Sometimes you wonder how people get work as translators. A couple of years ago I wrote several posts about the hapless Isidor Schneider and his butchery of Gorky’s autobiography (1, 2, 3); now, reading a recent NYRB, I find Ian Buruma complaining (more decorously than I) about what appears to be almost as bad a job of translating Harry Kessler’s diaries:
Then, in 1891, the diary suddenly switches from English to German. Kessler was of course as much a master of his native tongue as he was of English. Alas, the translation leaves a different impression. The grammar is often mangled, the sentences creak as though written in a thick German accent, and the mistakes are legion. A Kaserne is a military barracks, not a “casern.” Genial is not genial, but brilliant, literally “of genius.” Schallplatten, or records, is not normally rendered in English as “gramophone platters.” To translate schleppen as to schlepp, as in they “schlepped along little children,” sounds Yiddish, which I’m sure was not intended by the author. Hotel Emperorhof instead of Kaiserhof is eccentric. And the grasp, in translation, of this great cosmopolitan’s European geography seems deficient. It is The Hague, not the Haag, and Antwerp, not Anvers, at least not in an English text.
“Eccentric” is so restrained you can almost hear Buruma’s teeth grinding in the effort to maintain the civilized standards of discourse called for at the Review.