How long did you work on this translation?
Twelve years, four months. In that time I became a father
three times over. I refer to the novel trilogy.
In view of the difficulty and length of the text, that appears
There was nothing to be done about it. The publisher had established
a firm deadline. I worked as hard as a man can work. What
more could someone ask of a man? I don’t know how the
author wrote the book in a single lifetime.
It took him three years. He claimed, famously, that it fired
out of his “brainbook” like a shot of lava.
Herr Eakins is a legend.
Did you have much contact with Constance Eakins during the
project? I note that you completed it before his disappearance.
No, he is extremely private. I once sent him a fax, via his
publisher, with numerous questions, mostly about word usage
and grammar. In response I received a death threat.
He doesn’t have strict control over the translation of
his works, then?
No, he certainly does! This was the first time an author has
wanted a resume listing my previous translations. Eakins has
a clause in his contract saying that he has to approve his
translators. Even when he finally authorized the translation,
again via his American publisher, he explained that he was
greatly dismayed by some of the word choices I used in a translation
I had done, several years earlier, of The Tale of Genji.
He sent a list of errata that he had identified in my work.
It is worth noting that I translated that book from the Japanese,
the other language in which I am fluent. Eakins’ knowledge
of Japanese, as well as German, is astonishingly thorough.
Did he ever live in Japan?
It is rumored to be so.
That man is a legend. Once I received that memo, I knew I had
a difficult task ahead of me. It was just that I believed
so deeply in his genius then—I felt it was an honor.
I did not know the ordeal I was getting myself into.
There is a great deal in The Slayed about the history
of the Mongols, with a focus on the Xiongnu Period and the
reign of Emperor Wu. At least a quarter of The Slaying takes
place in late-eighteenth-century Cumbria, following the life
of the color-blind atomist John Dalton and his work on the
thermal expansion of gases. There is an extensive interlude
in The Slaughter about land surveying. Did these pose
any unique translation challenges?
You have no idea. The section on atomic theory in The Slaying took
over two years of my life. It is my hope that Eakins’ Austrian
readers appreciate the effort.
What was it like to engage in a dialogue—even if indirect,
or metaphorical—with a phantom like Eakins?
With every book that’s difficult to translate, the translator
develops a love-hate relationship with the author. This was
a more extreme project than others, so it became more of a
love-hate-hate relationship. I find Eakins to be a very contradictory
figure. The long epistemological monographs that interrupt
the narrative in The Slaughter, for instance, I find
only moderately successful. I wondered whether they were absolutely
essential. But that is not my decision to make. I am only a
translator. Each stanza must be translated, word by word, and
I had also to maintain their complicated rhyme scheme. [A
stunning variation on the Petrarchan sonnet—Ed.] I
seem to have missed the rhyme scheme when I first read the
books in English. I wonder whether, had I noticed them, I still
would have agreed to accept the job.
Do you have any favorite scenes in the novel trilogy?
Yes, the scene in the beginning of The Slaying, Book
One, when Dixon makes himself a cucumber sandwich, before going
out to meet the Quakers. I know it is a very short scene—a
paragraph really—but I did find it a delight. So short
and concise. So clear. So painfully clear.
Are you, as a translator, actually mentioned often in reviews?
Never, except with there are corrections of mistakes, some
attention made to passages in which I erred. It is remarkable
that after so many years, and so many revisions, any errors
managed to seep through, but I am only human. I pray Herr
Eakins doesn’t notice. I pray he stays in his hiding.
And I pray that wherever he is, they do not allow the sale
of Austrian books there.