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21 October 2009updated 27 Sep 2015 4:07am

“Funny foreign stuff”

The translator Michael Hulse on Herta Müller, the Nobel Prize and world literature

By Sam Kinchin-Smith

The Swedish Academy’s decision this month to award the Nobel Prize for Literature to Herta Müller generated an enormous quantity of debate on both sides of the Atlantic.

Müller, a Romanian-born German novelist, has remained relatively unknown in English-speaking literary spheres for her entire, three-decades-spanning career. Indeed, only four (or five, depending on who you ask) of her novels have been translated into English, and even Harold “How To Read and Why” Bloom reportedly reacted to the choice with the following: “Nothing to talk about, because I have never heard of this writer.” So it was inevitable that a number of familiar questions would be asked once again: are the Nobel Committee’s decisions too deliberately obscure, too Eurocentric, too overtly political? What is the prize still good for, 108 years after it was first awarded?

I decided to put those questions — and others — to Michael Hulse, a man better qualified to answer them than most. Hulse is a poet and academic who has translated, from the original German into English, two novels by the 2004 Nobel Laureate, Elfriede Jelinek, and one of Herta Müller’s, as well as work by the likes of Goethe and Rilke. His responses were fascinating:

One assumption is that some people who have got the prize are obscure. Obscure to whom, though? Herta Müller sparked off from a Polish colleague a very enthusiastic email to me — he’s read all of her novels, in Polish translation. So in Poland, for example — and this could be replicated throughout Europe — she is very well known. There is a big cultural issue behind this, which is the pitiful record of the English-speaking world in translating other literatures and paying deep, real, serious attention to the literatures of the rest of the world. What happens in practice is that just one or two writers make it through the sieve — all the others are considered too cumbersome and culture-specific, and they’re not translated. Then people are in their comfort zone: they don’t want to do this funny foreign stuff.

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Hulse’s opinion of this year’s Nobel Laureate is interesting, too:

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It’s sort of a miracle, I think, that Herta Müller was translated at all. I have to say that I personally may not rate her as the most extraordinary of German-languagewriters or of writers around Europe, so I might myself question the award to her, in spite of having translated a book of hers, on grounds of merit. I do admire, though, the tenacity with which she went at the substantial — and familiar — problems of people trying to lead ordinary, civilised lives under the pressures of obdurate, anti-human regimes.

He suggests that the notion of “excellence” of itself justifies the existence of the prize, and argues that “serious interests, and writing about them in a serious way” must be celebrated. He was also highly complimentary about the Swedish Academy, with which he worked a decade ago, describing its members as “quite extraordinary [and] deeply informed”. Does this mean he endorses the recent suggestion of the current chairman of the Nobel Literature Committee, Per Wästberg, that Sweden’s own cultural status, at once inside and outside the European literary tradition, gives him and his colleagues a unique vantage point from which to judge literary merit? Hulse rejects this out of hand:

I think the location of the Academy is a historical accident. I don’t think there’s any profound difference in Sweden that gives it a special status on the fringes. I wouldn’t want to go down that road, because I don’t think it’s right. I think there are issues to do with whether it is a European prize. The Academy has to be conscious, of course, of pursuing excellence wherever it finds it. But does the fact that Herta Müller is European disqualify her? There’s a different way of looking at this: the warnings about oppressive and inhuman totalitarian regimes which are at the core of her writing need to be resounded for every generation, and we need to have people who’ve written about that back in the forefront.

He does allow, however, that there are parts of the world where the prize “could be said to not be doing its job sufficiently well”: Asia, Australia and New Zealand (he mentioned Les Murray and Janet Frame as having “a tremendous claim”) and Africa. I suggested that, as Franco Moretti has identified, what we call the “European tradition” is principally an Anglo-French affair. To refer to Müller’s success as “just more Eurocentricism” is perhaps to miss the point. Hulse agrees:

The individuality of her background is, of course, important, because being born into that German-speaking minority in Romania gives you a particular take on life. It’s remained problematic in the postwar years, and there have been very complicated issues of persecution that have affected that minority. So the individual circumstances of her case, and of the group that she was born into socially, nationally, is of course very important.

Nowadays, Hulse says, “It’s assumed that translation and traffic across the national, linguistic and cultural borders can only happen with an EU grant!” So, does he feel a special responsibility translating into English, a language that in many ways rules the world?

It’s a deeply responsible task, translation, because you are mediating between two — or more than two — cultures. The problem with the English language is that it has emerged as top language. We spoke just earlier about the difficulty of getting things translated into English, and it is a real difficulty. For some minority languages — Finnish, Danish, Estonian — they will say, “Well, you complain about a Romanian-German. When was the last time that any of our writers made it into your consciousness?” So there is a serious difficulty there, because I think that the biggest moral responsibility that the English language has, now that it has so plainly and manifestly emerged as the most important and influential language in the world, is to take seriously its role as a disseminator: it should be doing that, it should be translating more. That is where the responsibility lies. It should be doing more to familiarise the world with the less powerful.

Michael Hulse’s latest collection of poetry, “The Secret History”, has just been published by Arc (£9.99)