Celebrating Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s Flops
with contributions from Mike Mitchell and Simon Pare
The dull thud made by a flop is usually followed by a prolonged, audible silence...
For a writer as prolific and multifarious as Hans Magnus Enzensberger (b. 1929), it seems fitting that he should have had a plethora of translators over the years. This is not to overlook the striking coherence of his work: Enzensberger’s cutting irony and predilection for thorny sociopolitical themes make for a recognizable style, yet it is a style deployed over a wide variety of modes and genres, and so lends itself to an equally wide variety of voices in translation, even within a single target language. At the forefront of the drive to bring Enzensberger’s writing from German into English, Seagull Books have published no fewer than 8 titles by 6 different translators over the past decade, with the 9th, translated by Mike Mitchell, due to appear this July. It is an enterprise all the more worth commending given that Seagull, under the award-winning direction of Naveen Kishore, have just celebrated their 40th anniversary in the industry.
As a way of observing this pair of milestones, Hopscotch Translation reached out to the translators who have taken on one or more of Enzensberger’s books for Seagull, inviting them to reflect on their experience and the challenges and rewards of grappling with the German author’s work. Everyone responded graciously, even when their ongoing commitments kept them from replying at length – such is the life of a professional translator, after all! We were gratified to receive a pair of brief reflections, reproduced below. One is from Simon Pare, translator of Enzensberger’s novel Money, Money, Money!: A Short Lesson in Economics, which appeared in 2020. The other is from Mike Mitchell, whose forthcoming translation of Gone but Not Forgotten: My Favourite Flops and Other Projects that Came to Nothing will have been his third by Enzensberger.
You might say, then, that the forum we had envisioned ended up being something of a flop. But what better way to celebrate a book that looks back fondly on a career’s worth of flops than with a flop of our own! In Gone But Not Forgotten, Enzensberger joins the growing pantheon of writers writing about imaginary or unrealized works – Roberto Bolaño’s fictitious literary movements, George Steiner’s book on seven books he never wrote (My Unwritten Books), Édouard Levé’s catalog of more than five hundred non-existent artworks (Oeuvres)… – and, in doing so, offers us the instructive and highly amusing image of an abundant imagination optimistically (perhaps quixotically) flying in the face of the unjust and often inscrutable “art business.” Returning to projects that flopped or failed even to get off the ground, from literature and film to opera and musical theater, Gone But Not Forgotten is a welcome invitation to explore the wide-ranging oeuvre of one of the last half-century’s most fascinating literary minds.
I have had the pleasure of translating three books by Enzensberger, two of which have been published: Tumult (2016) and Anarchy’s Brief Summer (2018). I found the content of both interesting: the account of the active role of Anarchism as a political movement in the Spain of the 1930s and of his experiences during the 1960s (I went to university in 1960)—but I cannot remember any unusual translation difficulties. However the one I have been working on over the past year and which has just been through the editing process, did present a problem—a problem increased by the fact that it occurs in a particularly exposed place: in the title: Meine Lieblings-Flops.
Enzensberger does give an explanation of this in his preface:
‘Flop’ is a relatively new loan-word in German and one that is highly acceptable, especially for the onomatopoeic quality ascribed to it by the OED. It is indispensable in show business but it serves well in other areas too.
The dull thud made by a flop is usually followed by a prolonged, audible silence. My dear fellow artists—whether writers, actors, painters, film-makers, singers, sculptors or composers—why are you so reluctant to talk about your minor or major failures? Is it embarrassment? Are you worried you might look foolish? But in that respect I can reassure you. From all the things you’ve told me in confidence, I conclude that I’m not the only one who has interesting flops and other failed projects to look back on. Otherwise I wouldn’t be taking the trouble to divulge them to you. Why don’t you do the same?
The problem was that in English ‘flop’ means something that has been presented to its public and fails. Enzensberger’s description itself implies that: the ‘audible silence’ must come from the public for whom the project is intended. However, his book also contains descriptions of projects that were never completed, never presented to their audience (e.g. a proposed TV program that was never made) and I felt that My Favourite Flops would be unsuitable for such a book published in English. ‘My Favourite Failures’ does have alliteration but strikes me as rather clumsy, so I decided on a title with a subtitle that is something of an explanation: Gone but not Forgotten—My Favourite Flops and Other Projects that Came to Nothing—and that is what the forthcoming English edition will be called.
My first encounter with his work came in 1996, when a very close German friend of mine, an artist and mathematician, gave me a copy of Voltaires Neffe / Voltaire’s Nephew. I was twenty-four at the time and had studied German literature but, to my shame, had never heard of Enzensberger!
Immer das Geld is the only work by Hans Magnus Enzensberger that I’ve had the pleasure of translating, and as a form of economics manual for readers of all ages, it is perhaps not highly representative of his oeuvre. It does, however, display many of the hallmarks of Enzenbergian style and stylishness. First off, it is shot through with the humanist ethos for which the poet, translator and essayist is justly renowned. Second, as the Enlightenment is ever-present in Enzensberger’s work, so is the desire to educate – to cut through jargon and forearm his readers against obscurantism.
In the economic fable Money, Money, Money! he employs impish, enormously wealthy Aunt Fé for this purpose. She receives the three young Federmann children for tea at her five-star hotel and proceeds to administer a crash course in economics, highlighting its absurdities and inequalities through a series of exercises and field trips. It is light-hearted stuff with a serious message – and therein lies the challenge for the translator. For every mention of leveraged options, convertible bonds and private equity, there is a child butting in with a demand for ice cream or dissing his or her siblings. The prose zigzags up and down the registers like Evelyn Glennie on the xylophone, and the translator must follow faithfully and playfully. The bottom line, though, is that Aunt Fé is trying to make economics palatable and intelligible to the Federmann kids, while Hans Magnus Enzensberger does the same for us.
One particularly fun part of the translation was Fé’s vade mecum at the end of the book – her legacy to Felicitas Federmann, who also inherits the lion’s share of her great-aunt’s remaining assets. The accompanying instructions are: “You may even use it as an oracle – merely open the booklet without looking and point to a line at random. That’s what the Persians do with their national poet Hafis, the Chinese with their I Ching and gypsies with your hands.” Enzensberger draws on a fantastic range of quotations (Melville, Balzac, Lichtenberg, Goethe, Shakespeare, Nietzsche) and proverbs regarding money, some of which were obviously easy to find in translation, while others called for extensive searching and yet others for adapting – Lessing’s Hans and Fritz became Dick and Mitch, for example.
This is an unusual book in Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s oeuvre for another reason too: it is richly illustrated with photos and graphics and illustrations. For the English edition Seagull commissioned a young Indian activist designer, Sonaksha Ivengar, who let her imagination run free, with wonderful results.
As might have been expected, Enzensberger was grateful and patient regarding my translation queries. Witty too, elegantly ascribing a couple of repetitions and a misattribution to Aunt Fé’s failing memory!
Mike Mitchell has translated some 95 books from German and French. Before becoming a freelance translator, he taught German, first at Reading University, then at Stirling University, and was also the General Editor of Dedalus Books’ European series. He won the 1996 Schlegel-Tieck prize for his translation of Herbert Rosendorfer’s Letters back to Ancient China. He lives in Argyll on the west coast of Scotland.
Born in 1972 and raised in Shropshire (UK), Simon Pare now lives near Zurich. His translations from French and German include Christoph Ransmayr’s novels The Flying Mountain (2018 Man Booker International Prize longlist; 2019 Schlegel-Tieck Prize shortlist) and Cox (runner-up, 2021 Schlegel-Tieck Prize) as well as books by Abbas Khider and Anouar Benmalek and The Panama Papers (as part of a team). His new translation of Max Frisch’s two-volume Sketchbooks is forthcoming from Seagull.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, July 5, 2022