Christine Shuttleworth is the translator of Fanny von Arnstein: Daughter of the Enlightenment, which was published by New Vessel Press in 2013. Christine’s mother, Hilde Spiel, was the author of Fanny and the grand dame of Austrian letters; her father, Peter de Mendelssohn, was a German writer. Here, Christine reflects on how she got her start as a translator, and what it’s like when the author is also your mother.
When my mother, Hilde Spiel, asked me to undertake the translation into English of her biography of the eighteenth-century social and literary hostess Fanny von Arnstein, it was entirely thanks to her encouragement and confidence in me that I went ahead with the challenging task. From my London home, I sent her my work by post, chapter by chapter, along with endless lists of factual and stylistic queries, which she promptly answered from her apartment in Vienna with her unvarying professionalism. I found I enjoyed the task immensely, finding it much more rewarding than if the text had been by an author unknown to me.
These were the days before email, and I can’t help thinking how much more quickly the work would have proceeded if we had been able to take advantage of the technology we all rely on so much today. My translation of Fanny von Arnstein, Hilde Spiel’s favorite among all her books, was eventually published in England in 1991, a few months after her death.
My previous experience of professional translation had been minimal. An early attempt (at my father’s suggestion) at translating Lenz, an unfinished novella by Georg Büchner, was dismissed by him as inadequate. I had not read the story before, and in fairness to myself it was perhaps rather ambitious for a novice to attempt the translation of such a complex and imaginative piece of prose.
Thus, Fanny was my first full-length translation from German, and it gave me incentive to pursue a career as a literary translator. This was something I had never considered before, although I had had a good knowledge of German from my childhood: my parents had emigrated to England in 1936 and spoke a mixture of German and English at home, and we had spent two years in Berlin after the war, where my mother was employed as a theatre critic and my father, Peter de Mendelssohn, worked for the Control Commission for Germany. He later became a biographer of Winston Churchill and Thomas Mann.
Both in Berlin and in London, the two cities where I spent my early years, my parents would often begin a sentence in one language and end it in another, or insert an English word into a German sentence, or vice versa. They spoke to each other and to my younger brother and me in the same way, presumably keen that we should become equally fluent in both languages. This worked better for my brother than for me. Somewhat inhibited and lacking in confidence as a child, when addressed in German I would invariably reply in English. I knew that any error I made in German would immediately be corrected by my parents, and I hated to be corrected.
I have been asked what it was like to grow up with such literary parents. I think most small children accept whatever situation they find themselves growing up in, and cannot envisage any other. My schoolfriends, visiting me at home, would marvel at the number of books shelved in the living room, but to me, being surrounded by books was the norm. A house without books was unimaginable to me. Of course I had thoughts of becoming a writer myself, but never managed to produce any creative writing of particular merit – perhaps the standard set by my parents’ work was discouragingly high.
After leaving university, I worked in a series of publishing houses as an editorial assistant, first on books and then on magazines. While working at the London publishers Thames & Hudson, I was asked to translate some passages of German text for a book of images of London by Oskar Kokoschka, a task I achieved without too much difficulty.
From book publishing I moved into the world of periodicals, and it was then that, almost by chance, I took up indexing. I was working on an art and antiques magazine, which had never been indexed. The publisher appointed me to the task of producing an index, not caring that I had had no experience in this craft. In my lunch hour, I was wandering in the Fleet Street area of London, close to my office, when I came across St Bride Library in Bride Lane. This is a library primarily devoted to printing, book arts, typography and graphic design. I looked for books on indexing and came across Indexing, The Art of, by G. Norman Knight. This wonderful, entertaining as well as instructive manual aroused my enthusiasm for indexing. I later bought my own copy, which I still treasure (it is now out of print). With its help I managed to produce a reasonably serviceable index to the art and antiques magazine.
After this I joined the Society of Indexers and gradually built up a clientele, so that eventually I had enough work to take the step of becoming self-employed as a professional indexer. I still had no thought of becoming a literary translator until my mother convinced me that it was within my capabilities.
Some years after the original publication of my translation of Fanny into English, I decided to translate my mother’s memoirs, which were first published in two volumes by Ullstein in Germany: the first, Die hellen und die finsteren Zeiten, in 1989 and the second, Welche Welt ist meine Welt?, in 1990, the year of her death. This time I felt even more personally involved than with the earlier book, for the subject was even closer to my heart. As I wrote in my Introduction to the new translation (which was published in one volume, as The Dark and the Bright: Memoirs 1911-1989 by Ariadne Press in Riverside, California, in 2007): “I found myself deeply regretting the fact that I could no longer consult her whenever I hesitated over a phrase or reference which was obscure to me.” Without the experience of her sympathetic guidance and counsel when I was translating Fanny, I can’t imagine that I would have undertaken this second labor of love.
“Her place of birth”, Hilde Spiel wrote of her heroine, “was a Europe torn by the battles of kings, by the uprisings of nations, by war and revolution.” Like Fanny von Arnstein, her biographer lived in turbulent times of national and international upheaval and, like her, acquitted herself “with grace, spirit and dignity.” I imagine that if they had lived in the same era, they might have been close friends.
I still find pleasure in both tasks – indexing and translation – and cannot say which I prefer. What the two apparently disparate occupations have in common is, of course, that both are ancillary processes, designed to give the reader an additional way of approaching the text. The task of the indexer is to provide a key to the book, to make it more accessible to the reader, while that of the translator is to convey another writer’s style and content as closely as possible in the words of another language. The advice of T S Eliot in Little Gidding, to my mind, expresses the creative responsibility of the translator as much as it does that of the author:
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together.
One task I have found particularly interesting as a translator is that of rendering the vocabulary and turns of phrase of earlier eras. I like to think that, as a result of wide reading in my youth, I have acquired an ear for vocabulary, grammar and phraseology and can manage to produce a passable version of the foreign text as it might have been translated in the same period, or where appropriate a period-neutral version (to coin a term) which at least avoids jarring stylistic and verbal anachronisms.
Fanny von Arnstein provided a particular challenge in this respect, as many 18th-century German sources are quoted, and I enjoyed rendering them in what I hope and believe to be an acceptable style, without either glaringly anachronistic or unnecessarily archaic phraseology. Here is one example, from Chapter 7, “The High Priest’s Blessing” (Der Segen des Hohepriesters), which may also serve as an introduction to our heroine. It is taken from a letter written by a young Bavarian visitor to Vienna. First, the original:
“Die Baronin von Arnsteiner, oder wie man sie hier im allgemeinen nennt, die Fanny, ist eine Frau von einigen und 30 Jahren und von Geburt eine Berlinerin. Sie ist eine Tochter des wegen seines Reichtums, seiner Wohltätigkeit und redlichen Gesinnungen bekannten jüdischen Handelsmannes Itzig; er war ein aufgeklärter Mann, im guten Sinne des Wortes, Beweisthümer seiner hellen Denkart, die ihn über die großen Vorurtheile seines Volks und der damaligen noch geringen Kultur desselben erhoben, sind die Erziehung und Bildung, die er seinen Kindern gab. Jede der Itzig’schen Töchter ward mit so vieler Sorgfalt erzogen, genoß in allen Fächern der Sprachen und Wissenschaften einen so reichlichen Unterricht, daß sie, wenn es Wille des Schicksals gewesen wäre, den Stand der Fürstinnen nicht verunziert haben würden. Urtheilen Sie hieraus, wie angenehm man in diesem Hause sein muß, wo die Frau desselben den guten Ton und die mit diesem gesellschaftlichen Vorzug befreundeten Tugenden in sich vereinigt. Sie hat Verstand und Charakter und wird nur selten, wie andere ihres Geschlechtes, von Launen tyrannisiert.”
And here is my version:
“Baroness von Arnsteiner, or Fanny, as she is generally called here, is a woman of several-and-thirty years, and by birth a Berliner. She is a daughter of the Jewish businessman Itzig, known for his wealth, his philanthropy and honest disposition; he was an enlightened man, in the good sense of the word; evidence of his clear-sightedness, which lifted him above the great prejudices of his people and their, at that time, still meager culture, are the education and upbringing that he gave his children. Each of the Itzig daughters was educated with so much care, and enjoyed such abundant instruction in all branches of languages and sciences, that, had it been the will of fate, they would not have disgraced the rank of princesses. Judge from this how pleasant it must be in this house, whose mistress unites in herself good breeding and the virtues associated with this social advantage. She has good sense and character and is only seldom enslaved by her moods as are others of her sex.”
Seeing the book in print again has been a moving personal experience for me. It is certainly my mother’s best book as well as the one dearest to her heart. I hope I have done justice to it and to her.