May 14, 2014

Local Translator Wins Top Award, Brings Kafka to English Readers

Photo by Beowulf SheehanTranslator Shelley Frisch is not usually given to demonstrations of emotion. Recent news, however, has her “giddy with excitement.” The Jefferson Road resident has just received news that the German to English translation she has worked on for two years has been awarded this year’s Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize by the Goethe-Institut U.S.A.

The award honors the work of bringing Reiner Stach’s Kafka: Die Jahre der Erkenntnis to English readers as Kafka: The Years of Insight, published by Princeton University Press in 2013.

Add the fact that the same book is now on the list for the PEN Translation Prize, and Ms. Frisch might be excused for being “beyond giddy.”

“This is an amazing prize,” said the translator in an interview this week. Ms. Frisch is no stranger to awards, having already picked up one of the most prestigious, the Modern Language Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for a Scholarly Study of Literature, in 2007. She will collect this latest accolade, which comes with a $10,000 prize, from the Consul General of Germany in Chicago at a ceremony in that city in June.

Established in 1996, the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize is awarded each spring for an outstanding literary translation from German into English published in the U.S. the previous year. It is funded by the German government.

A jury of five selected Ms. Frisch’s translation, which is part of a three-volume Kafka biography by Mr. Stach. Having translated the first volume, Kafka: The Decisive Years, in 2005, and the second, Kafka: The Years of Insight, she is now about to embark on the manuscript of the third and final volume Kafka: The Early Years, to be published by Princeton University Press in 2017.

The jury described Mr. Stach’s biography of Kafka as “monumental” not only because of its length and detail but because of its “lively, readable style that will make it the standard account of Kafka’s life for the foreseeable future.”

Ms. Frisch’s translation, said the jury, “makes this marvelous biography not just available, but accessible and inviting for English-speaking readers. Frisch sustains Stach’s voice over hundreds of pages, finding fresh, compelling, and often witty ways to render his German into English. Not only that, but given the lack of a standard complete edition of Kafka’s work in English, Shelley Frisch made the risky and courageous decision to provide her own translations of all the biography’s quotations from Kafka’s works, letters, and diaries, and the results more than justify her choice.”

Comments from jurors such as “together with Reiner Stach, Shelley Frisch has given us a Franz Kafka whom we will read with new insight, wonder, disquiet, and yes — even laughter,” are music to the translator’s ears. “Kafka is all too often regarded as a gloomy writer, but his texts are actually hilarious in spots and even over long stretches, although this hilarity, which thoroughly infuses the original German texts, does not often come through in the standard translations, and I’m pleased that the jury felt I was able to convey his wit,” she said.

As for conveying the author’s voice, the veteran translator said she strove to impart a sense of Mr. Stach’s “soaring prose.” According to his translator, Mr. Stach is “a masterful stylist as well as the finest biographer I have encountered.”

“Like his biographical subject, Kafka, Reiner Stach is a witty writer, and I made a point of inserting word plays and unexpected usages to give English-language readers a feel for his narrative brio …. Sometimes you have to tug at the edges of your target language to make a book come alive in its new linguistic garb,” said Ms. Frisch.

The Art of Translation

Asked about process, Ms. Frisch described an intense method that begins with an extremely rough draft of the entire text created at “warp speed.” With Mr. Stach’s 700 plus pages, this yielded “a multilingual chaos” in German and English with smatterings of Czech “replete with synonyms set apart by slashes, waiting for me to choose between them.”

With a complete rough draft in hand, the translator then began contracting and selecting from “the cumulative options of the turns of phrase I think best suit the text, along with plenty of visits to the library (and the Internet) to verify details, discussions with the author, countless rewrites, and comparisons between the original German text and my English version,” she explained. “When I am as satisfied as I’ll ever be that a near-final draft is in place, the ‘acoustic’ phase begins, a final reading to test out how the sounds of individual words and phrases work in combination.” Here is a translator, who strives for musicality of language and brings an acoustic dimension to her choice of words.

Kafka: The Years of Insight covers the last decade of the writer’s brief life. It was chosen from some 56 titles, including another by Ms. Frisch, whose many translations from the German include biographies of Nietzsche and Einstein. She is currently finishing a dual biography of Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl by Karin Wieland and translating short stories by Husch Josten, one of which, “Le Coup de Foudre,” will be published in AGNI Magazine this fall.

Widely published on German literature, film, cabaret, and the political and linguistic dimensions of exile, as well as on translation, Ms. Frisch has received an array of grants, prizes, fellowships, and residencies.

She taught at Columbia University while serving as executive editor of The Germanic Review, then chaired the Haverford/Bryn Mawr Bi-College German Department before turning to translation full-time in the 1990s.

She holds a PhD and MA in Germanic Languages and Literatures from Princeton University and a bachelor’s degree in German from SUNY Stony Brook.

She has also translated for the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, the Leo Baeck Institute, Schocken Books, Inlingua, literary agencies, literary festivals, and private clients