The Mistake on Page 1,032: On Translating Infinite Jest into German

In Digital by Amanda DeMarco

By Amanda DeMarco

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” Ulrich Blumenbach quotes Wittgenstein as saying in a Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung article to describe the challenges and inducements of the six years he spent translating David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (Unendlicher Spass) into German — something he did without input from the author, who refused to speak to him.

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace

Last summer, Blumenbach finally reaped the benefits of his efforts when the novel was released in Germany to great critical and commercial success, and he was awarded the Hieronymusring for Exceptional Achievement in Literary Translation, as well as the Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt Prize for his work.

Infinite Jest poses some special problems in translation; a massive text, its pages are riddled with acronyms and American pop-culture references, as well as dialects, characters with idiosyncratic styles of speech, and a vocabulary that ranges from lettered to colloquial to technical to arcane. “Of course it’s a very complex problem, what should a French Canadian speaking very bad English sound like in a German translation?” Blumenbach mused on one of the book’s particularly thorny challenges in an interview with Publishing Perspectives.

But in the end it was these very challenges that kept him engaged: “It’s such a rich book in its multitude of characters and voices. Whenever you turn the page you find something completely new. That didn’t disturb me or slow me, but actually kept me going because I was always curious.”

Adding to the challenge was a sense of isolation; Blumenbach’s editor only began to work on Infinite Jest in the second half of 2008, after Blumenbach himself had been translating it for five years. “I really translated it into a soundless chamber. There was no echo whatsoever. I didn’t get any reaction to what I was doing,” he remarked. Luckily Blumenbach and his editor shared an aesthetic vision for what Infinite Jest should sound like in German, and the long-awaited feedback mostly concerned details.

Blumenbach eventually received more feedback than translators traditionally ever have, via 100 Tage Unendlicher Spass (100 Days of Infinite Jest), a blog created by Infinite Jest’s German publisher, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, which offered commentary on the book by various writers and thinkers, Blumenbach included, from August to early December 2009. 100 Tage Unendlicher Spass also provided Blumenbach with the opportunity to respond to readers’ comments on the blog posts.

In one of many such examples, a November 18th comment on Blumenbach’s November 15th entry from a user called Ronald Bergner says, “I noticed a mistake: P 1,032 ‘Dieses Vorgehen bergte Risiken […]’ Do you mean the past form of ‘bergen’ or something else?” Blumenbach responds the very next day: “Concerning the apparent mistake on P. 1,032: Wallace allows the narrator to assume the respective speech of the character (here of the Wheelchair Assassins), and ergo on P. 1032 the “French-ified” German that we otherwise associate with Marathe emerges. Wallace marks the French Canadians not by their incorrect pronunciation, as the French are recognized in jokes or comedies…but through very precisely mistaken verb forms, terms, and idioms…” and he proceeds to give several examples.

Blumenbach’s accessibility, combined with his commitment to responding, results in a remarkable level of accountability on his part for his translation. Overall, the experience was a positive one for him: “Usually I could explain things or I tried to explain things on the blog and people, I think, reacted quite reasonably…I liked the direct commentaries because they showed me that people actually had an eye for the language Unendlicher Spass is written in.”

However direct or diffuse or discerning feedback from readers might be, they can’t take the place of the interactions with Wallace that Blumenbach was not able to have. “I’d still like to see what people in the academy, what literary scholars will have to say about the translation…We had huge and very insightful reviews in Germany; but no, not even those can replace or compensate for Wallace’s commentaries. I would really have loved to hear what he would have had to say about the book,” he said.

Blumenbach also plans to translate The Pale King, Wallace’s posthumous novel that will be published by Little, Brown and Company in April 2011. Blumenbach, who himself has only seen the excerpts widely available in the New Yorker, had hoped to begin translating this year, but no manuscript will be available by then due to Little, Brown and Company’s postponement of their publication.

In the mean time, Blumenbach is translating the original scroll of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road for Rowohlt Verlag, and discovering new facets of the work along the way: “Oh it is fun, it’s great fun…He’s a great bard of the American landscape. He rhapsodizes about the landscape.”

READ: 100 Tage Unendlicher Spass, a blog about translation Infinite Jest (in German)

DISCUSS: Is there an untranslatable book?

About the Author

Amanda DeMarco

Amanda DeMarco is a freelance writer and translator living in Berlin. Originally from Chicago, her work for Publishing Perspectives focuses on German-language publishing news.