Jan Philipp Reemtsma “It all depends on what one makes of a joke”

“If you can tell that literature has been translated, it has not been translated well”: Arno Schmidt expert Reemtsma in Tokyo
“If you can tell that literature has been translated, it has not been translated well”: Arno Schmidt expert Reemtsma in Tokyo | Photo: Gen Tsujimoto

“Dänn wo lebte der Deutsche, der beim lateinischen ›mundus‹ nicht an ›Mund‹ dächte? : zwistlos erklingt der Zwiegesang.” It’s understandable if you think that Arno Schmidt is untranslatable, but you are wrong. Jan Philipp Reemtsma explains why in our interview.


“Rattatá Rattatá Rattatá. For a while all girls had black circles stead of eyes, mondaine owl faces, with ornery fiery-red slits inside: Rattatá.” This is how Arno Schmidt begins his love story Lake Scenery with Pocahontas, thus putting even the most experienced translators at a loss for words. Jun Wada of Japan faced the challenge nevertheless – and so well that this autumn the story and his translation were awarded the Merck Kakehashi Literature Prize.

The prize, awarded by Merck and the Goethe-Institut, is a literal “bridge between cultures” (kakehashi) promoting translations of contemporary German literature into Japanese with 10,000 euros each for the author and translator. Jan Philipp Reemtsma, the chair of the Arno Schmidt Foundation, accepted the prize for Schmidt, who died in 1979, at the Goethe-Institut Tokyo. We asked him what it is that makes Schmidt’s prose so unique.
Mr Reemtsma, you are the co-founder of the Arno Schmidt Foundation, have written a number of books about Schmidt and read his complete works on the radio. What do you think is fascinating about Schmidt’s writing?

Reemtsma: Arno Schmidt holds a unique place in German post-war literature. There is no other author whose work combines such tension between everyday observations and descriptions all the way to apparently banal, but historically valuable, everyday details with such poetic intensity – by which I mean metaphorical density and speech tempo. For example, at the beginning of his novel The Stony Heart we read about how he arrives in a small town and is searching for an address. He asks his way, sees this and that from the corners of his eyes in a manner of speaking. What he is creating before the eyes of the reader is a portrait – in jigsaw pieces – of the incipient West German economic miracle in the year 1954.

Can this metaphorical fullness be transferred to another language at all?

Awardee Wada Awardee Wada | Photo: Gen Tsujimoto That all depends on the language. The problems are quite different for every author and every language. There’s the question of syntax, the semantic fields of each word and so forth. Schmidt’s stylistic quirks are what they are, personal idiosyncrasies of style, but every author has their idiosyncrasies, and they are, because they are unique, only transferable with special effort. One interesting difficulty is when specific regional or milieu-related peculiarities – often merely a dialect for which there is no equivalent elsewhere – are translated and made experiential through the translation. How does one translate the atmosphere of 19th century Lübeck or London in such a way that someone from a different culture can “see” or “hear” it while reading Thomas Mann or Charles Dickens? How does one translate Cockney into Japanese or Urdu?

During your lecture about Arno Schmidt at the Goethe-Institut Tokyo, you cited a particularly illustrative example of the challenges of translating Schmidt’s writing. I think it was a subtitle...

The subtitle of his novel Evening Edged in Gold. The translator John Woods put a play on words in the subtitle that’s not in the German version. In German it says, “55 Bilder aus der Lä/Endlichkeit für Gönner der Verschreibkunst”. The wordplay of “ländlich/endlich” (rural/finally) plus “Lende” (loins) can’t be translated, so Woods used two meanings, and very disambiguated but very plausible ones in English, acoustically: “C(o)untryside.” And for “Gönner der Verschreibkunst,” he used “Patrons of Erra/ota,” as a sort of Freudian slip.

As a layperson, I would assume that such coined words really express Arno Schmidt’s true art. Is my explanation too trite?

Not everyone can tell jokes either, but it all depends on what one makes of a joke. Our advertising is full of wordplay and has very little to do with literature. It’s also not about coined words. Every language is constantly experiencing new coinages of words and that also has nothing to do with literature. What’s decisive is the work that results from it. Only that reveals – in Schmidt and every other writer – whether we are dealing with something of significance. Also, good translators aren’t revealed in whether they can master this or that difficulty well, but whether they can create something like a counterpart to the original in their own language. For example, the translated book has to be able to be read with the same fluidity and naturalness in both languages. If you can tell that literature has been translated, it has not been translated well.

Can you identify a worthy heir to Arno Schmidt among today’s German authors?

Authors of some significance have no heirs or successors. Wieland had none, Goethe didn’t, Thomas Mann didn’t, Döblin didn’t. An author who writes like another, or attempts to, would be imitating and therefore doing everything but writing like their assumed role model.

Why should we be reading Schmidt today in German, or now even in Japanese?

Because your life would otherwise be all the poorer. For literature, this is the only response to that question, no matter which author you ask me about.

The interview was conducted by Franziska Kekulé.