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.