Translator’s notes – “Waves” by Eduard von Keyserling

I have started my translation of Eduard von Keyserling’s Wellen (Waves), a pioneering work of pre-World War I literary Impressionism which has never before been properly translated into English.

It doesn’t take long to run into the first hurdle. In the very first sentence a simple little word is untranslateable, word for word (as words so often are): Generalin Palikow.

In the context it doesn’t mean a female General, but the widow of General Palikow.

To translate this as “Widow Palikow” would be faintly absurd – bizarre not just to the reader’s eye but also in evoking indecorous, pantomimic, cross-dressing echoes of the Widow Twankey.

Wholly inappropriate for the dignified Generalin Palikow.

So what about just leaving it as Generalin Palikow?

At first, I was tempted by this (and I see in the Wikipedia article about the book and film they too have left it so). But then I saw that most readers would wonder what on earth was meant. They’d probably go for the female General option. And so, in the very first sentence, I would have confused, given them a bum steer.

A brazen cop-out, I thought, which would never do.

What about Mrs Palikow? It’s what she might have been called in Britain (well, much more likely Lady Palikow, as most British generals were either knights or lords at the time) and the USA, if she had been transplanted there. But to call her Mrs would give the lie to where she is, who she is in her time and place.

So much for Mrs Palikow, then.

The Generalin – General Palikow’s widow is probably the best way – at least for that first mention. It gets the right sense across immediately, and explains the meaning upfront. Keyserling refers to her as die Generalin throughout the book, giving this agreeably wise old bird (far from military herself) an incongruously militaristic aura so typical of the period. Once the reader knows what’s meant, we can do likewise.

I wonder if it was this hurdle in the first sentence which put off my predecessors, interpid translators of yore, who gave up the Keyserling game before they’d started…

Or maybe there’s further unsuspected, far more treacherous conundrums ahead.


  1. How is your translation going on? I want to make a romanian translation of the novel, but I struggle to convey in romanian the elegance of the style. I’m just curious how did you translate „das kommt noch” from the first chapter? I’m a little discouraged about the task at the moment. It will be so great if you would answer me! Thank you!

    • freddie oomkens says:

      Thank you for this and I hope your translation is coming along. Your comment was subsumed in a flood of spam and so I didn’t see it until now.
      I’ve put my translation on hold for a while as other projects have intervened.
      Das kommt noch is in the second chapter. My initial response regarding a good translation would be: That will come…

  2. Hi Freddie – I hope your translation is progressing well. I’m really keen to read this novel, and it’s good you are doing it as the earlier translation is pretty much impossible to get hold of. I’m just writing a story which I have partly set in Zoppot (today Sopot – Poland) and in 1913, so it would be very interesting to me to be able to read Waves and see how a contemporary writer described scenes on the Baltic coast. Good luck with it!

    • freddie oomkens says:

      Thanks, Paul, and I hope your story is going well.
      I have only just seen your comment as there was a huge influx of spam.
      My translation is in hold for a bit as other projects have intervened but I shall surely share my progress when I resume.

  3. says:


    thanks for the tip-off! i hadn’t heard about arthur j. ashton’s shot at it, must try to track it down.. and i shall correct my poor burst bubble.

    without wanting to jump the gun, though, ashton translating “wellen” as “tides” is simply wrong and suggests he took a perhaps impressionistic approach to the task…

    • Certainly translators of that era tended more towards the impressionistic. I’d be interested to know how you’re going with this.

      • freddie oomkens says:

        Thanks, Kerry. The Keyserling is coming along slowly. I have taken on a new assignment which is taking up all of my professional time. “Waves”, however, is still dear to my heart, and it really does deserve a better translation!

  4. Hi
    I hate to burst your bubble, but according to this link Die Wellen was translated as The Tides in 1929. See also
    The translator seems to have been Arthur J Ashton. It may still be worth the effort of a retranslation – 1929 was a long time ago and who knows how well that translation has held up.

  5. says:

    The custom does seem very quaint today, yes. It’s like an etymological embodiment of sexism (and you don’t get many of those to the pound)! “Kapteenska” is good, though.

  6. The Palikow problem was very interesting, because in Finnish (pre-70s) it was common to refer to wives and widows of men by the addition of -ska to the profession or title of the husband, ie. Kapteenska for wife of a Kapteeni (Captain) or Professorska (Professor’s wife). This habit confounds modern teenagers.

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