Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Interview: Wolfgang-Armin Rittmeier

Fans of John Bellairs are found in several countries - including Germany, where Wolfgang-Armin Rittmeier proudly celebrates one of his favorite authors.  Wolfgang recently shared his favorite things about Bellairs's books and his thoughts on literary translations – and then some more about his second favorite author, M. R. James. Fröhliches lesen!

Q: How and when were you first introduced to Bellairs's books, and how many have you read?

A: I must have been about ten years old.  An aunt of mine gave me a copy of Alexander Schmitz's excellent German translation of The House with a Clock in its Walls (Das Haus das tickte; Zurich, 1977).  Since then, I have read all novels by Bellairs – in the original language.

Q: What attracted you to the stories?

A: I have always been interested in Gothic literature.  When I studied English Literature at the University of Braunschweig, it became one of my particular fields of interest.  I was attracted to the Bellairs novels because I like the atmosphere, the well-wrought characters, the setting, the power of invention, the spookiness (of course), and the all-over kindness, which in my opinion, is a central part of the stories.  But there is also a personal dimension to it.  When I was in elementary school, I was introduced to the stories of the German author Angela Sommer-Bodenburg (b. 1948), who created a series of children's books called Der kleine Vampir (The Little Vampie).  The series deals with the adventures of Anton Bohnsack, a somewhat lonely, average but imaginative only child of totally everyday parents, and Ruediger von Schlotterstein, a teenage vampire who appears on Anton's windowsill one night.  They become unlikely friends and face a good many very spooky adventures together.  I could relate to the boy Anton very well because I felt rather average and every day as well.  And I think this was the central element attracting me to Lewis, Johnny, and Anthony.

Q: I'm not familiar with Sommer-Bodenburg, but, as an aside, this makes me wonder about other authors who wrote something comparable on some level to Bellairs but not in English and are therefore known to but only a few.  

A: When it comes to Germany, I am sure there is practically no author comparable to John Bellairs because there is no substantial tradition.  Any fiction dealing with the supernatural has always been deemed second-rate literature by German literary criticism – with the exception of only a few works.  Consequently, only a few authors have ever embarked on writing tales of the supernatural, let alone a whole series of spooky tales.  While I was at university studying German and English literature, it became apparent to me pretty fast German literary criticism mainly likes to deal with what they call Hoehenkammliteratur ("high-literature") while Anglistics were much more open to all kinds of literature.

Q: Back to Bellairs, I suppose: were you ever successful persuading others to read his books? 

A: Yes, I was.  The lovely wife is now a fan as well.

Q: What is your favorite book or character?

A: Ooh. That's a toughie.  Or is it?  I love all of the books, but House and Lewis Barnavelt are possibly closest to my heart.  My favorite scene is from another book, though.  As I am very fond of medieval cathedrals, I am a great fan of the finale of The Revenge of the Wizard's Ghost when Zebulon Windrow's copy of Salisbury Cathedral collapses.  It does not get more dramatic than that – plus I have often visited Salisbury and its cathedral!

Q: Switching gears a bit – A couple of publishers released John's work in Germany: you've already noted Das Haus das tickte from 1977, and Heyne released a number of the Lewis Barnavelt books in the 2000s (Das Geheimnis der Zauberuhr).  How popular was Bellairs's work overseas?  Heyne told us the books were not as popular as they had planned hence why they ceased publication.  I suspect one would be hard-pressed to find a Bellairs book in a bookstore today.

A: The honest answer is Bellairs's novels are virtually unknown in Germany.  While the 1977 translation of House was quite excellent and the Diogenes edition itself was quite attractive (as it contained the Edward Gorey drawings), neither the Heyne translations nor the layout of the published novels were very well made.  Except Das Geheimnis der Zauberuhr – which is nothing but the 1977 translation under a new title.  I always found the other Heyne editions quite bleak and was not surprised they flopped.

Q: You mentioned one of your interests is literary translation.  What insights do you have into what it takes to translate a book from English into another language successfully?

A: While at university, I did some courses in literary translation theory, which is, as I soon found out, quite a demanding – and also very interesting – topic.  So before boring everybody to death by trying to give a proper summary of all the different theoretical aspects, I would like to give a simple and very subjective answer.  I think a translation is successful when you are able to grasp the original's spirit and implement it into the transfer language.  To achieve this, you must dive into your subject, love thinking about words, and research everything connected with the novel.  If you do not stick to these basic "rules" the reader will know that you do not really know what you are doing.

Q: Good points.  That said, how well did House and the others follow the rules?

A: As noted above, the House translation is very good, while the later translations are often quite weak.  Their tone and register were often quite wrong.  I think the publishers were of the (false) opinion a somewhat child-like language might attract young readers.  That idea really did not take off and, in fact, totally bombed the atmosphere of the stories. 

These changes were the translator's choice of register.  While Bellairs's style is not very complicated, it does not sound as if it was only intended to invite a juvenile readership.  It is the other way around in most German translations I have read.  The translators want to appeal to the young readers and thus use language they think kids might use.  The thing is: kids don't.

I will give two simple examples.

In the translation of The Figure in the Shadows (in German - for whatever reason - The Magical Shadow) Rose Rita greets Lewis with a simple "Hi, Lewis!" This becomes "Halloechen, Luis!"  First of all, no kid says "Halloechen" and furthermore, it is the equivalent of "howdy-do", which comes across quite differently, I think.  Another example from this translation is "Grampa Benavelt" which mutates into Opapa which as a word is nothing but a no-no.  Opapa is a strange perversion of Opa which is the simple and easy word for Grampa.  Adding another -pa suffix is simply ridiculous.  The word does not exist in the German language, and nobody of sound mind uses it.  I could go on, but and on.  But I am sure you can easily see the whole atmosphere of the story is totally warped by a general choice of such a kind.

By the way - regarding Lewis versus Luis - changing character names or even places has been a long-standing, extremely strange, and sad tradition with some translators and publishing companies.  Herberth E. Herlitschkas's 1953 translation of Huxley's Brave New World is the most famous example.  He transferred the plot to Berlin and renamed all the characters.  He reasoned the dystopian story is not necessarily bound to the original setting and, for the sake of the German reader, thought it would be better to let things happen on German soil.  I think it is a sacrilege.

Q: You also mentioned you started preparing a proper annotated translation of M.R. James's ghost stories - as a hobby.  That's a heck of a hobby.  How long ago did you start, and how far along are you?

A: I think I translated the first story about six years ago.  I have translated and annotated twelve stories so far.  I have to admit I do not regularly work on the translations because I seldom have enough time to get into the flow. 

As it is a hobby, I pick the stories by taste.  I started with my favorite, "Count Magnus," and went on from there.  Before I started, I read a lot about M.R. James as a person and life at Eton and Cambridge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  I also thought about the tone of the typical narrator in James's stories and how he would sound in German.  So I then researched how this type of narrator would have used the German language of this period.  If you have come to terms with that, you can start.  I usually produce a first draft, which I then put away in my drawer.  After some time, I re-read it and begin editing until I am happy.  Then I start annotating, thus providing German readers with the information they usually do not have.
Q: Now you have me curious.  How well-known is James in Germany, and how much more popular would he be if his stories were in German?

A: I have to admit James was not part of the curriculum, and there are not many people over here who are into James.  A two-volume translation of his ghost stories was published in 2016.  This is a total novelty.  It is a lovely edition, but, sadly, the translation does not convince me.  Additionally, a somewhat obscure publishing house specializing in supernatural literature published it, and this shows the larger publishing companies do not see him as an interesting author.  Up until its publication, only ten of the stories were translated, published by the rather famous publisher Suhrkamp.  The translations were - in my opinion - just barely palatable.  The editions were bleak and did not even sport a foreword or an introduction.  And - no surprise here - the edition went out of print fast.

Sadly it is not annotated.  So there's still a chance for my translations.  On the other hand, I have been thinking of translating one of the novels of John's, which has not been translated so far.  I have a son who is turning six soon.  I would like him to get hooked on Bellairs as soon as possible. 

Q: Okay, back to Bellairs - knowing his love of history and trivia, what's one place or thing in your area you think he would have enjoyed?

A: I feel certain he would have liked all the ancient places, churches, cathedrals, mansions, and castles we have over here.  But if it has to be one thing, I think he would have enjoyed visiting the highest mountain in the area called Brocken on Walpurgisnight.  It is about 3.750 ft. high, and on 30 April, all witches gather there to meet the devil and celebrate the "Witches' Sabbath".  Believe me: it's fun!

Q: <checks calendar> Okay, a couple months away and then -- oh.  Sorry.  Compleat this sentence: you know you've read too much John Bellairs when –

A: -- you start thinking about redecorating your home in purple style.

Danke schön, Wolfgang!

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