Moving the Furniture in his Brain: An Interview with Thomas Pletzinger and Ross Benjamin

Diana Thow

Thomas Pletzinger’s debut novel Funeral for a Dog (Norton, 2011), translated from the German by Ross Benjamin, is an expansive, lyrical double portrait of two writers: the journalist Daniel Mandelkern and the elusive children’s book author Dirk Svensson, whom Mandelkern travels to  interview at Svensson’s home on Lago di Lugano. To answer the novel’s initial questions—Who exactly is Daniel Mandelkern? Who exactly  is Dirk Svensson?— we cross three continents and navigate five languages; we spend time on a basketball court in New York City’s West Village, in a motorboat hovering over the deepest, quietest part of Lago di Lugano, and at a cockfight in Sao Paolo, where the winning bird is named William Wordsworth. The vivid scenes, characters and locations woven expertly into Pletzinger’s narrative capture the beauty and the loneliness of the lives of these two writers and the lives of those around them, all lived restlessly between multiple languages and cultures. The characters of Funeral for a Dog suffer from what Pletzinger calls Heimwehtourismus: the yearning for a home that may or may not have existed in the first place, and their search saturates the book with a vibrant melancholy.

True to the wandering spirit of the book, this interview was conducted long distance. Last July, passing through New York City, I took the train from Central Station up along the Hudson River to translator Ross Benjamin’s house in Nyack, New York. Ross and I sat at his dining room table on a muggy afternoon and called Thomas. It was late in Germany, and Thomas was sitting in an empty room, wearing earphones and a hoodie to combat the night chill in Göttingen. He and his wife Sabine were leaving the following day for Lago di Lugano, where they spend every August. We were joined later in the conversation by Ross’s small dog Alvy, whom Thomas lovingly refers to as “the croissant.”

DT: How did you start writing Funeral For a Dog?

TP: Even before I started writing the book I was collecting stories. These were the first stories I’d ever written. The protagonists were involved in a love triangle and became the characters of Felix, Tuuli, and Dirk, protagonists in Funeral For a Dog. I always wrote about them so I wouldn’t have to invent new characters. By the time I decided to apply for a creative writing program, the Deutsches Literaturinstitut in Leipzig, I had about fifteen of these stories. I wanted to turn them into a novel but then decided they were too immature. So I put them away in a drawer for a while.

Two years later I invented the ethnographer and journalist Daniel Mandelkern and had him meet Dirk Svensson. I thought it would be interesting for Mandelkern if he followed these stories about Svensson, these immature stories that I had in my drawer, so I rewrote them. That’s how the “Astroland” passages, the book in the book, came about. The frame narrative forced me to rewrite the inner stories. I worked on Funeral For a Dog while studying at Leipzig, and it became my final thesis for my degree, which I completed in 2008. All in all it took about seven years or so to collect the stories, put them away for a while, take them out of the drawer again, and work on them.

DT: When I met you during your residency at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in the fall of 2006, where were you in this process?

TP:  By then I had already invented Mandelkern, and I was trying to complete and sell the book. When I left Iowa the book was on auction. In Iowa I spent time trying to write and it seemed like I wasn’t getting anything done. I wrote maybe one hundred pages in those three months, which is a lot, but it didn’t feel like it because everyone else there was saying that they were writing like crazy.

DT: The workshop environment at Iowa must have been familiar to you since you were a student at the Literaturinstitut. How did your experience at Leipzig influence you as you wrote Funeral for a Dog?

TP: It had a big influence on me. In Leipzig I met other writers for the first time in my life, Saša Stanišić among them. I’d never had any friends who thought seriously about writing before. I had friends who were readers. So it was not the teachers in the program as much as finding a community of writers that had a lasting influence. In Germany this is harder to find; it’s different than in America. There are only three creative writing programs in the German-speaking area, and by that I mean Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. So it’s unusual to study creative writing, compared to the States. Nearly every American university has a creative writing program. 

DT: Ross, working with an author who’s spent so much time in the U.S. and who is fluent in English must have been an incredible resource, but also a bit daunting. How did you involve Thomas in your translation?

RB: I’d say it was question and answer mostly. It has been a very long process of working together on the project—it will have been almost be two years by the time we finish the galleys. We met during the summer of 2008 in Berlin, and sometime in the fall of 2008 we started dealing with the contract. I started translating the book officially while Thomas was a visiting writer at Deutsches Haus at NYU, in the winter of 2009. I would translate a certain number of pages a day in a rough draft, and from that generate questions, and then we would meet and talk them over.

TP: The translation was a very slow process for a variety of reasons. In the beginning we met, talked about the book, drank beer. For a long time it wasn’t clear that the book was even going to be translated. So we’d just go and watch a soccer game in Berlin and do things like that. But we were talking about the translation even though there was no contract. Then the contractual situation took—it felt like forever—

RB: It took a long time.

TP:  And while it was being resolved we were both in New York and we would just hang out. We would work on one page or two pages, and then go for a walk with the dog in between, or have dinner, and we talked about various topics. I think during that time, Ross, you got an idea of what I wanted the book to sound like, even though you hadn’t translated every single sentence yet.

RB: I was doing a brain scan of you. A Vulcan mind-meld while we were getting to know each other.

(we laugh)

But in the end, yes, it was almost two years of getting to know Thomas, getting to know the book, getting to know some of the background, how he thinks, how he works, how he talks about the book, and how we interact with each other—that all went into the process of trying to realize his artistic vision in English.

And then once we were separated by the ocean, we e-mailed. It was pepperings of e-mails, questions here and there, and then at some point I started translating fifty pages at a time and I would send Thomas huge lists of questions. Some of the questions were really banal and easy to answer and others were endlessly complex. It seemed like we would go back and forth forever.

DT: Can you give me an example of some of the questions you would ask?

RB: While translating I find that when I want to ask an author a question it rarely consists of wanting to know what a word means. A dictionary can tell you what something means, but if you’re able to talk with the author the most important material you can gain is at the textural level. How the author is using language and what they are doing with that language that is new and unexpected. This is perhaps not completely penetrable upon a first read, not without a more involved discussion. It took a lot of time for Thomas to address all my questions.

TP: The question about Heimwehtourismus for instance.

RB: Yes, that one was never really resolved. The word is Heimwehtourismus, which is used in a specific way in the novel, and it has a specific meaning that’s difficult for anyone who’s not familiar with the German context. A Heimwehtourist is a tourist, literally a homesickness-tourist—it’s one word.

DT: You translated this as “nostalgia tourist,” if I remember correctly.

RB: In one place I did, yes. The word describes somebody who travels to their former or their ancestral homeland out of nostalgia, and it’s often closely associated with tourists who visit their former homes in what was once east Germany but is now Poland or the Czech Republic, but it has an even broader application than that. In Thomas’s novel there is a scene in which a character travels back to a former home in the east, and the word is used there, but there are also places in which the longing for home is used more metaphorically. There are characters who are searching all over the world for a sort of home, and they are called Heimwehtourists as well… so “nostalgia” doesn’t really capture it. Often I used a contextual solution, and occasionally I think I might have added allusions to clarify. But yes, that was one question that went on forever. 

TP: While we’re talking, I’m looking at my e-mail folder and in this folder it says: Ross Benjamin, 714 e-mails.

RB: Right. And some of those e-mails contain a hundred questions each.

TP: Or when we started this whole process and had the issue with the Badeinsel?

RB: Right, that’s never been adequately resolved. So, when you’re swimming in a lake sometimes there’s a wooden thing with a ladder on it that you can swim out to climb on and jump off.

TP: And there’s Astroturf on it sometimes…

RB: Yeah, sometimes there’s Astroturf. Everyone calls it a different thing. What do you call it?

DT: Uh.

(a pause, Thomas laughs)

DT: A dock? A swimming dock?

RB: Yeah, a lot of people start with dock, but when you look up these terms it gets problematic. Some people call it a raft, which I think of something that floats away, or a float, or a floating dock, but docks are always attached to the land. The definitions aren’t very precise, and then websites that sell these things call them all sorts of different names. Everyone still disagrees on what the right solution is. We ended up with floating dock. And I think that’s because the copyeditor was really convinced. But I was on one of these things on Cape Cod a few weeks ago, and I was talking to my mother about it and she said, “We called that the raft all throughout my childhood.” There’s a book called A Yellow Raft in Blue Water with a picture of one on the cover….

TP: You see how he works. His whole family is involved. He’s in a bathing suit on vacation and he still thinks about it. Everyone around him is involved. The issue with the Badeinsel was one of the first things that my editor at Norton heard about the book before reading it, and he was thinking, “Oh god, here we go.” It’s on the second page of the novel and we’re already e-mailing fifty times back and forth about that damn thing in the water.

But I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a translator to have someone like me who can read the English translation. Maybe it’s useful, but I can think of better things than having someone looking over your shoulder. But I was so interested to watch Ross at work on my book, so for me it was amazing for me to see how—what’s the word for akribisch, Ross?

RB: Meticulous?

TP: Yes, this is the word precisely. Akribisch, meticulous. I always thought I knew my book. I thought I knew what I was doing, and of all the people in the world, even my own editor, even myself…. I think Ross knows the book better. Maybe he doesn’t know the back story as well as I do, but of all the people in the world, he knows the actual text on the page best. And I find it fascinating that someone who hasn’t written the book would be able to find so many mistakes, or slight mistakes, logical mistakes….

RB: These were tiny, tiny, tiny things.

TP: Yes, tiny things. But Ross would spot everything. For instance, in the hardback German version of the book a woman buys a pizza and it comes in a plastic bag. New York pizza isn’t delivered in a plastic bag, it comes in a box. I am an idiot, how could I have thought that pizza is delivered in a plastic bag? And then she hangs it on a Türklinke!

RB: A door handle.

TP: Right, a door handle?! There are no door handles in New York! They’re doorknobs. So we rewrote the whole thing.

RB: There’s also the problem of hanging the pizza….

TP: Yeah, yeah.

RB: But all of these things a reader wouldn’t notice, they would read right over it.

TP: Right. My editor didn’t catch this, but you did. While Ross was translating the book into English, I was working on editing the German paperback (btb-Random House, 2010).  So now the paperback is totally different from the hardcover book.

RB: What’s happened is that the paperback consists of a translation of my translation of his book. So the paperback is actually Funeral for a Dog translated back into German by Thomas Pletzinger.

TP: And it’s much better than the first edition. 

DT: A great deal of the book takes place in New York, around September 11.  It must be helpful to have a translator who is based in New York instead of, say, Texas.

RB: That’s true. I intervened when Thomas decided to move Gansevoort street further downtown because he liked the name. But maybe that’s off the record….

TP: No, it’s funny. Don’t you think? I liked the name of the street so I put it next to the World Trade Center.  And you took that out, Ross. It’s terrible of you.

RB: We agreed to take that out. We decided together for the sake of potential New York readers to make it more geographically accurate. But yes, I pointed it out, which is something a translator in Texas wouldn’t have done.

TP: I obviously wrote the book for a German audience. And even though I don’t think it sounds like it’s just a tourist’s take on New York, there were issues that came up when we thought about presenting the book to an American audience. Also cultural issues, in addition to logistical ones. Like the scene with the Argentines and Cubans playing the drums. Remember that scene?

RB: Yes, Argentines, Cubans, Colombians…

TP: There’s a scene when my characters are sitting on the roof looking down onto the street, where there’s a little store and people are singing and making music in front of the store, and in the German version the narration says something like, “There are people making music, the Cuban is playing the drums, the Argentinean is...,” etc.

RB: Everyone has an ethnic label, but it doesn’t necessarily correspond with the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood that they’re in.

TP: Ross and my American friend Erin both asked, “How does he know that these people are from Argentina or Cuba?” I didn’t have a problem with this. In Germany, in Europe, we’re apparently not as sensitive to ethnic labeling as in America. No one in Germany thought this kind of labeling of the characters was a problem. But it is a problem for an American audience. It characterizes the narrator as a little racist, very different from how I’d intended him to be. And Ross, I like your solution a lot; you wrote, “The Cuban regular was playing ukulele…,” so Svensson, the narrator, actually knows him.

RB: Yes. But this is one of the things that you can’t do if you can’t work with the author. Or I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t go so far as to change a text in that way, but the author can in light of the cultural issues that come up in the process of translation. We’re talking about a higher level of fidelity, to the representation of a character rather than a strict adherence to the literal translation.

DT: Thomas, in light of all these edits, and adaptations that came along with the process of the English translation, I’m curious to hear how you think about the different versions of the text. Has this changed how you think about the story you wrote, seeing the story in these three different manifestations?

TP: Well, it’s a weird situation to be in since I’m supposed to be thinking about my next book, and instead I have, shall we call them, triplets? And they’re a lot of trouble. So I’m not just conceiving one child and raising it and then going on to the next one. I have to take care of triplets now. I still enjoy it, the paperback came out in June 2010, and for me it’s a different book. I’m also working on the screenplay now so I have…what’s it called?

DT: Quadruplets?

TP: Yes. That’s almost a basketball team. I don’t know if I think differently about the English version. It was just a little hard to have someone sneak around your book and change it.

RB: It was almost like I was inside his head, moving the furniture around in his brain.

DT: Ross, what’s your relationship now with the different versions?

RB: It’s a hard question to answer. Once I’ve translated a book I can never really look at it the same way. I can’t read it back in the original and experience it as I once did. It’s all become completely over-analyzed and over-determined. So I’m glad I read the book initially not even knowing I was going to translate it. Because even reading the book knowing you are going to translate it can change how you read it. I remember reading the book with a glass of wine. The characters were drinking wine and I was drinking wine—that’s an experience I can never have again with this book. Other books you can reread and have a new experience with them, but this book will always be wrapped up in the neurosis of the translation for me. By the time the translation is done, I know I will feel like it was our best effort, and it’s the product of all this work, and it’s a work unto itself. And at this point it’s two separate things, the original novel and the translation. It’ll be important for others to judge how they relate, but in my mind at that point they’re two different versions.

TP: I’m very proud of Ross’s translation and proud that this book is in English because that rarely happens to a first-time novelist. It’s also important to me on a personal level, in that my American or English or even Finnish friends can now read the book. There are people who were really important to me during the process of writing the book who were never able to read the book because our lingua franca is English. Now I finally can send them the book.

I learned a lot about translating by watching Ross translate my book. It’s asked me to rethink my process as a translator as well. Because I called myself a translator before, but I wasn’t a real translator. Ross is a real translator. The project of bringing Funeral for a Dog into English let me see a real translator at work.

DT: I wanted to ask about the two main narrative voices, Mandelkern and Svensson. They are very distinct initially, the journalist’s jottings and the novelist’s more stream-of-consciousness narration. As you get further along in the narrative, they begin to blend. I wanted to ask about the construction of those voices in German, and how, Ross, you were able to listen to the voices in German and represent them in English. In English some of the lines are truly stunning.

TP: If Ross got that across in English, that’s perfect, that’s how it was meant to be.

DT: So there wasn’t a specific discussion of this, it was something you recognized independently.

RB: It was probably the sum of all of those textural questions that I mentioned before. I read the whole book before I translated it. I was aware of that interplay of two different voices that also sometimes overlap, sometimes diverge, that are clearly supposed to be distinct, and not just two different voices but two different modes of writing, one being notebook entries and one being a rough draft, a manuscript of a novel, and that was all there in the original novel, and it was there in my head when I was translating. The translator has to reproduce everything that he can, not just the meaning of the sentences but also the different voices, modes of writing, styles and registers.

DT: So what are you working on now, Thomas?

TP: After having these triplets, I translated two books myself into German—a collection of Gerald Stern’s poetry and David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp—I wrote a screenplay for a TV show, and I’ve been working on the screenplay for the Funeral for a Dog film. I’ll begin work on a nonfiction book about basketball; I’m spending a year with a professional team. And while doing all that, I have slowly but steadily been working on my next novel. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, researching and collecting ideas, but only next winter will I have the time to sit down and really start writing. I’m trying to do something totally different from either the English translation or the German edition of Funeral for a Dog. And I’m looking forward to Ross translating it. That will be fun.

RB: Definitely. And I assume there won’t be anyone hanging pizza bags from door handles in your new book.

TP: Yes. Any food that’s hung from a door contraption will be described properly. The next book will be partly set in New York City in the 1940s. And Ross is working on a novel himself.

RB: So I’ll be more sympathetic next time.

DT: Ross, how has the process of translating Funeral for a Dog, or translating in general, affected your writing?

RB: That’s a good question. I wasn’t writing fiction during the period that I was translating my first handful of books. I’ve just started again now. I was writing book reviews and essays and it was totally different process. I did translate a book of literary criticism during that time, and there I feel there was some cross-fertilization.  But returning to fiction writing after translating a number of novels…Well, I’d like to think it made me more stylistically versatile since I’ve been mimicking other people’s writing styles. I feel a little more flexibility in what I can do. And being closely involved with the creative process while working with someone like Thomas, or with Kevin Vennemann, when I worked on his book [Close to Jedenew, Melville House, 2009], has informed my sense of what it means to write a novel.

In the past I got stuck on thinking about what kind of writer I wanted to be: experimental or conventional, with narrative pyrotechnics or not, etc.; it was always an act of self-definition. But having translated different books gives you the freedom to write in a variety of ways by translating in a variety of ways. This has liberated me from the idea that one project needs to define all future acts of writing. Now I think that you can be involved in all sorts of projects and not feel pigeonholed. I think translation has helped with this because with each project you reinvent yourself as a writer, so to speak.

DT: Thomas, are you going to translate Ross’s book into German?

RB: But there’s no book yet, let’s keep this in mind…

TP: I mean, if he finishes the book and Kevin Vennemann doesn’t want to do it, I’ll do it. Easy. And 740 e-mails? I can definitely top that.


Diana Thow holds an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa. A translator from the Italian, she has published her work in eXchanges, The Quarterly Conversation, 91st Meridian, and Words Without Borders. She lives and works in Rome, Italy.