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Translating the landscape of Wolfgang Hilbig: An interview with Isabel Fargo Cole

Photograph: Simona Lexau

Interview by Joseph Schreiber.

3:AM Magazine: Although Old Rendering Plant is your third Hilbig translation to be published, with two more on the way next year, I am aware that for many readers this will be their first introduction, so it only seems fair to briefly revisit the factors that drew you to his work. You have spoken in the past about your first visit to Berlin—in 1987, before the Wall came down—and your subsequent decision to move there in 1995. Wolfgang Hilbig is one of the writers your new East German friends introduced you to. What was the initial attraction for you?

Isabel Fargo Cole: It was the language, the rhythmic intensity, the imagery and atmosphere. He describes dark things, places, states of mind with a sensual immediacy that compels even when it repels; ordinary or squalid things are charged with an almost mythic significance. He’s writing very much about his time and place, but he ruptures the surface reality to delve far beneath it, and ends up in a place that seems timeless. So, oddly, his surreal short prose made the GDR come to life for me, while more realistic writers had made me experience it at a historic distance. And he describes that reality as a deeper, universal reality. Also, he is a fascinating figure, a factory worker who taught himself to write by reading Edgar Allen Poe and E. T. A. Hoffmann, and literally did his writing in the boiler room.

3:AM: Did you ever have an opportunity to meet him? Is he an author you wish you could have consulted with in the translation process, or do you think he might have been rather prickly to work with?

IFC: I went to a few of his readings in the 90s and early 2000s, and told him I was trying to translate his work and find a publisher for it. But there was something unapproachable about him though he had a warm, avuncular aura. He had intense social anxiety and severe alcohol problems, especially toward the end of his life. In some sense he wasn’t of this world; even his closest friends felt they hardly knew him. He lived for and in his writing. I once sent him a translation query, by post, which he answered very kindly, but I imagine he would have felt overwhelmed by too many queries. And he wrote very intuitively, he wasn’t much for analyzing his own writing.

3:AM: In a 2015 interview, you advise translators to: “Translate what you’re passionate about, not what you think other people want to read.” Tell me about your passion—what excited you about Hilbig as a translator?

IFC: In the sense that a translator is a discoverer, someone who goes out to find important works and convey them into her language, what excited me was his unique voice and his courage: he goes places few writers dare to go, he exposes himself with all his flaws and inadequacies and darkness, but his honesty has its own beauty. In the sense that a translator is an artist and a craftsperson, I was excited by the unique sound of his voice, the rhythms and colors of his prose.

3:AM: Now that you have translated at least five distinct works or collections, has the passion dimmed or grown? What do you think makes for a successful “marriage” between a translator and a particular author?

IFC: At first I was driven by the desire to convey a dark and difficult writer to an audience that I worried wouldn’t appreciate him. Now, beyond all my expectations, I know he is appreciated in the English-speaking world; there are people who are challenged and inspired by his work, maybe people who will read or write differently because of it. So there’s a different sense of responsibility and motivation. And of course my understanding of his work deepens the more I translate. At the same time, I won’t ever understand it exhaustively; it will keep drawing me in and taking something out of me and giving something back, but there will always be a mystery that can only be approached intuitively. Maybe that’s what makes a good marriage.


3:AM: Hilbig’s prose is very distinctive, characterized by long, halting sentences; temporal dislocation and oppressive atmospheric tension.  Old Rendering Plant offers an exceptionally condensed and disorienting narrative—a monologue that slides in and out of passages of lyrical stream-of-consciousness—and unlike any of his other works I’ve read to date, it’s very difficult to get one’s bearings. The narrator is always in motion, in time and place, moving in and out of memories that all circle back to a few key locations in this area around his home town. I read the book at least three times, and certain passages many more times, to trace a thread through the narrative, not only as a means of writing about it for review, but also because, as a writer I was fascinated by way the sense of time repeatedly slips away and resurfaces.  No matter how closely I read it, the novel held up beautifully, revealing new insights every time I passed through, but retaining its misty opaqueness. When you set out to translate a piece like this, one that is so tightly self-contained yet so rich and convoluted, how deeply do you have to read into the text to weed out what is happening, to mark a trail, so that the effect is not lost in the process of translation? In other words, do you have to clearly understand exactly what Hilbig is doing, or is it better to retain a more organic and holistic approach?

IFC: It’s hard to get your bearings in all his works; the narrators wander about in space and time. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, and often a sense of déjà vu; you circle back to the same place/time, but something about it has shifted, or maybe it’s the same experience recurring in a slightly different way. But these aren’t rationalistic games he’s playing. He’s navigating a landscape in which time and space are continually bent by his own psyche, or by strange forces at large in the world. I need to have a grasp of the spatial-temporal topography and how he’s moving around in it; I need to convey subtle shifts in tenses or things that indicate a habitual action rather than a one-time action; if I pick up on associations and connections that seem to create a logic or a “trail”, I need to make sure they aren’t obscured.  But I can’t just blaze a trail by clearing up ambiguities, because often these ambiguities are the substance itself. Several old friends of his have been very helpful in shedding light on difficult passages, but none of them would say that they “understand exactly what he’s doing”—and I doubt he would have either. He just did it. And there’s such an urgency to what he did that it conveys itself without a need for complete rational understanding.

3:AM: Among English language readers, Hilbig appears to have a growing and enthusiastic fan base, at least among those with an interest in translated literature. However, when I mention him to some German readers I know, I get the sense that he is considered out of fashion. I wonder if, as more time passes since reunification, there is less appetite in Germany for literature so firmly rooted in the GDR?

IFC: Hilbig was never in fashion. He was a perpetual outsider, a persona non grata in East Germany and a misfit in West Germany, profoundly uncomfortable with capitalist society and the literary circus. He didn’t belong to any movements. He was never an easy sell, and he hated having to sell himself. But he has always been revered by other writers and serious readers, especially in the East. I actually see people becoming more aware of his significance as time passes. His complete works are being published, a new biography just appeared; in a sense he is entering the canon, and not just as an East German writer. Hilbig is appreciated more and more for his insights into the burden of German history, for his authenticity and his intensity, and for his genius with the German language. There are writers from younger generations, like Lutz Seiler and Clemens Meyer, who regard him as one of their greatest inspirations.

3:AM: Looking beyond Hilbig, I know you have a newly released translation of Franz Fühmann’s At the Burning Abyss, and that you published a novel in German earlier this year. Tell me more about these projects.

IFC: Fühmann was Hilbig’s mentor, a very different but equally fascinating writer. He had embraced Nazi ideology as a very young man, came to doubt it as a soldier, and converted to socialism in a Soviet POW camp. He became an important literary figure in the GDR, but grew increasingly disillusioned with socialism’s practice, and ultimately became a dissident within the establishment, fighting for freedom of speech and championing nonconformist writers like Hilbig. His final major work, published in 1982, At the Burning Abyss is an unsparing stocktaking of his ideological journey – and his lifelong obsession with the Expressionist Georg Trakl, whose poetry (regarded as “decadent” by Nazis and Socialists alike) ultimately showed Fühmann a way to transcend political dogmas. It’s an essayistic masterpiece, and the questions it explores have lost none of their urgency. Both Hilbig and Fühmann struggled to explore the contradictions and dark sides of human nature that their would-be utopian society tried to rationalize out of existence. At the Burning Abyss asks how we can confront these dark zones unflinchingly, and through them arrive at a truly humane ethical and aesthetic stance that does justice to life’s complexity, avoiding simplistic dualisms and dogmatic panaceas. Fühmann doesn’t impose answers, he asks questions; he has passionate views, but treats his readers as interlocutors on equal footing, engaged in their individual, never-finished journeys of discovery.

My novel is called Die grüne Grenze (The Green Frontier), and it’s set in the heavily-restricted border zone of the GDR in the Harz Mountains in the 1970s and 80s, gradually opening up into other layers of German history. I’ve always been very much immersed in East German stories, through my literary translations and my social circles, and gradually this material dominated my own writing. And things began coming to me in German rather than English, in part because of my immersion and the subject matter. Also, translating literature gave me a keener appreciation of what you can do with the German language, and I started wanting to do it myself.


Isabel Fargo Cole is a US-born, Berlin-based writer and translator. Her debut novel, Die grüne Grenze (in German) was published in 2017 by Edition Nautilus, and her most recent translations include At the Burning Abyss by Franz Fühmann (Seagull Books, 2017) and Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig (Two Lines Press, 2017). Homepage: www.andere-seite.de

Joseph Schreiber is a writer from Calgary, Canada. He is criticism/nonfiction editor at 3:AM Magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 20th, 2017.