Translation Notes · 06/21/2018

Maybe Esther

Our Translation Notes series invites literary translators to describe the process of bringing a text into English, or to offer perspectives on global literatures from which they translate. In this installment, our Translations Editor Michelle Bailat-Jones interviews award-winning translator Shelley Frisch about her recent translation of Maybe Esther by Katja Petrowskaja (Harper Collins).


Michelle Bailat-Jones: In the beginning of Maybe Esther, Petrowskaja writes about her ancestor’s school for deaf-mute children, and tells the story of a newspaper article written in Hebrew about the school in 1864, an article that was then translated into Russian 60 years later, and finally found by Petrowskaja’s mother 60 years after that. About this, Petrowskaja writes, “Our family’s heritage is predicated on a questionable translation without a source text, and I am now telling the story of this family in German without there ever having been a Russian original.” So much of this book is about the translation of identity through language, and it sometimes felt like an intimate conversation between Polish and Russian and German. Do you feel that the further step of translating the story into English potentially took the reader outside of that? Or was it fairly easy to extend that conversation to someone – through English – who isn’t familiar with those languages?

Shelley Frisch: Let me start with Katja’s own musing on this issue in the “Kozyra” chapter of Maybe Esther: “Never have I felt as perfectly lost as here in Warsaw; I thought in Russian, looked for my Jewish relatives, and wrote in German. I was lucky to be able to move in that space between languages, swapping words and switching roles and viewpoints.”

This passage brought to my mind a poem, “October 27, 2003,” by the Lebanese poet Etel Adnan, in a translation by C. Dickson, which I read in the March 2008 issue of Words Without Borders. Here is its second stanza:

words, for effect, cloak themselves in / Tyrien purple, and it is in / the spaces that are between / where the real adventure lies

The in-betweenness of language and perspective goes to the very heart of the translator’s task, and I regarded my translation of Katja’s book as an opportunity to extend the intimate conversation between the book’s trio of languages into a fourth, namely its new target language of English. Actually, her German text already dips into this fourth linguistic dimension in a few spots. By injecting allusive tidbits of English, such as “only you” and “play it again,” she conjures up an English-language artistic arena that invites the reader to think, respectively, of the Elvis Presley song and of the Casablanca movie, especially, in the second instance, as she is conversing with a man tellingly named Sam. Paradoxically, because these phrases no longer stand out within the English-language text, they forfeit much of their allusive force in English. But here and there, the target language can make for new and sometimes jolting associations that are sure to resonate with English-language readers, as when Katja realizes, with a start, that the name of an artist advertising for a casting call translates to “Trumpf,” which is to say: Trump.

For a book so centered on language and its myriad implications, the outsized roles played by silence and muteness are noteworthy, as is the ongoing presence of photos and other realia to communicate the book’s contents in visual form.

As I worked my way through Maybe Esther’s linguistic potpourri, which weaves in and out of language, languages, and silence as it pieces together the mosaic-like fragments of the author-narrator’s past, I could not help thinking of the first two lines of an Emily Dickinson poem:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant — / Success in Circuit lies

MBJ: On silence. Yes, yes, yes! I was really struck by how much the idea of silence, deafness, and muteness ran perpendicular to her wordplay and exploration of the book’s different languages. I felt that she was perhaps asserting, again and again, and in different ways, that no language can adequately vocalize the horrors or the mysteries of the past. But she kept trying, as humans do, and then falling silent.

SF: On at least three levels, language and the (in)ability to speak are central to Maybe Esther. First, there is her family’s long history of teaching deaf-mute children to use spoken language, as poignantly laid out in Chapter 2: “Rosa and the Deaf Children.” It all began with her ancestor Shimon Heller founding a school for deaf-mute children in Vienna during the first half of the nineteenth century: “He taught children how to speak so that they would be heard … because the faculties of understanding and reason, they thought back then, reside in spoken language. To be heard is to belong.” She notes the double distress facing these Jewish children, deaf-mutes struggling to be heard as members of a marginalized culture while grappling with speech impairment. Shimon would place the point of a pencil in his own mouth, and the end of that pencil in the mouth of a child, so they could feel the pencil vibrate as language was created via the tongue. This method was evidently quite successful; against all odds, the children were able to master speech. Here is Katja’s stirring description of the liberating outcome: “They set their heavy tongues in motion and lifted off their vocal burdens. Their prophet Moses had also had an unwieldy mouth and a heavy tongue.”

Second, Katja wrote this book in a foreign language. Both Katja and her brother embraced foreign languages as a means of carving out their paths in life; her brother learned Hebrew when he turned to Orthodox Judaism, and she learned German when she fell in love with a German man, her future husband. Like the deaf-mute children she describes, she found the process of learning to speak (and then to write) in a new language liberating and identity-forming.

And finally, there is silence about the past, most notably in a chapter toward the end of the book: “Grandfather’s Silence.” Katja and her family held back from asking about their grandfather’s experiences, and he offered no explanations. I’ll end this response with silence of my own, and let Katja’s text convey the message:

His smile nurtured his silence. No stories about the war, not a word about the past, about experiences, no Those were the days. Today it strikes me as peculiar that we didn’t question him about what had happened to him, we children of the 70s, who were saturated with the spirit of this war, the most important introduction to world history, a war that imposed a “sentimental education,” loss and love, friendship and betrayal, we drew from the well of this war, which never ran dry.

MBJ: While reading, I was curious about how the German text would be experienced by a German reader? I’m aware that Petrowskaja is not a native German speaker but writing in German, and so were there particularities or eccentricities of her style that affected the text? Or were those smoothed out by her editor? If not, did this affect how you approached your translation into English?

SF: Katja insists that “smoothed out” is not what she was after, although she did rely on her editor’s judgment to flag any spots where unpersuasive German usage posed a barrier to understanding. For instance, an early draft omitted articles, in accordance with Russian grammar. Still, when her German editor added the articles, the rhythm was off. A great deal of back and forth ensued to get the medium and message in proper balance.

In both form and content, Katja aimed at foregrounding the fragmentary nature of her quest to piece together her family history, and the jagged use of language that comes with foreign language proficiency acquired later in life is part and parcel of that fragmentation. The book features invented words (“Kugelwissenschaftler” for ballistics experts) and off-kilter phrases (“Deine Gedanken fliegen direkt in die Wunden” (“Your thoughts fly straight into the wounds”), a formulation she herself calls “absurd,” yet deems a powerful conveyor of meaning, in part for that very reason). I did my best to allow language to teeter at the edges of linguistic acceptability here and in other passages, for example in this “peacock” sentence, devoid of conjunctions in a manner that sets it atilt but allows it to capture an experiential moment on its own quirky terms: “The peacock was beautiful, beauty was as important as proficiency, and the deaf children enjoyed the beauty of the hundred eyes in a manner that we can’t, seeing its dazzling plumage, which covered the horizon, without hearing its disturbing shriek.”

At certain points in the text, Katja announces to the reader (and thus to me as translator) that awkward wording will follow, and I made sure to adjust the translation accordingly, such as in this ungraceful sentence: “I wish that God may help you so that you will always have good fortune.” At other times, she points out vocabulary she has just acquired in German and is employing for the first time, which had me seeking equivalent lower-frequency words to match her diction (“befitting” for “angemessen”).

In a pivotal passage in the “Divining Rod” chapter, Katja notes that her battles with the foreign German language were liberating as well as constraining:

My German, still taut with unattainability, kept me from falling into a routine. … I coveted German because I wasn’t able to merge with it, driven by an unrealizable longing, a love that knew neither object nor gender nor addressee, because there were only sounds, and they could not be captured, so wild they were and unattainable. … I wanted to write in German, come hell or high water. I wrote, sagging under the weight of the swelling linguistic fodder, like a cow and an unborn calf all in one, bellowing and mooing, giving birth and being born, worth all the effort…

In the end, I could only hope that my language “bellowed and mooed” in like manner. Imagine, then, my pleasure at reading in the New Statesman that the reviewer found the English version “expertly translated by Shelley Frisch into sentences that swoop and soar. It is writing that dazzles – deeply thoughtful and with insights that flash like sharp implements.”

MBJ: The entire book has a very specific focus on language, on what words mean, on how certain words influence the emotional landscape of an individual. Were there places where this focus was hard to render affectively/effectively in English?

SF: The book’s German subtitle—“Geschichten”— which means both “stories” and “histories,” encapsulates the dual nature of Katja Petrowskaja’s quest to (re)construct her elusive (hi)story. Maybe Esther’s chapters are perched squarely on the divide between affirmation and speculation, as indicated in the “maybeness” of the main title and throughout the book. (Katja’s grandmother may have been named Esther; a ficus plant may have saved her father’s life.) English lacks a word that casts a comparably wide net, and the subtitle we settled on, “A Family Story,” was as close as the English language could be nudged toward this duality of meaning.

The affective difficulties presented in this book—and, one could well argue, in any book that undergoes transformation into translation—revolve around what Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation: Life in a New Language aptly calls a loss (or, at any rate, alteration) of “aura.” Hoffman’s book, which chronicles the stages of her dismay in shifting from her native Polish to English (in which she became a distinguished professor of literature and senior editor of the New York Times Book Review), laments that in the process, “the words I learn now don’t stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. ‘River’ in Polish was a vital sound, energized with the essence of riverhood, of my rivers. ‘River’ in English is cold—a word without an aura. … [I]t does not give off the radiating haze of connotation.”

Language is not just what words mean, but how they mean—what signals they send off as they go about signifying. As Toni Morrison once remarked in an interview, “You rely on a sentence to say more than the denotation and the connotation; you revel in the smoke that the words send up.”

That smoke is generated well beyond the level of individual words and phrases. German sentence structure, for instance, is predicated on what I like to think of as the “punchline principle”: it groups together the least important elements at the beginning, and crescendos to its key revelations at the end—much like telling a joke. The word “nicht,” which invariably turns the meaning of an entire sentence on its head, is often the final word of a German sentence. And the interminably long wait for the verb, a subject of considerable fun-poking in Mark Twain’s essay “The Awful German Language,” similarly keeps the listener or reader in suspense until the very end. A translator has to figure out the extent to which English can preserve this suspense without adding gratuitous foreignness to the syntactic structure. It’s a tightrope act, and with sufficient (caffeine-fueled) inspiration—and ample perspiration—the translator makes it to the other side without failing or falling.

MBJ: I want to ask about some of her specific word play – a good example is on pages 102 – 103, when she is riffing on the words “show, shy, and shoah,” amongst others. I kept thinking how challenging this might have been for a translation – and your translation was so smooth. Where there passages that were quite difficult to work through in English because it wouldn’t do what the German was doing?

SF: The daunting hurdles were more often syntactic than semantic, as I indicated above. But Katja’s string of linguistic associations, most of which rely on acoustic riffing, posed quite interesting challenges, as in a spot in the “Intersections” epilogue, where, in a play on Karl Liebknecht’s last name, I needed to add a bit of disambiguation. My solution (“His last name, when split apart, turns into lieber Knecht, dear servant”), while serviceable, was bulkier, and lacked the improvisational ease of her linguistic impishness.

In a lucky coincidence, the “show, shy, shoah” word play came easily because both languages offered this alliterative set. English, as a Germanic language, is often kind to the translator of this language pair in the alliterative regard. The more challenging, non-alliterative linguistic moment came right after that passage. The (lyrically lowercased) German original reads “was für ein seltsames wort, wie ort.” This phrase is wordplay for wordplay’s sake, wordplay that in and of itself is the carrier of meaning. Katja invited me to conjure up a phrase that was playful in the same way, so I went with “what a strange phrase, sounds like phase.” Another example of this kind of substitute word play came some twenty pages later in the text, when Katja wrote: “meine Suche war seit langem zur Sucht geworden” (literally: my search had long since become an addiction), which I recreated as “the quest had long since become the question.” There’s a decided shift in meaning here, but Katja wished this passage, like so many others, to highlight the process of acoustic association, and I was delighted to oblige.

The chapter that bears the book’s title features a focus on a feasibly fictitious ficus (Katja and I share a love of alliteration). We readers are told that a ficus plant saved Katja’s father’s life, and as a result, she was “fixated on that ficus [and hence] ficusated.” In the course of time she learns, however, that there may have been no ficus in this episode at all, that she may have inserted that detail in a moment of willful recreation of memory—that is, in a fiction—and she muses, in yet another alliterative riff, whether the fiction was born from the ficus, or the other way around. In either case, she pronounces this Maybe Ficus “the main character in the history, if not of the world, then of my family.”

Luck was on my side with numerous other alliterative sets. For Katja’s “leicht säuerlich, denn die Sprache soll schmecken,” in describing sucking candy, I came up with “a tad tart, because a tongue needs to carry a tang”; for her “mit elf, als Elfe,” I wrote “at the elfin age of eleven”; and, as Katja pores over the events of Hitler’s early days, her “schien mir die Welt noch heil zu sein, wenn es nicht mehr so sein wird, wird man einander mit Heil begrüßen” became, in my translation, “the world still seemed whole to me. When that is no longer the case, whole will be transformed into Heil.”

Every now and again, the English language afforded me options unavailable in the original German, some based on the use of “tongue” as both a body part and a language, others relating to spinning a yarn as both handiwork and telling a tale. It’s a special pleasure to translate a text that is at its core about the power of words.


Katja Petrowskaja was born in 1970 in Kiev. She studied at the University of Tartu, Estonia, and was also awarded research fellowships to study at Columbia University in New York, and Stanford in California. Katja Petrowskaja received her PhD in Moscow. Since 1999, she has lived and worked in Berlin. Maybe Esther is her first book, and is translated into 20 languages.


Shelley Frisch (Ph.D. in German literature from Princeton University) taught at Columbia University and Haverford College, where she served as Chair of the German Department before turning to translation full-time in the 1990s. Her many translations from the German include Reiner Stach’s monumental three-volume Kafka biography, for which she was awarded the Modern Language Association’s Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Translation Prize and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize; it was also longlisted for the PEN Translation Prize and the National Translation Award. She has translated biographies of Nietzsche, Einstein, and Leonardo da Vinci, and her translation of Karin Wieland’s Dietrich and Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, has now been optioned for a film. Frisch co-directs international translation workshops, and is currently serving on several translation juries while translating a set of correspondence for NYRB and a book about divided Berlin for Simon & Schuster. A podcast describing her views on “Voice in Translation” can be found here: