Anthea Bell on WG “Max” Sebald

Literary translation received a short but very welcome plug this afternoon on Radio 4’s Open Book, presented by Muriel Gray.  A major international conference will be held at UEA next week on WG Sebald (1944-2001), who taught European Literature and Creative Writing at the university for three decades.

Reluctant to call his work ‘novels’, he published hybrid books that meditate upon history, human tragedy, memory, writing and the inner life. Sebald wrote against the mainstream contemporary novel but in an unmistakably distinctive voice. This conference will honour Sebald’s memory, and provide a unique opportunity to assess the significance of his oeuvre, by bringing together critics from across disciplinary and national boundaries to reflect on his writing, and also by placing his texts in a wider creative context provided by several special events. The conference will include a performance based on Sebald’s work by colleagues from UEA’s Drama Studio, an exhibition of visual material relating to his writing from the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts and an opportunity to retrace some of Sebald’s steps around the East Anglian countryside.

Topics for panels will include the following aspects of Sebald’s writing: Art, Architecture, Photography, Poetry, Trauma, Place, Exile, Walking, Memory, Translation, History, and Humour. (from the University website)

Anthea Bell, who translated three of his books, speaks about the pleasure of working with “Max” and how helpful he was.    His cult status owes much to his way of writing which was “reflective in style, meditative, lyrical, but not by any means without some wry humour in it.”

However, there was still a lot of pressure on the translator since his style is not exactly old-fashioned, but classical – as she says, “you re-discover in it, especially when you’re translating, the pleasures of the subordinate clause and the long sentence”.  The translator, according to Bell,  “must always try to echo the author’s voice as far as possible.” Problems also arose that were unique to his particular style: like a sentence in Austerlitz that is all of 9 pages long.  In other situations, and with other German authors, Anthea Bell says, she might have considered chopping it up, but not with Max – it was there for a very specific purpose.  It describes the Nazis’ hectic attempts to prettify a concentration camp before a visit by a Red Cross committee.

“After a few pages in my first draft, I put in a full stop, but I took it out again at once because I knew it had no business there.”

In 1989 Sebald founded the British Centre for Literary Translation, as a place where “translators can talk together and sometimes work on texts with each other.”  As Anthea Bell says, “as translation is basically a solitary occupation, it’s very valuable to get together with your colleagues sometimes.”  Here, here.

About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
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