De Re Anatomica (1559). Image: Wikipedia
They began their revolting work. They resembled hideous torturers, blood flowing on their hands as they dug ever more deeply into the frigid corpse and pulled out its innards, like white cooks gutting a goose. Around their arms coiled the intestines, green-yellow snakes, and faeces dripped on their coats, a warm, putrid fluid. They punctured the bladder, the cold urine in it glistening like yellow wine. They poured it into large bowls, and it reeked of pungent, acrid ammonia. But the dead man slept. He patiently let them tug at him and pull his hair. He slept.
This is not the sort of thing I would usually read. It’s not the kind of imagery I particularly enjoy. But Georg Heym’s The Dissection is one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever read.
And to be fair, the subject matter is a benign kind of gruesome, if that makes sense: only an autopsy, not a murder, not cannibal revenants, not The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I read this piece in the anthology The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. The VanderMeers have generously put the entirety of The Dissection online, on their website Weird Fiction Review.
It sucked me in with the very first sentence: the dead man under a white cloth, in a room with white walls, a room that “seemed to shiver with the screams of an endless torture.” How did Heym make something so banal (well, as banal as a morgue can be) seem so sinister? And so beautiful at the same time? Images of decadent tropical jungles, of warm summer skies — and of love.
Then I wondered — how much of what I’m responding to is Heym, and how much of it is the translator, Gio Clairval? The introduction to the piece tells us that the translation is new (commissioned for The Weird anthology, I assume), to correct “prior errors”, including the English translation of the title (Die Sektion, in German) as “The Autopsy”. So something was lacking in previous English versions, and that matters more with this piece, perhaps, than with other stories of this genre. The Dissection doesn’t have a plot; it’s a vignette (a “prose-poem”, the VanderMeers call it, and Heym was a poet). There isn’t anything to it, beyond its imagery and its idea — namely, that memories can be awakened by the jarrings of the brain of a dead man. The idea is interesting, sure — but you can find other authors who have written actual stories about it, in English, even. Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is one example; Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” (which is an awesome short story, by the way) is another. One can argue that Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Secret Miracle” is an example, in Spanish, as well — though I prefer to think of it as the story of an actual miracle, myself.
And as for the imagery — well, I prefer old-fashioned, understated, M. R. James-style ghost stories to more explicit splattery gory things. So, for me at least, this imagery itself is not enough to draw me in. It’s how the imagery is presented. I’m not in the business of literary translation, but even I can figure out that preserving the imagery — the feeling — in the way the author intended must be the hardest aspect of the job.
I don’t read German, so I can’t definitively answer my own question. If you read German, you can answer it for yourself: the original is available courtesy of Gutenberg.de. However, I did track down a previous translation, from about 1960, entitled The Autopsy. I don’t know who that translator was.
Comparing the two, I can see that the “plot”, such as it is, has been preserved; The Autopsy‘s rhythm doesn’t dance as beautifully, to my ear. I don’t think that I would have been so blown away by The Autopsy as I was by The Dissection.
From what clues I can glean, I would say the The Autopsy is more transliteral. There’s a sentence in the German that goes:
Vor dem großen Fenster tat sich ein großer weiter Himmel auf, gefüllt von kleinen weißen Wölkchen, die in dem Lichte schwammen, in der Nachmittagsstille, wie kleine, weiße Götter.
The Autopsy renders this as:
In front of the large window a great wide sky opened, full of small white clouds that floated in the light, in the afternoon quiet, like small white gods.
Ms. Clairval chose to translate it as:
Outside the tall window stretched a wide sky filled with small white clouds that swam like small, white gods in the light of that silent afternoon.
I think the first translation preserves more of the original word ordering, but the second translation sounds much better in English.
The biggest difference between the two translations is in the description of the doctors who perform the dissection. The Dissection describes them as “Friendly men in frayed white coats and gold-rimmed pince-nez.” The Autopsy describes them as “kindly men in white coats, with duelling scars and gold pince-nez.” Duelling scars? Where did those come from?
Ms. Clairval, in her appreciation of Heym at Weird Fiction Review, admits that the duelling scars (Schmissen) are in the original text. Apparently, duelling (with its resulting scars) was a common, fraternity-type activity among male university students of the time. Hence, the duelling scars might be a kind of credential that the doctors went to the right schools. However, Ms. Clairval decided (based on other aspects of the wording) that schmissen, in the context used, might refer to “rents” — that is, of fabric: well-worn, well-washed, frayed lab coats.
But then again, the author may have wanted to imply both meanings: the down-to-earth frayed coats, and the remainders of ancient duels on the faces of the doctors, now older and wiser (because they wear glasses for near vision).
It’s a small detail, and doesn’t make much difference to the overall effect; still I’m glad that I read Ms. Clairval’s commentary, because it’s interesting to think about that level of meaning, which — if it is really there — doesn’t survive the translation.
And maybe that does answer my question, after all.
UPDATE (Sept 13, 2012): Thanks to lietmotivation for suggesting also the story “Der Irre.” I found a 1979 translation of Heym’s Der Dieb: Ein Novellenbuch as part of Arlene Elizabeth Sture’s 1979 Master’s thesis from McMasters University. Her thesis includes translation and commentary of five short stories, including “Die Sektion” (as “The Post-Mortem”) and “Der Irre” (as “The Madman”). Looking forward to reading this!