The Paris Review

Uwe Johnson: Not This But That

This week marks the publication in English of Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl. This is the third of three essays by the translator, Damion Searls, a Paris Review contributor and former translation correspondent for the Daily.

Original illustration by Ellis Rosen

In the previous installment, I discussed some tricky words to translate, but the process and art of translation isn’t primarily about words. It’s about doing in your language, as a whole, what the original writer is doing in his or her language as a whole—and sometimes about reconsidering, or reimagining, what that language is.

For example, in German it’s much more common and normal to say “not this but that” than it is in English. In English, you’d say “I want a whiskey, not a beer”; in German you’d say the equivalent of “I want not beer

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