Trading Comfort for Knowledge: Jean Starr Untermeyer and the Translation of “The Death of Virgil”

This is the first in a series of posts by Josh Billings on translators and their discontents, which will be appearing here on the Ox & Pigeon blog on a regular basis. Josh is the translator of Alexander Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin and Alexander Kuprin’s The Duel, both of which are available from Melville House as part of their “Art of the Novella” series.

by Josh Billings

Books about translation tend to emphasize either the personal, or the technical side of the experience, but rarely both together. In Gregory Rabassa’s If This Be Treason, for example, we get a lot about Rabassa himself and how he came across the books he translated, but relatively little about what that actual process of translation felt like. John Felstiner’s Translating Neruda, on the other hand, focuses on work: the labors of tone, word choice, drafting, and even intuition that Felstiner had to undertake in order to carry Neruda’s Alturas de Macchu Piccu from Spanish into English.  Both types of books have their appeals to the working translator (not to mention the general reader), but the most useful books on translation, in my opinion, combine both these strands, melding criticism, shop talk, and reminiscence in a way that reflects the mongrel nature of translation itself.

One of my favorite examples of this last type of book is not a book at all, but a chapter in Private Collection, the memoir by the poet and translator Jean Starr Untermeyer. At 60 pages, Midwife to a Masterpiece stands out against the rest of its book, the majority of which describes Starr Untermeyer’s friendship with various poets and writers of her day – many of whom were “minor,” but only one of whom was a genius. It is this genius, luckily enough, whose long novel The Death of Virgil Jean Starr Untermeyer found herself agreeing to translate in the summer of 1940.

The story of how it happened is equal parts funny and mysterious. In 1939, Starr Untermeyer was at Yaddo working unsuccessfully on a novel, when she found her attention caught by a gorgeous, though completely empty, building on the colony estate. “Moved by some obscure impulse I entered it and finding it untidy swept it clean,” she wrote. “I even put a glassful of field flowers on the writing table.” Like the enchanted proprietress of a haunted mansion, she kept the building compulsively spotless despite its lack of occupants, until one day, while she was walking through the large upper hall, a “soft wail” rose through the floorboards.

“‘Ich habe meine Schreibmachine verloren! Wie sol lich schreiben ohne meine Schreibmachine?’ (‘I have lost my typewriter! How shall I write without my typewriter?’)”

The wail belonged to none other than Hermann Broch, an exiled Austrian writer whom Starr Untermeyer had met, though not spoken to, at a benefit dinner earlier that year. Within minutes, she’d tracked down his typewriter (it was at the train station): an act that won over the beleaguered man and indeed intrigued him immensely. As Untermeyer put it, “I soon found that I had been elected to that office which the Germans call Madchen fur Alles (maid of all work).”

Her qualifications for this position were both temperamental and linguistic. A good though not habitual German speaker with little translating experience, she nonetheless passed every test Broch set her, creating versions of poems by Hölderlin and Goethe that encouraged the author to set her even more difficult tasks. She submitted to his tests willingly – a fact that to my mind seems at least as important as the quality of the versions she produced. After all, how many of the writers at Yaddo that summer would have put aside their own work for the whims of a demanding and mostly-unknown (at least in America) Austrian? How many would have stayed with him when he started asking them to give him, not just some of their time and energy, but all of it?

Starr Untermeyer did, partly because her own novel was stalling, and partly because of Broch himself, whose contradictory genius became more and more compelling to her the more she observed it. At his desk, he was Laocoön: “Invisible forces, like awful serpents, constricted his muscles and held back the ideas struggling to be free.” But when the writing was over he needed groceries, not to mention pants (she “twitted” him when, after a month, he had worn the pair she hemmed for him only twice). Over and over again she answered his demands, developing a pragmatic stance towards Broch’s demands that she would use when she left Yaddo and, in November of 1940, began translating his manuscript in earnest.

Their working relationship turned out to be a difficult one. Lacking sufficient English to judge the translation in progress, Broch asked another friend, Mrs. Marianne Schlesinger, to produce a second version he could use as a crib – a fact that, as Starr Untermeyer writes, “undermined my self confidence, and increased my anxiety.” The bill for this service fell of course to Starr Untermeyer, who paid it despite understanding that “Broch, in this way, wanted to ‘control’ me.” He could be rude, too, not to mention aggressive, impatient, sexist, insensitive. At one point, after he confessed his great fear of death to her, she attempted to console him in a letter by reminding him that “the main thing was not to suffer a death in life.” He responded “in high dudgeon”: “How dare you write me such kitsch! Death in life indeed! If this is the way you think you will make what I say sound trivial.”

Such abuse would have surely been unbearable had there not been something to counterbalance it with: the work. The Death of Virgil was turning out to be, not just a book, but a masterpiece. “Looking back,” Starr Untermeyer writes, “It seems as if rhythm and meaning came to me simultaneously, but I worked slavishly at the language, making liberal use of both dictionary and thesaurus. My routine became a grueling one; my working schedule was from ten to fifteen hours a day. Breaks occurred, but these came in the form of illness. I was in the grip of a relentless possession.” In order to satisfy this possession, she put aside her own poetry and other offers of translation until, in 1945, The Death of Virgil was published simultaneously in both English and German versions. The acclaim was immediate, Broch’s relief palpable – though when asked whether or not he was grateful to his translator, he shook his head. “I’m grateful to Mrs. Untermeyer for many things but not for the translation. It is just as much a privilege for her to do that as for me to do the original.” She agreed with him, writing that “[Broch’s] was the most powerful, most far-ranging mind with which I had ever made contact. This contact, it is true, was not always comfortable, for Broch was thoroughgoing in his role of Socrates, and so divested one of every pleasing self-illusion that one felt stripped to the bone. But I had had since childhood a certain stoicism in bearing the penalties that one pays for knowledge. I was still a small girl when, in his slightly beery rages at a beginner’s blunders, my old German music teacher had, more than once, come down on my little paws with his heavy fists. Yet I never reported this breach of conduct to my parents, for they would surely have dismissed him, and my desire to learn music was even then a passion.”

Jean Starr Untermeyer’s ability to trade comfort for knowledge deserves a better name than masochism – devotion, maybe? Or just the definition she herself gives when she calls art “Skill put at the service of vision.” Most of our myths about creativity tend to de-emphasize the “service” part of this formula; but Midwife to a Masterpiece demonstrates the deep personal fulfillment that an artist can get from devoting herself to someone else’s vision. The vision is the critical part, not the someone else. Broch is complicated, difficult; he is also, increasingly, not the point (as he himself knew). The point is the book, and in order to achieve it, “the translator should himself be translated,” as Starr Untermeyer wrote in her lecture “Is Translation an Art or a Science?” (included in Private Collection). She delivered it on November 19, 1946 at the Yale club, against Broch’s wishes. Anxious as always that his point get across, he wrote an essay for her to read as her own, entitled “Some Comments on the Philosophy and Technique of Translating.” She refused, noting that the idea (which forms the backbone of Broch’s essay) “That I had accomplished the work as a result of theories was simply untrue.” Broch relented. Her parenthetical remark on the entire episode is characteristically subtle and uncharacteristically caustic, suggesting further layers to the two writers’ fascinating relationship: “For he was not content merely to ring bells but wanted to sound their echoes as well.”