By Daniel Strawhun, Opinions Editor
“William H. Gass is the nicest genius you will ever meet.” That is how one member of the audience described the renowned author and literary critic at the William H. Gass Symposium: International Writing event on September 23. The symposium, which was free and open to the public, was held in the Umrath Lounge on Washington University’s (WUSTL) Danforth campus. Washington University Libraries, the Committee on Comparative Literature, the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, and the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities co-sponsored the event.
However, despite original plans, which included a Q&A session with the author, attendees did not get the chance to meet the congenial genius—at least not in the literal, flesh-and-blood sense. Gass, who was born in 1924 in Fargo, North Dakota, but who has lived in St. Louis, Missouri for over 30 years, was unfortunately not able to attend the event. But as all good readers know, it is ultimately the author’s body of work, the corpus, that truly lives and breathes. And in that regard, the symposium, which dealt with Gass’ lifework and especially with his work in translation, did not disappoint.
German poet, novelist, and translator Matthias Göritz began the symposium with a lecture focusing on the particular challenge Gass’ work poses to translators. For the benefit of readers who are not yet acquainted with his writing, it might be best at this time to quote a passage, in order to demonstrate exactly why Gass is so difficult to translate. The following appears in his essay “Emerson and the Essay,” from the collection titled “Habitations of the Word,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism in 1985:
“Yet nature turns a dumb face toward us like a cow. When we read its wonders, we wonder whether we haven’t written them ourselves. We are in ferment, but our greatness grows like a bubble of froth. We sense that existence itself lacks substance; that it is serious in the wrong sense; that its heaviness is that of wet air. The sublime…ah, the sublime is far off, though we call for its coming. Yes. Life falls short—it is never what it should be. Rhymes will not rescue it. Days end, and begin again, automatically. Only the clock connects them. Sullen sunshine is followed by pitiless frost, and the consequence is we are a tick or two nearer oblivion, and the alarm for our unwaking.”
As anyone can see from this example, Gass’ prose is breathtaking. The qualities that constitute this passage—the rhyme, the rhythm, the alliteration, the abstraction, the irony—commingle and serve to elevate the prose into the realm of aesthetic beauty. But they also thoroughly confound the translator. To approximate meaning is one thing, but to approximate beauty is nigh impossible—especially when it is made up of so many constituent parts in such well-crafted balance. Göritz’s lecture culminated with a different example that demonstrated this same conundrum, using an excerpt from Gass’ famous essay “On Being Blue.” Göritz concluded by saying that in order to effectively translate the essay into German, it might need to become “On Being Green” instead, which perfectly illustrates the kind of semantic departures translators must make when attempting to translate Gass.
After a quick coffee break, the focus then shifted to Gass’ own work as a translator of German poetry, with a presentation by translator and Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at WUSTL, Ignacio Infante. Infante detailed Gass’ concept of “transreading,” a process of intermediary translation wherein, according to Gass, “one language and one particular user of the language reads another,” all in an attempt to satisfactorily reconcile the literal with the poetic.
The day was full of insights into Gass’ life as well, especially with regards to his role as an ambassador for and advocate of literature in St. Louis. Lorin Cuoco, who co-founded the International Writers Center with Gass in 1990, talked about her experience working alongside him. Together, they spent 11 years at the Center, publishing books like “Literary St. Louis: A Guide” and hosting readings by such prominent authors as Salman Rushdie, Lydia Davis, and David Foster Wallace. When asked by a member of the audience if she and Gass ever disagreed on whom to invite, she answered decisively, “No. Never.” About their decision to invite David Foster Wallace, she explained, “I still don’t know if David Foster Wallace was a truly great writer … But we knew we had to change it up.” And it obviously worked: Wallace’s reading was the only standing-room-only event the Center ever hosted.
The keynote address was then given by eminent translator of German literature, Susan Bernofsky. Bernofsky has published new translations of such important texts as Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and Hesse’s “Siddartha”; her specialty, however, is in the works of Swiss writer Robert Walser, whom Kafka is said to have read and enjoyed. Bernofsky, who attended WUSTL as a graduate student, wove her experiences studying philosophy with Gass into the lecture, recounting at one point the rationale behind his refusal to teach fiction writing. Gass, who exclusively taught philosophy during his entire time at WUSTL (with the exception of one singular fiction writing workshop) had purportedly said, “At least when I’m reading a bad paper about Plato, I’m still thinking about Plato.”
After the lectures, attendees were invited to a reception in the Olin Library. Signed copies of nearly every book Gass has ever published were available for purchase, including “Omensetter’s Luck,” “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” and “The Tunnel.”