Michael Walter interviewed by Rory MacLean
Every year around 3,000 books are translated from English into German. At the same time only 30 or 40 books travel in the opposite direction from German to English. The discrepancy explains the importance and popular appreciation of translators in this country (as well as illustrating the insularity of the Anglo-Saxon world – “Fog in Channel: Continent Isolated”). Translators are considered to be key contributors to Germany’s understanding of the world, and Michael Walter – who has translated more than 60 novels, plays and screenplays – stands among the best of them.
‘There is the sort of actor who plays different parts yet always stays himself and there is the actor who transforms himself with each new character,’ Corinna Brocher, Head of Rowohlt Theater Verlag, told me. ‘As a translator Michael belongs to the category of transformation artist.’
Michael was born in Wiesbaden, moving as a child to the Black Forest and then Baden Baden. His family home was always full of books. His father loved Goethe. His mother was passionate about Hermann Hesse. He grew up surrounded by literature, but it was music – especially pop music – which first captured his imagination.
‘The 1960s opened my eyes,’ he told me. ‘Baden Baden was a “bright lights big city” after the Black Forest. I became a drummer in a band. We sang cover versions of English hits so someone had to understand and transcribe the lyrics. That someone was me.’
His band – called variously Slash, Blues Eternity and Leviathan – first did numbers by Herman’s Hermits, then the Beatles and Rolling Stones, finally Led Zeppelin and Ten Years After.
‘I immediately liked the language,’ Michael said, singing a line from a Yardbirds hit. ‘English just clicked with me.’
After university he planned to become a teacher but friends advised him against the pedagogic life. Instead he found himself delivering flyers in Stuttgart, trying to break into publishing, unable to get a proper job. Then a former professor chanced to ask him to translate Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.
‘I worked hard and it came easily,’ Michael recalled. ‘My background in music was useful. In a band you have to catch the vibes of the other guys on stage. If you miss each other, it’s a lousy performance. I taught myself to listen out for – and catch – Stevenson’s vibes.’
His professionalism brought him more work, and his fluency and playful use of language gave him remarkable range. He translated Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll, Edward Gibbon, David Hare and Harold Pinter. He developed an enthusiasm for Laurence Sterne, his translation of Tristram Shandy winning the Johann Heinrich Voß Prize, the first of his eight major literary scholarships and awards.
‘When work goes well, you feel at home in the text,’ he told me. ‘Sentences and paragraphs simply sound right. But sometimes – for example with Orwell – I didn’t get the vibes. My translation of 1984 isn’t very good. It’s not that the words are wrong, but rather that the language sounds clumsy and lacks elegance. Orwell didn’t really inspire me. My later work on Animal Farm is better.’
Michael is never satisfied with a translation. Corinna Brocher told me that he has an ear for the editor’s request for changes but remains stubborn in the right places. ‘One feels that a translation is continually working away in him and unsolved problems do not let go of him until he finds the optimal solution,’ she said.
His new undertaking is Henry James’ The Ambassadors. To find the right tone he will submerge himself in the German literature of the time (1903), aspiring to capture the sound and spirit of the age as well as to establish the book’s relevance to the modern day. If the project goes ahead, Michael will need at least two years to translate the novel’s 800 pages.
‘I have to try it. Why? Don’t you want to leap higher and higher with each new project? Just to see if you can do it?’ he asked me. ‘That’s how I feel. That’s why I did Melville.’ He went on, ‘I turn 60 next year. When I get older I can do, say, the letters of Lawrence Sterne. That won’t be difficult for me because I already know Sterne well. But before then, I want to do a book that really challenges me.’
Michael has met only two of the dozens of authors whose works he has translated.
‘I was in New York and called John Irving. He said, “Come on out to the house.” I did and we spent the day together swimming, talking about everything under the sun. My only regret is that I haven’t met Ian McEwan. He is a fantastic author. His work is very important.’
Michael, a member of the German Academy, is happiest at home in Munich with his wife – who is also a translator – and their two cats.
‘Translation is about discipline and responsibility,’ he volunteered. ‘A good translator needs to have a good ear. He or she has to work every sentence, turning it around, getting it to the point when it feels just right, and so leads on to the next line. A good translator also needs time.’
‘People always ask me if I want to write myself,’ he added with a smile. ‘I tried about 15 years ago but it was no good. I bear no grudge. I am happy with the work I do but not – mind you – with the payment.’