Zettel’s Bottom.

Mark Herman has a short post yoking together two very different cultural artifacts involving translators, the movie Arrival (see this LH post from last year) and Arno Schmidt’s 1970 novel Zettels Traum (not “Zettel’s,” as Herman has it); I’m going to reproduce the entirety of his discussion of the latter, which I find fascinating, and ask if any of my readers is familiar with the novel:

Bottom’s Dream, despite a title taken from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the use of Bottom’s Dream as a central metaphor, is about German translators of Edgar Allen Poe, not Shakespeare, and, despite its length, the entire book takes place during a 25-hour period. Here is translator John E. Woods’ explanation of the title:

In the classic Schlegel-Tieck translation of Shakespeare, “Bottom, the weaver” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is given the name “Zettel,” which is the warp of a fabric. And it is of course Bottom’s dream which is a central metaphor of the novel. Lost again is a pun, for a Zettel is also a small slip of paper, especially one used to jot something down on; Schmidt used thousands of such slips of notepaper to construct his later novels, by arranging them in large homemade file-boxes. Also lost, at least at first for the English speaker, is the fact that in German your Po is your “bottom,” and after all it is a novel about Edgar Allan Poe. As I [have] said … translation is an impossibility.

In the same interview, Woods discusses translating Arno Schmidt in particular:

Arno Schmidt is in one sense just another case of impossibility. The density of his prose is sui generis, even in German, which can be intimidatingly dense. Then there’s the word play, the dance of literary references, the Rabelaisian humor, all packed into what I like to think of as “fairy tales for adults.” So, what does a translator do? He puts on his fool’s cap and plays and dances and hopes he amuses.

In short, for works like Zettel’s Traum, an unfunny translation is an unsuccessful translation.

Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. From Wiktionary entry Zettel:
    Early Modern High German also zeddel, zedel, from Middle High German zedele, zedel, a loan from Italian cedola, via Medieval Latin cedula, schedula, the diminutive of scheda, scida (“strip of papyrus”) ultimately from Ancient Greek σχίδη (skhídē, “splinter, fragment”).

    And now they tell me (like, the whole internet, as represented by the first page of google searches) that the etymology of Russian цидуля (also, цидула) is unknown. What is it there to be unknown? From what exact language and at what exact time it was borrowed?

  2. Zettel is also a small slip of paper, especially one used to jot something down on; … homemade file-boxes.

    Wittgenstein similarly jotted on Zettel and put them in shoe boxes. I believe there was a (very expensive) reproduction published.

    Translating them is even more hazardous than Wittgenstein’s more connected works (if that’s the right term).

  3. BerlinBrian says:

    The first edition of Arno Schmidt’s book in 1970 was titled ‘Zettels Traum’ and was simply a facsimile of his incredibly chaotic typescript (plus handwritten passages, drawings, etc.), but the title page of the typescript itself has ‘Zettel’s Traum’. The title with apostrophe was then used for the ‘proper’ edition of 2010 (long after his death) in his collected works, a herculean labour of love involving a huge variety of typefaces and formats plus editorial marginal comments.

    Of course Mark Herman’s real lapse, verging on a crime, is the apostrophe he (if he is indeed the guilty party) has inserted in ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ (sic).

  4. You also had a 2016 post on the English translation of Zettel⁽’⁾s Traum: Bottom’s Dream.

  5. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, so the tt in Zettel is a hypercorrectivism/etymological nativization for the Central Bavarian merger of /t/ and /tː/ into /d/ between vowels/syllable nuclei… I never would have guessed.

    Coincidence: Old Frisian zetel “kettle”.

  6. The first edition of Arno Schmidt’s book in 1970 was titled ‘Zettels Traum’ and was simply a facsimile of his incredibly chaotic typescript (plus handwritten passages, drawings, etc.), but the title page of the typescript itself has ‘Zettel’s Traum’. The title with apostrophe was then used for the ‘proper’ edition of 2010 (long after his death) in his collected works, a herculean labour of love involving a huge variety of typefaces and formats plus editorial marginal comments.

    Ah, things are always more complicated than they seem. Thanks!

    You also had a 2016 post on the English translation of Zettel⁽’⁾s Traum: Bottom’s Dream.

    Sigh. Less than a year ago, and I’d already forgotten. At least this is a different link!

  7. The cover makes it look like Arno Zettels Schmidt Traum ‘the smith dream of Arno Zettel’.

  8. Someone should write that as a companion volume. (It would, of course, be longer.)

  9. David Marjanović says:

    “Smith” is Schmied in Standard German, with the regular lengthening of monosyllabic words spelled out. The surname is most commonly Schmidt (without the lengthening, which never reached the Low German area, and with the combined morphophonological dt as in Early Modern Dutch), sometimes Schmitt, in Austria often Schmid without the unetymological e.

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