An Afternoon with Herta Müller #TranslationThurs

Since starting work, it’s been difficult to find the energy to write any blog posts in the evening, but I wanted to share with you the wonderful event with Herta Müller, organised by the University of Swansea (see their storification about the event on Twitter) and held at the British Library on Sunday 17th of September, in conversation with American translator, playwright and theatre director Philip Boehm.

I had heard of Herta Müller before she won the Nobel Prize, but had only read small fragments of her work. Of course I was proud that she was the only Romanian Nobel Prize winner in Literature, but the truth is she writes in German, so I shouldn’t really claim her. Nevertheless, I became enamoured with her eloquence in the moving acceptance speech about the power of language. I have since explored her work and her themes of oppression, submission, guilt and inner revolt resonate very powerfully with me.

In person she is as passionate about language and writing and storytelling as you’d expect, but also much funnier than you might think, given her sombre topics. She is delightfully modest and thoughtful and politically engaged as well. It’s safe to say that I fell completely under her spell and have found my role model. [Interestingly enough, although the Romanian Cultural Institute was involved in sponsoring the event and many Romanians were present, she is not very popular in Romania because she is so critical of life there under the Communist regime – much like Thomas Bernhard is criticised in his home country for ‘washing Austria’s dirty linen in public’.]

She read from Atemschaukel (translated as The Hunger Angel), which is the story of the German minorities in Romania who were deported to Soviet work camps after WW2, because they had fought on the side of the Nazis. In practice, the people deported were often not the men who had been soldiers, but those who were too young or too old to have been conscripted, or women. Herta’s mother had been in such a camp for 5 years and she spoke movingly about how old and strange her mother seemed, and what a morbidly intense relationship she had with food (she would always eat hurriedly, in standing, for instance, and chide her daughter for not peeling the potatoes thinly enough and wasting food). However, the main inspiration for the book was Oskar Pastior, a poet who was also deported after the war and pretty much invented afresh the German to describe the horrors of what he had experienced there. After working intensely with Pastior in preparation for co-writing a book, she was devastated when he died suddenly of a heart attack at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2006. For 18 months she could not bear to touch the notes – ‘sometimes literature is not enough’ she said wryly – but then she felt she owed it to him to tell his story and it became a way of expressing her grief.

Above all, I was fascinated by what Herta said about her place somewhere in-between languages (which I feel so acutely myself). ‘No language belongs to you – you are only borrowing it, given it on loan.’ She grew up with a local Swabian dialect, then learnt high German at school and only learnt Romanian at secondary school, but she was fascinated by the differences between the languages. Romanian to her feels very sensual, humorous, frivolous, excellent at heightening everyday language, without trivialising it. She could often empathise with the more interiorised world of the Romanian language. The lily of the valley is ‘May bells’ in German, but ‘little tears’ in Romanian, for instance. A falling star is something to wish upon in German, but the sign that someone has died in Romanian. A pheasant is a boastful, show-off, winner kind of person in German, but a loser in Romanian, because it is a highly visible bird which cannot fly well, so it’s the first one to get shot by hunters. As Herta said: ‘The Germans look at the superficial appearance of the bird, while the Romanian see the inner life of the pheasant.’ Her genuine love for the Romanian language moved me tremendously and it certainly helps to explain why her use of German in her writing is so innovative, poetic and unique.



24 thoughts on “An Afternoon with Herta Müller #TranslationThurs”

    1. The Hunger Angel is probably a good place to start. But be prepared for quite a difficult, almost opaque language in this one – and her topics are never cheery.

  1. Just to echo madame bibi’s comment, thank you for a very insightful post. I wasn’t aware of the background behind The Hunger Angel – what a terribly poignant time that must have been for her.

    1. She described how difficult it was for her to eat with her mother – meanwhile, her father had been in the SS, so she has real feelings of guilt and ‘what ifs’ about that… A difficult childhood, for sure.

  2. Must have been fascinating and inspirational to see her in person. What a difficult family life she experienced. I’m afraid I struggled with The Land of Green Plums: powerful story, but I found the style not to my taste. I should try again with The Hunger Angel. As for multilingualism: my little grandsons have just moved from Berlin with their parents (my son and daughter-in-law) to Barcelona. At home they speak Spanish with their Chilean mother – and of course will now speak it in their community; with their English father they speak English; and at kindergarten they’ll encounter Catalan! The German that the older one speaks from his kita in Berlin he’ll no doubt lose. Will be interesting if they feel different ‘temperatures’ as you describe it with the various languages.

    1. My children are in a similar situation and I just keep hoping (other than that they have some residual memory of each language) that at least they will never see the world in just black and white, as each cultural and linguistic interpretation of black and white can be so different.

  3. Your reference to ‘in between languages’ reminded me of Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation in which she writes very eloquently about the dislocation of ‘losing’ one’s mother tongue and the way in which some words just can’t be translated. She moved to the US from Poland aged thirteen. I read it years ago but it’s stayed with me.

    1. I know you mentioned that book before on your blog and it’s certainly a book I will be watching out for. I always thought of English as my primary language, but I notice that I don’t approach it as a native speaker at times.

  4. What a fascinating post, Marina Sofia. And what a lovely evening that must have been, too. I love the way you share her discussion of the two languages. To me, language says so much about the soul of a people, so I can see how the two languages would simply see the world differently. Add in the wit and I can see how you enjoyed everything so much.

    1. I expected her to be sombre, impressive yes but in a prophetic, dismal way (perhaps that shows the kind of literature she writes). But she made fun of herself for talking too much and making it difficult for the professor from King’s to translate.

  5. I’m afraid that the few times I tried to read any of her work I found it inaccessible and didn’t get on with it very well. I’m glad that your wonderful post has inspired me to give it another try.

    1. She is not easy to get into – it helps if you think of it as prose poetry. I will review some of her novels soon (I realise I have none on my blog, because I read them a while ago).

  6. Wonderful post and characterization of her work and personality. As for The Hunger Angel, it should be noted that tragically Pastior was an informant of the Securitate (who used his homosexuality to blackmail him), a fact that was not known to her until after his death.

    1. I know – isn’t that sad? I wanted to ask her about that, whether she felt betrayed somehow, but there were too many other people asking questions at the end. She was asked about Paul Celan – apparently a very common question, because he is the only other Romanian/German writer people have heard about – and that is very painful for her, because her father was in the SS and she often wonders if he would have been the one in charge of exterminating Celan’s family.

  7. A wonderful post MarinaSofia, and that last paragraph made me weep; a description of a place which seems to me both an incredibly rich one – the interface between languages, but, also, has the lostness of borders, betwixt, between

  8. A wonderful post, Marina. Thanks for the introduction to Herta Müller and her work. She is a new writer and poet for me. “No language belongs to you – you are only borrowing it, given it on loan.” I’m going to remember that line for a long time.

  9. I’ve only read one of her books, and I obviously wasn’t overly enamoured with her work as I’ve never gone back for a second try. Perhaps it’s time for a reread…

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