Discovering Cees Nooteboom’s Berlin – Part 2

I’ve written another piece for the MacLehose Press blog – about Berlin and International Translation Day:

I have left my hometown of Amsterdam to come to Berlin for a few weeks to work on my translation of Cees Nooteboom’s book Berlijn, his account of his time spent in Germany from the years before the fall of the Wall until the present day. A native speaker of English, I have swapped my Dutch-speaking surroundings for a German-speaking environment. I am translating a Dutch book about Germany, sitting at a computer in Berlin, turning Dutch words about Germany into English words about Germany. Being in Berlin, as Nooteboom was, gives me the opportunity to visit the places he saw here, to see them not only through his writing, but with my own eyes.

One of the locations I knew I had to visit was the small village of Lübars, still part of Berlin, but as Nooteboom writes in his book, practically countryside. The writer sometimes used to go out to Lübars to escape from the city and the book describes his subsequent visits to the village and the changes that he sees as the political climate changes. Lübars was in the West, but only just. Although I was accustomed to the familiar photographs of the Wall dividing the urban landscape, Nooteboom’s account of the Wall in such rural surroundings somehow came as a surprise to me. He talks about the village pub, about girls riding horses, about fields and streams – and, cutting across the landscape, the incongruous Wall and its guardians. In his words, which are also, in a way, my words:

“I often visit Lübars, which is like a real village. It’s an illusion, as if there were lots of countryside stretching out all around. Two village pubs, a pump, a small church, a few graves. I walk out of the village along a path I’ve discovered. The first time, I came to a small river. I stood looking into the water, dark-coloured, fast-flowing, swaying water plants, the thought of fish. And that was when I noticed the sign. It said that the border ran down the middle of that river. The Wall might have been some distance away, but the other side, those dry reeds, that scattering of trees, that was the land of the Others. Now I saw the water differently. It was no more than a couple of metres wide, but the middle of that moving, transparent element was the border. That’s not something you should spend too much time thinking about, but I still did. East water, West water. Absolute nonsense, but still, that border is real. And it’s there. I carried on walking, up a hill. From there, I had a good view of the Wall. There were two of them. Between them was a kind of anti-tank ditch, loose sand, earth, soil. The strip of land rolled away into the distance. I walked on to where I would encounter the Wall; it was not made of bricks or concrete at that point, but of transparent steel mesh. A hundred metres beyond, in front of the other Wall, was a tower. A small car stood beside it. Then a window opened in the tower. I could see the silhouettes of two men. One of them directed his binoculars at me and took a good look. A one-way process. He could see me perfectly well, but I couldn’t see him. What did he think he was going to see when he looked at me? Why was he looking? I stood there for a while, experiencing the strange sensation of allowing myself to be looked at. I wanted to know what the man was thinking, but I never would. I didn’t want to know what he thought about me, but what he thought about himself. There was no way of knowing. Was he looking out of a sense of duty, conviction, boredom? Did he believe in what he was doing? There was, as far as I could tell, no human possibility that anything could ever occur between those two walls, not in that place, and certainly not starting from my side. So what was the point of watching? Did he spend hours of unutterable boredom in the tower? Or was it pure conviction? Did you go to that tower as you would to a job you enjoyed doing? What I really wanted was to go up into the tower and have a quick chat with him, but there was no chance of that happening.”
(Nooteboom, Berlijn, p. 41)

My own visit to Lübars, all these years later, took me into the countryside. A quiet village, a somewhat gentrified village pub, fields, dogs, horses. No Wall. If you knew where to look, you could see where it had been. In fact, the cleared land of the death strip makes an excellent place to take horses out for a gallop. The stream, the river, where once a border ran down the middle, still flows along, turns into marsh, gets caught up in small pools. It divides the landscape and, at some points, makes it difficult for the casual walker to reach Lübars, but it’s no longer a political boundary, only a physical obstacle.

On one of his more recent visits to the village, Nooteboom spotted that the sign in the river indicating the border had gone, but the post it had been nailed to was still there. I didn’t see any post. It’s probably long rotted away, but perhaps I didn’t know where to look. That border, that solid Wall, the death strip, the guards, they have all vanished from the landscape, leaving behind the church and the pump and the pub, as they have existed for centuries.

Following Nooteboom’s descriptions in his book, I located a spot where he must have walked or stood. I took my copy of Berlijn, with Simone Sassen’s photograph of the Wall at Lübars, and held it up against the landscape to compare that same location, then and now. Lübars with the Wall; Lübars without the Wall. Where once that impenetrable concrete structure stood, there is now a line of trees and hedgerow.

I’m writing this piece on 30 September, International Translation Day. Translating Dutch into English, translating a person’s experiences, translating myself from one country to another. I translate the words and the places become even more real to me; and the words are somehow a little more my own when I follow the author and see what he’s seen.

Yesterday, I followed him to Berlin’s Museumsinsel, the Museum Island, where most of the city’s top museums are located. I saw ‘Schinkel’s giant marble dish’ in front of Das Alte Museum; Nooteboom witnessed members of the press climbing into this dish for a better view of the demonstrations that preceded the fall of the Wall. I saw the Pergamon Altar and statues of Anubis. However, one small exhibit made a large impact on me, a tattered piece of papyrus in Das Neue Museum, written on 18 April, 134 BC, and described as a ‘receipt of wages from a translator of the Trogodytes’ tribe’. Somehow, this evidence of the more mundane side of the translation profession seemed so much more personal and close to home than any surviving translations of literary texts. Translation may not be the oldest profession in the world, but translators have certainly been around for a very long time indeed. And perhaps that’s something to think about on International Translation Day.

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