.

“She was a small woman, very soft-spoken. She was aging by then and had, I don’t know the reason, a decided and obvious limp. Her body did not move easily. But her eyes moved fast and were very penetrating. Helen Wolff could look at you and read your literary soul. She was very quick in decision making, knew what she wanted, knew what she expected of people. Her standards were incredibly high, but she was a delightfully warm person at the same time. She had a great laugh — very soft, very tinkly. She was one of those very special people who grace the planet from time to time.”

I ask what Mrs. Wolff's response was to his Arno Schmidt translation.

“She told me that Günter Grass had come to her and said it couldn’t be done. At that point she had read, I think, about 20 to 25 pages that I’d finished. I had done more by then, but that was all she had seen at that point. And she said, 'But it can be done. I see it here. Yes, let’s do it.’ And away it went.

"At the time there was a West German quasi-governmental agency called Inter Nationes that provided funds for me to continue the translation. Within about six months to a year we had a contract and it was a done deal.”

“And you were officially a translator?”

“And I was officially a translator.”

In 1979 Mr. Woods and his wife came to the United States. “The Goethe Institute, as the cultural arm of German diplomacy, is a worldwide thing. There’s a Goethe Institute in Los Angeles, one in Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Houston. My wife was transferred to New York, which brought us to the States for three years in the early ’80s. Then, she was transferred to Boston, and I joined her there for a year.

“Schmidt’s last four novels are typescripts that were photo-offsets, no typesetter ever set them in print. What I did was create a clone. I used a typewriter like his, an old Adler office machine that his editor Ernst Krawehl supplied me. I used exactly the same paper of the same dimensions, it’s German industrial norm four, which is a page-and-a-half size of their standard typing paper. I even used the same brand of typewriter ribbon.

“One of the things about these late Schmidt texts is that wherever he made a typo, he thought of it as a kind of Freudian slip. So all of that finds its way onto the page too. I had to re-create the visual effect of strikeovers and of his crossing out of typing errors. I rebuilt visual texts. But in English. I said I was a type A personality. And, I had to deal with every conceivable kind of wordplay, double-entendre, and literary allusion.

Evening Edged in Gold was about a two-and-a-half-year project. Luckily, at that time my wife was making the living, and I could afford to do it. So thanks to her and Inter Nationes, who backed up the project with a grant, it got done. Sad to say, shortly thereafter the marriage broke up.”

In 1981 Woods’s translation of Schmidt’s Evening Edged in Gold won the PEN Translation Prize and the American Book Award (now the National Book Award). It shared the American Book Award with Francis Steegmuller’s translation of Flaubert’s letters. “It was a grand ceremony,” says Mr. Woods. “It was held in Carnegie Hall with John Kenneth Galbraith and William F. Buckley giving out the awards and exchanging witty repartee. The winners were called up on that legendary stage to receive their awards. Along with some cash and a moment of glory, I got a beautiful small Louise Nevelson sculpture.”

A little over a year later, Mr. Woods came to San Diego. “Thanks to Helen Wolff, I found a job as an editor with Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, which happened to be moving to the West Coast, to San Diego, in 1982. I had an office on the 11th floor of that lovely old wedding-cake building. I was with HBJ here for two and a half years, then spent a year with them in Austin, Texas, on another project, and came back to San Diego in 1986. I edited 20 to 25 books with HBJ, including Mark Helprin’s Winter's Tale. But anyone who knows the editorial merry-go-round can understand why I eventually decided I didn’t really want to do that anymore. So I struck out on my own as a translator.” Before Woods left HBJ in Austin, he had the good fortune to be offered a contract to translate Patrick Süskind’s Perfume. It was a bestseller, and he decided to try the freelancer’s life. He first worked out a contract with the Arno Schmidt Foundation. “That way,” he says, “I knew that I had an income coming in and didn’t have to hustle everything I did. And I set up shop here in San Diego, found this lovely place where I live, and started translating Arno Schmidt, as well as pieces of this and that I was able to pick up along the way. And two years later I met my lover. Mona’s Law defied.” I ask about the Arno Schmidt Foundation.

“The foundation is located in a little town called Bargfeld Uber Celle. It’s in the Luneburg Heath, about two hours south of Hamburg, in a very remote and, for Europe, sparsely populated area — a flat landscape with birch trees and junipers, a few ponds and streams, it’s the landscape Schmidt loved, and where he spent the last 20 years of his life in a very modest cottage. So that’s where the archives are, and that’s where the foundation is located. Every year I get to go over and spend a couple of weeks working in the archives and revising the translations with the help of Hans Wollschlager, who is famous for his translation of Joyce’s Ulysses into German.”

In 1990, Woods’s editor at Alfred A. Knopf suggested he begin retranslating some of the major novels of Thomas Mann, the giant of German literature in the first half of the century. Awarded the Nobel Prize for The Magic Mountain in 1929, Mann fled Nazi Germany in 1933. During the war years he lived in Santa Monica, and for many Americans his voice became the voice of another, a better, Germany. He died in Switzerland in 1955.

In the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, Helen Lowe-Porter had already translated much of Mann’s work into English. “God bless her soul," says Mr. Woods. “She was probably not up to the task, less because her German was sometimes a bit sketchy and she managed some real howlers on occasion. But, let me assure you, that can happen to anybody. It has happened to me. No, her biggest problem was that she had a tin ear for her native language.

“One of the marvelous things about Thomas Mann is that although it is very rich, dense, and highly thought-out prose, it is still exquisitely elegant. It has a lightness and a wit in the midst of those great long periodic sentences that Germans take such delight in. Mann has the reputation in English for writing almost impenetrable prose, but that impenetrability comes chiefly from dear old Helen Lowe-Porter, who rendered it impenetrable. I think one of the reasons Knopf wanted new translations was to undo some of her knots and make Mann more available to contemporary readers. I don’t mean made simpler. As a matter of fact, Porter often broke up his sentences into smaller units. I tried to keep them as intact as possible. My goal was to make a more lucid prose. Let’s put it that way.”

I ask what other Mann there is that remains to be retranslated. “Well,” Mr. Woods says, “a lot. Some of the short stories have been retranslated, including Death in Venice, but a good many haven’t. And, then, of the major novels, there’s Lotte in Weimar—The Beloved Returns is the Lowe-Porter title. It deals with Goethe in his late years. I wouldn’t touch it, because there you really have to be a Goethe scholar, and I would simply be out of my depth. And there’s Joseph and His Brethren, a marvelous tetralogy that turns the Bible stories we learned in Sunday school into a profound human comedy. It’s probably the one major work left after the three I’ve retranslated thus far. And there are a half-dozen other smaller novels and novellas. And volumes of literary and political essays. In the mid- to late ’40s, Mann was known in this country both as a novelist and as the voice of democratic Germany. He went on lecture tours in this country and would fill 5000-, 10,000-seat stadiums. Americans waited in line to hear Thomas Mann speak—all that is so long ago now, good as forgotten.

“Those little pieces of this and that along the way have also now multiplied in a lot of directions; one is retranslation of three major Thomas Mann novels, Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain are behind me, and actually so is Doctor Faustus, which is now scheduled for publication in January 1998.”

Woods has translated many other, more contemporary works from German. “I did probably the one title that people who are not into serious literature in quotation marks may know, a book called Perfume, by Patrick Süskind. It was on the bestseller list in ’86 and was awarded the PEN Translation Prize. I also recently did a third novel by an Austrian writer named Christoph Ransmayr. The first Ransmayr title I translated was The Last World, which is about the Roman poet Ovid’s exile, but retold in a style that I suppose is most easily described as magical realism. That one got me the Schlegd-Tieck Prize that the Brits award each year for translation. The second Ransmayr novel I translated is called Terrors of Ice and Darkness, a rousing adventure story that deals with the Austrian polar expedition of 1874.”

Mr. Woods’s translation of the third Ransmayr novel, The Dog King, was published earlier this year. “The book is a retelling of postwar European history but assumes that when the war came to an end the Allies carried out some of the proposals that were known as the Morgenthau Plan, by which Germany was to be returned to an agrarian, pre-industrial state, Ransmayr’s premise is that such a plan was actually carried out, and he sees this strange world through the eyes of three people in a small Austrian town. It’s a marvelous, marvelous book.

“He’s also an exquisite prose stylist; the language is powerful and metaphoric but at the same time wonderfully exact and dear. We’re hoping that this may be the next big breakthrough into late-20th-century European literature for Americans to read.”

Gabriele Annan’s recent review in the New York Times of Woods’s translation of The Dog King praised both Ransmayr and Woods. “Ransmayr,” writes Annan, “is a novelist concerned with the philosophy of history rather than the psychology of character. He is taken very seriously in German-speaking countries, where history, especially recent history, is an obsession.” And, “There is something so powerful, committed, and solemn about Ransmayr’s tone that it seems like a command to interpret his message.... He must be fiendishly difficult to translate, and John E Woods has done him proud.”

Who, I ask Mr. Woods, have you not translated that you would like to translate?

“I would love to do some 19th-century material. That’s a fond hope. There’s no way that I’m going to get a contract to translate hundred-year-old novels. Wilhelm Raabe, a great late-19th-century realist, though realist is not the word, he’s almost a precursor to magical realism. There are the Romantics, Jean Paul, Ludwig Tieck—favorites of Arno Schmidt There’s Theodor Fontane, another major German realist. There’s all sorts of wonderful stuff that I’d love to put my hand to. But it ain’t gonna happen.

“As far as Schmidt goes, I’ve done most of the major things, but there’s still plenty of earlier material and his magnum opus. Bottom's Dream. The foundation wants eventually to have a more or less complete English translation available, even if we don’t find publishers here in the States who might pick up on some of the less important items. So far at least, we do have the four volumes of the Dalkey Archive Press edition —The Collected Novellas, Nobodaddy's Children, The Collected Stories, and Two Novels (the latter due out this fall).

“I’m perfectly happy to do Arno Schmidt, Thomas Mann, and any of the major contemporaries like Ransmayr. There’s also a new writer I ran across while I was in Germany last fall. And Knopf likes his work too and has decided to publish him. His name is Ingo Schulze. A brand-new voice, a man in his 30s, who’s written a book of intriguing short stories about St. Petersburg, after the fall of Communism. He was there as a journalist and has transformed his experience into 33 Moments of Happiness, with each of 33 tales written in a different style that has its roots in Russian literary history, from Gogol to Nabokov. They’re exciting and sometimes bizarre stories. I was simply bowled over by them. Maybe Ingo Schulze is the next big find. There will always be good things to translate.”

When you are translating contemporary literature, do you feel there is a difference between an educated German and an educated American reader?

“Sure there is. First, in relative numbers. There is a larger percentage of Germans who still work at being serious readers. But certainly there are still lots of good readers here in the States too. When I got back from Germany last fall, there was a lovely letter waiting for me from a young woman in graduate school She had tried reading the old Lowe-Porter Magic Mountain and could never get past the first 50 pages. Then she discovered my translation and wrote me a long letter about how it had opened up for her the whole world of Thomas Mann. Now she understood why he had won the Nobel Prize. In its own way, that kind of fan mail is worth as much as any literary award.

“Then there were a couple of older gentlemen here in California, one an ophthalmologist in Santa Monica and the other a retired naval officer in Julian. Both of them took the time to call me on the phone and write long letters. Each had read The Magic Mountain seven or eight times in his life, and suddenly they were reading it again and it was brand new, and they were so excited. That’s heady stuff for a translator. It really makes my professional life worthwhile.”

Who do you imagine as your audience?

“I don’t think I imagine an audience. My audience is in some ways myself. If this is great prose that seizes me, I figure I’ve reached my audience. I test it out on my partner, and although he likes to read he’s not a lit major or anything of the sort. So, if something comes across well and he gets excited by a great novel in my translation, then I figure I’ve succeeded, because I’ve reached not only that esoteric little community of one that I am, but someone who leans back and enjoys being told a story. And if it works, if my prose works, then I’m reaching an audience. But my first test is myself, I guess.”

Do you read in very contemporary German, perhaps newspapers and magazines?

“Occasionally, although I really don’t keep up the way I should, I must admit. I spend my day working with prose texts, and when I’m done at the end of the day, what I enjoy reading are things like history and biographies and natural history magazines. I tend to shy away from heavy literature at the end of the day, so I don’t keep up on things in Germany as much as I should.”

Has the language changed significantly since the Second World War, and if so, how do you keep up with the changes?

“It is changing. It had not changed. I think something is happening now. English, American English in particular, is a great whore of a language; it takes on new words and phrases wherever it finds them. It’s one of the things that makes English such an exciting language. German, on the other hand, has a tradition of a standard literary language, High German. There are dialects and colloquial speech galore, but when Germans want to converse seriously with one another, they turn to their formal, rather rigid High German, which tends to be much more conservative and changes only very slowly.

“Although there are writers like Arno Schmidt. One of the great things he did was to dynamite his native tongue wherever he could. But he did that more with metaphors and wordplay than with actually bringing in new language. He also played a lot with dialect. But in the last, let’s say, 10 to 20 years, actually in the time since I left Germany, a newer language is taking shape. And it’s happening fast. It’s very much influenced by English, incredibly. You get new verbs like managen. And all the computer language is English, of course, and they will pick up American synonyms where there’s a perfectly good German word already there. Gay power in Germany is Schwulenpower. ”

What is “schwulen’?

“ ‘Schwulen’ is the German word for gay. It sort of means sultry, but that’s a long story. Anyway, there are changes in the language. I keep up with it only to the extent that I’m over there once or twice a year. One of the major factors is the large new immigrant communities that have become part of Germany's major cities—Turks, Vietnamese, Greeks, Russians. And if I were asked to translate, let’s say a German novel by a Turk who has grown up in Germany speaking German, I might well find parts of his language, which will be rich in the slang and idioms of his community, very difficult to understand. I would probably need some help.”

It sounds like even an avant-garde writer would write in High German?

“They tend to write in standard old High German, although that’s starting to change. Language, of course, always changes, and my guess is that in 25 to 50 years, there will be a considerably different German than the one that Thomas Mann wrote in, although that still remains the language most well-educated Germans would be comfortable with as their formal language.”

Would the language change significantly with the end of the Wall?

“It hasn’t yet. Perhaps only in the sense that it opens up Germany to even more cosmopolitan influence. Certainly for those people in the East, it’s a whole new world, and the Central European influence will continue to grow stronger again now because of the renewed commercial and cultural exchange with Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary. Berlin is a very cosmopolitan city. I heard languages on the streets of Berlin I could not even begin to identify — Lithuanian, maybe, or Uzbek, I had no idea. So all that will of course have an influence on what happens in Germany.”

I ask who edits Woods’s translations.

“If you mean checks my translation over against the original, no one, unfortunately. This simply amazes my German counterparts. I know a few German translators. Every German publishing house has editors who go over every translation, comparing it word for word, with the original. I don’t know of any publishing house that does that anymore in this country.”

Would Helen Wolff have had somebody check the translation?

“Helen Wolff checked the translation herself. She was of the old school. Or she had staff who could, who were bilingual. It’s a rarity these days in publishing that there are people on staff who have a second language, whether it’s German or French or Serbo-Croatian or whatever.

“My editor knows German, but like everybody else in publishing today, she simply does not have the time to do that kind of editing. She reads the English text carefully, and she’s a great line editor. But nobody ever proofs my translation against the German—until the reviews come out. Then, of course, Professor Horrendo, as Breon Mitchell, a translator friend of mine likes to call him, discovers on page 23 that I’ve called an orange a tangerine. And proceeds to discuss the error at length.”

I interrupt, “And what a howler that was...”

“Yes, and what a howler that was. And the review of The Magic Mountain in the New York Times Book Review appeared in 'Books in Brief.’ I found that itself a howler. The man who reviewed it did not know that H.T. Lowe-Porter was a woman. He refers to her as ‘he.’ And he spent a good third of the review talking about what the fabric of Settembrini’s coat ought to be called and that he had a better solution than mine.”

D.J.R. Bruckner wrote in the New York Times (October 22,1995) in his 317-word review of Mr. Woods’s translation: “Of course, the pleasure of going through any translation is to catch lapses, and in a work so long and learned there are chances to mock any version. For instance, do we know more about Settembrini’s appearance when Mr. Woods has him wear an ‘ineluctable petersham coat’ than we did when Lowe-Porter clad him in an ‘inevitable pilot-coat’? This garment is meant to reveal something of the man’s politics and philosophy, it was often the garb of free thinkers in European cartoons and drawings early in this century. We would know it instantly if the translators just called it a peacoat.”

But Bruckner also wrote, “All the characters in Thomas Mann’s masterpiece The Magic Mountain come considerably closer to speaking English in John E. Woods’s version than they did in its predecessor, by H.T. Lowe-Porter, first published by Knopf in 1927. Lowe-Porter’s apology — ‘better...an English version.. .done ill than not done at all’ — was exaggerated, but his vocabulary was wholly Victorian, and he missed Mann's voice. Mr. Woods makes Mann talk much as we do, if always more intelligently, and he captures the irony and humor in all but a few passages.”

Mr. Woods says, “Professor Horrendo, of course, always knows better what to call the coat that Settembrini is wearing. And it wasn’t a peacoat, by the way. He latches on to some petty detail, and the whole sweep of the translation is forgotten.”

Do translators expect to be reviewed?

“Expect? No. The standard practice is the one-adverb review of the translation — ‘brilliantly,’ ‘adequately,’ ‘poorly translated.’ “I think if there’s a metaphor at all for what I do, it’s one I’ve taken from music. I am like a performing artist. You can’t hear a Brahms sonata until a pianist sits down and plays the notes for you. You can’t hear Thomas Mann until I sit down and play the notes for you. So, I think we translators ought to get more credit than we do.”

Did you ever make a horrible mistake?

“I’ve made lots of horrible mistakes. One in fact that Helen Wolff didn’t catch, in a small book by Günter Grass called Show Your Tongue, about a year he spent in Calcutta, India. And somewhere he uses the word ‘Schuppen, ’ which can mean the ‘scales of a fish’ or ‘dandruff.’ And in a moment of average inattention, I chose dandruff— and it should have been the scales of a fish. That sort of thing happens, it just happens. You’re working fast, you go back and check, but it never registers, and suddenly the translation is there forever in black and white.

“One of the things you learn, particularly in this job, is that there is no such thing as perfection in this existence. And you learn to live with that. It will never be perfect. Any translation can be made better both aesthetically and in terms of accuracy, and that’s why you correct four and five times yourself, and that’s why somebody else should look at it too. Because it will never be as good as it truly ought to be.”

I ask Mr. Woods if he were amazed, initially, at his ability to translate.

He says that he was but that what amazed him more was what great fun translating was. “I know that all my life I’ve been a word-smith, but one of the things I discovered in trying to write was that perhaps I didn’t have all that much of importance to say. And one of the great joys of translating the works of important authors like Schmidt, like Mann, like Ransmayr, and so many of the other things I get to do, is that you’re in the hands of masters who have wonderful things to say. And you get to say them for them, with them. It’s a great experience if that’s where your talent lies. And somehow that matchup has worked for me. And every day I get up and sit down at my computer, I still enjoy what I do. And I’ve been doing it now for 20 years.”

— Judith Moore

Judith Moore has been a recipient of two NEA Fellowships for literature, most recently in 1996. She is coauthor with Sue Coe of X, published by Raw Books and Graphics and reissued by New Press, and author of The Left Coast of Paradise, Soho Press, which included pieces written initially for the San Diego Reader. Her essay collection, Never Eat Your Heart Out, also including pieces first printed in the Reader, was published early this year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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John E. Woods: "I set up shop here in San Diego, found this lovely place where I live, and started translating Arno Schmidt." - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
John E. Woods: "I set up shop here in San Diego, found this lovely place where I live, and started translating Arno Schmidt."

I have asked John E. Woods what he makes of his life these days “Mona’s Law doesn’t hold.” and that is his answer. “Mona’s Law doesn’t hold.” I am puzzled. Woods explains that novelist Armistead Maupin writes in his Tales of the City series, “You can have a great job, a great lover, and a great place to live, but never all three at the same time.” Woods adds, “I defy Mona’s Law every day. I love what I do. I think there are few people on this planet who can say that.”

Since 1985 Woods has lived in Mission Hills in a mission-revival house that overlooks a lush canyon.

What John E. Woods does is translate. In the world of men and women who translate grand literary writers into English, Woods is an important name. The Manchester Guardian Weekly writes, “We have been spoiled by translators recently, what with William Weaver and John Woods and Gregory Rabassa.” Weaver is known for his translations of Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose) and Italo Calvino (If on a Winter's Night a Traveler). Rabassa is the translator of Nobelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude). Woods, who translates from German to English, is perhaps best known for his translations of Thomas Mann (The Magic Mountain), Arno Schmidt, Christoph Ransmayr, and the best-selling Perfume by Patrick Süskind.

Woods and Zepp. "Thomas Mann sometimes built sentences a page long. My task as a translator is to take each of those sentences apart piece by piece."

Since 1985 Woods has lived in Mission Hills in a mission-revival house that overlooks a lush canyon filled with opossums, skunks, and even an occasional fox or coyote. He works at a desk near a set of French doors that open out onto a deck. The deck holds his bonsai collection and orchids. His now one-year-old standard wirehaired dachshund Zepp guards the deck, demanding in repayment only a morning walk and an occasional game of fetch.

Mr. Woods explains about the name “Zepp.” “In Bavaria, which is very Catholic, up in the mountains all the girls are named Maria, and all the boys are named Joseph. And in Bavaria the short form of Joseph isn’t Joe. Instead, they take the second half of the name, ‘seph,’ or ‘sepp.’ But all over Germany, if you call somebody a stupid Zepp, it’s like our ‘Clem’ — ‘the country bumpkin, the hillbilly.’ ”

A Toshiba laptop sits in its docking port on Mr. Woods’s three- by five-foot mahogany desk. “I go back as a translator before the days of the computer. I can’t imagine making a living translating without the computer now, because it increases efficiency 400 percent or 500 percent.” When he still worked only on the typewriter, says Mr. Woods, “you did the rough draft and you corrected that and retyped, find then, again, you corrected and you retyped. Retyping ended up taking up most of your time. Now, of course, that’s all gone. I let the computer do all that.”

Two windows are open on Mr. Woods’s Windows 95 computer screen, modified to pleasant, eye-saving wheat tones. “The way I control the translation is first to work on the rough in one window, and then I open up the other window and type in the German original. That way I have all the search functions available in both texts.

“When I work with Thomas Mann, who loves to use a leitmotif technique, where phrases and words or whole clauses and sentences are repeated or varied, once I have the German text in the computer, I can immediately locate all the occurrences. You no longer say, ‘I remember that somewhere in chapter seven. Or was it eight?’ Instead, you have it there at once on-screen. It’s always very useful to have the entire German at your fingertips.”

Woods does his own typing of the German texts. “I could,” he says, “scan it in. I have a scanner and I tried that. It ended up costing me about as much time. I find I actually prefer typing in the German immediately after I’ve translated. It gives me a marvelous quick control mechanism. As I type each of the German words, I remember exactly what I’ve just done with them in translation. It’s the perfect way to double-check for accuracy.”

The ergonomic keyboard sits directly in front of Woods. Propped up above the keyboard is the German text from which he’s translating.

On Woods’s desk, at his right hand, sits the one-volume German-English dictionary that he swears by. “It’s one that’s out of print, it’s called the Wildhagen-Héraucourt. It’s one compact volume and it’s very good. It’s a little British-cy, but I know it inside out and it works for me. This is copy number two; my first one fell apart.”

At Woods’s left is his one-volume American Heritage dictionary and within easy reach, a three-volume Webster's. “And then,” says Woods, “immediately to my right is my reference library, which is really my soul. It’s two Encyclopedia Britannicas, one is the 11th edition from 1910. Mine is the little British edition, half-sized and bound in blue.” Woods also has a good thesaurus, “Although with an on-screen version,” he says, “I need it less nowadays. And then I’ve got most of the Oxford companions to whatever — English Lit, German Lit, classical antiquity, Christianity — and a Columbia Encyclopedia, plus a contemporary Encyclopedia Britannica, and my compact OED [the Oxford English Dictionary].”

There’s more. Woods regularly consults a 32-volume paperback version of the Grimm Dictionary, the German dictionary that is comparable to English speakers’ OED. He has Bibles and concordances, books of English and German quotations, an encyclopedia of mammals, Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang. He has references and guides to mushrooms, stars, plants, as well as French, Latin, Spanish, Italian, Russian, and various German dictionaries. And then there are books of nursery rhymes, a film encyclopedia, a good Shakespeare edition, a bilingual picture dictionary, books on German surnames and dialects, a rhyming dictionary. Close to 200 essential volumes, all within immediate grasp.

They come in handy. Only recently Woods had to trace down a reference to scalping in 2 Maccabees. Who got scalped by whom? Answer at least two of the seven sons of a widow (chapter 7), by Antiochus IV. And who was he? A Seleucid king of the Second Century B.C. Seleucid, what’s that? And on, and on.

I ask Mr. Woods if he came to feel that he almost inhabited, lived in, a text as he translated it.

“Less inhabit the text than inhabit universes” is his answer. “I get up in the morning, and it’s almost like opening a door and walking into this other world, one that I know very well by now. Whether that’s Arno Schmidt, or to a lesser extent Thomas Mann, or Christoph Ransmayr. Their worlds become my world. Or at least they are worlds that I can enter and delve all the little nooks and crannies. I know their exotic flora and fauna, the phases of their moons. Every detail is real to me. Then, at the end of the day I can close the door on all that. It’s a wonderful way to spend each professional day.”

When he takes up a new author for translation, does Mr. Woods begin by learning all that he can about that author?

“Usually not. Nor do I wade through all the secondary literature if it’s already a known author. I think that brings prejudices to what the translating task is about. I read the book. I try to read it the way any intelligent reader should read a book, and then I sit down and I start from page one to translate.

“I think, at least originally, and to a certain extent it is still the case, that what I am trying to do is to re-create for the American reader, for the English-speaking reader, something of the same experience that the educated German reader has when he or she picks up a book and reads it. I want that to happen for the American reader.

“Over time, however. I’ve come to believe that that’s probably an impossibility. That translation itself is an impossibility. Because what happens, of course, is that ultimately I end up creating a new text for new readers in a new context. The original and its translation are not the same. I cannot, to use a good old word out of my theology days [Mr. Woods, for several years, was a Lutheran pastor], I cannot repristinate the original experience.

“First of all, Americans are not Germans; sometimes I feel as if the two cultures are from different galaxies. Second of all, the languages are not congruent. When a German thinks a sentence in one way, that is not the way an American would ever think that sentence or put that thought together. So that no matter what I do and how well I do it, a new text is being shaped. Which gets us back to your question of whether I wade through all the secondary reading. No, because that new text is going to happen in any case, and what I’m trying to do is give the reader a reading experience, not a scholarly one.

“Being bilingual is only a first step toward being a good literary translator. Being a good literary translator is not anything like being an interpreter at the United Nations. I would no more know how to do that than I would know how to compete in a decathlon. It’s a whole different thing. I work with the written text. I sit and look at words and how they fit together, I wrestle with syntax, I listen to the melody and the rhythm of sentences, I try to understand what makes great prose. And I don’t touch poetry. I think only poets can translate poets. My skill, if I have one, is in creating good prose.

“One of the major differences between German and English is the syntax. Take a master of German syntax like Thomas Mann, who sometimes built sentences a page long. My task as a translator is to take each of those sentences apart piece by piece, dynamite the thing if necessary, and then reassemble it all in a vastly different order.

“One of the things that often happens in a great expansive German sentence is that it builds to its center and then dies away from it. A long sentence in English, in the classic tradition of a Gibbon period, tends to be additive and cumulative. It either starts strong and then dies away slowly or it starts and builds to that final moment of meaning. The two languages go about the task of thinking in long complex sentences so differently.

“So, once again, you’re creating a new text, and you’re looking at how that works and how to make what happened in the German happen in the English. You can’t reconstruct that, it’s not going to happen the same way. What you want to do is to make a comparable aesthetic experience out of a great sentence.

“For me, the proof of the pudding is always reading aloud. I read aloud everything I do at least a half-dozen times. One thing I discovered early on is that in reading a sentence aloud, if I stumble, there’s something wrong with the sentence.

“Reading aloud is one of my great pleasures. I happen to have a partner who loves to be read to. One of his pleasures in life is that he usually gets the daily rushes. When he comes home from work, we have our coffee and I read to him the day’s work, and that’s a way for me to proof my work, and also for us to share what I do.”

It’s not important, I ask, for a translator to know a great deal of autobiographical material about the author he’s translating?

“I won’t say it’s not important. I would say that certainly as your knowledge expands of what life experiences helped shape an author’s texts, a certain richness is added. That richness really only comes after a long, intense relationship with a particular author and his work. But if you superimpose a quirky, scholarly thing on him, however much a particular theory may appeal to you, you are probably going to wrench the text in certain directions that won’t be healthy.

“The other thing, of course — and this is a whole different matter — is ‘Had we but world enough, and time,’ as Andrew Marvell put it. Of course I would love the luxury of sitting down and reading all of Thomas Mann and all the scholarship about him, and then begin translating. Unfortunately, I’m under contract to people who want the product yesterday and aren’t paying me for five years of scholarship. They’re paying me for a translation of a text completed within a certain time frame as stipulated by the contract. Which means that translation is piecework. At the same time it is, of course, a very serious literary effort. But the utopia of endless time and endless thought is never there.”

Let’s make believe, I say, that you’re given a new text to do. What would be the first thing you would do?

“Read the book. I sit down and read it. Try to read it as an intelligent reader. I might make notes. Certainly make mental notes of how this particular language works, what characterizes this language. I’m looking always at that, at my craft. As for the larger thoughts and ideas, if I’m reasonably good at translating, those will surely get across. I’m not going to change the writer’s general outlook on the world. That’s going to come across no matter what I do. I’m looking more at surface texture, at prose style, at literary allusions. One of the things that is very difficult for me is to read any text in German, even a magazine article, without immediately asking myself, ‘How would I translate that?’

“I’m always aware of the little problems of how to do the thing I do, how to work with a word, a phrase, give it its appropriate idiom. The devil is in the details. But, generally, I read the book and form an idea of how I want to go about this. Then, I sit down at my computer and begin. I’m a very linear kind of guy. I start on page 1, and I translate doggedly onward to page 873, or whatever.

“One of the basic tools I learned as part of my training as a Lutheran pastor was ‘exegesis,’ the critical analysis of a biblical text. You sit there with the Greek or Hebrew text in front of you and take it apart piece by piece. Your questions are: How does the grammar work, what sociological context does this noun come from, was it used in the marketplace, is it from the world of farmers or warriors, and what did this verb originally mean before Paul or Luke adapted it for use in the early church? All those kinds of questions become very important when you’re preaching a sermon on a text. And they’re equally important when you’re translating a novel.

“And even after you’ve done all that, you may still not understand. Whenever I’m having trouble with a translation, with a phrase, with a metaphor, I sit there and try to visualize what it was the author saw, I try to conjure up the field of images out of which these words came. And sometimes, on my best days, I can literally see it. And suddenly I find the translation I need.”

About how many pages can you do in a day?

“Instead of pages, let’s talk words. It depends so much on the text. There are texts and there are texts. When I’m working on one of Arno Schmidt’s late novels, if I have 1000 words of rough draft after eight hours of work, I feel as if I’ve done my share for the day. There are lighter texts, of course, where I can do 3000 words without overtaxing myself. It’s entirely relative. Somewhere between, let’s say, 1000 to 3000 words a day, and most of the time something between 1500 and 2000.”

I ask if Mr. Woods does a first draft.

“I will print out what I have done that day, which is essentially a rough draft, corrected and recorrected on-screen. Then that evening, as I said, I sit over a cup of coffee with my partner and read him the daily rushes. As I do, I make a note of this or that change. At the end of the week, usually on Saturday morning, by the early morning sun on the back deck, I go over the week’s work, read it aloud, check the original for things that sound wrong, and do what I think of as the real editing. Then, about once a month, depending on how the text itself divides up, whether there are big chunks that belong together. I’ll take a day or two to do another read-through and revision. Finally, before I send it off to the publisher, I do one final grand pass. So that comes to something like four revisions.”

How long did it take Mr. Woods to translate Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain?

“Not long enough. I wish I could have had more time for it. I did The Magic Mountain in nine months. I pushed that one hard. That was a 60-hour-a-week job. I mean, I really laid in and dug in and did it.” (Mr. Woods in 1996 was awarded the first Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize for Translation for his translation of The Magic Mountain and Schmidt’s Nobodaddy's Children.)

Do you get paid well?

“I get paid quite well for what I do, and I’m incredibly lucky because I’ve made the right connections and somehow done the right things, been in the right places at the right time, whatever that’s all about. Generally speaking, translators are not paid well.”

May I ask what you made for The Magic Mountain?

“No, you can’t. I’m not a starving artist. If I were a starving artist I would find myself another profession.”

Is there much market for translators?

“Most people cannot make a living off this. I don’t think they ever have. Translation has always been poorly paid on the whole. Then there’s the state of publishing nowadays. The major houses, having been bought up by conglomerates, are looking more and more to their bottom lines and are doing fewer and fewer literary translations. The smaller houses and the university presses are not particularly picking up the slack. There isn’t a lot of money there to pay for translation, particularly now that Congress has savaged the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“Literary translating is about literature, it’s about being very, very skilled in your native language. Not only do you need to know the second language, and I mean know it well, but you have to love and work with and understand your own language. You have to know how to make it sing and dance. Being bilingual certainly is a leg up, but that doesn’t create a literary text “There are a lot of people out there who are bilingual. They think, ‘Well, I ought to be able to translate something.’ And the publishing houses know that there’s this vast pool of workers out there, and so they farm the stuff out in piecework. The results are haphazard. Some great and wonderful translations are produced, and some that are not so great and wonderful.”

Is there a community of translators?

“There are workshops and conferences, although less and less these days, because the money that funds them seems to be drying up. As I said, there aren’t many people who make a living off this. It’s a mixed bag. There are college professors who make this a hobby or see it as a way of meeting their publishing requirements or who simply have fun doing the work. There are people who do it to earn a little extra income, or as a hobby. And there are a few of us who struggle to make a living at it and a couple who actually manage to do so. Of the literary translators from the German, I suppose I know 25 or so, some of whom are dear friends, some of whom I’ve met at conferences and know to put a name with a face.”

I ask how the business of translation works.

“Well, first, let’s talk about translated literature in America. I delivered an after-dinner speech on the topic at an academic conference on postwar German literature a year or so ago. I was able to get hold of the records of PEN New York, which every year awards its PEN Translation Prize. All the publishing houses, from major conglomerates to mom-and-pop operations and university presses, submit works that have been translated from all the literatures of the world. We’re not talking here about cookbooks or tour guides or auto mechanics, but about what a group of people, after a great deal of wrangling, decide is probably ‘literature.’ I presume that most of the serious prose and poetry that gets published in a given year is on pen’s list. In any given year, at least over the past five years, that list of published translations, from all the languages of the world, has not exceeded more than 200 to 250 titles. So every year we Americans are getting no more than about 200 peeks a year over the literary fence into the world outside.

“Then, if you start looking at the individual languages, about 60 percent of the books are translated from five languages, and in this order French, Spanish, German, Russian, Italian. So that’s approximately 120 titles. All the rest of the world’s languages get the other 80. That also means that there are 20 to 25 titles a year translated from the German. There are at least 50 people who would love to have a contract for any one of those books. Which means, then, that almost no one can make a living at this.

“I feel myself extremely fortunate that, with some hard work and a great deal of amazingly good hick. I’m able to make a living. One major piece of good luck is a wonderful institution called the Arno Schmidt Foundation, which has been my bread and butter over the past ten years. Another has been a fine, long-term working relationship with my editor, Carol Janeway, at Alfred A. Knopf.” John Woods was born and raised in the Midwest. Woods’s father, a veterinarian, “was born in 1892,” says Mr. Woods, “so that he was 50 when I was born. I’ve always thought that one of the advantages I have with the English language is that both my parents spoke good Midwestern English, the way it was cultivated in little country schools almost a century ago now.” Woods’s mother and father, he adds, “both came from a small town in southern Indiana. She was the daughter of the town pharmacist. He had tuberculosis, and so in hopes of a cure the family homesteaded briefly near Clovis, New Mexico, but he died in 1912. They came back, and for many years she lived in a small town in southern Indiana.”

Woods spent his early years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Cincinnati and Lima, Ohio. He graduated from high school in lima in 1960. He went to a small liberal arts college, Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. The university was named for Wittenberg, Germany, the city where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the town church in 1517.

Asked how he happened to choose Wittenberg, Mr. Woods says, “Quite simple. I’d applied to several places and this was the best deal.” Mr. Woods’s parents weren’t particularly religious, and he had not had a traditional religious upbringing. But at Wittenberg, he says, “the first truly intellectual and interesting people I’d ever met, people who thought deeply and who could use words to express their thoughts, were Christians, existentialist Christians. These people were formative in my life, because they gave me a world-view. I’ve since abandoned that world-view, but it certainly was a way of getting at some of the larger issues of human history and culture.”

After graduation from Wittenberg, Mr. Woods went on to graduate school at Cornell University, with a major in English literature. “I didn’t like that,” he says, “and by some of the more whimsical twists of fate, I ended up at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. And even served as a Lutheran pastor for two years.” The seminary was associated with the LCA, the Lutheran Church in America, the most liberal of the Lutheran denominations at the time. Mr. Woods explains, “This was the old German, Fast Coast church. They take their theology very seriously. Philosophy and scholarship mean something, and that’s what interested me ultimately, the intellectual aspect. And I was in seminary in the late ’60s, a time when the main-stream churches were very involved in social issues. We seminarians were out demonstrating and working in the ‘inner city.’ Anyway, that’s my Lutheran connection, and that’s what got me to Germany.

“I went off to Germany to study theology and ended up staying for about eight years— that’s where the whole German connection got started. When I arrived in Germany in 1971, I really had little grasp of the language. I had taken a year in college.

“I went to Germany to study with Jilrgen Moltmann and Ernst Bloch. Bloch was a Communist philosopher, a heretic who had been thrown out of East Germany for redefining Marxism, seeing it as built on an ontology of hope. Moltmann was big on hope too, with an emphasis on eschatology, the study of last things.’ It was the theological fad of the day. It sounded good to me. I planned to do my doctoral thesis on the eschatological themes in Luther’s commentary on the Book of Genesis, I’ve long since left all that behind me, but it was important to me at the time. And besides, I was a real leftist in my politics — still am — and was happy to shake the dust of Nixon’s America from my shoes. The Old World was a new world for me, and I loved it”

I stop Mr. Woods and ask how old he was when he went to Germany to study. He thinks for a moment and says, “I was just short of 30, a tall, balding, gangly fellow. My German was more or less nonexistent, so I first spent two months in an immersion course at the Goethe Institute in Passau, a small city on the Danube near the Austrian border — a reactionary backwater, by the way, as I learned after I got there. It’s where the movie The Nasty Girl is set. The Goethe Institute provides language instruction in Germany and functions outside of Germany as the nation’s cultural representative, sort of like the United States Information Agency does for us.

“I ended up,” he says, “marrying my German teacher. I enrolled at Tubingen University to study theology and because my wife was connected with the Goethe Institute, the closest Goethe Institute that we could find was in a quaint little town called Schwabisch Hall, which was a three-hour commute by train from Tubingen.” For three years, Woods commuted back and forth three to four days a week between Tubingen and Schwabisch Hall. “So,” he says, “I got the German experience. I was as close to being amalgamated into that culture as you get, I think. One of the things about all European cultures — not just German culture—is that you are always a foreigner. These are homogeneous societies. Unlike America, where you plant your two feet on the continent and say, ‘I’m an American,’ and everybody says, ‘Okay, you’re an American.’ In Europe, whether it's France or Denmark or Germany, you can plant your two feet there and say, ‘I’m a Frenchman, a Dane, a German,’ but you will always be ‘the American.’ You will never be ‘a German.’ You can’t say, ‘I’m a German.’ You just aren’t. You are always where you came from.” I ask Mr. Woods when he began to think in German. “Who ever really knows that,” he says. “After about six months in Germany, I started to work more or less fluently in the language, and I suppose shortly thereafter, I started dreaming in German and thinking in German. And even now when I go over, within hours I’m talking to myself in German. English just gets shoved to the sidelines, until I get back here, and then English takes over again right away.

“I’m a type A personality, anyway — goal-driven, obsessive-compulsive. My friends on this side of the Atlantic think of me as a mini-Nazi. When I get over there, I find the Germans so well potty-trained and uptight that the Southern California laid-back part of me starts blossoming, simply in defiance of so much German rigor, which nevertheless is part of me no matter what I do.”

Did Mr. Woods come home during those eight years?

“Occasionally. My mother was still alive, so my wife and I would visit her. And then, there was one year in ’76, where my wife was on an exchange program with the University of Massachusetts. We were in Amherst, Massachusetts, for an academic year in ’76.”

Mr. Woods began translating when he and his then-wife were in Amherst, in 1976. “For our winter reading we had brought along Arno Schmidt’s Abend mit Goldrand, Evening Edged in Gold."

“Schmidt,” says Woods, “for lack of a better handle, is the German James Joyce. I mean, fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Mr. Woods began trying to translate the book. “I jumped in with both feet. I had been trying to write and was not being very successful, either in terms of finding an agent who liked what I wrote, or for that matter in terms of my liking what I was writing. I hit writer’s block and looked at a wall and said, ‘I’ve got to do something.’ “Schmidt’s late works,” says Mr. Woods, are “difficult to describe if you’ve never seen them. They are about 18 inches long and about 14 inches wide. These are typescripts, photo-offset typescripts of his work. They are multicolumned, there are inserted drawings and illustrations and quotes. It’s metafiction.”

I ask Woods for a minibiography of Arno Schmidt. “He was born,” says Mr. Woods, “in 1914 and died in 1979. He is a late-born modernist. He wrote nothing of consequence, and published nothing, until after the war. He was an auto-didact and did not himself discover Joyce until well into his career, in the late ’50s, by which time he’d been writing for 16 years. But in feet, in some ways, the way Bach was the culmination of polyphony after the age of polyphony was over, I think of Schmidt as the culmination of the modernist movement.

“He created a whole new world of postwar German fiction. Arno Schmidt’s readers have known all along that he belongs in the canon with Brecht and Mann and Kafka. I’m convinced that when the 20th Century has ended and we’re well into the 21st, people will look back at the century just past and say, ‘Mann, Brecht, Kafka, Schmidt — they define German literature.’ He is that important.

“But Schmidt is difficult reading even for Germans. The early works, to be sure, less so. And some of them, like Stony Heart and Lake Scenery with Pocahontas, are great fun, with marvelous quirky love stories that build on the earlier German Romantic tradition. And he was a great humorist, the only German writer I know where I suddenly just start guffawing. But it’s often difficult reading too. And everyone said it was untranslatable. Then, just to have something to do to justify my existence as a writer, I sat down and started to translate Evening Edged in Gold. And found, much to my surprise, that I could do this.”

In 1978 Mr. Woods took the beginnings of his translation of Schmidt’s Evening Edged in Gold to the legendary Helen Wolff. Editor and publisher Helen Wolff died in 1994 at the age of 88. Mrs. Wolff and her husband Kurt (Franz Kafka’s first publisher) fled occupied France and came to the United States in 1941. In 1942 the Wolffs founded Pantheon Books. Their first success at Pantheon was a new edition of the Grimm fairy tales. They went on to publish such writers as Boris Pasternak, Gunter Grass, Umberto Eco, Georges Simenon, Max Frisch, Stanislaw Lem, and Amos Oz. In 1961, after Random House acquired Pantheon, the Wolffs, at William Jovanovich’s invitation, joined Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. There, they continued to edit and publish under the imprint “A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book.” Kurt Wolff was killed in 1963 in a traffic accident in West Germany; Mrs. Wolff continued as the imprint’s publisher until 1986, when she retired.

Mrs. Wolff, in a 1980 New York Times article, spoke about her meeting with Mr. Woods. “About two years ago, John E. Woods, a young American who had been at Cornell University, visited me in Frankfurt and said that he was totally devoted to Schmidt’s work and was translating his latest novel. I also met Ernst Krawehl, who had been Schmidt’s editor for 25 years at Fischer and was also convinced that Schmidt had turned out a masterpiece. But without the translation by Woods, I would never have dreamed of publishing it."

Mr. Woods met Mrs. Wolff, he says, “at her famous hotel room at the Hessischer Hof hotel in Frankfurt, where she always stayed during the Book Fair, never appearing on the floor of the Book Fair, but limiting her contacts to the people she invited to her room. The who’s who of European literature would knock on her door. From Calvino to Grass — they all made the pilgrimage to Helen Wolff's door, and I had the privilege of being able to knock on that door too, as an invited guest.

“She was a small woman, very soft-spoken. She was aging by then and had, I don’t know the reason, a decided and obvious limp. Her body did not move easily. But her eyes moved fast and were very penetrating. Helen Wolff could look at you and read your literary soul. She was very quick in decision making, knew what she wanted, knew what she expected of people. Her standards were incredibly high, but she was a delightfully warm person at the same time. She had a great laugh — very soft, very tinkly. She was one of those very special people who grace the planet from time to time.”

I ask what Mrs. Wolff's response was to his Arno Schmidt translation.

“She told me that Günter Grass had come to her and said it couldn’t be done. At that point she had read, I think, about 20 to 25 pages that I’d finished. I had done more by then, but that was all she had seen at that point. And she said, 'But it can be done. I see it here. Yes, let’s do it.’ And away it went.

"At the time there was a West German quasi-governmental agency called Inter Nationes that provided funds for me to continue the translation. Within about six months to a year we had a contract and it was a done deal.”

“And you were officially a translator?”

“And I was officially a translator.”

In 1979 Mr. Woods and his wife came to the United States. “The Goethe Institute, as the cultural arm of German diplomacy, is a worldwide thing. There’s a Goethe Institute in Los Angeles, one in Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Houston. My wife was transferred to New York, which brought us to the States for three years in the early ’80s. Then, she was transferred to Boston, and I joined her there for a year.

“Schmidt’s last four novels are typescripts that were photo-offsets, no typesetter ever set them in print. What I did was create a clone. I used a typewriter like his, an old Adler office machine that his editor Ernst Krawehl supplied me. I used exactly the same paper of the same dimensions, it’s German industrial norm four, which is a page-and-a-half size of their standard typing paper. I even used the same brand of typewriter ribbon.

“One of the things about these late Schmidt texts is that wherever he made a typo, he thought of it as a kind of Freudian slip. So all of that finds its way onto the page too. I had to re-create the visual effect of strikeovers and of his crossing out of typing errors. I rebuilt visual texts. But in English. I said I was a type A personality. And, I had to deal with every conceivable kind of wordplay, double-entendre, and literary allusion.

Evening Edged in Gold was about a two-and-a-half-year project. Luckily, at that time my wife was making the living, and I could afford to do it. So thanks to her and Inter Nationes, who backed up the project with a grant, it got done. Sad to say, shortly thereafter the marriage broke up.”

In 1981 Woods’s translation of Schmidt’s Evening Edged in Gold won the PEN Translation Prize and the American Book Award (now the National Book Award). It shared the American Book Award with Francis Steegmuller’s translation of Flaubert’s letters. “It was a grand ceremony,” says Mr. Woods. “It was held in Carnegie Hall with John Kenneth Galbraith and William F. Buckley giving out the awards and exchanging witty repartee. The winners were called up on that legendary stage to receive their awards. Along with some cash and a moment of glory, I got a beautiful small Louise Nevelson sculpture.”

A little over a year later, Mr. Woods came to San Diego. “Thanks to Helen Wolff, I found a job as an editor with Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, which happened to be moving to the West Coast, to San Diego, in 1982. I had an office on the 11th floor of that lovely old wedding-cake building. I was with HBJ here for two and a half years, then spent a year with them in Austin, Texas, on another project, and came back to San Diego in 1986. I edited 20 to 25 books with HBJ, including Mark Helprin’s Winter's Tale. But anyone who knows the editorial merry-go-round can understand why I eventually decided I didn’t really want to do that anymore. So I struck out on my own as a translator.” Before Woods left HBJ in Austin, he had the good fortune to be offered a contract to translate Patrick Süskind’s Perfume. It was a bestseller, and he decided to try the freelancer’s life. He first worked out a contract with the Arno Schmidt Foundation. “That way,” he says, “I knew that I had an income coming in and didn’t have to hustle everything I did. And I set up shop here in San Diego, found this lovely place where I live, and started translating Arno Schmidt, as well as pieces of this and that I was able to pick up along the way. And two years later I met my lover. Mona’s Law defied.” I ask about the Arno Schmidt Foundation.

“The foundation is located in a little town called Bargfeld Uber Celle. It’s in the Luneburg Heath, about two hours south of Hamburg, in a very remote and, for Europe, sparsely populated area — a flat landscape with birch trees and junipers, a few ponds and streams, it’s the landscape Schmidt loved, and where he spent the last 20 years of his life in a very modest cottage. So that’s where the archives are, and that’s where the foundation is located. Every year I get to go over and spend a couple of weeks working in the archives and revising the translations with the help of Hans Wollschlager, who is famous for his translation of Joyce’s Ulysses into German.”

In 1990, Woods’s editor at Alfred A. Knopf suggested he begin retranslating some of the major novels of Thomas Mann, the giant of German literature in the first half of the century. Awarded the Nobel Prize for The Magic Mountain in 1929, Mann fled Nazi Germany in 1933. During the war years he lived in Santa Monica, and for many Americans his voice became the voice of another, a better, Germany. He died in Switzerland in 1955.

In the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, Helen Lowe-Porter had already translated much of Mann’s work into English. “God bless her soul," says Mr. Woods. “She was probably not up to the task, less because her German was sometimes a bit sketchy and she managed some real howlers on occasion. But, let me assure you, that can happen to anybody. It has happened to me. No, her biggest problem was that she had a tin ear for her native language.

“One of the marvelous things about Thomas Mann is that although it is very rich, dense, and highly thought-out prose, it is still exquisitely elegant. It has a lightness and a wit in the midst of those great long periodic sentences that Germans take such delight in. Mann has the reputation in English for writing almost impenetrable prose, but that impenetrability comes chiefly from dear old Helen Lowe-Porter, who rendered it impenetrable. I think one of the reasons Knopf wanted new translations was to undo some of her knots and make Mann more available to contemporary readers. I don’t mean made simpler. As a matter of fact, Porter often broke up his sentences into smaller units. I tried to keep them as intact as possible. My goal was to make a more lucid prose. Let’s put it that way.”

I ask what other Mann there is that remains to be retranslated. “Well,” Mr. Woods says, “a lot. Some of the short stories have been retranslated, including Death in Venice, but a good many haven’t. And, then, of the major novels, there’s Lotte in Weimar—The Beloved Returns is the Lowe-Porter title. It deals with Goethe in his late years. I wouldn’t touch it, because there you really have to be a Goethe scholar, and I would simply be out of my depth. And there’s Joseph and His Brethren, a marvelous tetralogy that turns the Bible stories we learned in Sunday school into a profound human comedy. It’s probably the one major work left after the three I’ve retranslated thus far. And there are a half-dozen other smaller novels and novellas. And volumes of literary and political essays. In the mid- to late ’40s, Mann was known in this country both as a novelist and as the voice of democratic Germany. He went on lecture tours in this country and would fill 5000-, 10,000-seat stadiums. Americans waited in line to hear Thomas Mann speak—all that is so long ago now, good as forgotten.

“Those little pieces of this and that along the way have also now multiplied in a lot of directions; one is retranslation of three major Thomas Mann novels, Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain are behind me, and actually so is Doctor Faustus, which is now scheduled for publication in January 1998.”

Woods has translated many other, more contemporary works from German. “I did probably the one title that people who are not into serious literature in quotation marks may know, a book called Perfume, by Patrick Süskind. It was on the bestseller list in ’86 and was awarded the PEN Translation Prize. I also recently did a third novel by an Austrian writer named Christoph Ransmayr. The first Ransmayr title I translated was The Last World, which is about the Roman poet Ovid’s exile, but retold in a style that I suppose is most easily described as magical realism. That one got me the Schlegd-Tieck Prize that the Brits award each year for translation. The second Ransmayr novel I translated is called Terrors of Ice and Darkness, a rousing adventure story that deals with the Austrian polar expedition of 1874.”

Mr. Woods’s translation of the third Ransmayr novel, The Dog King, was published earlier this year. “The book is a retelling of postwar European history but assumes that when the war came to an end the Allies carried out some of the proposals that were known as the Morgenthau Plan, by which Germany was to be returned to an agrarian, pre-industrial state, Ransmayr’s premise is that such a plan was actually carried out, and he sees this strange world through the eyes of three people in a small Austrian town. It’s a marvelous, marvelous book.

“He’s also an exquisite prose stylist; the language is powerful and metaphoric but at the same time wonderfully exact and dear. We’re hoping that this may be the next big breakthrough into late-20th-century European literature for Americans to read.”

Gabriele Annan’s recent review in the New York Times of Woods’s translation of The Dog King praised both Ransmayr and Woods. “Ransmayr,” writes Annan, “is a novelist concerned with the philosophy of history rather than the psychology of character. He is taken very seriously in German-speaking countries, where history, especially recent history, is an obsession.” And, “There is something so powerful, committed, and solemn about Ransmayr’s tone that it seems like a command to interpret his message.... He must be fiendishly difficult to translate, and John E Woods has done him proud.”

Who, I ask Mr. Woods, have you not translated that you would like to translate?

“I would love to do some 19th-century material. That’s a fond hope. There’s no way that I’m going to get a contract to translate hundred-year-old novels. Wilhelm Raabe, a great late-19th-century realist, though realist is not the word, he’s almost a precursor to magical realism. There are the Romantics, Jean Paul, Ludwig Tieck—favorites of Arno Schmidt There’s Theodor Fontane, another major German realist. There’s all sorts of wonderful stuff that I’d love to put my hand to. But it ain’t gonna happen.

“As far as Schmidt goes, I’ve done most of the major things, but there’s still plenty of earlier material and his magnum opus. Bottom's Dream. The foundation wants eventually to have a more or less complete English translation available, even if we don’t find publishers here in the States who might pick up on some of the less important items. So far at least, we do have the four volumes of the Dalkey Archive Press edition —The Collected Novellas, Nobodaddy's Children, The Collected Stories, and Two Novels (the latter due out this fall).

“I’m perfectly happy to do Arno Schmidt, Thomas Mann, and any of the major contemporaries like Ransmayr. There’s also a new writer I ran across while I was in Germany last fall. And Knopf likes his work too and has decided to publish him. His name is Ingo Schulze. A brand-new voice, a man in his 30s, who’s written a book of intriguing short stories about St. Petersburg, after the fall of Communism. He was there as a journalist and has transformed his experience into 33 Moments of Happiness, with each of 33 tales written in a different style that has its roots in Russian literary history, from Gogol to Nabokov. They’re exciting and sometimes bizarre stories. I was simply bowled over by them. Maybe Ingo Schulze is the next big find. There will always be good things to translate.”

When you are translating contemporary literature, do you feel there is a difference between an educated German and an educated American reader?

“Sure there is. First, in relative numbers. There is a larger percentage of Germans who still work at being serious readers. But certainly there are still lots of good readers here in the States too. When I got back from Germany last fall, there was a lovely letter waiting for me from a young woman in graduate school She had tried reading the old Lowe-Porter Magic Mountain and could never get past the first 50 pages. Then she discovered my translation and wrote me a long letter about how it had opened up for her the whole world of Thomas Mann. Now she understood why he had won the Nobel Prize. In its own way, that kind of fan mail is worth as much as any literary award.

“Then there were a couple of older gentlemen here in California, one an ophthalmologist in Santa Monica and the other a retired naval officer in Julian. Both of them took the time to call me on the phone and write long letters. Each had read The Magic Mountain seven or eight times in his life, and suddenly they were reading it again and it was brand new, and they were so excited. That’s heady stuff for a translator. It really makes my professional life worthwhile.”

Who do you imagine as your audience?

“I don’t think I imagine an audience. My audience is in some ways myself. If this is great prose that seizes me, I figure I’ve reached my audience. I test it out on my partner, and although he likes to read he’s not a lit major or anything of the sort. So, if something comes across well and he gets excited by a great novel in my translation, then I figure I’ve succeeded, because I’ve reached not only that esoteric little community of one that I am, but someone who leans back and enjoys being told a story. And if it works, if my prose works, then I’m reaching an audience. But my first test is myself, I guess.”

Do you read in very contemporary German, perhaps newspapers and magazines?

“Occasionally, although I really don’t keep up the way I should, I must admit. I spend my day working with prose texts, and when I’m done at the end of the day, what I enjoy reading are things like history and biographies and natural history magazines. I tend to shy away from heavy literature at the end of the day, so I don’t keep up on things in Germany as much as I should.”

Has the language changed significantly since the Second World War, and if so, how do you keep up with the changes?

“It is changing. It had not changed. I think something is happening now. English, American English in particular, is a great whore of a language; it takes on new words and phrases wherever it finds them. It’s one of the things that makes English such an exciting language. German, on the other hand, has a tradition of a standard literary language, High German. There are dialects and colloquial speech galore, but when Germans want to converse seriously with one another, they turn to their formal, rather rigid High German, which tends to be much more conservative and changes only very slowly.

“Although there are writers like Arno Schmidt. One of the great things he did was to dynamite his native tongue wherever he could. But he did that more with metaphors and wordplay than with actually bringing in new language. He also played a lot with dialect. But in the last, let’s say, 10 to 20 years, actually in the time since I left Germany, a newer language is taking shape. And it’s happening fast. It’s very much influenced by English, incredibly. You get new verbs like managen. And all the computer language is English, of course, and they will pick up American synonyms where there’s a perfectly good German word already there. Gay power in Germany is Schwulenpower. ”

What is “schwulen’?

“ ‘Schwulen’ is the German word for gay. It sort of means sultry, but that’s a long story. Anyway, there are changes in the language. I keep up with it only to the extent that I’m over there once or twice a year. One of the major factors is the large new immigrant communities that have become part of Germany's major cities—Turks, Vietnamese, Greeks, Russians. And if I were asked to translate, let’s say a German novel by a Turk who has grown up in Germany speaking German, I might well find parts of his language, which will be rich in the slang and idioms of his community, very difficult to understand. I would probably need some help.”

It sounds like even an avant-garde writer would write in High German?

“They tend to write in standard old High German, although that’s starting to change. Language, of course, always changes, and my guess is that in 25 to 50 years, there will be a considerably different German than the one that Thomas Mann wrote in, although that still remains the language most well-educated Germans would be comfortable with as their formal language.”

Would the language change significantly with the end of the Wall?

“It hasn’t yet. Perhaps only in the sense that it opens up Germany to even more cosmopolitan influence. Certainly for those people in the East, it’s a whole new world, and the Central European influence will continue to grow stronger again now because of the renewed commercial and cultural exchange with Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary. Berlin is a very cosmopolitan city. I heard languages on the streets of Berlin I could not even begin to identify — Lithuanian, maybe, or Uzbek, I had no idea. So all that will of course have an influence on what happens in Germany.”

I ask who edits Woods’s translations.

“If you mean checks my translation over against the original, no one, unfortunately. This simply amazes my German counterparts. I know a few German translators. Every German publishing house has editors who go over every translation, comparing it word for word, with the original. I don’t know of any publishing house that does that anymore in this country.”

Would Helen Wolff have had somebody check the translation?

“Helen Wolff checked the translation herself. She was of the old school. Or she had staff who could, who were bilingual. It’s a rarity these days in publishing that there are people on staff who have a second language, whether it’s German or French or Serbo-Croatian or whatever.

“My editor knows German, but like everybody else in publishing today, she simply does not have the time to do that kind of editing. She reads the English text carefully, and she’s a great line editor. But nobody ever proofs my translation against the German—until the reviews come out. Then, of course, Professor Horrendo, as Breon Mitchell, a translator friend of mine likes to call him, discovers on page 23 that I’ve called an orange a tangerine. And proceeds to discuss the error at length.”

I interrupt, “And what a howler that was...”

“Yes, and what a howler that was. And the review of The Magic Mountain in the New York Times Book Review appeared in 'Books in Brief.’ I found that itself a howler. The man who reviewed it did not know that H.T. Lowe-Porter was a woman. He refers to her as ‘he.’ And he spent a good third of the review talking about what the fabric of Settembrini’s coat ought to be called and that he had a better solution than mine.”

D.J.R. Bruckner wrote in the New York Times (October 22,1995) in his 317-word review of Mr. Woods’s translation: “Of course, the pleasure of going through any translation is to catch lapses, and in a work so long and learned there are chances to mock any version. For instance, do we know more about Settembrini’s appearance when Mr. Woods has him wear an ‘ineluctable petersham coat’ than we did when Lowe-Porter clad him in an ‘inevitable pilot-coat’? This garment is meant to reveal something of the man’s politics and philosophy, it was often the garb of free thinkers in European cartoons and drawings early in this century. We would know it instantly if the translators just called it a peacoat.”

But Bruckner also wrote, “All the characters in Thomas Mann’s masterpiece The Magic Mountain come considerably closer to speaking English in John E. Woods’s version than they did in its predecessor, by H.T. Lowe-Porter, first published by Knopf in 1927. Lowe-Porter’s apology — ‘better...an English version.. .done ill than not done at all’ — was exaggerated, but his vocabulary was wholly Victorian, and he missed Mann's voice. Mr. Woods makes Mann talk much as we do, if always more intelligently, and he captures the irony and humor in all but a few passages.”

Mr. Woods says, “Professor Horrendo, of course, always knows better what to call the coat that Settembrini is wearing. And it wasn’t a peacoat, by the way. He latches on to some petty detail, and the whole sweep of the translation is forgotten.”

Do translators expect to be reviewed?

“Expect? No. The standard practice is the one-adverb review of the translation — ‘brilliantly,’ ‘adequately,’ ‘poorly translated.’ “I think if there’s a metaphor at all for what I do, it’s one I’ve taken from music. I am like a performing artist. You can’t hear a Brahms sonata until a pianist sits down and plays the notes for you. You can’t hear Thomas Mann until I sit down and play the notes for you. So, I think we translators ought to get more credit than we do.”

Did you ever make a horrible mistake?

“I’ve made lots of horrible mistakes. One in fact that Helen Wolff didn’t catch, in a small book by Günter Grass called Show Your Tongue, about a year he spent in Calcutta, India. And somewhere he uses the word ‘Schuppen, ’ which can mean the ‘scales of a fish’ or ‘dandruff.’ And in a moment of average inattention, I chose dandruff— and it should have been the scales of a fish. That sort of thing happens, it just happens. You’re working fast, you go back and check, but it never registers, and suddenly the translation is there forever in black and white.

“One of the things you learn, particularly in this job, is that there is no such thing as perfection in this existence. And you learn to live with that. It will never be perfect. Any translation can be made better both aesthetically and in terms of accuracy, and that’s why you correct four and five times yourself, and that’s why somebody else should look at it too. Because it will never be as good as it truly ought to be.”

I ask Mr. Woods if he were amazed, initially, at his ability to translate.

He says that he was but that what amazed him more was what great fun translating was. “I know that all my life I’ve been a word-smith, but one of the things I discovered in trying to write was that perhaps I didn’t have all that much of importance to say. And one of the great joys of translating the works of important authors like Schmidt, like Mann, like Ransmayr, and so many of the other things I get to do, is that you’re in the hands of masters who have wonderful things to say. And you get to say them for them, with them. It’s a great experience if that’s where your talent lies. And somehow that matchup has worked for me. And every day I get up and sit down at my computer, I still enjoy what I do. And I’ve been doing it now for 20 years.”

— Judith Moore

Judith Moore has been a recipient of two NEA Fellowships for literature, most recently in 1996. She is coauthor with Sue Coe of X, published by Raw Books and Graphics and reissued by New Press, and author of The Left Coast of Paradise, Soho Press, which included pieces written initially for the San Diego Reader. Her essay collection, Never Eat Your Heart Out, also including pieces first printed in the Reader, was published early this year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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