Monthly Archives: April 2008

The Gerries are coming

Fritz Güttinger`s translation of “Travels in Nihilon”: A Case of taking one’s Translator’s Licence too far?

Five travel writers from Cronacia are dispatched to a hostile neighbouring country, collaborating on the compilation of a travel guide to Nihilon, a country named after its philosophy: Nihilism. In Travels in Nihilon, published in 1971, Alan Sillitoe records the perilous adventures of his protagonists in a trenchant, fast-paced, and intelligent satire.
The inhabitants of Nihilon drive to kill and drink-driving is compulsory to keep the population down. Old people, “Geriatrics”, are disposed of in geriatric battalions fighting fierce battles from which they are not supposed to return alive. The country’s only law is the law of survival, cheating and extortion are a way of life, naked air hostesses attend to passengers on planes, which the passengers are supposed to hijack and the national motto is: “self-expression and self-indulgence equals Nihilism” (1) (15).
Unlike one of his most famous books Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, in which Sillitoe relies heavily on slang to convey his intentions, in Travels in Nihilon, he shows that he has a broader stylistic scope. In this startlingly original work of literature, he observes accepted grammar and sentence structures and retains the style of classical clearness, using formal English when appropriate, as for instance, in the prologue by the travel book’s editor, in official announcements by the government and administrative bodies of Nihilon, and in the musings of President Nil. The accounts of the five correspondents are mostly written in upper-colloquial and colloquial English. Dialogues are straightforward, unadorned, and contain few allusions throughout the novel. Not surprisingly, the diction of Nihilon`s inhabitants is, in keeping with nihilism, often argumentative and in places belligerent, but can also be surprisingly polished. Sillitoe`s precise language can still be considered contemporary among native speakers and contains hardly any contextual gaps which the translator needs to fill. Indeed, the source text should pose no problems to any experienced translator with the exception of a few minor difficulties, but solvable they are.
It says on the sleeve of the German translation that “Nihilon” is a satire written in the tradition of Voltaire, Swift and Shaw. In 1973, the German translation was published by Diogenes, close to the publication of the original, and as it is written in the contemporary language of the 60s and 70s, the translator Fritz Güttinger did not encounter any problems with regard to his task on hand by such close temporal proximity. He follows all of the ordinary conventions of the source text and has shown once more that he is a skilful translator in that he has, by and large, managed to strike a happy medium between retaining the source text’s linguistic texture when possible and freeing himself from the grammar, idioms, and words in the source text where he deems it necessary for his purpose.
However, Güttinger, who had been accused of paraphrasing rather than translating when he rendered Moby Dick into German since he did not wish to alienate German readers with Melville’s peculiar language (3), is guilty of some lapses here too. Although he does not endeavour to outdo the author in this case, there are instances where he uses – with varying importance – completely different mapping systems of cognitive frame components i.e. deverbalization, transposition, iconicity, and above all, relevance. More often than not, Güttinger`s decisions in transferring meaning by omissions and changes (implicitation) can be justified, and in equal measure, are often entirely subjective and arbitrary. Nevertheless, I am going to explore a few cases where he might have done better if he had not taken the liberty of the translator too far.
Güttinger is sometimes too lenient towards the inhabitants of Nihilon, depicting them in too positive a light. Pernicious drivel (1) (45) becomes “albernes Zeug”(2) (50) instead of “verderbliches Gefasel”; an incident of outrageous blackmail expressed by extortion (4) (1) (79) in the original becomes “Nepperei” (2) (91 ) instead of “Erpressung”; and cesspool (1) (17) becomes “Hexenkessel” (2) (17) instead of the more contextual translation “Sündenpfuhl” or even “Sündenbabel”. In “What profit we make comes from selling windscreens to foreigners, but we pay a lot of it to the savage (1) (78), rapacious, extortionate customers men”, savage is left out in the translation (2) (90) perhaps to spare his readers even more harrowing details. Since there are quite a few more instances of this, it can be assumed that it was the intention of the publisher and translator alike not to estrange the reader and it may have been for the sake of saleability that the translator refrained from attributing too many negative elements to the characters and actions. Furthermore, Sillitoe`s caustic tone seems sporadically to have been transformed into one more assuaging for the same reason.
In the same manner, Güttinger`s translation also shows that perhaps he has occasionally not pursued the search for the best word with due tenacity. Had he done so, a more felicitous choice may have lent more illocutionary force to the passages in question. For instance, there is the colour black whose symbolic meaning is sustained throughout the novel, denoting the evil and destructive power inherent in nihilism. Not only is the colour black a text-specific symbolic issue as the outward representation of the nihilistic doctrine, but the absence of light and the negation of life have traditionally been associated with death: a notion the citizens of Nihilon are only too ready to entertain. Ben, the chief field-worker on the collection of data for the guidebook to Nihilon, drives a sturdy black car (1) (14). Nihilon`s flag shows the emblem of “a large nihilistic black ink-spot (1) (15), splayed on an immense white sheet of cloth”, and “The socialist regime of Cronacia was mild and orderly, in no way quarrelsome regarding its black-hearted (1) (11) neighbour of Nihilon”. Güttinger translated the latter thus: “Die sozialistische Regierung von Kronakien war ordnungsliebend und verträglich und suchte keineswegs Streit mit Nihilon, dem tückischen Nachbarn”(2) (10). In order to transpose the sustained symbolism in its entirety, Güttinger would have had to consider using an expression more fitting to sustain the symbol on its meta-level, perhaps with this translation: „Die sozialistische Regierung von Kronakien war ordnungsliebend und verträglich und suchte keineswegs Streit mit Nihilon, dem Nachbarn von finsterer Gesinnung.“
In another difficult passage, it appears that the connotational meaning inherent in Nether Nihilon (1) (76) may not have been conveyed adequately. In “…but for the miraculous suspension of his [black] Thundercloud Estate car, he would have proceeded into Nether Nihilon on foot, if not on stretcher”, he translated, “…dass er den Weg ins nihilonische Unterland nicht zu Fuß, oder gar auf einer Bahre, antreten musste.”(2) (88) The basic meaning of “nether” is “lower in position” (5) “Nether” is capitalised, therefore, it could be a geographical region. In the detailed map provided in the book, however, such a region does not exist. On the other hand “the nether region / the nether world” (6) have the meaning of the world of the dead or hell. Nihilon being what it is – evil, black-hearted, and destructive, with its capital Nihilon City situated in the lower region and at the same time, at the centre of Nihilon – could well be called the “nihilonische Unterwelt”. Güttinger probably realized this double meaning but opted for the non-committal version.
Yet, there are some interesting examples which show Güttinger`s command of prose-style texts in either language which struck me as very effective: The composite mumble (1) (99) becomes “das leise Stimmengewirr” (2) (116); a thrill of fear in his eyes (1) (100) becomes “ …und eine köstlich prickelnde Angst schwang in seiner Stimme mit” (2) (117); and a desert of monumental splendour and incredible flavour and sweetness (1) (99) is transposed into “ …einen Nachtisch von unglaublicher Pracht und Süße”(2) (117).
Finally, to find a forceful translation for the connotive meaning of the amusing pun “Gerries”, with its apparent denotive meaning “the old”, must have been the greatest difficulty which Güttinger had to master. The setting is the frontier where the Geriatrics (1) (23) assemble to charge into action, and one of them says, “Nevertheless, when we storm down the hill towards the Cronacian outposts in brigade column, we put the fear of the devil into them, with flags fluttering, trumpets sounding, and the shrill scream of our throats”[…] and “…the fighting we Gerries do is shown all over the country on television and in the cinemas” (1) (23). Unfortunately, the implied meaning in “Gerries” is untranslatable. In World War I and II, German soldiers were nicknamed “Jerries” by the British forces, and “The Jerries are coming” was a warning cry when Germans attacked British front lines during the campaigns in France. For the absence of a more suitable word, Güttinger chose, in all probability reluctantly, “Greise” (2) (24), but a bit further down the page, he inexplicably substituted “Altersrentner”(2) (24) for it. My suggestion “Kampfrentner” would probably solve his fickle choice.
All in all, this is an accomplished translation; idiomatic, articulate, and almost as good as the original. And although it occasionally appears to be somewhat dated, this is not to the detriment of the overall effect created by his style and tone. It is deplorable that both the original and the translation have fallen into oblivion.

© C.F.Brinkmann 2007