This month, we are celebrating the 110th anniversary of the birth of William S. Burroughs. Yesterday, we had an interview with Farid Ghadami, who has translated some of Burroughs’ work into Persian, and today we are speaking with Udo Breger, who has translated Burroughs into German.

william s burroughs and udo breger, 1992
William S. Burroughs and Udo Breger at 1927 Learnard Avenue in Lawrence, Kansas. March 19th, 1992. Photo © Allen Ginsberg. Used with permission.

Could you tell our readers a little bit about the history of Burroughs translations in Germany and what works of his you have translated?

When first stumbling upon Naked Lunch in a Göttingen, Germany, bookshop, I had the impression that my knowledge of the English language was much poorer than I thought. This was in 1969, ten years after its first publication, I was a language student, had been a number of times in England, and had read, until then, only one American author in the original: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and The Dharma Bums, which, without then having been to the US, was difficult enough but possible. With Burroughs it was different: his fragmentary style, the addict’s lingo, unknown erotic practices, the gay universe, all these were rather strange topics. But I kept at it and by and by came to develop a fascination for the book as well as for its author. As far as the first Naked Lunch translation in 1962 is concerned, the rather courageous translators, Katharine and Peter Behrens, couldn’t do better than leaving a number of passages untranslated!

Burroughs eventually found his excellent German voice with the late Carl Weissner who retranslated all of Burroughs’ titles published in German so far, and with Zweitausendeins Verlag found a publisher who did five beautiful volumes of bibliophile WSB editions, before deciding otherwise.

As to my translating Burroughs it’s only a small number of titles and doesn’t really describe the connection we had since our first encounter, along with Brion Gysin, in 8 Duke Street (St. James’s), London, on an icy cold Sunday afternoon in January 1972. I was thirty then. As translator I did The Retreat Diaries, The Book of Breeething, Blade Runner, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and parts of The Electronic Revolution, which was revised and integrated in his translation by Carl Weissner. Then, together with my then-wife, I translated The Cat Inside and Barry Miles’ first biography William Burroughs, El Hombre Invisible and Victor Bockris’ Report from the Bunker.

Burroughs’ work is often considered “difficult” by readers in the English-speaking world. Has that caused you any problems translating it into German?

Well, translating WSB often enough was “difficult” but, once having merged into the author’s universe it also always was “possible”, the sticking point being all that jazz of the US American idiom, to catch the right sound within our so very different, like Prussian-tinted tongue. There I’m especially thinking about those two rehearsal blocks of Bob Wilson’s Freischütz version, The Black Rider or The Casting of the Magic Bullets, which he did with WSB as librettist and with Tom Waits delivering the music. I truly was a bit envious when he told us that he had read Naked Lunch at the age of thirteen. This was for Thalia Theater in Hamburg in September 1989 and spring 1990, opening on March 31. My assignment was that of a translator on the spot, i.e. to put last-minute changes in WSB’s manuscript into German, mostly overnight, to be fetched in early mornings by couriers to be worked into Wilson’s script.

I’ve heard that Burroughs is quite popular in Germany. Do you think that’s true, and if so, why?

Yes, Burroughs is quite popular in Germany as well as in other European countries, where he actually is still a myth, el hombre invisible. Why that is so, I wouldn’t be able to explain. As to my personal experience, I would repeat what the late John Giorno said on the occasion of his closing performance of the WSB exhibition at ZKM Karlsruhe in 2012, The Name is Burroughs, co-curated by myself along with Peter Weibel and Axel Heil: “Just to be with them [WSB and Gysin] is kind of special!” And we have been together in many a place, from London to Paris, Berlin and New York, Frankfurt and Basel, and finally in Lawrence, Kansas.

In Beatdom #22, one of our writers explained that translations of Kerouac’s books to German were quite poorly done but that later, when Bukowski and Burroughs were translated by Carl Weissner, there was a sort of shift, wherein a language found that could accommodate the Beat spirit. Would you agree with that?

As far as translations of Kerouac in Germany go, it’s been a catastrophe, those who had an idea of the originals wouldn’t recognize what the then German publishers dared to offer their readers. Maybe, and hopefully, this has changed over the years, though I haven’t really followed this.

Is there any of Burroughs’ work that has not been translated into German but which you think should be translated in future?

Thinking of what should be translated out of the Burroughs treasure chest, I’d suggest a collection of shorter texts like The Adding Machine, which offers quite another, for many a “new” William S. Burroughs.