Lost in translation? Not for this La Salle teacher

Vincent Klingdoctorate, Explain the nuance behind the translation into English a 1951 novel written in German.

Translating a 1951 novel from Austrian German to English requires more than insomnia. You also need a pair of comfortable shoes.

“Is the truth being told? A third of my time was spent staring at a screen or walking through the floors of my house, thinking, ‘OK, what do I do now?’ “said Vincent Kling, ’68, Ph.D., language specialist at La Salle University and professor of German and French. “How many hours did it take? The simple answer is that I do not know.

This is partly because Kling started translating Heimito von Doderer The steps of the Strudelhof a quarter of a century ago. For context: The cohort of freshmen who started at La Salle in 1996, the year Kling embarked on this effort, are now two decades into their professional careers. The project lay dormant for a dozen years, Kling said, before New York Review Books rehired him.

A Fulbright scholar after his undergraduate studies at La Salle, Kling is the first to translate The steps of the Strudelhof in English. (One reviewer called Kling’s translation “a monumental achievement.”) The novel is available for pre-order now and in paperback in December.

We spoke with Kling about the novel and the art of literary translation:

Vincent Kling, Ph.D.
“It took me blood, sweat, tears,
and many ramblings and delusions,
translate what happens in
this sentence.
—Vincent Kling, 1968, Ph.D.,
on his last literary translation

Simply put, what exactly is “literary translation”?
Kling: “The language is used in such an unusual way. Each region and dialect offers something unique. In my work, you see that Austrian German almost resembles the English spoken in Ireland, Scotland, India or even the Deep South of the United States. It really is his own language. I saw examples in Vienna where Germans have to ask what a word means. Literary translation is about paying attention and understanding the kind of very colorful, bright and playful language that is intended by an author in one language while you are trying to translate it into another.

How nuanced is this process? At first glance, and based on its name alone, the literary translation would seem pretty intuitive, right?
Kling: “Literature, unlike a newspaper article or statistical measurements, is not a record of fact. Literature is reading about experience rather than information, which means there are different nuances to consider, as well as puns and irony. I will give an example: In this novel, two characters meet again after 10 years. They were supposed to have a date. Neither showed up and here they are, meeting again. They try to avoid the subject of standing. The narrator says this: “People never converse more vividly than when they were trying to compensate for what had triggered them in the first place. It is one of the gems. It took me blood, sweat, tears and lots of ranting and ranting to translate what’s going on in that sentence.

Why is this novel such an important literary work?
Kling: “The Strudlhof Steps were published in 1951. It was a great time of deprivation and loss in war. Vienna was a dull, bombed-out city. The novel offers two time periods, both of which could create great nostalgia. The first part is 1908-1910; the other is 1923-1925. Readers could look back with an enormous amount of identification with what had been lost. In the first period, for example, is the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and in the second part there are the early years of the Austrian Republic. The novel offers a real flashback to vanished lifestyles and institutions. The book features the most vivid descriptions of a city, its surrounding countryside, suburbs, restaurants, cafes, schools, and architecture. You can’t help feeling that you are right in the heart of Vienna. It also encompasses all character types, from the lowest of the lowly to aristocracy and royalty, with plenty of intriguing subplots.

For any budding literary translator, what makes them good at it?
Kling: “What happens in a decent literary translation – well, a lot of people who aren’t looking for the play in the language wouldn’t see what’s going on. It’s essential. I have a colleague in Vienna who is complimentary and says that not only do I understand what the language is saying, but I understand what is happening behind the scenes and the words being played with. A sense of recognition of irony, sarcasm and what lies beneath the words, for me, is an important skill.

—Christopher A. Vito