Getting one of the greatest books in German literature published in English
Even though I remember when (2009), I cannot remember how, I first came across Albert Vigoleis Thelen‘s Die Insel des Zweiten Gesichts. Perhaps it was a tip by a reader on Amazon, could well be. It certainly wasn‘t the official canon of German literature. Because one does not find him there: the author was largely ignored and certainly neglected by established literary circles right from the start. His magnum opus was first published in 1953 and not to general acclaim. In fact it never made it onto a bestseller list, though it has been a longseller, and has seen numerous reprints. Thomas Mann thought it one of the greatest books of the 20th century, Paul Celan praised it as a ‘true work of art’, and the Dutch bestselling author Marten t’ Hart puts Thelen first amongst post-1945 German authors.
Anyway, I was totally overwhelmed by this whimsical and irreverent work which is so unlike anything else that it is impossible to assign it to a particular category. It is not exactly a memoir, nor is it a novel, or a travelogue. It has been compared to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, to Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus and to Cervantes‘ Don Quijote. “Aus den Angewandten Erinnerungen des Vigoleis” (“From the Applied Recollections”) says the subheading. And there can be no doubt that the author draws on his adventurous and colourful life that forced him and his Inca-Swiss wife Beatrice to take refuge in Mallorca, as they foresaw what was happening in Germany when others averted their eyes. He called it ‘die Verherdung eines ganzen Volkes unter einem blökenden Leithammel’ – ‘herding a whole national under a bleating bellwether’. Die Insel is in fact the story of the couple‘s time on Mallorca from 1931 to 1938. They were as poor as mice, initially living in a rat-infested brothel with no roof, earning their meagre living as secretary, tourist guides, language and piano teachers, sometimes surviving on nothing but snails and cactus figs, and certainly always from hand to mouth, all the while encountering what adds up to an odd assortment of famous and not so famous people.
The reasons The Island of Second Sight met with displeasure and rejection at the time of its publication included Thelen’s outspoken anti-Nazi stance and his historical perspective, which is why the work was initially published in Holland. In addition, his meandering, baroque-picaresque writing style (Thelen himself spoke of ‘cactus style’), did not fit at all into the literary landscape of German post-WW2 literature, which was firmly in the hands of Gruppe 47. They derisively called his language ‘Emigrantendeutsch‘ and ‘old-fashioned’ and literally shredded his work. When in fact, Thelen deserved praise for the way he stood up against fascism and dared to poke fun at it (just read the chapter on when he and Beatrice act as ‘Führer’ for the German tourists!)
Admittedly, it may take a bit of courage for the modern reader to get stuck into an 800-page strong tome with its page-long paragraphs, the tapeworm sentences and the gigantic vocabulary, enriched with numerous ingenious neologisms, dialect words, including lexical items from old German, Swiss German, and Dutch. But, believe me, you’ll be sucked into this story full of quirky episodes and philosophical musings (okay, you may want to skip a few of those, they do go on a bit).
Germans are sometimes thought of as devoid of humour – and of course, Thelen is as far away from your typical German as you might imagine, and he is certainly uniquely virtuous with the language – and therefore fiendishly difficult to translate. Which is why I started to wonder whether the book had actually been published in other languages.
As it turned out, it had. Translations existed in French and Spanish and Dutch. But however hard I looked, no sign of an English translation! How could this be? I started doing research and made contact with Jürgen Pütz, Thelen expert par excellence, who gave me the cue that a professor in the US had started on a translation of Die Insel years ago. But no, it had not been published. This was exciting news, and after some further investigation I managed to track down an e-mail address for Donald O. White, Prof. emeritus. Much to my astonishment I had a response from him the following day. And would you believe it: Attached to the e-mail was a very large Wordperfect file of over 100.000 words – The Island of Second Sight.
I was speechless. What had just landed on my computer were all 800 pages of this outlandishly difficult German text, rendered in immaculate EN_US, with the irony, the humour, everything rendered beautifully, capturing the spirit of the original. I realized immediately that this was a truly masterful translation. And I looked out for some of the particularly tricky passages. Yes, yes, incredible, an absolute jewel of a translation! I detected very few errors. Famously, I remember ‘Schabziger’, which was rendered as Gouda cheese, when in fact it is sapsago, a traditional cheese exclusively produced in the Canton of Glarus in Switzerland.
And yet this masterful translation had been gathering dust in Prof. White’s study, in the bottom drawer of his desk. I found out later that he had made several attempts at getting it published but had failed.
And so did I: I spent an entire 12 month writing to many UK and US publishers, with recommendations, summaries, and samples, entreating them to publish this forgotten chef d‘oeuvre. They all said it looked fascinating, but there was no interest in such a big fat tome, and it just did not fit into their current program. Not having a clue about the ins and outs of publishing I was starting to get very disheartened and frustrated. I was thinking of finding a way of publishing it myself, through Alpha. But of course we are not a publishing house, and we did not have a printer, a distributor, etc. And the publisher who owns the rights in the German, Ullstein, would not sell the rights in the translation to anyone who is not a publishing house. The fact that the translation already existed and they did not have to pay for it did not seem to make the slightest difference! (Where is the logic in that?)
Suddenly, I had an inspiration. I sent one chapter to a friend who runs an independent publishing company in Cambridge, Galileo Publishers, Robert Hyde. He happened to be on Mallorca for a holiday at the time (which I did not know) – and was immediately hooked. He urged me to send him the entire book … The rest, as they say, is history. Galileo published to book with a little help from Alpha, and later licensed it with a US publisher. Right now, Galileo is planning a third edition in the US with a new cover. But best of all:
The Island of Second Sight won the PEN Translation Prize 2013 and Honorable Mention of the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize of the same year.
From the PEN Judges’ citation: Donald O. White’s translation of Albert Vigoleis Thelen’s The Island of Second Sight is unbelievably good. The novel, written in German in 1953 yet set on the Spanish island of Mallorca in the 1930s, presents a formidable challenge to the translator: Thelen’s writing is brilliantly witty, acerbic, self-aware, multilingual and ever conscious of the spirit of Cervantes and other mighty antecedents haunting its pages. In his translation, White gives us all this and more. He demonstrates a superb flair for comic timing and a seemingly unbounded linguistic inventiveness that by turns leaves us agog with admiration and has us convulsed in laughter. This is a translator’s translation—one to demonstrate just how very agile, resourceful and utterly delectable the best translators can be. White has done us an immeasurable service in bringing into English Thelen’s forgotten masterpiece, and in doing so with such consummate and delicious mastery.
I was and still am delighted to have been the “midwife”, bringing out into the light of day the English version of this landmark literary work of the mid-twentieth century and for Donald O. White to get the recognition he deserves. And to all who have not read it, I can only say: You really should!