Yesterday’s Yesterday’s Paper: On Translating Kleist’s Anecdotes
by Matthew Spencer
Two centuries have passed since the guns went silent at Jena—not exactly current events, but certainly so during Kleist’s lifetime. French troops had only withdrawn from Berlin the year before he started publishing in the Abendblätter. His readership would have immediately understood certain untranslatable military terms—uhlan, chasseur, and trabant—which have since become archaic…
Heinrich von Kleist, so far as I know, has never had a reputation for being an easy read. His elaborate syntax, his relentless narrative pacing, his scenes of incredible violence, have given him, in the two centuries following his death, an austere reputation. But there was a time, when he was still living, uncanonized, that he could be read quite easily, for the equivalent of €1.00, every weekday evening in his newspaper, the Berliner Abendblätter. “A newspaper for all classes of society,” he wrote to an incensed reader, by way of explaining a scatological joke. That one serves as the punchline for a story concerning a regimental drummer who, following the defeat of the Prussian Army at Jena, takes up guerrilla warfare against the occupying French. Once captured, he is brought before a firing squad. Given one last request, the drummer pulls down his trousers, demanding that they, “ihn in den… schießen, damit das F… kein L… bekäme,” a delightful passage that I have rendered as, “he demanded they shoot him in the ass****, so as not to tear him a new one.” Saving one’s skin, after all, is the vocation of a drummer.
These bits of miscellaneous prose, casually inserted between the news of the day, posed quite a challenge. This was my first book-length translation project. For the jokes to land, I needed to abandon a number of misapprehensions about translation, the first being literalist fidelity. Take, for example, that punchline about the drummer. Here is the sentence rendered word-for-word: “He demanded they shoot him in the… so that his h… received no h….” More of a crossword than a crescendo. The puzzled can pencil “ass” and “hide” and “hole” into their respective ellipses. The challenge then was to retain the censorship, the ambiguity it created, but also the rimshot. I opted for consolidation. The contemporary Americanism “tear him a new one” had the advantage—like many Americanisms—of being simultaneously vulgar and vague. But the punctuation needed a changeup as well. For the most part, I was dead set on preserving Kleist’s idiosyncrasies, especially his use of semicolons, which are just as integral to his relentless style as his long sentences. Retaining the ellipses felt weak, as if the drummer were mumbling instead of shouting in defiance. The asterisks were a suggestion of my publisher: “ass****”, four puckered stars, a typographical bleep, easy to parse, but with the mock decency present in the original.
Two centuries have passed since the guns went silent at Jena—not exactly current events, but certainly so during Kleist’s lifetime. French troops had only withdrawn from Berlin the year before he started publishing in the Abendblätter. His readership would have immediately understood certain untranslatable military terms—uhlan, chasseur, and trabant—which have since become archaic. Berliners would have seen those varieties of soldier up close, in their streets and in their taverns. This lingo has long since passed away from the living vernacular, becoming the preserve of reenactors and other sedentary enthusiasts of military life. Kleist wrote for the general public—always a chimera; nevertheless, I wanted to contextualize without assuming specialist interest. If consulting notes was necessary for the reader, I wanted to make them entertaining as well as informative. Using the Abendblätter itself as my style guide, I freely added commentary and asides. Kleist’s life proved a rich source of material in that regard, illuminating his subjects in bizarre and amusing ways, such as this example, a portrait of Napoleon at the Battle of Aspern:
In the midst of grapeshot volleys, he observed an attack by his cavalry; a host of wounded men lay about him—silent, eyewitnesses of the incident report, so as not to burden the Emperor with their complaints. Then an entire French cuirassier regiment, evading a superior force, overruns the unfortunate crowd; loud cries of misery erupt, mixed with exclamations of “Vive l’Empereur! Vive l’Empereur!” the latter somewhat drowning out the former. Napoleon turns about, and only by placing a hand in front of his face can he, with great force of effort, tears streaming, keep his composure.
A vivid little narrative, but one that requires some explanation. Aspern was barely recent history, having taken place in May 1809, on the outskirts of Vienna, between the French and Austrian Empires. It was the first time that Napoleon had suffered personal defeat in a decade. More period detail: a cuirassier was a type of armored cavalryman, known for wearing a cuirass, or armored chestplate, a common element in European militaries at the time. So much for the textbook material. Kleist furnishes the coda. In May 1809, he was travelling with a friend to Vienna and witnessed the immediate aftermath of the battle. Making a tour of the site, the pair were arrested on suspicion of espionage, not the first time Kleist had been accused of being a spy. Wishing to mollify the authorities, he distributed copies of his poems, perhaps thinking his notoriety would furnish some form of identification—a scene, well, a scene right out of the Anecdotes. It seemed a waste not to include it.
The strangeness of Kleist’s writing, its baseness and elevation, also presented a steep learning curve. No easy analogue, past or present, exists for him in the Anglosphere. But in the last decade or so, German speakers have adopted a peculiar word into their lexicon—shitstorm—which brought his writing into conceptual relief. The meaning is the same as in English, a wildly chaotic and unmanageable situation, controversy, or sequence of events. Auf Deutsch, shitstorm gets deployed in quite formal circumstances, from newspaper headlines to government speeches, accepted when indigenous vulgarity would be, well, verboten. Angela Merkel, normally the picture of straightlaced eurozone politicking, has a penchant for the word. Shitstorm brings Kleist’s life into conceptual relief as well. If not actively malicious, he was certainly a destructive and chaotic human being. While travelling to Vienna with the Prussian Army, on the same trip that might have inspired his anecdote of Napoleon, Kleist left a loaded pistol unattended in a crowded mess hall. It discharged—no surprise—the bullet grazing off the forehead of his friend and wounding a general in the arm. His entry into publishing seems to have exacerbated his reckless side. Kleist’s first venture, Phöbus, a literary magazine, dissolved in acrimony. Conflict over finances and editorial control almost resulted in a duel between Kleist and his friend Adam Müller. Censorship of the Abendblätter, along with broken promises of compensation, led Kleist to threaten an aide to the Prime Minister. Neither incident led to real violence, but Kleist would, less than a year later, shoot Henriette Vogel, a close friend suffering from terminal uterine cancer, and then himself, on the shores of the Kleiner Wannsee, a lake in the forested outskirts of Berlin. All indications point to the act being consensual and prearranged, but it wounded those around them, their friends and family, and was a source of deep shame. It casts a shadow over his work, its interpretation, and renders formalism impossible. “Kleist dies and dies and dies,” writes László F. Földényi, referring to the impossibility of avoiding his suicide. It had literary antecedents. Kleist wrote a parody of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Like Goethe’s eponymous hero, the young man shoots himself over unrequited love, only to awaken, having recovered, in the arms of his beloved, the gunshot having startled her elderly husband and brought on a fatal stroke. A sunny ending, for Kleist at least, until you consider one of his core beliefs: that suicide was the only way for him to achieve true happiness. By noose or pistol, his gallows humor is real gallows humor.
And speaking frankly, this project wasn’t exactly healthy for me either, especially as my life was, at the time of translation, devolving into its own kind of shitstorm. In the fall of 2020, while vacationing in Tokyo, I was awakened by my girlfriend with the news that my workplace, a kitchen and homegoods store in Seattle, had burned down along with half its block. The poor state of the building had been obvious since the summer, when hundreds of black flies had come pouring from the ventilation ducts, my job being to sweep them off the carpet before affluent retirees, our patrons, arrived. The shock—not surprise—of the fire was compounded that weekend when a typhoon made landfall, flooding the streets of Ginza, confining me and my girlfriend to our hotel, where I browsed through news reports of the fire, the streets of Ballard, the neighborhood where the store was located, also being flooded by water from the fire engines. The chaos did not abate on our return. Giant hornets native to Japan and other parts of East Asia were reported north of Seattle, threatening to become an invasive species. Then COVID-19 hit, some of the first domestic cases being reported in our vicinity. Meanwhile, I became sick with fatigue and a debilitating cough. This was not, I learned later, influenza, but an intense and protracted bout of an undiagnosed (and still undiagnosed) chronic respiratory problem, one that has, as of this writing, been resurgent, enough so I that have difficulty swallowing, my throat having become raw and swollen—blood in the spittle, a 19th-century condition.
This vulnerability, in a crude physical sense, played a role in how I selected and interpreted the material at hand. I was inclined to indulge Kleist, who can, in work as in life, often be an unsympathetic character; was inclined to leave the mess as it was. I had little energy for stringent housekeeping. Opinions are split regarding the literary value of the Anecdotes. Phillip B. Miller, a previous translator, tacked his selections to a volume of correspondence, remarking that the highlights were “sapphires in the mud,” the implication being they needed more sorting and polishing. That was an option for me, to have a more tightly curated edition of Anecdotes: brief books are a specialty of my publisher, Sublunary Editions. But for the most part, I followed the direction of German editors, particularly the 1911 Rohwolt edition of Anecdotes, one that Franz Kafka—somewhat of an authority—championed. I also added two longer stories, “The Beggarwoman of Locarno” and “Saint Cecelia, or The Power of Music,” which were originally published in the Abendblätter but typically left out of anthologies of that material, being seen as major work. The judgment of such things, I felt, should be ceded to the reader. The pieces could, in their concision, be enjoyed casually, without the commitment needed for Kleist’s longer work. Prospecting can be a hobby as well as an occupation.
Classic writers don’t always write classics. They rarely, if ever, get a say in their posterity. Goethe may have turned his back on Werther and its fandom, but contemporary readers still read it, if they read him at all, instead of Farbenlehre, the scientific treatise on color he regarded as his masterpiece. Critics, even if they dislike him, tend to nod and agree that only works of maturity, displaying a cultivated talent, should be elevated to Weltliteratur. Poetry might be the universal possession of mankind, but its riches are unequally distributed. Goethe saw potential but little of lasting value in Kleist. This is not mere snobbery. I’m not sure how Kleist would have assessed the work he published in the Abendblätter; the question is unanswerable, but only mildly so. Though stung by Goethe’s criticism, Kleist could be a harsh judge of himself as well. He burnt his correspondence, along with his drafts, before committing suicide. My best guess is that the whole affair left an alkaline tang—some yellow bile—on his tongue. He wrote for money. Money was not forthcoming. He lost friends, lost the respect of his peers—the wages of journalism, one more continuity with the present. But after all that while, his little stories made me laugh. His little world—Berlin was provincial then—had color, was full of vivid events, vivid characters, was bustling. The city has grown in the intervening years; has been leveled and rebuilt; divided and reunified, gentrified. You need a guide for what came before. You need a guide for Kleist’s guide, but you can still hear his voice; you can still hear the voice of that place, not in a dewy, poetic sense, but a cry from the street, hawkers and vendors, crying out the news as the newsprint dried. Kleist failed utterly. The Abendblätter lasted barely six months. He was unaccustomed to daily production, was exhausted by the end. He died half a year later. His last stories, written in haste, have become timeworn, yesterday’s yesterday’s paper. But rags, tabloid and otherwise, can be stitched into a motley, made commodious, their vibrancy retained.
Matthew Spencer lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States of America. His newsletter, Paradise Almanac, a chronicle of strange weather, is available weekly through Substack. He is currently at work translating short fiction and miscellaneous prose by Jean Paul Richter.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, January 4, 2022