Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

Happy Years: Translating Beckett with Beckett

Academic journal article Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui

Happy Years: Translating Beckett with Beckett

Article excerpt

Prologue: In 2011, Erika Tophoven published a memoir of her and Elmar Tophoven's thirty-five years of collaborating with Beckett on the translation of his texts into German. The memoir is part of a book chronicling their life in Paris translating mostly French contemporary literature. Entitled Glückliche Jahre: Übersetzerleben in Paris (Happy Years: Our Life as Translators in Paris), the book, published by Matthes and Seitz in Berlin, includes her answers to questions posed by fellow author and translator Marion Gees and several essays by Elmar Tophoven (1923-1989). What follows is my compte rendu in English, summarizing and in part paraphrasing the Tophovens' recollections of meetings with Beckett and the problems they faced translating his texts. Erika Tophoven has kindly proofed my account, clarifying details and providing additional particulars, for which I am grateful to her. The translations into English of Beckett's French are my own.


After attending the premiere of En attendant Godot at the Théåtre de Babylone in January 1953, there was no doubt in Elmar Tophoven's mind that this was a play he must translate and without delay. Willing to risk translating Beckett's tragicomedy without first obtaining the rights, he deposited the completed German Godot on Jérôme Lindon's desk three weeks later. Thus, Lindon having granted the translation rights, began Tophoven's intensive collaboration with Beckett that was to last thirty-five years (95).1

On two spring afternoons in 1953, Top, as he was known to his friends, worked with Beckett on the Godot translation in the author's studio apartment near the Vaugirard metro station on the rue des Favorites. In a letter of 19 February 1953 about setting up an eventual meeting to work on the translation, Beckett intimated that it would take a lot of effort but that they would finally get good results (qtd. 99; see also Beckett 2011, 370). Collaborating with Beckett turned out to be an intense, pleasant, and highly instructive experience for the translator. Beckett, he recalls, was patient throughout, hiding any annoyance about faulty and imprecise interpretations. He made Top aware of repetitions in the play, or 'echoes,' as Beckett termed them, and questions, which like recurring musical motifs resurface again and again, time among them (96).

Accompanied by his translator, Beckett attended the premiere of the German Warten auf Godot at Berlin's Schlossparktheater on 8 September 1953, where, on the request of the play's director Karl Heinz Stroux, he joined the actors on stage, even if reluctantly, for the applause after the performance (96, 98).

After Godot, author and translator worked on the translation of the postwar trilogy, the Nouvelles, and Textes pour rien (Texts for Nothing). From the beginning, Top was aware that Beckett's texts left a translator little latitude, owing to the precise meaning and placement of each word. Taking Beckett as his mentor, he gleaned much about the art of translation from him, an apprenticeship that was to prove useful in translating not only Beckett but also other writers (95).

Erika Tophoven met her future husband in fall 1956 while visiting Paris after graduating from Munich's Dolmetscher-Institut (School for Interpreters). At their first meeting at a party, Top asked her to translate Beckett's recently composed radio drama All That Fall into German. She took it on, not realizing the difficulties involved in a literary translation as compared to the texts assigned at the Dolmetscher-Institut. It took the pair weeks to arrive at a version that satisfied them. It was at that point that Top would ask Beckett for a meeting to read him a translation. From then on, Beckett was to give Erika his English texts to translate, other radio plays to begin with, thereby launching her career as a translator of literature (12-15).

The Tophovens met with Beckett in his apartment on the rue des Favorites until he moved to a larger place on boulevard Saint-Jacques in 1960. …

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