interview with Jo Lendle “From the great beyond into the present”

The Hanser publishers Jo Lendle
The Hanser publishers Jo Lendle | Photo (detail): © Frank Schinski

In Germany new translations of classics are booming. Hanser publisher Jo Lendle talks in this interview about gentle adjustments of languages and marketing strategies.

Mr Lendle, Hanser has re-translated and re-published numerous classics – most recently Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. How do you make your choice?

Hanser has circumspectly tried to extend the concept of “classic”. The series not only includes books of which it is said reverently that you should have read them once, but also invites readers to re-discover popular works. We also don’t take our decision according to how important the book appears to be to us, but rather according to its history of translation. The gain over existing translations has to be significant.

What part does marketing and look play in the success of such remakes?

As beautiful as goatskin editions with gilt edges were, they often seemed as if they were laid out in a sumptuous coffin. Their owners sought the aura of the enraptured so as to ennoble their sitting rooms. With us it’s the reverse: we bring literature back from the great beyond into the present. Quite deliberately, the classics take a leaf out of the book of the new releases of today. We re-issue Madame Bovary, for example, as if it had just been discovered. This can certainly be called marketing.

It rarely happens that new translations change the titles of books. “Schuld und Sühne” [i.e., Guilt and Atonement] is a famous example, republished as “Verbrechen und Strafe” [i.e., Crime and Punishment]. How dramatic must the difference be to undertake such an intervention?

There have to be good reasons regarding content – otherwise it’s gimmick. The guideline in any case isn’t freely and boldly to change the title, but rather to make a good and accurate translation, which revolves round the original and isn’t done for its sake. If the original title is good, it should be kept.

“We want to lure the reader into the past”

How is it with the copyrights?

The statutory copyright of all the classics we publish has expired. We acquire the rights to a new translation. If another publisher wants to re-translate and publish the book, he can do so.

Aren’t there enough new books worth publishing?

Our publishing programme consists of up to 99 per cent of new books. But we also want to lure readers of contemporary literature into the past, if only to enable a comparison. How does Madame Bovary read as a contemporary book? Some will say: That isn’t my world. Others will realise how timeless the described rebellion is and then leave a new book on the shelf.

What target audience do you want to reach with your new translations of the classics: readers who already read a previous translation in their youth, or their children who know nothing about the book?

Both, in equal parts. And so the new translations have also been received. Many readers take the opportunity of again occupying themselves with a book. For younger readers it’s a good occasion to read it for the first time. And comparison educates: when I was studying translation, we used to take turns reading out individual verses of various translations of the Bible. You really learn then what language is. How context and interpretation are reflected in formulations.

“We can avail ourselves only of our own linguistic cosmos”

What then is the main thing translators change?

I wouldn’t talk of “changing”. The new translator must first find his own tone for the work. Looking into the work of his predecessor comes only afterwards. Contemporary translators do many things differently from before: this already begins with the fact that, thanks to longer stays abroad, they know the spoken original language more intimately and have a more sensitive ear for deviations from the norm. Translators used to believe that they had to leave dialogue in artificial language. Today each translator develops his own standards. In the end it’s about finding correspondences that bring the work to life in its temporal context for the contemporary reader.

At what intervals does a work have to be re-translated to keep it linguistically adapted to the times?

We don’t want to customize the language to our time. There are really bad translations that call a cigarette a “Glimmstängel” [literally: a glow-stalk] and a bike a “Drahtesel” [literally: wire donkey], and you know that they must be from the seventies because people thought this was dressed-down language then. We can avail ourselves only of our own linguistic cosmos.

Will people then be reading the new translation of “Treasure Island” in a hundred or two hundred years?

We’d like that, of course; but seriously, I believe in the aging of translations because they’re interpretations. An understanding that is bound to its time underlies every translation. Even the original ages – but it’s allowed to do that. It’s the original.

Is there a book from your reading past that you would like to see re-translated?

I can think of several – we’re working on it.

Jo Lendle is an author and directs the Hanser Publishing House. He studied cultural sciences in Hildesheim and Montreal and is a graduate of the German Literature Institute Leipzig.