Mason & Dixon

An Interview with Nikolaus Stingl,
Translator of Mason & Dixon

Der Standard
18 Sept 1999
by Claus Phillipp

The following interview with Nikolaus Stingl, the Austrian translator who rendered Mason & Dixon into German, appeared in the Austrian newspaper, Der Standard, in 1999 (you can read the original German text here). Stingl has translated the works of William Gaddis, John Irving, and D.H. Lawrence, and his translation of Mason & Dixon won the Stuttgarter Literaturpreis in 2001. This interview was translated by longtime Modern Word contributor, Erik Ketzan, with invaluable corrections by Otto Sell of Die Sauberen Schweine, the excellent German Pynchon site, and Erik's pal, Alexa.

STANDARD: How long did you work on this translation?

Nikolaus Stingl: Well, with all the prepwork and side jobs, a little more than a year.

In view of the difficulty and length of the text, that appears rather short.

Yeah, but there was nothing to be done about it. The publisher had a set deadline and I had to finish working on other projects.

Did you have contact with Thomas Pynchon during this project?

No, he is very consistently private. Toward the end, I sent him a fax with questions via his publisher, which Pynchon then responded to promptly and openly (in writing).

He doesn’t have strict control over the translation of his works, then?

No, he certainly does! This was the first time for me that an author wanted references regarding my previous translations. Pynchon has a clause in his contract saying that he has to approve his translators. I sent him a list: For example, William Gaddis' A Frolic of his Own, or the translation of a novel by Rick Moody, who is represented by one of Pynchon's agents, which was in my favor.

In a lecture on Mason & Dixon you say that the book is something of a mongrel: “He follows the model of antiquated popular fiction,” but “as a very conscious play on old language patterns”. How did you maintain a balance between old idioms, dialects and modern forms, considering what one knows of Pynchon's works in German to date?

First of all, I consciously avoided keeping the rest of Pynchon's works in mind because I have the feeling that this novel is a bit different.


It is much more reader-friendly than his other books. Anyway, I have read a lot of German literature of the 18th century, but then, because Pynchon doesn’t imitate that century so much as evoke it, I tried to find a style that can do the same in German. Everything else was done in the name of clarity. The German language does not adapt well to this balance between historical flavor and modern language.

How does one achieve a parallel to this specific “sound”?

From the beginning, it was laborious work, but once you are sucked into the text, the brain gets into the right groove, and then it proceeds more conclusively and more convincingly. It was difficult, for instance, with the dialects. Dixon is from the north of England, and speaks like it. In German, that had to be dropped. At first, I tried some invented fantasy dialects, but that didn’t work. German dialects would have situated the action in places where they did not take place at all. People in translated work of Dickens, for instance, who speak with Viennese accents… that doesn’t work. On the other hand, again, important wordplays are lost.

In the book, the borders between fiction and historical fact are always porous. How big was the file of questions that you sent to Pynchon regarding places you could not verify perfectly?

Regarding astronomy and land surveying, I was amazed how closely Pynchon adhered to the facts. In those areas, good reference books were sufficient. But it went even further. For a few things that I thought must be fictitious, Pynchon wrote me back, no, they would have really happened. Even for Americans, the book offers very remote details that one would have to look up to understand everything.

On the other hand, the reader has a lot of moments where you say, “aha!” Pynchon is writing about modern inventions. The remarks on lead plates, for instance [Note: lead plates being buried are discussed on pages 285-7]: I thought, now this could be also be talking about computer disks. In other places, Pynchon again takes actual historical inventions to an extreme. The automatic duck by Vaucanson, which was real, although it could not overcome the force of gravity, naturally. And the clock that runs eternally, until it is swallowed by one of Dixon’s partners, alludes also to the fact that time, surveying, and astronomy were closely related.

Through which Pynchon also -- in several places, by the way -- anticipates modern understanding of the space-time-continuum or the search for a unified theory.

Right. The effort to accumulate all this knowledge and then bring it together in a single shape must have been considerable.

What was it like to engage in a dialogue with a phantom like Pynchon?

It didn’t matter to me whether he was a well-known writer or not. As with every book that’s harder to translate than usual, a translator develops a love-hate relationship with the text and its author. And I certainly find Pynchon to be very contradictory. The poems, for example, which interrupt the narrative again and again: I find they vary greatly in success, and are not always absolutely necessary. But they all need to be translated maintaining the rhythm and rhymes. That takes a good deal of time, but that’s how it goes, being a translator. 

Out of the countless thematic nodes that Pynchon ties together, what, to you, is the main theme of the book?

Before the translation, it was interesting to read what the rather helpless critics had come up with: it went from “The story of two men’s friendship” to “Analysis of slavery as a hereditary sin of modernity.” The crazy thing is, all of them are somehow right. For me, it’s difficult to say, but I think that Pynchon wanted to fasten the USA to a historical “zero point.” This is where it all began: philosophically, politically, socially.

Do you have any favorite scenes?

Well, I liked the duck scenes a lot. Or the scene where Mason is saved by his wife from a giant rolling cheese. The book is really a marvelous (every now and then very dark) love story.

Are you, as a translator, actually mentioned often in reviews?

Criticism of translation rarely happens. At most, there are a few corrections of mistakes, some things I erred in. In this case I exposed myself very much. We’ll see how much people pick up on it.

Additional Information

The road to German version of Mason & Dixon - An summary of the Der Standard interview and another article by Stingl that chronicled the problems of translating Pynchon's text.

Translating A Frolic of His Own - An essay by Stingl on the unique problems in translating Gaddis' novel.

--Erik Ketzan
24 July 2005