“Occupation: Composer and Writer”: A Translator As Well

“Occupation: Composer and Writer”: A Translator As Well

by Vincent Kling

Slotting artists into categories or movements creates an orderly system of storage and retrieval. Classify Bryon and Keats as Romantics; identify Harlan Ellison and Octavia E. Butler as science-fiction writers; group Berg, Schönberg, and Webern as the Second Viennese School; assemble the separate members of the Oxford Inklings and the Mighty Russian Five and the Parisian Six into groups, and those headings, however workaday, efficiently collate similarities. Consolidation provides useable generalities by preventing every individual instance from being seen as an isolated phenomenon unrelated to any other.

But woe betide the creative spirit too protean for easy classification. Ernst Krenek is best known as a composer, but even in that one capacity, too restrictive for his many activities as it is, there is no convenient slot for a musician who wrote in an enormous array of styles from jazz through rigorous dodecaphony, from Stravinsky-like neoclassicism through electronic music, from adaptations of strict Renaissance polyphony to aleatory technique. In a career spanning some seventy years (Krenek was born in 1900 and died in 1991) and surpassing 240 opus numbers, Krenek almost never repeated himself and went on experimenting in his old age even more daringly than in his youth. Poet Don Mager refers to “the set of remarkable works from [Krenek’s] last few years” as “a final refulgence on the scale of a Haydn or a Verdi” (https://www.eclectica.org/v2n2/mager_krenek_intro.html). Krenek had no signature style or standard technique, so no work by him sounds like any other. Even within a given style or approach, he was always striking out in new directions; in his serial works, for instance, he starts each time from radically different principles of organization. He left no genre of music untouched, and, to quote Samuel Johnson on Oliver Goldsmith, he touched nothing he did not adorn.

Krenek was ubiquitous in the musical life of two continents. He knew and worked with everybody but belonged to no clan or coterie and avoided fealty to any artistic movement or school. The price of this autonomy is relative isolation, especially when cultural politics construes every artistic decision as an ideological statement. Witness Pierre Boulez’s fulminating, early in his career, that tonality equals fascism and that all opera houses should be burned down. Consider Theodor W. Adorno’s irate denunciation of Sibelius for the crime of writing “national” music in a tonal idiom. By staying free of faction, Krenek was labeled a turncoat or a sellout every time he changed compositional method or direction. He was left with no one to champion him, no Alban Berg, say, who defended Arnold Schönberg with such spirited polemics. His editors call him in one collection of his writings “a well-known unknown.” While Krenek is not obscure or forgotten, then, his work is likely to be relatively unfamiliar, even among music lovers, despite a sizable body of scholarship and critical analysis, an ample catalogue of recordings (check Spotify, for instance), and fairly frequent performances, especially on anniversary occasions. He received many distinctions and awards over the decades, including a number of honorary degrees. The Ernst Krenek Institute in Krems, Austria is a focal point, in fact, promoting his legacy by functioning as an active repository, an archive, a forum for research, a sponsor of performances and publications, a worldwide clearing house staffed by expert scholars, and the designated estate executor (https://www.krenek.at/en/institut).

It is the Institute, in fact, that has recently foregrounded Krenek’s activity as a translator of his own fiction. Among his immense output in so many fields, it is easy to lose sight of a novella he began in Switzerland and continued during his forced wanderings all over Europe throughout 1938, after the Anschluss. What calls for discussion of that novella here is that Krenek, albeit with help, translated his novella Die drei Mäntel des Anton K. into English as The Three Overcoats of Anton K. He published the English version in a small journal of literature in 1955; the original German did not appear until 1965 in a volume of miscellaneous prose, plays, and poems. A recent bilingual publication (2020) under the imprint of Edition Memoria and the auspices of the Institute documents this aspect of Krenek’s literary artistry and prompts discussion of issues about translation. But while The Three Overcoats is our main topic, considering it without a broader context would not begin to convey the range of Krenek’s mastery as musical and literary artist and would constitute an outright injustice. It would be as if we informed someone interested in American history only that George Washington made his name in the French and Indian Wars or that Abraham Lincoln was a self-educated lawyer skilled in debate who became politically prominent.

Peter Tregear calls Krenek “a one-man history of twentieth-century music,” a description also used for a recent exhibit on the composer (https://www.krenek.at/forum). Not only was Krenek astonishingly prolific, but the variety of his music is even more noteworthy than its impressive quantity. It seems inexplicable that one person could write with so secure a grasp of each idiom, commanding a vast range of styles and approaches. The closest parallel might be to Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, who tapped a number of distinct authorial identities (he called them “heteronyms”) to compose in modes and voices so different from one another that their common authorship nearly defies belief. Pessoa’s achievement remains a mystery of creation, and Krenek’s, just as wide-ranging, is not far behind, though he always composed from the same personal center, only once adopting a pseudonym.

Ernst Krenek at Hamline University, 1942 (© Ernst Krenek Institut)
First page of the manuscript of Krenek’s «Die drei Mäntel des Anton K.» (© Ernst Krenek Institut)

Krenek’s greatest success, the opera Jonny spielt auf (Johnny Strikes up the Band), had its first performance in 1927 and drew on every up-to-date device of jazz as adapted by classical composers of the era (Gershwin, Milhaud, Ravel). So fully did its music—and its transgressive story of a Black jazz musician who gets all the (white) girls and absconds with an Amati violin—appeal to contemporary taste that it was performed over 420 times in some forty opera houses in its first season alone, evoking enthusiastic applause and horrified outrage in equal measure. He followed the opera by a song cycle of entirely different musical character, Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen (Journal of a Trip through the Austrian Alps) (1929), in part a centennial homage to Franz Schubert (Knessl), fusing accessible melody with a kind of sustained lyrical declamation that promotes clear understanding of the text, along the lines of Maurice Ravel’s Histoires naturelles or Frank Martin’s Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke. By contrast to this grounding in lyricism, his large-scale opera Karl V. (Charles V) (1933) deployed twelve-tone structure throughout. It marked the start of a period in which each new dodecaphonic work, like the Piano Variations of 1937, was configured on different structural principles, culminating in the Lamentatio Jeremiæ Prophetæ (1942), which remarkably combines the pitch organization of twelve-tone writing at its most stringent (though applied in an individual way) with the modal counterpoint of early Renaissance music, and in the Sestina (1957), at which we will take a closer look. An invitation to work in the electronic music studio of the West German Radio in 1955 led Krenek in yet another new direction, and to the resultant total serialism he later began adding aleatoric processes. He left an immense catalogue of operas, ballets, symphonies, concertos, songs, choral works, string quartets and numerous other chamber pieces, piano music, and electronic compositions, and this list of original works does not even take into account Krenek’s extensive musical activities as conductor, completer of other composers’ unfinished music, such as a piano sonata by Schubert, and arranger of earlier, partly forgotten works like Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea.

Composing in words was as essential to Krenek as composing in music, and critic H. H. Stuckenschmidt (qtd. in Stewart 209)[1] “called Krenek a writer of high rank who would have made his way as such had he not become a composer.” The title of this essay is taken from a vita he drew up late in life, giving equal weight to his activities as a writer and a composer. Here, too, his range is bewildering. In newspapers and periodicals, in books of collected essays and articles, in pamphlets and program notes, there are few subjects on which Krenek did not write with depth and insight, in German and later in English. A monumental scholarly study by Rebecca Unterberger of Krenek’s writing through the 1920s and ’30s alone extends to more than a thousand pages in discussing a monumental body of publications, lectures, and addresses: on his music and that of others, on music history and performance practice, on literature, on theology, on psychology, on politics, on philosophy, on stagecraft, on history, on economics, on textual reconstruction, on travel and geography, on questions of national identity, on statecraft and forms of government, earning him by turns praise and censure as a radical, a reactionary, an ultra-modern spirit, an anti-modern spirit, a source of hope and a purveyor of cynicism. As a composer, he was accused of sterility, cold cruelty, shallow crowd-pleasing in fake “cutting-edge” disguise and of propagating the “vilest perversions of human nature” (Unterberger 11-14), and his writing as a musical, literary and cultural critic, because it was emphatic and polemical, drew equally strong reactions. In all the fields just named and more, Krenek was informed and assured, but it was not in his nature to be apodictic or doctrinaire. In what could be called this journalistic or critical vein, his writing is judicious and well considered. His tact is everywhere evident as well in his extensive correspondence with such fellow artists as Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann, Karl Kraus, Oskar Kokoschka, Anton Webern, and Igor Stravinsky, a lifetime of exchange constantly revealing additional aspects of Krenek’s breadth and depth.

As a university professor, Krenek wrote numerous essays of musical analysis, history, and biography as well as several books, all informed equally by scholarship and technical practicability. Among other books he wrote, fully or in collaboration, critical biographies of Gustav Mahler (with Bruno Walter) and Johannes Ockeghem, three studies of counterpoint (on modal counterpoint, on tonal counterpoint, and on counterpoint based on twelve-tone technique)—no other composer seems to have examined the topic from so many different standpoints—and reflections on his own music, such as Horizons Circled. His biographer John L. Stewart calls Krenek’s work on twelve-tone technique “a model of terse, lucid, but withal genial exposition that shows a masterful teacher truly, even joyfully in his element” (220). When Igor Stravinsky began his gradual exploration of twelve-tone and serial structures, he turned to Krenek’s Jeremiah Lamentations and made a close study of the book Stewart rates so highly, learning techniques through Krenek’s pedagogy that culminated in Agon, Threni (possibly an allusive tribute to Krenek, since Stravinsky draws here on the text of the Jeremiah Lamentatons), and the Requiem Canticles (Taruskin 122-123). It would be hard to think of a more authoritative endorsement by practical use. As for Krenek’s dealings with students, George Perle, who would later achieve his own eminence, was inspired all his life by Krenek’s “generosity, comprehension, and collegial interest” as a teacher (Perle 150).

On every level from uncomplicated through daunting, Krenek wrote with painstaking craftsmanship and rare candor. He composed his posthumously published autobiography, Im Atem der Zeit (The Breath of Time), over a thousand pages long, in unobtrusively disciplined colloquial language. Strategically unrhetorical and straightforward in style, these memoirs review his own life and work while providing informed opinions on many contemporaries that are as blunt as they are free of rancor, as honest as they are free of censure. It will interest readers of this journal that Krenek wrote the book in English but that it has been published so far only in translation; the Krenek Institute is contemplating an edition in the original, and music lovers who don’t read German are in for the delight of reading unvarnished comments on Paul Hindemith, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and many another musician. Krenek’s recollections may not be objective or unbiased (if there’s any such thing to begin with), but it’s not possible to come away from them without a sense of fairness.

“He was, restlessly and uncertainly, trying for something new” (Mendelson 776). This comment by his biographer about W. H. Auden at 60 could apply just as readily to Krenek at the same age. In contrast to his approachable autobiography, the chamber composition Sestina, for which Krenek wrote both poem and music, places intense demands on the reader-listener, but its difficulty is integral to its aesthetic and ethical requirements. While giving lectures at Princeton, Krenek learned about sestina form from literary critic R. J. Blackmur and immediately recognized how the fixed order in which the six end words must recur could be adapted to govern the permutations of a serial tone row. He wrote his own sestina (in German), choosing as his end words richly ambiguous terms (Strom = flow; Mass = measurement; Zufall = chance; Gestalt = shape; Zeit = time; Zahl = number) that have wide possible reference but also compel contemplation of literary and musical structure both as formal processes and as calls to truth content (Taruskin 39). Such conscious reflection built into the work itself on the methods and tools of its creation is tantamount to what in religious discipline would be called examination of conscience, all the more as the extreme stringency of the piece admits no concession to audience expectations. In purposely espousing a more drastic serial rigor than near-contemporaries like Olivier Messiaen and Anton Webern, Krenek was aware that the radical, almost unprecedented stringency of Sestina aligned him with a younger generation of composers like Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen (Krenek “Limits” 211). He kept surpassing himself by going where his vision took him, and as if that uncompromising dedication were not itself an authentic enough stance, Krenek was unique in daring to break a taboo by admitting about total serialism that its techniques “produced sound sequences that could not be parsed as relationships by a listening ear, only an inquiring mind” (Taruskin 39; 161-173). The prevailing pious fiction, upheld by some fellow composers and long insisted on by Theodor W. Adorno and others, maintained that the ear eventually became attuned to serialist structures, and Krenek was shunned and scolded for telling the unvarnished truth instead of upholding a reassuring falsehood.

One more body of the composer’s writing calls for comment before we approach The Three Overcoats. In the National Socialist era, Krenek became literally the poster boy for “degenerate music,” and he owes no small share in that distinction to the social and political content of his libretti. The posters for the exhibit on “entartete Musik” (degenerate music) that opened in Düsseldorf in 1938 featured a caricature of a caricature, a grotesquely leering Black musician wearing a Star of David, that image derived from the cover for the score of Jonny spielt auf (ORT). If Krenek’s slightly mislabeled “jazz opera” had triggered frenetic outrage by appearing to scoff at every old-world tradition European culture held sacred, his opera Karl V. (libretto likewise by himself, as was almost always the case) represented Catholic triumphalism, monarchy, central state control, and hierarchy as values that could play a role in saving imperiled Europe. From becoming an object of loathing by reactionaries, Krenek was now condemned by apoplectic leftists, who did not consider that his endorsement of the clerical-fascist corporative state ruling in Austria from 1933 to 1938, like a similar apologia by Karl Kraus, embodied a strong but vain hope that this regime, at least grounded in Austrian tradition, could stave off encroachment by the overwhelming, unhinged barbarism and brutality of Nazi Germany. (Krenek was always one to go his own uncompromising way; in its dramatic content, Karl V. was timely to the point of urgency and agreeable to the regime, but its twelve-tone musical structure virtually guaranteed that its premiere at the Vienna State Opera, scheduled for February 1934, would be cancelled, as indeed happened.)

Beginning with his early opera Die Zwingburg (The Tyrant’s Stronghold) (1922), Krenek’s stage works are almost all indictments of tyranny and abuse of power, either political or psychological, if not both (Stewart 317). Long before his own exile from Austria, Krenek understood the trauma of expulsion and the isolation it could cause; this is the dynamic linking political tyranny with individual displacement, a configuration he would further explore in The Three Overcoats. Both Der Diktator (The Dictator) and Das Leben des Orest (The Life of Orestes) draw on Benito Mussolini, whose posturing buffoonish airs lend them an occasional antic tone (Stewart 89-90; 107). Der Diktator is the first of a trilogy of one-acters, all addressing contemporary issues from different modalities; Krenek labels Der Diktator a “tragic opera,” Das geheime Königreich (The Secret Kingdom) a “fairy-tale opera,” and Schwergewicht, oder die Ehre der Nation (Gravity, or the Honor of the Nation) a “burlesque operetta.” Tarquin (Tarquin), with its psychologically tortured atmosphere, evokes the dark figure of Hitler (Stewart 224), while Pallas Athene weint (Pallas Athene Weeps) is a conscious and searing indictment of McCarthyism (Stewart 317-318; also Krenek, “Why ‘Pallas Athena Weeps’” 195-201).[2] It is common artistic practice to examine present disruptions and tyrannies from historical or mythical parallels—among other libretti, Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle’s Don Carlos for Giuseppe Verdi (the same Spanish Habsburg entanglements as in Karl V.), Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Der Rosenkavalier for Richard Strauss, or W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman’s The Bassarids for Hans Werner Henze come to mind, among novels Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, Giuseppi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose—and Krenek developed considerable adroitness, beginning with Karl V., at sustaining such parallels.

Overall, for that matter, Krenek’s libretti hold their own as works of drama. On a continuum of literary quality, they approach more closely the skill of Hofmannsthal or Auden-Kallman than the utilitarian but occasionally ungainly plodding of other composers who were their own librettists, like Richard Wagner or Hindemith. As a librettist, Krenek might fittingly be compared with Marc Blitzstein, who demonstrated significant craftsmanship in The Cradle Will Rock and No for an Answer.[3] 

Considering Krenek as a translator calls for some recalibration of scale, though, since that activity was never more than peripheral for him. A comment by John Stewart makes the topic of libretti a good point at which to readjust, since it raises a question never clarified about Krenek’s command of English. The libretto for Tarquin (1940) was one of the very few Krenek did not write or adapt himself, and Stewart blasted Emmet Lavery’s text as “maudlin rubbish” (224), judging it “charitable to suppose that Krenek was not yet sufficiently acquainted with English to appreciate the awfulness” of Lavery’s lines. Krenek had been in the United States for little more than a year at that time, but even later, “when he could do well on his own” (Stewart 220), he appears to have welcomed (needed) help when he wrote in or translated into English. As noted earlier, he had it from two colleagues with The Three Overcoats, Brecht scholar Eric Bentley and literary agent Barthold Fles. Overall, too, Krenek’s third wife, the inexhaustible Gladys Nordenstrom Krenek, was his main and constant support in this regard, as in every other, and surely had a hand in polishing his English (Stewart 273 and the interview with Gladys Krenek, NAMM). If the original English text of his autobiography should reach publication as planned and is not intrusively redacted, it will give readers a more secure basis on which to assess Krenek’s ability in the language.

We bear in mind, then, that regarding translation Krenek was not and did not aim to be what George Saunders calls a “stylist.” “Every translator is a stylist. And a stylist is a translator, translating a mental image into the perfectly evocative phrase” (361). Susan Bernofsky sets a similarly high bar, arguing that literary translation is “as rigorous as the composition of a sonnet or sestina.” The craft “requires not only a deep understanding of how style is created, but also the ability to write in many different styles; not only a sophisticated mastery of tone and nuance, but a sense of the direction in which a particular word choice will nudge a sentence” (qtd. in Hwang). Against that exacting standard, Krenek’s translation has its gaffes. And whereas interest in writers who translate their own work has recently been heightened through the self-translation of a novel Jhumpa Lahiri first wrote in Italian, as well as through her discussion of predecessors like Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov (Lahiri, “Where I Find Myself”), it is wise to repeat here as a precaution that it would be a grave disservice to Krenek’s considerable achievement as a translator to apply the criteria and examples just cited to a project that never intended to stake so much.

The Krenek Institute’s bilingual edition of Die drei Mäntel des Anton K. / The Three Overcoats of Anton K. (2020) provides the texts in both languages, of course, and also documents the gestation of the work by showing pictures of hotel stationery from cities all over Europe (80); Krenek used the reverse sides to compose the novella during his forced wanderings after starting it in Switzerland. Composing it was his way of keeping up his courage, of giving coherent literary shape and voice to the chaos and anxiety of confronting bureaucratic hurdles as an Austrian citizen holding an invalid passport after the Anschluss and so unable to produce legitimating documents when traveling from country to country. This new edition also contains reproductions of pages from Krenek’s invalidated passport (144) and a map tracing his peregrinations through Europe from March through August of 1938 (140). The foreword, notes, and other editorial material support and contextualize the actual text in both languages.

“Kafkaesque” is the term that unavoidably springs to mind when confronting a story about a man caught up in arbitrary, nightmarish bureaucratic entanglements, especially when his last name is given only by the initial K., as in Kakfa’s The Trial, and so that adjective not surprisingly shows up on the jacket copy by way of placing and promoting Krenek’s novella. When talking with one of the many faceless functionaries tormenting him, Krenek’s K. makes direct reference to Kafka, in fact, by asking him if he knows that author’s work. Strangely enough, the passage (63) is omitted in the English version, even though the editors of the New Mexico Quarterly, in which it appeared in 1955, placed a drawing by Kafka on the page facing the opening, seemingly to underscore Krenek’s familiarity with his literary forebear (Stewart 215). In the English version of Matthias Henke’s foreword—its title based on a phrase by Krenek himself (92)—“‘Passport Sickness,’ or: Ernst Krenek and His Novella Die drei Mäntel des Anton K. (1938),” the relevant passage reads: “For it seems to me as if I’ve been entangled in a machine that will never let me go and that reminds me in a frightening way of that author’s [Kafka’s] nightmares” (93). (The foreword and the other editorial materials were translated from German by Ada St. Laurent) (142). English translations of Kafka had appeared as early as 1927 in experimental journals, but he remained largely unknown in the English-speaking world until after World War II. That might have been the reason for omitting reference to him in 1944, when Krenek undertook translating The Three Overcoats into English, (note 3, 138-139), and he may not have considered the allusion essential when he published it in 1955, by which time, however, Kakfa would have resonated with a larger reading public.

The Three Overcoats is indeed modeled on Kafka, but to stop there is to do this complex, many-layered story a disservice. The endless loop of bureaucratic frustration, the shunting from office to office, the dismissal by bored, condescending, fake-sincere officials ready to apply dehumanizing, arid legalities, the reduction to facelessness and consuming loneliness, the raising and dashing of false hopes: readers are well acquainted with these aspects of Kafka’s art, along with occasional encounters possibly promising empathy or other intimacies that never materialize. But the differences are just as notable, and they testify to Krenek’s adept, sophisticated requisition of other sources. The plot of his novella is more linear and sequential than is typical for Kafka, for example. While Kafka’s longer fictions can have their chapters rearranged or transposed almost at will, The Three Overcoats depends on a set succession of events, the next necessarily arising from what came before.

The range of tone is also more varied than in Kafka. Looking back, Krenek would have found in Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck a model for the sadistic physician K. is forced to consult, and had he been able to look forward, he would have delighted in prefiguring the Joseph Heller-like Catch-22 that entraps K., who can only obtain a visa he urgently needs by returning to the capital of his own country but who is barred from reentering the country unless he can produce that exact visa at the border. There is a strain of parody usually muted in Kafka; along with the title of the Krenek story, it strongly suggests a famous narrative of cruel, insanely picayune bureaucracy, Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat, with its occasionally almost buffoonish hilarity amidst cruelty, a tone Krenek develops effectively. The unsettling humor in The Three Overcoats brings Gogol to mind as quickly as it does Kafka. There is grotesquerie; there is lyricism and squalor; there is adaptation of standard plot devices from detective stories, though some mysteries are tantalizingly never solved. In an additional register of bureaucratic language, it is also as if Krenek were drawing on the sovereign, piquant irony of an author like Albert Drach (whose work he knew), who could so brilliantly heighten legal and bureaucratic language into almost surrealistic improbability within a seemingly straightforward context. Readers of Drach’s novel Das große Protokoll gegen Zwetschkenbaum, written in 1939 but unpublished until 1964 (The Massive File on Zwetschkenbaum, trans. Harvey I. Dunkle), will find Krenek equally skilled at this fusion of the everyday and the outrageous.

In addition, Anton K’s. reflection after visiting the woman (119-120) reads like a close paraphrase of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, with his blanket diagnosis of human passivity and indifference, his insistence that most people willingly accept tyranny because they are terrified of freedom. K.’s reflection at that depth shows how his travails are expanding his mind and spirit. They foreshadow his unexpected decision later to risk everything for the sake of precarious and uncertain liberty—on his own terms—after reflecting that one of the officials tormenting him “may have been the devil” (Stewart 214) or the devil’s surrogate, Ivan Karamazov’s Grand Inquisitor.

Aside from these influences and characteristics of style, there is rich ambiguity in the ending, the place at which the choice Anton K. makes departs from Krenek’s own life and takes the author’s skillfully fictionalized chronicle of his ordeal into a dimension beyond a reworking of one individual’s frustrations, into a vision of radical spiritual freedom.

After K. has mysteriously restored to him the overcoat accidentally, disastrously exchanged in a café, he reaches into the pocket and finds, again unaccountably, the very document that will release him from his trap. In this calculated spoof of a sudden “happy ending,” K. is now free, but only within the system that has oppressed him all along. “He was saved. He had only to send the paper to the official . . . that had requested it. . . . Was not everything wonderful beyond belief?” (136). But “the sheltered life which had been his did not appear to be so desirable any more,” and he realizes that life is worthless if “the meaning of human existence really consisted in running from one office to another carrying miserable slips of paper to and fro” (137). He tears up the document that could gain him a “freedom” always contingent, never in his own hands, that would forever dictate from outside the terms of his existence, and he throws the pieces into the river, electing to remain and seek out the woman he had met earlier. Perhaps Kafka’s influence is again at work here, since K.’s action is exactly what the man who spends his whole life at the doorway could never take in Kafka’s “Vor dem Gesetz” (“Before the Law,” trans. Ian Johnston), since he thinks he needs to wait for permission to cross the threshold. While a first reading could suggest that Krenek’s K. had succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome by embracing his exile, he seems on reflection more an existentialist performing a classic gratuitous act for the sake of radical freedom, accepting like Camus’s Sisyphus a seemingly intolerable restriction as the source of his dignity and self-determination. He has chosen to seek human community despite risk and uncertainty rather than being defined and controlled by faceless, dehumanizing bureaucracy.

Krenek in front of the Ortler Alps, 1970 (© Ernst Krenek Institut)
Krenek in Palm Springs, 1981 (© Ernst Krenek Institut)

Because Krenek did not translate The Three Overcoats entirely on his own, it is not possible to make a definite judgment about that aspect of his achievement here. There are some first-rate renderings, such as “furlough” (113) for “Urlaub” (42), but then why leave untranslated the next word, “Galgenfrist” (42)? Krenek’s doubling is shortened in the English version, but the rendering “It was a sort of furlough that he was granting to himself” (113) would resound more strongly if it read “reprieve or furlough” and the needless “that” and “to” were eliminated. Suggested improvement: “He was granting himself a reprieve or furlough.” A “stylist” in Saunders’s sense would delete the fillers, especially since they impair the rhythm of the sentence.

To translate “peinlich” (37) as “obnoxious” (109) is a masterful instance of finding le mot juste, and there is more than one unexpected but felicitous correspondence of this kind. “Peinlich” usually means something like “embarrassing” or “cringe-worthy,” but the word is used here to comment on the way K.’s fixation affects others not in his situation, who are not so much embarrassed for him as they are irked by his ceaseless dwelling on what they consider administrative minutiae.

At other times, small departures make for economy. When the doctor shouts, “Zittern Sie nicht” (70), the more idiomatic-sounding present participle appears in English: “Stop trembling” (134). But again, the command alone is given without the indication from the German that the doctor is issuing it in a berating tone. And the translation of K.’s question to the doctor, “Warum dürfen Sie mich so quälen?” (71) adroitly manages the auxiliary verb, which could lead to a rather wordy question like, “How is it you’re permitted to torture me like this?” in favor of the more blunt and perhaps slightly less nuanced but efficient “Why should you torture me like this?” (135).

Yet there are awkward passages, possibly arising from an unsuccessful effort to capture the empty pomposity of bureaucratese; “necessary of establishment” (117) as a parallel to “ . . . das die Gesellschaft für gut fand, aufzurichten” (47) is feeble, not doing justice to the rotundity and crabbed grammar of the German. In general, the double talk, pomposity, and sonorous removal of meaning that mark formulaic officialese are unusually difficult to translate, since those traits make for gobbledygook to begin with. Some of the English renderings occasionally bog down by not transmitting the irony in the original, such as in the consul’s long speech (63-65; shortened on 130). The present reviewer was faced with the same problem when translating Heimito von Doderer’s novel Die Strudlhofstiege (The Strudlhof Steps), in which one character talks, thinks, and writes only in the elaborate Baroque ornateness of the Austro-Hungarian civil service. The publisher’s reader asked for retranslation in a number of cases, since the sheer lexical meaning of the original got lost along with the corresponding tone.

Small word choices can jar by not being in the same register as their surroundings. Translating “Polizist” (72) as “cop” (136) makes for a jolting switch into unintended slanginess. It’s hard to say how many of these lapses from “style”—in rhythm, in tone, in diction and word choice—are Krenek’s own and how many are those of Bentley and Fles, but it’s a good bet that the author himself bears responsibility. Bentley was a native speaker, after all, and his other writing does not show such incongruities. And those works of Krenek that were translated entirely by Fles (Music Here and Now, for example) are also consistent in tone and level in articulation. Readers of The Three Overcoats will find several points at which to quibble, but the translation cannot be judged, to say it once again, on the basis of inapplicable criteria.

Those criteria are not only literary or linguistic, either, since criticism of any translation is also an ethical act. Especially for other translators, it is easy to be superior or captious, to suggest improvements after the work has been published. Hilde Spiel, novelist in two languages, critic, and translator (of Tom Stoppard, among others), reminds her colleagues that “Every translation can be corrected, since someone else will always come up with a better, smoother expression. Editors have it easier, because translators are fixed on their text and can’t simply step away from it at will” (translation VK) (qtd. in Rauchbauer 118). Likewise, Jeffrey Sammons notes that translations can be “sitting ducks for the ill-intentioned; hundreds of pages and thousands of works accurately and felicitously rendered are passed over . . . while scattered faults are picked out and reproved” (Sammons 71).

Smirking at another translator’s work, then, is the equivalent of a cheap shot when the aim is ego-bolstering. If critiques are offered in the spirit of principle, however, they can be useful in helping delineate the contours and earmarks of “style” as Saunders and Bernofsky understand the term. An artist as masterful and versatile as Krenek can only be appreciated the more strongly for wrestling with a language he learned late and in the exacting school of practical need. The Three Overcoats presents yet another dimension of Krenek’s fascinating multiplicity and fecundity, and the level he achieved as his own translator only stands out more markedly against the isolated flaws.

[1] For a complete list of references, click HERE (or on the link below).
[2] Readers of German will also find enriching discussions in the volumes edited by Geiger and Mauer Zenck, listed in the references.
[3] Not so incidentally, Blitzstein’s translation of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper as The Threepenny Opera is a too-often-overlooked masterpiece. It is an adaptation, brilliantly responsive to the original text and to requirements of actual performance that a skilled composer-librettist would know from experience. After a New York production flopped in 1933 (“a dreary enigma”), Blitzstein’s version helped made the piece a legendary smash hit on Broadway in 1954 (Kurt Weill Foundation).

REFERENCES: For a complete list of the works cited in this essay, please visit the References page HERE. (The page will open in a new tab.)

Vincent Kling is a professor of German and comparative literature at La Salle University. He has published translations of works by Gert Jonke, Heimito von Doderer, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Gerhard Fritsch, Werner Kofler, and Aglaja Veteranyi. His translation of Veteranyi’s novel Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta was awarded the Schlegel-Tieck Prize in 2013. New York Review Books will publish his translation of Doderer’s The Strudlhof Steps in 2021.

Hopscotch Translation would like to thank the Ernst Krenek Institute for its generous support and for providing the images that illustrate this essay. To learn more about Ernst Krenek and about the Institute’s activities, please visit https://www.krenek.at/en.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, June 15, 2021

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