Dalkey Archive Press Publisher Sir John O’Brien and translator John E. Woods love a good challenge, and they certainly had one on their hands with “Bottom’s Dream.”
Published in 1970 by German author Arno Schmidt, the original book weighed 17 pounds and was considered nearly untranslatable.
O’Brien will discuss the decades-long process of translating “Bottom’s Dream” during the UHV/American Book Review Fall Reading Series and the challenges of reading the sprawling text.
The event will begin at noon Nov. 3 in the UHV University West Alcorn Auditorium, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St.
It is free and open to the public.
“Written in three columns and published only as a facsimile of an idiosyncratic typography designed by the author, the ‘Dream’ represents the ultimate but untranslatable challenge to any translator,” wrote Jeremy Adler, a professor of German at King’s College in London in a 1995 book column published in the New York Times.
On Sept. 23, Dalkey Archive Press, which is housed at UHV, released the 1,496-page, 1.32-million-word version of “Bottom’s Dream” translated by Woods into English. The book is 13.75 inches long, 10 inches wide and 3.5 inches thick. It weighs as much as a bowling ball, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal on Sept. 23.
“For at least three years, I have received emails from Schmidt’s fans, who became more and more anxious about the publication,” O’Brien said. “Given the book’s intimidating size and content, the pre-publication has been rather astounding, which suggests that there is a hardcore body of readers out there who are deeply engaged in challenging literature. Many of these readers are young people.”
Schmidt’s book is a journey into many literary worlds. The sprawling novel about a brief period, from 4 a.m. to early the next morning, outwardly is centered on a discussion of Edgar Allan Poe.
O’Brien said he thinks Woods has been working on the translation ever since the two met 25 years ago. Woods also typeset the entire book himself.
Woods won the 1981 American Book Award and PEN award for his translation of Schmidt’s “Evening Edged in Gold.” He also is the translator of Schmidt’s “Collected Novellas,” “Two Novels: The Stony Heart and B/Moondocks,” “Collected Stories” and “Nobodaddy’s Children.”
Woods originally was scheduled to make the trip from Germany for the ABR Reading Series, but because he is unable to do so, O’Brien will present in his place.
In 1980, O’Brien started The Review of Contemporary Fiction journal to give critical attention to many of the great overlooked writers of the late 20th century. It led to the creation of Dalkey Archive Press, which has published more than 750 books of fiction and poetry during the past three decades.
O’Brien devoted an early issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction to Schmidt, who at the time was unknown in the U.S.
“I did the issue because Schmidt is the kind of writer who we promote, a daring writer who has little chance of breaking through to a large, popular audience,” O’Brien said. “In other words, he is a writer who has to be recognized regardless of marketplace value.”
A few years later, O’Brien was approached by the Arno Schmidt Foundation to translate four large volumes of Schmidt’s work.
“We jumped at the opportunity,” O’Brien said. “We did those books, which remain in print and quite active after more than 20 years. When Woods was finishing up the translation, there was a general understanding that Dalkey would be the publisher for ‘Bottom’s Dream.'”
At the Nov. 3 reading, O’Brien will talk about “The Art of the Difficult.”
“Of course reading this book is a challenge, but so is chess, as far as I’m concerned,” O’Brien said. “Can’t the chess people make the game easier? I suppose they could, but then they’d sap the joy out of the game for those who have learned to play it.”
O’Brien has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle, the Carey-Thomas Publishers Weekly Publisher of the Year Award and the National Service Award from the Republic of South Korea. He also was the 2015 recipient of the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de la République Française, a French award that recognizes artists and writers who have contributed to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world.
In 2015, O’Brien was named a knight in the French Ordre des Arts et Lettres by Jean-Pierre Thebault, France’s ambassador to Ireland.
“The translation and publication of ‘Bottom’s Dream’ is fascinating,” said Jeffrey Di Leo, dean of the UHV School of Arts & Sciences and ABR editor and publisher. “It’s mind-blowing to think of all that work involved in bringing this project to fruition. I’m delighted Sir John has agreed to share the story about the book with our students and community members.”
ABR is published six times a year. It began in 1977, moved to UHV in 2007 and has a circulation of about 8,000. The journal specializes in reviews of works published by small presses.
For more information about the UHV/ABR Reading Series, call the ABR office at 361-570-4101 or go to americanbookreview.org.