The road to the German version of Mason & Dixon


The German translator of Mason & Dixon, Nikolaus Stingl, made his working expierences public in two articles.
The first one was written by himself and is a work report shortly before completing the translation (this article can unfortunately not be found on the internet), while in an interview with the Austrian newspaper Der Standard he talks about the finished product. Stingl reports that Pynchon asked him for his references which had never happened to him before. In the interview he is quoted: "Pynchon has a clause in his contract saying that he has to approve his translators. I sent him a list: For example William Gaddis' Letzte Instanz (A Frolic of His Own) or the translation of a novel by Rick Moody who is looked after by one of Pynchon's agents - this was favorable" (Philipp).

When he started working Stingl approached the tone of the novel cautiously. Unlike many reviewers of the book he does not really see it as a reproduction of a past language-form: "You must not imagine the language as a slavish imitation, but as a conscious playing with different patterns. The author reflects the history of language in his writing: he uses historic spellings, slangs, even regionalisms and extinct words and he takes into consideration the semantic change of terms he uses very precisely. On the other hand he steadily uses modern terms - sometimes only modern at first sight - which create a tension to the historical parts" (Stingl, 219).

The first big problem for Stingl was the search for a fitting German equivalent to the book's 18. Century English. He decided that 19. Century German fits better: "18. Century German is by far more distant from today's German than 18. Century English from that of today. Should one take this into consideration? Produce a German text that is 'older' than the original? / My decision went for a careful retraction of the process of ageing. To us the language of the 19. Century, even if it reaches far into it, seems rather old" (Stingl, 220). A reviewer of the book makes out this decision: "Nikolaus Stingl's translation - produced in the record time of two years - wisely contents itself with a careful historization of the German language" (Schmidt).

But there were more difficulties for the translator, namely the numerous regionalisms and modernisms. A good example is Dixon's dialect that could not be translated without further thinking: "Unfortunately I have to drop this aspect of the figure largely - but I can't when the aspect is picked out as an important theme, which happens not only once" (Stingl, 220). In such cases he decided as follows: "I proceeded more intuitively. Northumberland is the county in the very north of England, a traditional place for coal and ship-building. When you hear 'coal' you think of the Ruhrpott area in Germany - but that doesn't fit. When you hear 'north' and 'ship-building' you think of Hamburg and so I decided to translate the passage in question into Hamburg 'Platt' " (Stingl, 220). In the interview he talks about the birth-pains that lead to this decision: "I first tried synthetic fantasy-dialects but that didn't work" (Philipp).

The last big problem were the modernisms in the text. Generally the English language copes with them much better, "while in German the modernisms often seem wrong" (Stingl, 221). From all this we can guess that despite his reflections Stingl had to trust his intuition in many cases. Considering the problematic aspects and the length of the novel, it amazes that the translation was published only two years after the original. The real working time according to the translator was just a bit more than a year.



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