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ALFRED DOBLIN’S Berlin Alexanderplatz, originally published in 1929, achieved its greatest fame in the English-speaking world in 1983 when Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s version, made for German TV, was released here. That was also the occasion to re-release Eugene Jolas’ 1931 translation. The repertory theaters that showed the film have long since died, and though the DVD of it is available from Criterion, it is not available on any of the streaming services. Jolas’ translation went out of print, and so English readers have been unable to read this classic of German literature.
NYRB Classics has rescued Döblin’s masterpiece from oblivion, publishing a new translation by the Michael Hoffmann.
Berlin Alexanderplatz is the audacious account of the doings of Franz Biberkopf, “former cement worker and haulier” and ex-con in 1927-28 Berlin. Biberkopf leads us through the lower depths of the capital of a Weimar city that is not aware of being on the brink of catastrophe, though glimmerings of it appear everywhere. It is, of course, impossible to read the book today without the vision of what would follow in mind.
Biberkopf is unable to gain a firm hold on life after his release from prison for murder (for which he served a four-year sentence!), and his uneasy relationship to the society around him is echoed in the novel’s daring formal structure, which shifts in time, in voice, in perspective and tone. At times venturing inside Biberkopf’s head, at times commenting from without, the novel’s language echoes the lumpen world it depicts in cinematic fashion. But Biberkopf is not a mere victim of fate: he is an active, though occasionally unwitting, participant in his own ruin, making bad choice after bad choice, not shy of violence (particularly against women) or thuggery. This is not the lachrymose account of a man’s fall due to circumstances beyond his control. It is the portrait of a man who begins low and never climbs very high. It ranks high among the great novels with unappealing main characters.
Döblin, a Jew born in then-German Stettin whose family moved to Berlin when he was 10, was friends with Bertolt Brecht, which can be seen in the Brechtian chapter heads; and with Robert Musil, which can be seen in Alexanderplatz’s reconstruction of an entire world, reminiscent of Musil’s Man Without Qualities; and with Joseph Roth, clear in the book’s portrayal of the decay of a society. It a profitably be read alongside that English-language classic portrayal of the same period, Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, a book that eschews the modernism of Döblin’s classic in telling a tale set in the waning days of Weimar. The two volumes together provide as accurate a portrait of what led up to January 1933 as many volumes of history.
Döblin himself would be blown by history’s winds out of Germany and out of Europe, moving to Los Angeles, converting to Catholicism, and working for MGM, the movie studio -- but not before he had immortalized a certain Berlin. The city is as much a character as any of the humans depicted in the book, Berlin with its trams, its courtyards, its abattoirs, its noise and songs, its streets and courtyards, its Communists and Nazis and Jews -- a Berlin in its death throes.
HOFMANN’S TRANSLATION is a bold one, but it must be pointed out that though Hofmann lives and teaches in America, he is an Englishman: Döblin’s working-class and Berlin slang are translated into East End English, sprinkled with “innits”s and “finking”s (for “thinking”) and slang expressions that are at times totally obscure: “You can’t dream summing like that. Heard it, dinni.”
Reviews have praised Hofmann’s work on Berlin Alexanderplatz, but I am unconvinced. Translating slang, dialect, and the demotic is a difficult and tricky affair. Nothing ages as badly as slang, and the challenge in translating popular speech is finding a way to show it is not standard speech or writing. Hofmann’s solution is to make these residents of 1920s Berlin Into cockneys, to transpose Alexanderplatz to Whitechapel. In doing so, he denatures the novel completely: at no point did I feel I was reading a German classic. In a book totally dependent on its site-specific language, moving its setting and characters lock, stock, and barrel to another country is one solution to this problem in translation, but it’s a bad one. In order for Hofmann’s translation to work, we would also need an American one, with transposed New York characters saying “fuhgeddaboutit,” or an Australian version with characters “chundering.” What we have here is a Berlin Alexanderplatz. What we are still waiting for is the Berlin Alexanderplatz.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.