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Interview with longlisted author Daniel Kehlmann and translator Ross Benjamin

Interview with longlisted author Daniel Kehlmann and translator Ross Benjamin

We caught up with author Daniel Kehlmann and translator Ross Benjamin about longlisted book Tyllthe joys of working with such a mischievous character and the accidental parallels Kehlmann drew between today's society and medieval German mythology. 

Daniel Kehlmann

What has it been like to be longlisted?

I am very happy. As long as there are lists, it‘s usually better to be on them.

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted book Tyll?

It‘s a novel about the Thirty Years War and about a jester and resilience in dark times. It also has a talking donkey.

Why was it important for you to retell the medieval German myth now? Did you draw many similarities to our current society?

I really didn‘t plan on that. I wanted the subject matter to be as remote from our times as possible. But, when I started in 2013, the world was a very different place, and times have changed. Now even the plague has made a comeback.

Tyll seems a mischievous character – did you enjoy writing him?

Oh yes, to an insane degree. I learned a lot from him, and I am proud to say he made me a less nice human being.


Ross Benjamin

What has it been like to be longlisted?

I’m enormously grateful to be longlisted and have been delighted with the increased attention Tyll has received as a result. Above all, to have a place among such a rich selection of titles from all over the world and such an exceptional group of writers and translators is truly an honor. I also deeply appreciate the prize’s commitment to celebrating the translator’s achievement alongside that of the original author. I couldn’t ask for a more meaningful endorsement of my efforts than having my rendering of a novel as brilliant and important as Tyll be recognized as worthy of distinction by the judges of the International Booker Prize. 

What did you most like about translating Tyll?

What I enjoyed most about translating Tyll was the abundance of opportunities it gave me to be playful with a wide array of linguistic registers: fairy tales, folklore, ballads, magic spells, prayers, witch trials, scholarly texts, rhymes, puns, the bluntness of peasant speech, and the ornateness of court verbosity. There were fictitious passages from a memoir written by a count that invited me to ape the prose of a Richard Burton or Sir Thomas Browne, and scenes involving the British court and members of Shakespeare’s troupe, including the Bard himself,  that called for approximations of Elizabethan and Jacobean rhythms and diction. When characters expressed religious sentiments, the King James Bible offered cadences and phrasing I could mimic and incorporate. For insults, I looked to the Urquhart translation of Rabelais. All the while, I was striving to strike the right balance, taking care not to lay on the stylistic play too thick, since the novel doesn’t engage in outright pastiche. While inflected by the language of the historical era and the diverse discourses the narrative invokes, Kehlmann’s prose on the whole sounds natural and more “timeless” than conspicuously archaic. So it was important even while experimenting with different modes to know when to dial it back. In the end, that challenge was part of the fun too.     

How did you find translating the humour in the novel?

The humour is essential to the novel and typical of Kehlmann’s work, and it was a pleasure to translate. The humor of certain German writers, famously that of Kafka, can be challenging to carry over, but Kehlmann’s comic sensibility seems to me quite conducive to English translation. His timing and wit, his lightness of touch even when dealing with grave or brutal material, are not so foreign to the English-language literary tradition. I found I could get across much of the humour simply by paying close attention to the beats of the sentences, where the stresses fall: “There are groats. There were groats yesterday too, and there will be groats again tomorrow, boiled now in more and now in less water; there are groats every day, except on worse days when instead of groats there’s nothing.”

Were there any words or phrases that cannot be translated into English? How did you overcome this challenge?

The challenge is always to find the most effective ways to reproduce what seems essential to the original text, and indeed this is not always possible or even desirable in the form of equivalence at the level of words and phrases. To give an example from Tyll, there’s a moment of bilingual wordplay that works in the German version but, in my view, would not have worked in the English: Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen, quotes an ode by John Donne in which he calls her “fair phoenix bride.” In the German novel, this phrase is in English, but Tyll undercuts Elizabeth’s vanity by feigning confusion about the poet’s name, giving it the German pronunciation “Schonn Tonn,” and mistaking or pretending to mistake the phrase “fair phoenix” for the strange German-sounding word “Verwöhnix.” Even though the English words “fair phoenix bride” appear in the German original, including Tyll’s German mangling of the words in the English version did not seem to me to be particularly accessible or particularly humorous — and accessibility and humor are key elements of what makes this dialogue work in the original. I felt this passage would be better served by capturing the pointed comic dynamic between Elizabeth and Tyll. So I came up with my own irreverent turn for Tyll to mischievously give the John Donne quote: “And who is John Dung anyway? What sort of fellow is that, and who is fearful Nick’s bride supposed to be?”