Invisible: Translators in Der Monat

While adding the issues of Der Monat (1948-1971) to our database, I found it impossible not to feel a degree of frustration with the magazine’s approach to translation, or rather: the lack of visibility when it comes to translations. In early editions, more than half of the articles, literary pieces, short quotations and reviews printed in Der Monat are translated into German. In the first issue, only two German authors contributed texts to the magazine. A slow but steady shift to German authors and correspondents occurs as the years go on, and yet, I still found myself in complete disbelief while leafing through issue 161 – the first issue without ANY translated pieces.

Looking back on the central role translation plays in the set-up of Der Monat, it seems even more surprising how rarely translators are credited in its pages. In contrast to most? of the other periodicals our project is looking at, the editorial practice of Der Monat is to give all the credit to the original author. Most of the time, it isn’t even mentioned that the text in question is translated – which can turn the task of listing translated pieces into a bit of a guessing game. Yes, this author spoke German, but does that mean that they would have written this text in German? Did someone translate it for them? Or did they collaborate with someone from the editing staff? Questions like these, the magazines themselves do not answer. Insight into decisions made in the production process, editorial practices and communication between authors and translators can only be found in material from the archives surrounding Der Monat. And yet, there are some instances in which the finished product itself offers you a look behind the scenes. One of these, I stumbled upon at the beginning of my research.

The 3rd issue of Der Monat published Henry James’s story The Tone of Time (German title: Patina), as usual without mentioning a translator. A commentary next to the story claims that this publication of Patina might be the first German translation of any of James’s texts in the 20th century.1 And in the closing section of the magazine, which gives information on the authors of Der Monat, the difficulty of translating Henry James is again commented upon:

The style of this extraordinarily deliberate and hesitant narrator, who seems to be constantly on a restless search for the mot juste, is easy in his own language, but all the more difficult to imitate in a foreign one. The German reader of even the most careful translation must forego some of James’s idiosyncrasy […].

The editors’ decision to emphasise the effort of translating James’s story into German might be the reason why this time, I wasn’t the only one irritated by the invisibility of the translator. The 5th issue of Der Monat contains a letter-to-the-editor in which a dedicated reader thanks the editorial staff for the publication of James’s story, but also asks them to identify the translator of the piece because of how well the translation was done. As it turns out, this dedicated reader saw the editorial comments surrounding Patina as an invitation to compare the translation with his own copy of the original story – and found it all the more brilliant for it.

In their answer to this letter-to-the-editor, the editorial staff not only names Hansi Bochow-Blüthgen as the translator and joins in on praising her work, but also reveals an element of their editorial practices: “In this case, we feel justified in departing from our custom of naming only the translators of poetry. In general, the translations in the columns of Der Monat are the result of team-work by the editorial team and the consulted freelancers.”

This look behind the scenes shows that the lack of credited translations – at least when it comes to the translators of prose – is no oversight, but a deliberate practice chosen by the editorial team behind the magazine. It also leads me to question why this practice was chosen. Why credit the translation of verse but not prose? Is there a judgement of effort included in this distinction? Why not give a platform to translators in general, given that the magazine relies so heavily on translation? And why not change the custom when it is put into question by readers?

These questions are, of course, connected to the larger issue of visibility when it comes to translators (see for example the still current #namethetranslators on twitter). In many ways, the practices of Der Monat fit in with the history of invisible translators in the publishing industry in general. But I suspect that the editors’ decision to not credit translators was less dependent on the practices of publishing houses than on the magazine’s own self-image.

Der Monat consistently emphasizes its internationality, its aim to be a forum to as many voices as possible and to further discussions among readers, authors and editors – as seen in staple segments of the magazine like the letter-to-the-editor-section. So, perhaps, the practices surrounding translation were chosen because they create the illusion of immediacy? Not crediting translators, not mentioning whether a text is translated or not, places the focus solely on the authors – and thus, arguably, strengthens the relationship between author and reader. Due to practices like this, Der Monat presents itself as a direct exchange of ideas – without language as a barrier.

Dana Steglich

1This claim is likely incorrect, for more information on German translations of James’ work see: Baumgaertel, Gerhard: The Reception of Henry James in Germany, in: Symposium. A Quarterly Journal of Modern Literatures, Volume 13/1 (1959), pp. 19-31.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s