Witriol’s Travails: Heine Fine, Cicero No

For my father, Joseph Witriol, literary translation was more than a means to supplement his teacher’s salary. It was – perhaps primarily –  something he enjoyed doing. He also, I believe, wanted to have a permanent literary memorial. He claimed that he did not have sufficient talent to write a book, but at least articles and reviews – and more so published book translations – would be his legacy.

His translation of Max Brod’s biography of Heinrich Heine was published in 1956, the centenary of the poet’s death. The bibliography includes this essay by Joseph Witriol.

It seems dad may have set the ball rolling. He had written to the biographer in 1954 asking to be appointed the sole authorised translator –

Jospeh Witriol to Max Brod: Offer to translate

Rights request

and had a reply, in German, from Tel Aviv a week later –

Reply from Max Brod to Joseph Witriol 31.8.54

Brod’s reply

This was the start of a relatively complex process involving both the technical and artistic aspects of translation as well as what my father in one letter to Max Brod called the “sordid financial” details of securing a contract. But at least the English translation was published and in time for the centenary and without the involvement of middlemen.

However, Joseph Witriol’s attempts to publish Poor Cicero failed. Certainly not for want of trying over many years. The same laborious process of writing to Max Brod in Israel with detailed textual queries –

Poor Cicero: Joseph Witriol's airmail queries 14.4.57 p1

Witriol’s queries

Poor Cicero: translator's airmail queries 14.4.57 p2

Text queries p2

The same negotiations, but now more convoluted as literary agents were involved. The first of whom was also working around this time on foreign rights for a well-known British writer –

Letter from Peter Janson-Smith to Joseph Witriol 1957

Agent’s letter 1957

The agent would have had the completed typescript, in three bound parts and running to about 100 000 words, to lug around or post –

Max Brod's Poor Cicero: the typescript

The typescript

And would have been aware, if not had sight of, this publisher’s copy of the German original with its tipped-in and apparently amended rights statement –

Max Brod's Armer Cicero: The title page of dad's copy showing an amended rights label

The title page

Unlike that first agent, who acted as my father’s agent for several years, some just gave suggestions –

Letter from Christopher Mann 1966

Agent’s letter 1966

while others seemed more involved and, shall we say, gung-ho about the project –

Letter from Laurence Templeton 1968

Agent’s letter 1968

till the final attempt – based on the papers I have – a few years later, sent  to a well-known agent –

Letter to Deborah Rogers 1973

Letter to agent 1973

I believe a colleague from Hasmonean, E J Frank, by then retired in Israel, was also involved in some way – if only as a “courier” of the typescript.

So, more than fifty years after my father translated Armer Cicero, if you want to be able to read Max Brod’s Roman Roman (sorry)  in English, do let me know…


11 thoughts on “Witriol’s Travails: Heine Fine, Cicero No

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