La Salle University German Professor Vincent Kling recently was awarded the Schlegel-Tieck Prize of the Goethe Institute in London for the best translation of a literary work from German to English.
Kling was honored for translating the novel Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta (in German, the title is Warum das Kind in der Polenta kocht) by Aglaja Veteranyi, published by Dalkey Archive Press in London and Champaign, Ill.
“I had no idea I was even in consideration,” said Kling, who also graduated from La Salle in 1968. “The publisher submits the recommendations, not the author. It would never have dawned on me that my work is in the same league as that of earlier laureates, among who are some very eminent people.”
Kling says the book is a highly autobiographical novel about a young girl who escaped with her family, all circus performers, from Romania and traveled with them through Europe and North Africa. “I have written an afterword for the Dalkey edition that tells more about how Veteranyi broke away from her family, who was very abusive, when she was 17. She returned to Switzerland, where she had lived for a long time and gained literacy in German,” Kling said. “The voice in which her novel is spoken is extremely distinctive, narrating in a childlike way the most harrowing details of exploitation and abuse.”
Jeremy Davies, Senior Editor at Dalkey Archive Press, said, “We’ve had a long-standing relationship with Kling, primarily regarding his work on the Austrian author Gert Jonke, about whose work Kling could be said to be the leading authority in English. Kling translated Jonke’s System of Vienna for us and also contributed an overview essay about Jonke’s life and work for our journal, the Review of Contemporary Fiction, as well as translating an autobiographical essay of Jonke’s for the journal. I tend to keep Kling in mind when assigning translators to our upcoming German-language titles.”
Kling said he had never heard of Veteranyi before Dalkey Archive approached him about translating her novel.
So, what is translating a book from one language to another like?
“It is exciting and tedious at the same time,” Kling said, “and the main requirement, even more than knowledge of the language from which the translation is being made, is a command of the language into which it’s being made.”
“I draw on statements of eminent translators like John E. Woods, who say that the first aim is to create a document that really sounds like English, that sounds completely idiomatic and natural,” he said. “My experience has been that I can do that only if I am as accurate in word meanings as I can be, but I absolutely must hear the work out loud. I always wait until the next day to read what I did the day before, and if I hesitate or stumble, I know there’s something wrong. That pertains to very complex, convoluted pieces like the stories of Jonke as much as to the very naïve and straightforward language of Veteranyi’s narrator.”