Translation Notes · 10/29/2015

The Sleep of the Righteous

Our Translation Notes series invites literary translators to describe the process of bringing a recent book into English, or to offer perspectives on global literatures from which they translate. In this installment, Isabel Fargo Cole writes about The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig (Two Lines Press).


A Day Trip to Meuselwitz: Translating East-Time

Translating is an alibi to look into questions — a safer alibi than writing, because the questions, which reveal so much, are posed by the text, not you. The investigative urge is allowed to prevail. These questions, unlike those you pose yourself, seem sure to have answers — somewhere. But the sense of an alibi easily shades into unease, impersonal curiosity into a fear of going too far.

Or the trail simply peters out. As with the island in “Coming” that Wolfgang Hilbig describes as an omega. On the principle that you need to be able to picture what you translate, I looked for it on the map. But what it shows, in my eyes, is not quite an omega.

The picture is wrong. Yet the word is clear. And in English, too, das Omega is an omega. What you can’t picture is taken care of by the words.

“As by day, my nightly path took me to a small peninsula that jutted omega-shaped into a secluded forest lake.”

~ “Coming”

You need to be able to picture the author. While he was alive, I went up to him sometimes, after his readings in Berlin, to say that sadly I hadn’t yet found a publisher for the translation. That hardly seemed to disappoint him, it barely seemed to concern him; he smiled like a kind uncle, weary and warm. People in severe depressions sometimes radiate that warmth: they give it off, let it go. It escapes them; only we can feel it. Hilbig made a visible effort to be present. And yet he remained remote.

Five years after his death — the publisher was found, and I began to translate in earnest — I was introduced to old friends of his. They sent me pictures, maps, glad to help with my questions. It was actually easier to ask this way, in the absence of the author, although (or because?) no one could claim to know ultimate answers. I couldn’t go too far; my questions could no longer probe the author; they served only to make him fleetingly present. Someone whom, I heard over and over, no one really knew, not even his oldest friends from Meuselwitz. This gives me pause: that that sense of remoteness hadn’t deceived me.

Wolfgang Hilbig © gezett

Meuselwitz, though, is not remote — one of the Meuselwitz friends, now in nearby Leipzig, offered to take me on a day trip there. I hadn’t thought of it myself. Maybe since I already seemed to know Meuselwitz, not just from Hilbig’s writing; I know places like that from countless day trips: semi-ghost-towns in the backwoods of the former East Germany — the “New German States”, a term that calls the very concept of time into question, when this New seems so old, frail, weary. Here the Ostzeit lasts on, with all the fatal fascination of an untranslatable term: Eastern times; back when this was the East; in the days of the East… East-Time. Place-Time. A chronotope that can’t be rendered otherwise, only entered into as it is.

An unexpected pleasure, this pilgrimage — the familiar feeling of a day trip in early spring, cold feet, the comforting prospect of a steaming bowl of solyanka in a sleepy village pub. A pleasure to find Meuselwitz like this, under the pure white snow, under the blue-white sky, in the fresh March air.

And disorienting: this wasn’t how Hilbig saw Meuselwitz. It was the clean snow of my time that covered the surrounding strip mines and the abandoned factories; the ash and smoke and soot had long since blown away. A white plane that can never be the plane of the text, a layer I need to dig below to get to the texts with their dark twists like roots or innards. An intact skin, a blank page.

Rudolf-Breitscheid-Straße. The empty lot in the center of the photo is the site of the house where Hilbig was born in 1941 and lived until 1979; it was torn down in 2005.

“In winter the street was frozen rock-solid, with the menacing glitter of frost in the petrified mud’s recesses. Every day now, with torturous slowness, the cumbersome ash carts passed… [they] left a lingering wave of salty fumes between the buildings; you tasted it, felt its sting in your throat and your lungs, and long after the carts had passed the air seemed roiled by invisible, burnt-smelling waves…”

~ “The Place of Storms”

“The bottom of the strip mine, as well as a flat dry expanse on the other side, past what was known, with great exaggeration, as its “beach,” consisted of a layer of peat-like lignite that had not been worth mining. This layer had quickly been ignited by the glowing cinders; across its full breadth the coal seam was being eaten away by the blaze and gradually turned to ash.… Nothing could extinguish the fire, creeping inexorably toward the water; I pictured how one day, not long from now, the strip mine’s shallow water would explode into a filthy white cloud of steam.”

~ “The Place of Storms”

“… the hulk of the former industrial bakery, its courtyard surrounded by nineteenth-century façades of dark-red brick, with stone steps outside and ramps with guardrails where the delivery trucks used to line up and load the bread . . . so that the whole side street smelled of it, freshly baked, still warm. . . and drove off, fully laden, through a massive cast-iron gate: from here the town, the surrounding villages, and the industrial plants were supplied with this chestnut brown, eternally same-tasting foodstuff—a kilo for fifty-two pfennigs . . . the bread was of incomparable quality, and it never changed. Now the bakery is empty too, cleared out, abandoned to decay.”

~ “The Dark Man”

Back then, no doubt, the snow was filthy the moment it fell. Back when the bakery, the strip mines were still in operation, when Hilbig shoveled lignite into the boilers, when the coal seams still burned beneath the lake, when Meuselwitz was still alive.

But even Hilbig describes the town as dead. Or rather, he can’t quite say. How can one demand of a shadow that he describe the image of a shadow town? For Hilbig, Meuselwitz was in limbo: in its death throes, or already a ghost, neither living nor dead, not of this world. The station clock had stopped at three, eternal afternoon. Ever since then you were excluded, upon entering the city, from a fundamental law of human existence: since then you were excluded from the soft, relentless onward flow of time.

© Peter Thieme. According to Lutz Nitsche Kornel, this photo inspired Hilbig’s story “The Afternoon”. Peter Thieme writes: “And now I see in the photo that a street sign points to the station clock like a spiky finger.”

The paradox of East-Time: it’s within living memory, but so very past that it hardly seems to have happened in reality; its actual passage dwindles before the fact of its pastness. Yet it is remembered as a stasis so absolute, an afternoon so eternal, that it seems it must last on somewhere. (Somewhere — at a loss, you grope for spatial terms. Somewhere up there, down there, back there?)

Meuselwitz Station, 2013.

The light lasts on. I seemed to recall, just now, that the station clock, that March, still showed 3. It’s not true, I didn’t see the clock at all, it has long since been removed. But in summer eternal afternoon will still prevail; in March, as in Hilbig’s day, darkness starts falling at three. And so, after lunch in the pub on the marketplace, the town began to approximate East-Time.

Hilbig’s writing is dark, but he watches the light. It’s how he measures time. In “The Dark Man” the sun aims its vibrating spears into the room of a woman to whom the narrator never admitted his love. They enter the room when he sleeps with her, in that East-Time, and they enter years later as she dies of cancer: a small wispy patch of light appeared, seeming to circle the wounds, atremble. Caressing a dying woman’s body, the only way to touch the untouchable. [T]he white body whose contours slowly slipped into nothingness. An instant that passes too quickly, too slowly, not at all.

Where does East-Time begin; where does it end? What is its relation to my time? Which town is the shadow town: Meuselwitz then or Meuselwitz now, with its refurbished houses, its pretty, brightly-painted marketplace? If that afternoon’s stillness seemed peaceful to me, does that mean the ghosts are laid to rest? That death is not as bad as you fear? How can one demand of a shadow that she translate the description of an image of a shadow town? Could I find the right tenses if I knew whether Meuselwitz is still alive, or in fact already dead? But even Hilbig didn’t know. And even back then the translation didn’t concern him. And none of these things are translation questions.

No, Ostzeit is untranslatable, but it leaves all my options — syntax, synonyms, tenses — intact. Like the omega, it is simply there. Equally there or not there in English or in German. The question is how to place myself — and my readers? — and what I am doing — and what they are doing? — within the passage of time which I — and they — must retrace here. But that, in the end, is a question which everyone must ask themselves.

The light, now or then, in one language or the other, will always, will never be the same.

When this light disappears, so I’d thought, then I’ll go. . .


All quotes are from the stories in The Sleep of the Righteous. Many thanks to Lutz Nitzsche Kornel for the trip to Meuselwitz. All photos, unless otherwise noted, are my own. (Isabel Fargo Cole)


Wolfgang Hilbig (1941–2007) was one of the major German writers to emerge in the postwar era. Though raised in East Germany, he proved so troublesome to the authorities that in 1985 he was granted permission to emigrate to the West. The author of over 20 books, he received virtually all of Germany’s major literary prizes, capped by the 2002 Georg Büchner Prize, Germany’s highest literary honor.

Isabel Fargo Cole is a U.S.-born, Berlin-based writer and translator. Her translations include Boys and Murderers by Hermann Ungar (Twisted Spoon Press, 2006), All the Roads Are Open by Annemarie Schwarzenbach (Seagull Books, 2011) and The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann (Seagull Books, 2013). The recipient of a prestigious PEN/Heim Translation Grant in 2013, she is the initiator and co-editor of, an online magazine for new German literature in English.