Review of Hermann Burger’s «Brenner»

Untranslatable / Translated, or The Impossible Takes a Little Longer: Review of Hermann Burger’s Brenner, translated by Adrian Nathan West

by Vincent Kling

As to the demands on the translator, we’re not even at the really hard part yet, though West’s fellow practitioners could begin growing nervous at this level of unrelenting specification.

Hermann Burger, Brenner, translated from the German by Adrian Nathan West. Archipelago Books, 400 pages, $24.00. ISBN 9781953861306


Like archers who go on hitting bulls’-eyes long after Zeno proved mathematically that reaching the target is impossible, translators persist in a craft that can never be practiced successfully or even at all, as some observers maintain.  William Frost pointed out decades ago that the basic principles of literary criticism prove translation to be impossible, but that assertion hasn’t hampered practitioners, who are less aligned with Zeno and other theorists than with poet and translator Paul Celan. His first reaction was often a despondent unübersetzbarlater crossed through and updated with a relieved “übersetzt!” (untranslatable / translated!). As to self-doubt, none less than August Wilhelm von Schlegel, foremost translator of Shakespeare into German, claimed not even to be sure what a translation is in the first place, so his descendants in our craft are not the first to feel qualms.

Literary translation cannot occur without compromise and approximation, after all, since it straddles two extremes, identified by Franz Josef Czernin as the need to convey the literal meaning of the original and the need to render the formal aspects conscientiously. A poem must emerge as a poem. (Like so many other translators into German, Czernin has produced his own versions of the Shakespeare sonnets.) He writes of conflicting systems that tug the utterance between lexical content and formal structure, making any result necessarily provisional, reached on a case-by-case basis. No wonder there are so many disparaging platitudes about translators as traitors. The job is impossible, so it takes a little longer, to use the old adage, and it can never by its nature be definitive.

Mathematics again: just as there are grades of infinity (the set of either odd or even integers is infinite, but the set of both odd and even is larger), there are grades of impossibility, a recognition prompted by Adrian Nathan West’s astonishing achievement (in The Nation Charlie Lee calls it “a hypnotic translation”) in creating an English version of Hermann Burger’s novel Brenner—the title is the first-person narrator’s name—published by Archipelago (2022). West has also translated Burger’s early short story “The Emergency Brake” (in Asymptote) and his later work Tractatus Logico-Suicidalis: On Killing Oneself, including West’s extensive helpful notations (Wakefield Press, 2022). He is noted for rendering difficult works with virtuosic skill, so his success with Brenner is a surprise only because the novel poses challenges daunting enough that even seasoned translators might quietly back away in fear. He faced seemingly insuperable problems, different not in kind but in degree, on a greater scale of magnitude than the usual impossibilities of translation.

An example from personal experience might establish limits of difficulty: I have published translations of poetry intricate with rhyme, assonance, and word play—Richard Dehmel and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, for instance—but could never imagine tackling any poem by Reinhard Priessnitz, whose collection vierundvierzig gedichte (Forty-Four Poems) is, for me, immovably anchored in the “untranslatable” column. Think only of the title “schlafe, falsche flasche” (literally “sleep, false bottle”), an anagram for which I have never found even a remote equivalent, or the poem titled “mund” (“mouth”), its full text reading “ – lage? / – nebel! / – leben? / –egal!” (lexically “ – situation? / – fog! / – life? / – doesn’t matter!”). Only a fully congruent rendering of these anagrams would be satisfactory, since form is fully congruent with content here. Scattered renderings of Priessnitz into English and French do not achieve that identity, that fusion, and are therefore largely inadequate for lack of formal correspondences, though the words are there. West could find real equivalents that no one else has thought of, if anyone could, given what he has accomplished with Brenner. More about that accomplishment after some background on Hermann Burger for readers with limited German.


Hermann Burger (1942-1989) was a Swiss novelist, poet, and essayist—among other attainments. He began as a student of architecture at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in Zurich, pursuing a profession that calls for precision of craft and accuracy of handiwork serving intuition and imagination. He was known as an outstanding draftsman equal to the rigorous demands of the Institute (often called the “MIT of Europe”) but was also fascinated with literature, so he attended the lectures of Karl Schmid—with whom he developed a close connection that lasted until Schmid’s death in 1974—and those of renowned critic and translator Emil Staiger at the University of Zurich, who supervised his Ph.D. thesis on Celan.

Burger published a collection of poetry in 1967, but he came to prominence through his first novel, Schilten: Schulbericht zuhanden der Inspektorenkonferenz (Schilten: A School Report Submitted to the Inspectors’ Conference) (1976). This novel shows Burger’s characteristic trait of upending built-in expectations. The title would seem to announce a conventional pedagogical account about how its author, the teacher Armin Schildknecht, applied the curriculum to prepare his pupils for life and work, but Schildknecht, now understandably fired, reports instead how he took the children to graveyards and burials and made them lie in a covered hole reciting poetry about death. In the words of Uwe Schütte, Schildknecht is “the first in a long series of deranged protagonists who will voice Burger’s misgivings about the futility of habituating oneself to life.”

Burger plays with genre expectations and uses intertextuality and allusion to reverse plus signs to minus, to relocate earlier writers’ themes to darker places. Readers who know German well but are unfamiliar with the literature in that language could esteem the artistry of Burger’s chilling story (untranslated into English) Der Schuss auf die Kanzel (A Shot at the Pulpit), for instance, a dark tale of revenge in which an assistant gravedigger fires in frustrated anger at the pulpit in the church that employs him. Such readers would miss an enriching but ironic reference by allusion, though, since Burger’s story borrows—and flips—the title of a patrician, rather blithe historical novella by Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Der Schuss von der Kanzel (1878) (The Shot from the Pulpit, trans. George F. Folkers). Burger’s own story makes its full effect without leaning on Meyer, but it builds in a palimpsestic layer of referential, contrasting impact by echoing a beloved classic of Swiss narrative prose in a much different key. As one anonymous reviewer noted, “Burger’s artistry had one clear aim: to set the ground shaking under the reader”; a consistent device for setting off tremors was his revamping and reversing of canonical works.

Burger’s reader might be more familiar with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and hence duly startled by his requisition of its title and form, a book of numbered aphorisms, for his Tractatus Logico-Suicidalis (1988), a work of “suicidology,” a set of “thanatological” or “mortological” observations (these are West’s apt translations) assembling arguments across the whole Western cultural tradition to validate suicide. Here, as everywhere else in his writing, Burger draws implications of his own, challenging, in a form imitative of Wittgenstein, that philosopher’s assertion that death is a non-event because one does not live to experience it. By contrast, Burger lives and writes and creates out of the ubiquity of death as a motivator.

He was not modest in his reach or his aims. Just as he measured himself against Wittgenstein, he also set out to rival Proust by producing a monumental prose epic of time and recovered memory with the overall title of Brenner. Each volume was to have a place name (Brunsleben, Metzenmang, Waldau, and Gormund) as its title. Only the first volume was completed, along with seven chapters of the second. But whereas Proust’s narrator captures lost time, in that way finding resolution within his lament at its inexorable work of destruction, Burger’s narrator directs his whole art toward showing the imminence of that destruction, so poignantly moving toward death that the novel’s “final pages . . . are among the most forlorn in all of literature,” to quote West’s afterword. Proust’s vehicle of memory is the madeleine, a nourishing pastry able to refresh life and restore spirits. Hermann Arbogast Brenner’s is the cigar, also capable of raising spirits but devoid of any nourishment and burned to ashes in the process of enjoyment. Even the narrator’s name fits, for “Brenner” means “burner.” His last sentence assumes Biblical stature by invoking Job and the clear-eyed pessimism of the wisdom books: “Unto ashes thou shalt return, for nowhere is it written that man has a right to a modicum of bliss.” Brenner himself must become part of the combustion.

No commentator fails to record Burger’s declaration at age twenty-three (reversing Milton’s sonnet?) that “death is the most important event of life,” and almost his total output is dominated by this memento mori, understandable for one who suffered from periodic bouts of deep depression and mental breakdown. Any reader anticipating glum or flat prose as the correlative for expressing his depressive state and his fixation on death, however, will instead find exuberance, wit, irony, verve, zest, striking immediacy, and peerlessly vivid skill in rendering concrete images. There is plenty of gloom and poignancy, despair and anguish, pain and loss—but never dullness. John Keats’s trope of being “half in love with easeful death” captured an enduring psychological reality, but there’s nothing easeful about Burger’s fascination. His lifelong friend Kaspar Villiger, to whom he dedicated Brenner, uses the term “Todesspirale” or “death spiral” to point out the dominant momentum of Burger’s work, but as the spiral coils in toward its end point, it paradoxically releases greater kinetic energy, heightened vividness of depiction, and concentrated immediacy in capturing the shapes, colors, objects, the people, places, and things of this world. West puts it well in writing of “. . . a dying man’s retrospective affection, which lingers over the tiniest salvageable detail.”


Schütte calls Burger “one of the truly great authors of the German language, a writer of consummate control and range.” Critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, who strongly championed Burger, wrote about the author after his death from an overdose of barbiturates: “Hermann Burger was an artist who never went less than all out and who spared himself nothing.” Burger was hyperarticulate, “obsessive in researching everything,” and pity the poor translator who has to find equivalents. His descriptions of objects are often almost “irredeemably obscure,” to quote West again, who, as the translator, would know better than anyone. 

Even before considering some of the objects and activities he described, it is daunting to ponder the complexity and multiplicity of the language with which he described them. As West notes, “Burger typically confronts the reader with dense blocks of unindented text, an impasto of endless subordinate clauses, neologisms, and foreign or obsolete words . . . . ” Villiger speaks similarly of the author’s “interpolated associations, detours, flashbacks, word plays, nuances and special turns of phrase” all in the same sentence, “often inventing words with rich associative and acoustical similarities to familiar ones.” From the very start of his writing career, he resembled a tightrope walker working at great height without a net, as Villiger judges.

As if these traits weren’t forbidding enough to impose exceptional demands, add that Burger routinely warbled his native woodnote wild, deploying Swiss German alongside the standard language. He and Villiger, who came from the same valley, would spend hours making lists of obsolete dialect words and expressions, sad that time and change had obliterated memorably vivid locutions. Even setting aside that historical dimension, contemporary Swiss German presents challenging variety in its local features; dwellers on either side of a mountain are said to speak audibly different dialects, for example. West is accordingly called on to perform double duty, in essence translating from two kindred but considerably divergent languages at the same time. Swiss German is different enough from the standard language, after all, that Swiss TV stations provide subtitles in standard German when they broadcast to Germany and Austria.

West notes that dialect “is a curse for translators, and is generally dealt with badly” by resort to “lots of apostrophes, lots of y’alls and dropped final consonants, giving readers an impression . . . that they’ve come upon a misplaced Alabaman in a novel set in Senegal or the Maldives.” West avoids this trap by formulations that avoid “down home” yokelism while aptly conveying the difference from the mainstream language. West accordingly set out to “devise a new sort of English, one that has no ethnic or class associations.”

In most European countries, for that matter, and especially in Switzerland, dialect is not an Eliza Doolittle-like index of uncouth manners and lower social status; on the contrary, it redoubles the impact of the communication with parallel sophistication in a different register, powerfully elevating separate local particulars into universal phenomena. The two varieties of German are spoken in tandem, then; whatever code signaling takes place has almost nothing to do with class or level of education. Dialect is also an effective resource for handling characterization through language. Villiger notes that anyone who knew the actual persons appearing under fictional names in Brenner would immediately be able to identify each individual, thanks to Burger’s skill with idiolects and turns of phrase.


In West’s view, Brenner is not quite as phenomenally convoluted in style (though it isn’t far behind) as Burger’s earlier work. The language here is nonetheless marked by Burger’s trademark density and compression of physical detail, after all (West’s “irredeemably obscure”), that technique of loading of every rift with ore, to quote Keats, to which Villiger gave the apt and attractive name “Verquickung.” Burger, lavish with particulars, always packs in more than the container seems able to hold. The many arts and crafts, the sports and pastimes, the interests and pursuits that occupied him all find place in his work—meticulously, voluminously, kaleidoscopically. To add authenticity to his newspaper reporting, he took a bobsled certification course; to be versed enough in the craft of magic to write Diabelli, he enrolled in classes and learned the tricks of the trade well enough to dazzle seasoned observers (while holding to the magician’s oath never to give away secrets); he was a saxophone player and jazz aficionado, a toy collector, a sports car driver, an expert in local geography and history (“the precision with which he depicted landscapes is amazing,” Villiger notes), a literary and cultural critic with virtually all of Western literature at his fingertips, enabling his characteristic, wide-ranging, ubiquitous intertextuality. He was fascinated with circuses and especially with Harry Houdini, whom he seems to have regarded almost as an avatar in embracing the riskiest, most difficult means of escape from the traps he voluntarily entered as a writer. He was skilled at “entrapping” himself in the extremely minute recording of particulars while not losing overall momentum by the paradoxical expedient of swamping the reader with measurements, technical specifications, structural features, and the like, and so making for almost hyperrealistic concretion. His process is reminiscent of Homer’s famous catalogues, which bring action to a standstill only to make it come yet more alive and immediate through enumeration that fixes the setting with vivid immediacy. At the same time, his technique of almost unprecedented devotion to minutiae testifies to his narrators’ obsessive mental states.

Early on in Brenner, the narrator begins resorting to what a friend of his calls “restitution therapy,” an attempt to manage childhood traumas by recollecting and recording them in excruciating detail. This resort to “restitution” is a major element of Brenner, as the narrator recalls and reviews instance after instance of shock, abuse, trauma, loss, and pain; and while the intensity of his rancor might make some of the seemingly minor outrages he suffered appear outrageously overdrawn, West defends Burger’s (or anyone else’s) “right to subjectivity” when judgments from outside would minimize or even deny the very reality in question.

In the second chapter, then, the narrator mentions that “every single toy” he ever received was “disassembled, destroyed, mislaid in the garden, or consigned in some other way to oblivion sans reimbursement” by his brother and sister. “A horrible trauma . . . ” revived by his seeing in an antique shop window an exact copy of a toy car, a “superspankingnew shimmering Schuco Examico convertible” that had fallen victim to his siblings’ vandalism. He gives a lengthy and intricately detailed description of the toy, the memory of which forms the weft of a tapestry that includes Brenner’s later fascination with collecting model cars; his purchase as an adult of “a rossa corsa Ferrari 328 GTS with a removable hardtop and a maximum speed of 166 mph”; precise citation of a book about Schuco models; a painstakingly accurate description from memory of the toy itself (“two soldered grommets for headlights, a black license plate reading Schuco graced the trunk, the three-spoke steering wheel had a finger grip rim, the tires were replica Pirellis”); his father’s death in an automobile accident (in a Fiat, prompting, of all things, a Latin word play on “fiat”); whole model train layouts described in every particular; a catalogue of other childhood toys (“Anker Stone Blocks, Meccano Gears, Wesa Arosa train station . . . the Little Alchemist, the litmus paper, the picture book”), and much more.

As to the demands on the translator, we’re not even at the really hard part yet, though West’s fellow practitioners could begin growing nervous at this level of unrelenting specification. To be sure, there exist excellent general illustrated dictionaries in five and more languages as well as specialized multilingual handbooks and lexica in many fields, such as a seven-language dictionary of musical terms and expressions, and few translators would be able to do without such aids. When I, who have never held a bow and arrow, had to translate passages about archery, I was able to find all I needed in the lavishly illustrated dictionaries published by Wahrig and Pons, which also helped with women’s clothing styles from 1910, the workings of a wind-powered grain mill, types of roofing materials, and the proper terms for small boats—canoe, skiff, wherry, lighter, bowser, pinnace, coracle—so that reviewers thought I knew more about these subjects than I do. (Slipping up on the little things is the quickest way to forfeit the reader’s confidence, as in the instance, in a translation of Chateaubriand, of penguins walking the beaches of Normandy.) Reliable as these dictionaries and lexica are, though, there is none so exhaustive that it can begin to encompass the relentless particularity—about everything—that’s the norm for Burger.

And if his norm for specificity already requires West to look at manuals, handbooks, brochures, blueprints and schematics going beyond the standard reliable sources, it’s the author’s research on tobacco and its processing into cigars that sends Brenner into the realm of the nigh-impossible. West, a seasoned, expert, acclaimed, and long-term translator, states that “No translation has given me the headaches Brenner has . . . ” Burger studied every publication about tobacco he could find; by sight, smell, and taste, he became familiar with almost every kind of cigar there is and identified them all with unerring precision in blind tests of aroma and taste; he visited the tobacco exchange in Bremen and soon became virtually as well versed in the trade as the professionals. Villiger, the original of Brenner as to ownership of a tobacco firm (but not otherwise), testifies to the “absolute accuracy” of Burger’s descriptions in the novel, gained from reading and asking experts a thousand questions.

The twenty-five chapters of Brenner correspond to the number of cigars in a typical box, and, like wine pairings on a restaurant menu, the narrator recommends a different cigar in each chapter as a way for the reader to enhance the mood or atmosphere. The book’s leaves are consumed along with the tobacco’s leaves in a conceit that insures greater thematic and structural coherence than its whimsy might suggest. But it is this device of narrative that constitutes the supreme test of the translator. West tells us in his afterword that he “paged through hundred-year-old tobacco wholesalers’ catalogues in Dutch . . . stared at dozens of cigar boxes and cigarette labels, read Ernst Voges’s Tobacco Encyclopedia cover to cover.” Nothing less than exhaustive—and exhausting—depiction will do for the obsessive, driven Hermann Arbogast Brenner. The various regions where tobacco is grown must be enumerated, along with all the local climatic conditions affecting size and color, with mini-treatises on the topographies; complete descriptions of the various methods of storing and curing the leaves; specifications about drying racks and kilns and ovens; minutely gradated degrees of dryness or moisture; the techniques of stacking and rolling the leaves, including optimal denseness or looseness of each kind; the many variants of aroma and flavor from mild to intense; size as a function of the leaf’s inherent properties. West had to render every aspect of baling, shipping, curing, aging, fermentation, and innumerable other factors, not to mention the need to find equivalents for the dozens and dozens of shades and hues of the color brown. Fifty shades of gray are paltry compared to the exceptional subtlety of color across an immense range. It’s as if Sherlock Holmes had gone on to enumerate for Watson in every particular the 140 forms of tobacco he could identify from their ash instead of (mercifully) just mentioning it as an aside.

It’s not hard to surmise, in fact, that Burger might have been tetrachromatic, genetically endowed with a fourth variety of optical cone that makes visible some hundred times more colors than trichromatics can see. That is only a speculation, but it seems to account for Burger’s phenomenal eye, his habitually describing extremely subtle gradations and shades of what most others would register as a single uniform color. One critic quotes a passage about a purple window shutter, “a blend of magenta, mauve, and caput mortuum, a reddish purple named for the blood that flows from a severed head.” West spoke to me in conversation about a description of the Villa Malaga supremely challenging to the translator: “checkerboard triskeles alternate with chessboard pawns, curved corbels like abstract caryatids hold up the cornice, licorice-black W’s divide window from window, toreador white squares off against oxblood red.” Textures, shapes, sizes, colors—where is the convenient, one-stop illustrated dictionary that could even begin to furnish all these particulars? Yet, West not only managed but triumphed, producing a translation as virtuosic and varied as this extraordinary novel itself. Just look as further proof at the dexterous, ingenious rhymes he found in rendering German verse—many translators don’t even try to replicate rhymes, but West has done so with panache and skill.

Reading Brenner in the original would have made me and most other translators follow Celan’s initial reaction, and most of us—or I should speak for myself—would have left Burger’s novel in the “untranslatable” column. Now, however, West has produced a great translation of a great novel. His name should be in whatever Hall of Fame might someday be built (but don’t hold your breath) to translators.

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. His translation of Doderer’s The Strudlhof Steps was published by New York Review Books in 2021 and was awarded the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize in 2022.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, April 11. 2023

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