Elias Canetti’s childhood was shaped by language: it became his lifelong passion. Born in Bulgaria in 1905, his native tongue was Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish, a form of medieval Spanish spoken by Sephardi Jews. When he was six the Canettis moved to Manchester, where the young Elias learned English. Two years later his father died suddenly and his mother took her sons back to the continent, where they lived first in Vienna, then in Zurich and Frankfurt. In his memoir THE TONGUE SET FREE: REMEMBRANCE OF A EUROPEAN CHILDHOOD, Canetti describes his imperious mother forcing him to learn perfect German, aged eight, in just three months:
She read a German sentence to me and had me repeat it. Disliking my accent, she made me repeat the sentence several times, until it struck her as tolerable. But this didn’t occur often, for she derided me for my accent, and since I couldn’t stand her derision for anything in the world, I made an effort and soon pronounced the sentence correctly. Only then did she tell me what the sentence meant in English. But this she never repeated, I had to note it instantly and for all time. […] I don’t know how many sentences she expected to drill me in the first time; let us conservatively say a few, I fear it was many. She let me go, saying: ‘Repeat it all to yourself. You must not forget a single sentence. Not a single one. Tomorrow, we shall continue.’ She kept the book, and I was left to myself, perplexed.
THE TONGUE SET FREE is the first book of Canetti’s three-volume autobiography. It was translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel and published in English in 1979, followed in 1982 by THE TORCH IN MY EAR, and in 1986 by THE PLAY OF THE EYES, this last translated by Ralph Manheim. Together they constitute a remarkable memoir, vividly and beautifully written, engaging in its candour and directness. The later books paint a lively picture of 1920s and ’30s literary Vienna, city of intellectuals and coffee houses, under the lengthening shadow of fascism. Canetti, who gained a degree in chemistry, escaped Vienna in 1938 for London, where he lived for many years. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981 for his literary oeuvre spanning non-fiction, essays, plays, and one novel.
Canetti’s translator, Joachim Neugroschel, was also multilingual. Born in Vienna, the son of a Galician Yiddish poet, his parents fled the Nazis when he was a baby and Neugroschel grew up in New York City. He was an editor and publisher, and translated more than 200 books from French, German, Italian, Russian, and Yiddish, which he taught himself as an adult. Here he is in an entertaining interview, which includes the following exchange:
Interviewer: What if Kafka was around today and he knew English, what would he think of your translation of METAMORPHOSIS?
Neugroschel: He would find it excellent. I’ve captured the flavour and the quivering of his voice. He would be very grateful to me.