Journale Prosa As exotic as China, as American as the FBI
de en

As exotic as China, as American as the FBI

Translation diary on Richard Ford’s Be Mine / Valentinstag

The Novel and its Narrator
Translation challenges
Staging of thought / sentence structure
Offbeat humour
Cultural allusions
Names and events as association triggers
Afterword and notes
Cooperation with the author

The Novel and its Narrator

The first time I translated Richard Ford into German was back in 2001. Be Mine is my seventh Ford translation. It is also his fifth book in which the narrator is Frank Bascombe (the first was The Sportswriter in 1986), who Ford accompanies as an alter ego, somewhat younger than himself. This is the third time I've donned this narrator's voice, so I'm quite familiar with the Bascombe sound and really like this headstrong American everyman, who occasionally gets on my nerves.

Frank is pragmatic, in a typical American way. He has tried his hand at various jobs and at some point became a real-estate agent – a fantastic overall metaphor for the relationship of Americans to business, property, success, representation, and possible rootedness. Frank is twice divorced, and each divorce left him with the vague feeling that it didn't have to turn out like this, but that it could clearly not be otherwise; he has kept in close contact with both women, the mutual feeling of knowing-each-other-well, but not-really-understanding-each-other has also persisted.

With Ann, his first wife, Frank has three children: Ralph, who became seriously ill and died at the age of nine, breaking up the marriage with Ann; Clarissa, with whom Frank shares a strong antipathy and who has become a domineering lesbian; and finally, the ever-single Paul, who has always been an oddball and copes poorly with life; Frank shares with him a similar sense of humour, absurdity and remoteness. Communication is an almost insurmountable hurdle in this dysfunctional family, but they stick together, and keep trying and trying, and then somehow get ‘it’ right,.

Frank is constantly thinking about all of this – and about politics and the philosophy of life in general – and muses to himself in the most humorous way. Sometimes he gets caught in his thought loops; sometimes he shatters their Gordian knots; sometimes he lands unerringly on a c’est-la-vie sort of commonplace; and sometimes he surprises us with downright wise insights. Or at least ones that leave us puzzled and pondering for a moment. For example, ‘Age makes the long game the only game in town’.1 I briefly mull it over,  I paraphrase (When you’re older, you have no choice but to exercise patience) and then I transfer it to a similar wordplay containing idiomatic elements in German: “Wenn du älter bist, ist der Geduldsfaden oft der einzige rote.”2

Richard Ford: Valentinstag. Aus dem amerikanischen Englisch von Frank Heibert, Hanser Berlin, 2023.

Each Bascombe book is set around an American public holiday, whether Easter, Christmas, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, or, in this instance, Valentine’s Day. Love, then, is the second major theme, along with dying and loss. It is present in a variety of guises, ranging from couple love to old loves, including late-spring crushes and paternal love. The plot in the novel centres around a devastating diagnosis: His son Paul has ALS, of the bad, fast-acting variety. And Frank – aware that he has never been a particularly good father to Paul – is determined to do everything right from there on in.

He accompanies Paul to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where Paul has one last chance in the form of an experimental drug trial. When this goes nowhere, Frank urges his son to go on a trip, a reduced version of a tour they’ve always wanted to do, and a rather absurd road movie begins. The destination of the trip is Mount Rushmore, and the road there passes through several fly-over states and teems with encounters, some mundane, some wacky. Every minor character they meet is described and classified in some way through the inquisitive, but only occasionally judgmental, eye of Frank, who speculates about the characters, their lives, their backgrounds, and with his associations to them provides the raw material, as it were, for a possible novella or novel about each of them.

The reader can continue to spin the material, add water to the stock cube, so to speak, press the trigger buttons offered – or not. In this way, a panopticon of secondary characters emerges, a kind of comédie humaine of contemporary America. But instead of writing Balzacian digressions, the first-person narrator, Frank Bascombe, seems to say, ‘I know I don't know anything, but I could imagine this or that.How about you?’ This narrative openness reflects the uncertainty of modern existence as well as uncertainty in relation to the story being told (who knows if this is going to work out, this winter trip in an unheated, rented vintage campervan with an increasingly helpless seriously ill person).

These aspects of destabilization serve as an ideal counterbalance to the potentially sentimental story of the last-minute bonding between father and son; a ‘last journey’ that, thanks to Frank’s often-detached, observant gaze and shows of (self-)irony, touches me all the more.

Translation challenges

Striking this multi-layered, chatoyant tone was, as always, a joy for me. But by no means was it the only challenge in translating this 400-page-long journey. These points are worth mentioning here:

– The typical Bascombe-like staging of thoughts often provides for jam-packed sentences that include condensations, neologisms, insertions, in a typically written style, then promptly adorned with downright oral, colloquial words or half sentences;

– the wry sense of humor that Frank and Paul share leads to a whole series of often strange puns (incidentally, this was already the case in 2007’s The Lay of the Land, in which Paul writes ‘funny’ greeting cards for the Hallmark company, though they often – and explicitly – consist in wacky slogans and captions where the joke is a bit far-fetched3 (also the case here on occasion);

– the multitude of cultural allusions, references, comparisons, which are important as trigger buttons in the text, but which – in keeping with Paul's and Frank's pleasure in making the most remote, original associations possible – are so obscure they tend to mean nothing to the German reading public;

– and, lastly, the exciting and helpful exchanges I had with the author on many questions that not even my usual native speakers of reference could answer for me; Ford values such exchanges, as I do. However, then I naturally have to follow the suggestions he makes for dealing with the more stubborn problems.

In this journal I would like to illustrate how I have tried to solve these difficulties.

Staging of thought / sentence structure

The jam-packed sentences, partly written and partly oral in style, often occur in descriptions of people; such as the characterization of Mike Mahoney, a dyed-in-the-wool Tibetan who at one point changed his name to ‘something more Irish’, and used to work in Frank's real estate office but is now his boss:

Mike Mahoney, my would-be boss, is as ever a semi-lovable, quasi-honest entrepreneurial dynamo who believes that in all of his money-making forays he’s being natively ‘responsive’ to the suffering of others by relieving them of their encumbrances—their homes—all of it in accordance with some Dharmic dictum written in a bardo somewhere. I am sympathetic to him if only because he risks his skinny Tibetan ass on longshots and wins.4

The agglomeration of adjectives is just as typical as the ironic longwindedness of the description of Mike’s business mind – together with the sudden directness of Frank's reaction. Such sorts of sentences are frequent. They have something partly surfing, partly swerving in tone, and all the more satisfying and often amusing is their precision landing on a little punch line, such as in the ‘wins’ above.

„Mike Mahoney, mein Möchtegernboss, ist wie immer ein halbwegs liebenswerter, quasi-ehrlicher Unternehmerdynamo, der es zu seinen angeborenen Vorzügen zählt, dass all seine geldgierigen Beutezüge auch das Leiden anderer lindern, indem er sie von ihren Lasten befreit – ihren Häusern. Steht alles in Übereinstimmung mit dharmischen Sprüchen aus irgendeinem Bardo. Mir für meinen Teil ist Mike sympathisch, und sei es, weil er seinen kleinen tibetischen Arsch riskiert und auf lange Sicht gewinnt.“5

Offbeat humour

There’s a lot going on in the ‘puns et al.’ department. Ford likes to play with proper names in his Bascombe works. One doctor is called ‘Dr. Bendo’, whose name is introduced with the supplementary phrase ‘if you can believe that’ (so that you might also think of ‘bend over’);6 when asked, Ford informs me he once had a urologist of that name, if you can believe that. Another doctor is called ‘Dr. Bogdan Čilić’ and is nicknamed ‘Bog down’, meaning, literally, to get stuck in, or to sink into, the mud...7 For the German translation, only a change of gender helps here: ‘Dr. Hedda Čilić’, and thus ‘verhedda-t’ (verheddert, tangled).8 Fortunately, in this context, the character could just as easily be a female doctor.

And what does it mean when Paul announces suddenly that from now on he’d like to be called ‘Gus Blaine’, adding by way of explanation: ‘No Gus, no glory’?9 The solution to the riddle is the phrase being played on here: ‘No guts, no glory’; otherwise said, ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’. Here, too, I have had to change the name slightly, which doesn’t present any problems as it serves solely as a punchline: in the German text, Paul wants to be known as ‘Will Blaine’: Wo ein Will, da ein Weg (where there’s a will, there’s a way).10

Family folklore features an out-of-context pun that used to give everyone a good laugh; in the novel, it also serves as a trigger to recall memories of a time when the family was still (more) intact. The phrase is, ‘You have a cute angina’ (instead of ‘acute angina’). It is actually a joke for children, based, for the young Paul, around a confusion, since the word ‘acute’ was probably unknown to him... In my translation, I rendered it as, ‘Du hast eine Deppression, oder kriegen das nur Deppen?’ (‘You have depression, or do only dorks get it?’ – Depp in German means dork.)11 This could well also be some sort of childhood misunderstanding. The degree of joke seems to me comparable.

One last example. In Rochester, Minnesota, where the Mayo Clinic is located, Frank and Paul have a favourite dry cleaner, if only because they really like its name: ‘Free Will’. The possible associations are many; in first place, there is the proto-American idea of freedom, which is also alluded to in the advertising slogan displayed in the shop window: ‘Lint Free or Dye’ – which is a play on the motto of the state of New Hampshire, ‘Live Free or Die’. Next, there is a subgroup of Baptists, the ‘Free Will Baptists’, who briefly feature elsewhere in the book; and, last but not least, it recalls the sentimental children’s movie about an Orca, Free Willy (with this novel, no association is too remote!). Which are the indispensable aspects here, and which the dispensable ones? The advertising pun puts us on the track: What matters most to Ford, as he explains to me, is the American idea of freedom, which here runs wild at the cleaners.

But which German reader would think offhand of the New Hampshire motto when seeing a German pun like ‘Lint Free or Dye’, for which there is no standard German equivalent (the literal rendering in German, frei leben oder sterben, has no idiomatic anchorage)? I thus had to construct an advertising slogan for the store window that puns; I left the name of the dry cleaner in English (‘Free Will’ is understandable for any reader of Ford), which refers to the proto-American idea of freedom (and the Free Will Baptists). The oblique slogan in my translation is ‘Porentief frei – vom Fleck weg.’12 "It is a matter here of freedom or death. I thus assume the freedom of translation – otherwise the punchline is dead."

Cultural allusions

Some of the examples provided hitherto thrive on allusions to all sorts of areas of American culture in the broadest sense – from history to politics and religion, added into the mix of which is, of course, the vast world of sports, pop, film and television.

During the trip, Paul has recurrent moments of aggression; it is precisely the fact that Frank is trying so hard to make everything as good and as right as possible that irritates Paul and causes him to become intolerant. In this vein, he once says: ‘There actually may be an excuse for elder abuse’.13 It is clear to me, in the first place, that he would like to go for his father's throat at this point. But there is also the signal internal rhyme excuse-abuse. Well, lo and behold, there is apparently a saying – one of the many car sticker sayings that adorn American bumper bars – that is worded: ‘There’s no excuse for elder abuse’. It is inexcusable to mistreat the elderly. Whether this alludes to the poor conditions in nursing homes, I could not ascertain beyond doubt, but the sticker saying exists, and Paul plays on it. Vielleicht sollte es doch mal einer wagen, alte Menschen zu schlagen14 – this renders his sentence well in the dialogue, including with the internal rhyme. But the cultural reference is not text-immanent for German readers, something that is very often the case in this novel.

What does it mean when Paul says to Frank, ‘You're the greatest, Alice’?15 It is necessary to know that this phrase served as a leitmotif for the 1950s television series The Honeymooners. This is just one of many examples of the situationally retrieved gems (or gauds) from US pop culture.

At times, the allusions take on an almost documentary appearance. During the tourist visit to the ‘Largest Corn Palace in the World’ – a highlight among the curiosities of this trip – we encounter one of the lists that Frank/Ford likes to build from time to time. What all has happened in this multipurpose hall in the course of its history, who has performed there, and what does this tell us beyond the historical-anecdotal? Frank describes everything in detail.footnote]Original, pp. 231-2.[/footnote]

„As a youth, I deemed the Palace definitely the most flamboyant of human-constructed amazements—corncob minarets, corncob squinches, corncob Moorish arches and corncob “Russian” roof onions—plus corn entablatures featuring farmers clog-dancing, farmers singing, farmers farming, and Mr. Welk mincing around, pretending to lead the band like Paul Whiteman. On exiting back outside into the hot, soil-fragrant Dakota summer’s eve, I recall thinking I’d made a first contact with the magical union of the unquestionably hay-wire with the inscrutably wondrous. Here, with materials found right under their feet (corn), hapless clodhoppers had built a Taj Mahal better (they thought) than the real one—since theirs was here on Main Street, and nobody needed to go to Agra. Billy Graham could stage a prayer breakfast here—and did. Tennessee Ernie could sing “Sixteen Tons,” Jack Benny could play the violin. Presidential ballots (Grover Cleveland and William McKinley) could be cast. The art league could hold its spring outing of local genius, and the Mitchell Fighting Kernels could shoot hoops. Every last bit of it as American as the FBI. Which is why my son should see it—since connections between the heartfelt and the preposterous are his yin and yang.
   As we approach the street entrance, tourists are streaming in and out of the Palace under the old movie marquee, some taking selfies, smirking and wisecracking about the Palace being a joke only they truly understand. This season’s theme is a “Salute to the Military”—the huge Palace facade showing corn renderings of our Marines on Suribachi, our Air Force dropping the A-bomb on Nagasaki, our sailors on the ill-fated USS South Dakota—casualty of Guadalcanal—as well as ranks of corn soldiers saluting an enormous corn stars-and-stripes. Many out here are veterans and are standing at fierce attention on the freezing sidewalk, saluting the big corn tapestries and having their pictures snapped by loved ones. To them this is the final measure.
   “What the fuck is this?” Paul says, as I’m aiming his chair toward the bank of outside doors.
   “It’s hard to describe,” I say. “It’s my surprise.”   
   “No shit,” as I wheel him straight inside into what is, in essence, a dim-lit, old-style, odiferous theater lobby, unmodernized since my visit sixty-six years ago.
   The big shadowy foyer is blessedly warm, and furnished with playbills of the many famous acts that have graced the auditorium stage, which lies beyond the lobby’s rear doors with red-velvet curtains, which is where all the visitors are headed. There’s a dense, lurid feel inside here of something not-quite-nice being made public, which I sort of like. Paul’s gaping around as if he doesn’t think anything’s particularly strange, taking in photos of the Dorsey brothers, the Three Stooges, Crystal Gayle and Pat Boone, as well as The Great Commoner and right-wing huckster William Jennings Bryan who retailed his “Cross of Gold” speech here in 1900. Liberace is pictured at a white concert grand with candles, wearing a white tux and his trademark venereal grin.“

Frank had already been there with his parents when he was a child and wants his son to have the same experience. He names, in an almost programmatic way, what this place stands for. For himself: ‘the magical union of the unquestionably hay-wire with the inscrutably wondrous’ (that's pure Ford – you have to love him for it), and for Paul: a connection ‘between the heartfelt and the preposterous’. As the key to understanding the entire scene, this passage needed to be rendered as perfectly as possible..

Mitchell Corn Palace, South Dakota

Short Excursus: Semantic polishing

The word selection for the charged terms that form a connection here is significant. Which of the almost synonymous words do I choose?                 

unquestionably: unstrittig, zweifellos, fraglos, eindeutig etc.;

haywire: chaotisch, kaputt, übergeschnappt, durchgedreht etc.;

inscrutably: unergründlich, rätselhaft, unbegreiflich, unerforschlich etc.;

wondrous: erstaunlich, verwunderlich, wunderbar, wundersam etc.;

heartfelt: herzlich, aufrichtig, tiefempfunden, innig etc.;

preposterous: absurd, lächerlich, grotesk, unsinnig, absonderlich etc.

The choice was determined, first, by the semantic nuances that I wanted to bring out, and these in turn resulted from Frank’s mental attitude (he is serious about the magic here, does not want to dismiss it or make fun of it, but at the same time sees that it is funny), but also with the rhythm they make in combination. I have rendered these phrases, respectively, as the magische Vereinigung aus dem fraglos Überdrehten und dem unerforschlich Wundersamen and the Nähe zwischen dem Tiefempfundenen und dem Lächerlichen.16

Names and events as association triggers

As far as the cultural events at the Corn Palace are concerned, some research was necessary. The information required was mostly available on the Internet, or was explained to me by my go-to American colleague Danny Bowles (with whom I maintain a kind of casual exchange for our reciprocal translation questions), or I asked Ford himself. What’s clear is that while Liberace is well-known in Germany, almost all the other references require specialized knowledge (in the fields of music, pop, history, sports, military) and thus cannot be assumed. Without such knowledge, this passage risks remaining mere name-dropping and verbiage. It is, as mentioned above, not the only one in this novel.

At a meeting with Richard, his wife Kristina and his French translator Josée Kamoun in Paris, I addressed the dilemma directly. There tend to be three ways of dealing with such passages in translation. We can let the readers decide for themselves whether they want to Google each reference they don’t understand or simply skip it (and grow increasingly indifferent or irritated?); or we can try to provide explanations that are either text-immanent or external to the text; and, elements that cannot be made understandable can just be omitted.

from left to right: Frank Heibert, Richard Ford, his wife Kristina Hensley. photo: Josée Kamoun

Of course, each of these procedures can be used depending on the context. Ford’s chief concern was that his readers ought not to be left to deal with this cultural gap alone. He most certainly doesn’t want that they bail, feeling that ‘this book does not address me’.

All passages had to be checked for whether I could imagine that Ford readers in Germany have enough general knowledge for the allusions they might contain (I don't have to explain who Lord Byron is); for how, if the cultural references made are not all that usual, it would be possible to discreetly and elegantly add some context (e.g. by adding ‘the basketball player’ to the name of a sportsman like Bob Cousy, who is unknown in Germany);17 for whether even more context needed to be added for German readers to form an association (because Cousy is considered ‘the best basketball player of all time’, but the cost of such an insertion is to make the text sound like a night school course); or for whether I decide, in weighing up effort and relevance, that a small allusion that I do not regard all that crucial can be cut.

Afterword and notes

In fact, there were numerous passages where more explanation was required than could be discreetly accommodated in the text itself. So, I asked Richard Ford and the publisher whether a glossary might be included. The author found this idea totally feasible; the publisher, Hanser Berlin, was understandably sceptical at first (do we really need to explain contemporary US literature to German readers?), but then concurred (for the French edition, this was apparently unthinkable). We agreed that I would explain the meaning of the annotations in a short afterword (here is an excerpt):

If my main goal in translating is effect equivalence, it is precisely here that a limit is soon reached: what is self-evident in the USA may might simply be baffling in Germany. In the case of a Chinese novel, such an eventuality would be unsurprising; Ford shows us—or those of us who think we know 'America' so well—that provincial America can be as exotic as China. This German edition thus makes use of a device that is commonplace in translations from distant cultures—the provision of annotations to explain cultural references when needed.18


For those terms and phenomena whose understanding serves the overall comprehension of the text, I have written short notes arranged by page number; the very first such note is marked with a footnote in the text that refers to the entire appendix. After that, no footnote characters interfere with the flow of reading, but anyone who finds it hard to place something now knows they can look it up in the back. What does the above-quoted passage look like in German?19

„Als Grünschnabel erschien mir der Maispalast wie die flamboyanteste, verblüffendste Konstruktion von Menschenhand – Maiskolben-Minarette, Maiskolben-Trompen, »maurische« Maiskolben-Bögen, ‚russische‘ Maiskolben-Zwiebeltürme, plus Maisfriese mit tanzenden und singenden Bauern und dem Grimassen schneidenden Mr. Welk, der so tat, als leitete er die Band wie Paul Whiteman. Ich weiß noch, wie ich beim Hinauskommen in den nach Erde duftenden Dakota-Sommerabend zum ersten, entscheidenden Mal mit der magischen Vereinigung aus dem fraglos Überdrehten und dem unerforschlich Wundersamen in Verbindung trat. Hier hatten täppische Bauerntrampel aus den Rohmaterialien, die direkt unter ihren Füßen lagen (Mais), einen besseren (so fanden sie) Taj Mahal gebaut als der echte – denn ihrer war gleich hier in der Main Street, und keiner musste dafür nach Agra. In seinen Räumen konnte Billy Graham ein Gebetsfrühstück inszenieren – und tat das auch. Tennessee Ernie konnte Sixteen Tons singen, Jack Benny konnte Geige spielen. Präsidentschaftswahlen (Grover Cleveland und William McKinley) konnten ausgezählt werden. Der Kunstverein konnte seine Open-Air-Frühjahrsausstellung mit Werken seiner lokalen Genies abhalten, und die kämpferischen Mitchell Fighting Kernels konnten Körbe werfen. Alles, bis ins Letzte, so amerikanisch wie das FBI. Weshalb mein Sohn den Maispalast sehen soll, bevor er stirbt – die Nähe zwischen dem Tiefempfundenen und dem Lächerlichen ist schließlich sein Yin und Yang.
   Während wir uns dem Eingang an der Straße nähern, kommen und gehen Ströme von Touristen unter der alten Kinomarkise vorm Maispalast durch, machen Selfies, grinsen und klopfen Sprüche über den Palast, als würden nur sie den Witz wirklich verstehen. Das in Mais gestaltete Motto der Saison lautet ‚Salut dem Militär‘, auf der großen Fassade sind Abbildungen unserer Marines auf Iwojima, unserer Air Force, wie sie die Atombombe auf Nagasaki abwirft, unserer Seeleute auf der unglückseligen USS South Dakota – ein Opfer der Schlacht von Guadalcanal – und aufgereihte Maissoldaten, die vor einer riesigen Stars-and-Stripes-Flagge aus Mais auf einer kompletten Außenwand salutieren. Viele hier sind Veteranen und stehen in Habachtstellung auf dem Glatteis-Bürgersteig, salutieren der Mais-Tapete und lassen sich von ihren Lieben dabei fotografieren. Für sie ist das das Nonplusultra.
   »Was zum Teufel ist das denn?«, fragt Paul, als ich seinen Rollstuhl auf die Reihe der Außentüren zusteuere.
   »Schwer zu beschreiben«, sage ich. »Meine große Überraschung.«
   »Ach nee«, und ich schiebe ihn in diesen funzeligen, miefigen Raum, im Grunde ein altmodisches Theaterfoyer, unrenoviert seit meinem Besuch vor fünfzig Jahren.
   Das große dunkle Foyer ist herrlich warm, und überall hängen Plakate von berühmten Auftritten, die einst die Bühne im Auditorium zierten – jenseits der roten Samtvorhänge ganz hinten, dahin streben alle Touristen. Etwas subtil Schmuddliges hängt in der Luft, als würde etwas nicht so Nettes öffentlich gemacht, irgendwie mag ich das. Paul stiert um sich, anscheinend findet er nichts so richtig schräg, und lässt die Fotos von den Dorsey Brothers, den Three Stooges, Crystal Gayle und Pat Boone auf sich wirken, auch der Große Jedermann und rechtslastige Profitmacher, Präsidentschaftskandidat William Jennings Bryan, ist dabei, der hier Anno 1900 erneut seine »Rede zum Kreuz aus Gold« hielt. Liberace sitzt an einem weißen Flügel mit Kerzen und trägt zum weißen Smoking ein breites lüsternes Grinsen.“

In German, too, the excerpt really only unfolds after the readers get an idea of the associations in the passage, associations that refer to the cultural affiliation of the people mentioned in it. Those who would like to find out more than is provided in the notes will have to search the Internet for pictures, songs and further information.20 Here are the notes to the above-quoted passage:

252 Lawrence Welk (1903–1992): Alsatian-born big band leader, successful from the 1940s to the 70s.

Paul Whiteman (1890–1967): eanother successful big band leader (his style was called ‘Symphonic Jazz’), active from the end of World War I to the end of World War II.

Billy Graham (1918–2018): a famous evangelist and televangelist

Tennessee Ernie Ford (1919–1991): ): a successful country and gospel singer, active from the 1950s to the 70s. His biggest hit came in 1955 with the cover number ‘Sixteen Tons’, a socially critical song about miners.

Jack Benny (1894–1974): Actor, musician, comedian; played Polish actor Joseph Tura in Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be.

Grover Cleveland und William McKinley: two rather forgotten US presidents from the end of the nineteenth century; they ran against each other in 1897.

253 Iwojima: A bloody battle between the US and Japan on Iwojima Island in February/March 1945. It was made famous by the wartime photo of the US flag planted on Suribashi volcano.

Guadalcanal: During the naval battle at Guadalcanal (Solomon Islands) in November 1942, numerous US and Japanese ships were sunk; Ford is manifestly using the USS South Dakota as a reference here.

Dorsey Brothers: a studio dance band that, with various changes of line-up, had much success from 1928 until the 1950s.

Three Stooges: a US comedy trio whose various lineups enjoyed popular success between 1925 and 1970.

Crystal Gayle (* 1951): US country pop singer, chiefly successful in the 1970s and 80s.

Pat Boone (* 1934): US singer and actor who enjoyed significant success in the 1950s and 60s.

William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925): US Politician. This speech, considered one of the greatest US political speeches, was first delivered by Bryan at the 1896 Democratic convention, at which he was elected as the presidential candidate (he ran unsuccessfully). The primary issue was the gold standard as a measure of value of US currency; Bryan was in favour of adopting silver as the standard as well (‘bimetallism’) and of not crucifying the nation ‘upon a cross of gold’. In 1900, the US government reaffirmed the gold standard.

A passage intentionally shot through with cultural allusions cannot be rendered in German purely by means of translation. All the more so as the panopticon that Ford unfolds in the above passage is not random or just positivistic. Through this accumulation of varia and curiosa from the cultural DNA of his country, he intends to say something about various versions of US identity, and from a place (the Corn Palace) that is as surreal as a fantasy series and at the same time, quite concretely, also stuffy and banally touristic.

Cooperation with the author

When working on a book like this one, to have an author who is willing to provide information is an undeniable, inestimable help. Richard Ford takes much interest in what happens to his texts during the translation process and also wants to be able to understand which translation ideas I am considering. There is a certain risk, however, that not all of my ideas will strike a chord.

Thus, with the play on the name ‘Dr. Bendo’ – signalled by ‘if you can believe that’ – I considered changing the name to one that spoke differently to German ears. In the novel, the doctor in question is not a urologist, so ‘bend over’ is not a directly compelling association (the prostate issue in Frank Bascombe's life is dealt with at length in The State of the Country). And since the lesbian daughter Clarissa talks in disbelief about the doctor and his name, I thought, let's call him ‘Dr. Macho’, which actually exists as a family name in German-speaking countries. But the author wanted to erect a small monument to his urologist in the German translation as well, regardless of whether anyone could understand it in the German or not. And, thus, the inserted clause, ‘if you can believe that’, which makes no sense as an addition to ‘Bendo’ in German, is one of the very few elements that has been deleted.21

One cultural allusion proved particularly complicated. The book is set at the time of the 2019/2020 presidential campaign, and every now and then Frank makes little comments to that effect; towards the end, on the other hand, as Paul is getting worse and worse, we find the following sentence:

„An unusual number of cars are brandishing Trump stickers—the election, the impeachment, the whole nationwide Busby-Berkeley being nothing I can pay attention to now. When you’re in charge of a failing son little else goes on.“22

In German, it reads like this:

„Ungewöhnlich viele Autos tragen Trump-Aufkleber – die Wahl, die Amtsenthebung, aber mit diesem landesweiten [???] kann ich mich gerade nicht beschäftigen. Wenn du dich um einen dahinschwindenden Sohn kümmern musst, gibt es nicht viel anderes.“

What is this nationwide ‘Busby-Berkeley’ reference? Research reveals this to be the name of a famous US choreographer from the 1930s, also known for his recordings of dance performances produced for television. Stylistically, these are highly complex, swarming choreographies that are also geometrically circled so that, filmed from above, they are reminiscent of patterns in a kaleidoscope. The phrase is thus surprising (even for the observer Frank, as we have come to know him), and by it he apparently wants to symbolize the confusion of the many political strategies and manoeuvres typical of an election campaign, manoeuvres that are difficult to understand or keep track of. Finding a solution for this metaphor in translation proved tricky, especially as I don’t feel it totally works.

No US election campaign was so strategically encircled; at most, I can picture the teeming, seemingly chaotic nature of these choreographies as a tertium comparationis. Further, who knows about Busby Berkeley in Germany? Is there another dance or film artist who stages chaos in such a way that it would be comparable to the Trump-Biden election campaign, and whose name might directly trigger these associations for German readers? Long lists of names followed. Finally, I came, somewhat daringly, to the film director Tarantino.  I wonder to myself how the following would sound: ‘the whole nationwide Tarantino being nothing I can pay attention to now’ ... Clear enough? Maybe up the ante? ‘the whole nationwide Tamtamtarantino being nothing I can pay attention to now’ ... It’s pretty wild, but I like it.

The great editor Julia Graf, always fearless and incorruptible, daring and at the same time reasonable, cradles her head in her hands with an amused smile and predicts: Ford won't buy it. I explain it to him in detail and wait anxiously. He gives it a definite thumbs down. The text should say ‘Busby Berkeley’, no matter who understands it. Fortunately, we have the annotations – so this metaphor will have to rely on readers taking the detour of looking it up.

„Ungewöhnlich viele Autos tragen Trump-Aufkleber – die Wahl, die Amtsenthebung, aber mit diesem landesweiten Busby Berkeley kann ich mich gerade nicht beschäftigen. Wenn du dich um einen dahinschwindenden Sohn kümmern musst, gibt es nicht viel anderes.“23

211 Busby Berkeley (1895–1976): US film director and choreographer, famous for his complex choreographies based on geometric patterns.

In some places, it is possible to provide some effect equivalence – but it cannot be forced. (Furthermore: how effect equivalent my idea really would have been is of course debatable, as always and especially here).


In this (according to Ford) final book in the Bascombe series, we see a main character all too aware of his weaknesses, flaws and ridiculousness. Frank knows he has rarely been a good, ‘close’ father in the life of his almost fifty-year-old son Paul; and he tries to make up for that by caring and being present, at least now, in Paul's last phase of life, in a touchingly loving, clumsy way that is strong through the weakness shown.

Frank is equally vulnerable and exposed in his ill-fated infatuation with Betty, a Vietnamese-born masseuse; he knows just how embarrassing it is, how unrealistic, but he stands by his confused feelings and the balance of dignity that becomes increasingly difficult as he grows older. There is also his decades-long crush on Catherine, an East Coast beauty twenty years his junior living in California, with whom he finds shelter in the novel's final chapter; the ship for their love story has clearly sailed a long time ago, but he takes it (wisdom of old age?) very calmly. This escape from his previous life culminates in an ambiguous final scene (perhaps it really is the very last for FB).

Ford can break down human complexity to dazzling effect. As a reader, I am sometimes torn between empathy and vicarious embarrassment for Frank. As a translator, I aspire precisely to make this balancing act possible for Ford’s German readers.

Whoever wants or needs to label this book can call it a story about an ‘old white man’, written (and translated) by one just like him. But if we can say that this protagonist is acutely aware, concerning his own age, the general situation of life and the epoch in which he lives, if he is so merciless and lacking in any maudlin tone, then his narrative voice no longer reflects an unquestioned gesture of power, as it might have in the past (I am thinking, for example, of Philip Roth's Nathan Zuckerman, to whom Ford's Frank Bascombe is often compared). On the contrary, it simply makes up another part of the diversity of our Western societies, which is slowly but surely (finally!) becoming more and more diverse, including in the book market.

Against the omnipresent background of the facets of US pop-culture that he assembles in the novel, Ford describes those kinds of love that are (still) open to his aged protagonist and that give the meaning and depth of the motif of Valentine's Day. And he tells us of the drama of a father who, faced with one of the worst losses imaginable (the death of one’s own child), does all he can to pay tribute, as he often puts it, to this other person and to life.

All these elements, especially where they do not immediately invite identification, make the character of Frank Bascombe and his narrative voice more exciting and more approachable than ever for me as a translator and as a reader, and do so in that unmistakably Fordian way.


©Christa Holka

Frank Heibert, born in 1960, translator of literature and plays from English, French, Italian, Portuguese. Also: lecturer, author, critic, jazz singer. Translations: approx. 100 novels and anthologies, 10 nonfiction books, and 110 plays, including works by Don DeLillo, Richard Ford, George Saunders, Lorrie Moore, William Faulkner, Raymond Chandler, George F. Walker, Boris Vian, Raymond Queneau, Marie Darrieussecq, Yasmina Reza, Michel Marc Bouchard, Karoline Georges, and many others. Recipient of many honors, most recently of the Straelen Translator Prize in 2017 (together with Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel).

Verwandte Artikel
That which touches, that which frightens
1984 and Time
1984. Translating terror