On Translating Thomas Bernhard’s The Cheap-Eaters — Douglas Robertson

The Cheap-Eaters (Die Billigesser in the original German), was written in 1978 and 1979 and published in 1980. It is the second substantial prose work — the first being the 1978-published Ja (Yes) — of Bernhard’s late period. This period is signalized by his specialization as a prose writer in very short book-length works: with the exception of the comparatively mammoth magnum opus Auslöschung (Extinction, which, though not published until 1986, was essentially complete by 1981), from 1978 until his death in 1989, Bernhard’s book-length prose works were all well under 200 pages in length — hence, not much longer than such self-avowed middle-period mere Erzählungen (i.e., novellas or long short stories) as Gehen (Walking) and Watten (Playing Watten). And yet each of these later short works seems at least to approach if not equal or even excel the long middle-period novels, Das Kalkwerk (The Lime-Works) and Korrektur (Correction) in point of sheer plenitude and variety of associations and evocations. Like many composers in their late periods (Arnold Schoenberg and Elliott Carter spring to mind as particularly apt examples), Bernhard seems in his late period to have discovered how to achieve the same results as in his middle period with a much-reduced gestural expenditure. 

In a diary entry penned immediately after his reading of the manuscript of The Cheap-Eaters, Bernhard’s publisher Siegfried Unseld wrote that in this work “he is once again varying his theme, the triumph of the mind over humanity’s crippledness.”  This is more or less on the mark, although it should be noted that in The Cheap-Eaters the crippledness is unprecedentedly accentuated by the featuring of an actual amputee as its central human figure. (Before The Cheap-Eaters Bernhard had confined amputees to the dramatis personae of his plays.)  The narrator’s friend Koller has his dog-bitten leg amputated and consequently finds his mind liberated from its narrow orientation towards the natural sciences, free to roam and consequently to rediscover and develop the largely discredited early-nineteenth century quasi-science of physiognomy, which cannot be assimilated to the clear-cut twentieth-century distinction between the natural and the social sciences. Most of the central characters of Bernhard’s prose works are monomaniacally interested as non-professional scholars or researchers in a single topic or domain of study, and in the case of most of them, the identity of the topic or domain is apparently wholly contingent, in that it is rarely even referred to, let alone expounded upon, in the central character’s reported discourse. From Concrete, for example, we learn that its central character Rudolf has made it his life’s work to pen the definitive biography of Felix Mendelssohn, but of Mendelssohn himself we can learn scarcely anything but his birth date and the date of the premiere of his notoriously famous violin concerto. 

Physiognomy in The Cheap-Eaters is obviously something at least slightly more substantial than such a ghost of a MacGuffin, inasmuch as the book’s eponymous cheap-eaters are both described by Koller as integral to his work in physiognomy and described at length by him in their own right. From the extensive use to which the cheap-eaters are put by Koller in his disclosures to the narrator, one can readily infer the prospective existence of a Koller-penned master-treatise on physiognomy in which each of the cheap-eaters would figure both as a cheap-eater and as an embodier of many other physiognomic types. One can infer such a physiognomy, but one cannot imagine it because Bernhard has short-circuited the possibility of such an imaginative act by rigorously refraining from supplying the bare-minimum precondition for it–namely, the slightest hint of verbal portraiture of the cheap-eaters’ faces. The unnamed narrator indeed reports to us that Koller claimed to have studied the faces of the cheap-eaters closely and to have gathered from this physiognomic study that the cheap-eaters had a specifically cheap-eaterly physiognomy, but he never tells us what sorts of facial features supposedly comprise a cheap-eaterly physiognomy, presumably because Koller himself has never divulged such details to him. (With presumably deliberately sadistic perverseness, Bernhard has the narrator reveal the height, body type, hair pattern, and eyewear-choice of a single cheap-eater, the bookdealer Goldschmidt, without so much as hinting at any of his specifically facial attributes—say, the color of his eyes or the shape of his nose.)  So beyond a certain point, physiognomy in The Cheap-Eaters does indeed become a typical Bernhardian hobby-horse, at least in the most literal register. But in a slightly less literal register, it is apparent that in The Cheap-Eaters as a whole Bernhard is presenting us with a physiognomy that however modest in scale is for all that a full-fledged physiognomy, a physiognomy of the city of Vienna in the early-to-mid-late twentieth century. By deftly intermingling the descriptions of the quirks and impedimenta of the book’s six characters (i.e., the cheap-eaters themselves plus Koller and the narrator) with geographically accurate names and coordinates, Bernhard gives us a palpably vivid sense, at least by Bernhardian standards, of what it was like to live in Vienna roughly a half-century ago. For in the early-to-mid-late twentieth-century each and every named entity in The Cheap-Eaters apart from its characters actually existed at the precise place and under the precise name specified therein. Most signally, there really was such a thing as the VPK, the Vienna Public Kitchen (or in the original German, the Wiener öffentliche Küchenbetriebsgesellschaft or WÖK). 

Like many composers in their late periods (Arnold Schoenberg and Elliott Carter spring to mind as particularly apt examples), Bernhard seems in his late period to have discovered how to achieve the same results as in his middle period with a much-reduced gestural expenditure.

The VPK started out as a network of charitably and then governmentally organized soup-kitchens immediately after the First World War, and by the post-World War II years it had evolved into a semi-autonomous chain of cafeteria or diner-like restaurants serving the general public a full menu of decent food at below-average prices. Bernhard himself frequented the VPK in the late 1950s, when, as he told an interviewer in 1979, “My aunt [i.e., his much older longtime companion Hedwig Stavianicek] gave me a daily allowance of a certain sum; I think at the time it was 10 schillings; 7.50 of those 10 I spent at the VPK…”. Whether knowingly or not, Bernhard started The Cheap-Eaters just soon enough to make it in part into an epitaph for the VPK, for in 1978 the chain was renamed another very long name not worth specifying here, whence it was gradually anonymously absorbed into the Austrian State’s bureau of tourism. The Casino Zögernitz, Koller’s erstwhile newspaper-reading place of first resort, opened in 1837 and was still in business as recently as three years ago, when I was working on the first draft of my translation and looked it up at the usual source, but is now closed. While its description in the book may make it seem to be a strangely misnamed dedicated coffeehouse with a mere garden-like annex, it was apparently actually a combination of casino and dance hall with a coffeehouse-like garden. In the Zögernitz’s early days, this garden hosted weekend concerts in which both Johann Strausses, I and II, played the violin. The zoo at the Schönbrunn Palace visited by Koller and Grill is of course world-famously real, and that it actually housed a Psittacus erithacus or African gray parrot seems very likely, given that in Bernhard’s 1978 play Immanuel Kant a bird of that species figures as the eponymous philosopher’s pet and sole confidant. Koller’s culinary bugbear and the narrator’s favorite sanctuary, the God’s Eye Restaurant, was sited about a mile due north of Koller’s VPK. At the time of its opening in the late 1890s it was apparently thedernier cri in fin de siècle culinary chic (a 1901 postcard shows a spacious loftily ceilinged dining room with an enormous chandelier and balustraded mezzanine), but the most recent piece of evidence of its continuing operation as a restaurant (for the name subsists in a student housing complex occupying its former premises) that I have been able to find, a 1960 museum-guide advertisement framed by sans-serif exclamations of Newly renovated!, Under new management!, Kitchen open till closing time!, and Open seven days a week!, suggests that it had fallen more than a few notches down in the world long before the presumptive date of Koller’s God’s Eye-sited last encounters with the narrator (and, indeed, hardly any time at all after Bernhard’s frequentation of the VPK). 

In the light of this decline in the restaurant’s fortunes since its late-Habsburg glory days, Bernhard’s explicit specification of the God’s Eye as an ethical and intellectual antipode to the VPK a mile up the road from it acquires a dialectical resonance. The very name the Gods Eye suggests pretensions to super-Orwellian and indeed divine omniscience that are absolutely antithetical to the unpretentious ethos of every-eye-for-its-merely-human-self implied by the name of the VPK and indeed realized in Koller’s immediate, non-judgmental embracement by the cheap-eaters.  The mere fact that the God’s Eye was called the Gods Eye in the first place suggests that at least in fin de siècle Vienna one went to a posh restaurant not so much in order to see and be seen by other people qua fellow-human beings as to subject oneself masochistically to the gaze of God himself, as embodied qua superego not only by one’s fellow-diners but also by the snooty waiting staff. But given that by the now of The Cheap-Eaters, the now of the mid-late twentieth century, this posh restaurant called the God’s Eye has long been desperately touting for clientele, its anthropocentric version of omniscience has become patently laughable and therefore potentially endearing in its powerlessness; such that Unseld’s observation in the above-quoted journal entry that “In contrast to [the cheap-eaters], the healthy and spiritually impoverished dine at a proper restaurant, the God’s Eye” would seem not to be strictly or entirely true: the God’s Eye may indeed be frequented by more visibly healthy people than the frequenters of the VPK, and Koller’s avoidance of the God’s Eye may indeed spring from an aversion to the visible healthiness of its clientele, but in a deeper sense both the God’s Eye and the VPK seem to be haunts of the unhealthy and indeed of the moribund, in that each of them is a soon-to-be defunct holdover of a more illustrious period of Austrian history: the dazzling sunset of the Hapsburg Era in the case of the God’s Eye, and the prospectively socialistic-utopian inception of the first republic in the case of the VPK. The cheap-eater Weninger’s never-ending source of amusement at the Prater, the punching-doll (Watschenmann) was a life-sized mannequin of the sort of belligerent oversized yob who can and will beat the living tar out of the average-sized person for looking at him sideways. Above his head there was affixed the sort of dial one still sees attached to certain old-school analogue weighing-scales. The punter would punch the doll, and he would let out a kind of chattering groan, and the needle on the dial would record the level of punterly strength (flyweight, bruiser, etc.) supposedly evinced by the force of the blow. I read the inclusion of the punching-doll as something of a slight qualification of Bernhard’s general dismissal of Austria as a country quasi-congenitally disposed to the breeding of Nazis, inasmuch as there is something inherently if pathetically anti-Nazistic about taking an unrecriminated swing at a mock-up of a figure who in the actual world would not have submitted so quiescently to such material opposition from a physical inferior. I call the punching-doll’s inclusion a mere slight qualification in the light of its specification as an object of abuse specifically of Weninger, a man who has essentially made an entire career out of tax-evasion, out of dodging and thwarting the Austrian State’s implacable and generally successful efforts to get its supposed own; such that in the end Bernhard would still have us believe as per usual that the post-WWII Austrian State has effectively inherited the mantle of its Nazi-run predecessor.

All told, The Cheap-Eaters must be regarded as the most fundamentally Viennese of all of Bernhard’s book-length prose works. At first blush, Holzfällen (Woodcutters or Cutting Timber) may seem worthier of this title inasmuch as it provides a more fine-grained delineation of a specific Viennese milieu. (As for Old Masters, the only other even technically plausible contender, while its central personage is a Vienna resident and its central geographical point of geographical reference is a Viennese site, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, it reserves the best part of its spleen and ideation for less localized targets—e.g., Stifter and Heidegger.)  But it must be remembered that throughout Woodcutters the narrator is at great pains to emphasize that the milieu he is delineating is composed entirely of epigones, of artistic types who are feebly aping the mannerisms of more illustrious artistic circles of other places and earlier periods, that they are indeed quintessentially late-twentieth century Viennese, but that this is because to be an artist in late-twentieth century Vienna consists in trying to persuade oneself and one’s fellow-artists that one is the reincarnation of Gertrude Stein or Anton Webern, rather than in producing work that is somehow particularly characteristic of Vienna in the late twentieth century. (Incidentally, these epigones are to be stridently distinguished from the frequenters of the God’s Eye as described above in being not merely moribund residual holdovers of bygone days but positively thriving pseudo-resuscitators thereof.) 

The Cheap-Eaters by salutary contrast presents us with a collection of figures who are perhaps most saliently late-twentieth century Viennese precisely because they do not collectively constitute anything like a milieu: like the guests at the artistic dinner in Woodcutters they convene to dine, but their convention does not arise from any shared set of aims and interests apart from the desire to eat cheaply. Not one of the cheap-eaters is an artist, and each of them is engaged in a line of work that never brings him into contact with any of the others.  The most specific reasonably accurate meta-demographic observation that can be made about the cheap-eaters en bloc is that they are all men and that they all hail from a decidedly lower social stratum than that occupied by the attendees of the artistic dinner in Woodcutters, that they are all broadly speaking lower-middle class in origin and destiny. This observation deserves special emphasis inasmuch as Bernhard’s detractors are all too fond of stigmatizing him as not only an elitist (an accusation that is valid enough, to the disputable extent to which being an elitist, a prizer of who and what is best, is eo ipso reprehensible) but also as a would-be restorationist, a fetishist of the old Hapsburg monarchy and its attendant aristocratic hierarchy of fürsts, grafs, and so on. The Cheap-Eaters makes it abundantly clear Bernhard was no such reflexive laudator temporis acti, and does so not only implicitly via its description of the humble life-circumstances of the cheap-eaters but also explicitly via the passage in which Koller states that when the university lecturer Einzig had tried to pull rank on the remaining three cheap-eaters on the grounds of his sporting of the aristocratic “von” particle before his surname, those others had summarily “abolished his monarchy,” and via the mini-diatribe in which Koller is reported to have declared that “everybody… even those who struggled against these masses and hence against feeblemindedness, ultimately hailed from these masses, and it was only logical and natural at the same time that they were gobbled back up by these masses.” 

From these passages we can glean Bernhard’s true and complete stance on this question, namely that while to live authentically in the present may indeed require transforming oneself into a kind of aristocrat; the starting point of such a transformation must always be a realization that regardless of one’s nominal social position one is a member of a decidedly post-aristocratically governed mass society, and hence that from the point of view of that society one is always effectively interchangeable with every other person who contributes to (or detracts from) its constitution and subsistence, and that accordingly one’s aristocratic status is always destined to remain an entirely private affair. According to The Cheap-Eaters, the only feasible means and site of such a transformation of oneself into a private latter-day aristocrat is self-evidently the mind, and the transformation itself is consubstantial with the triumph of the mind remarked on by Unseld, in whose original German the word that I have rendered as mind is Geist. Geist triumphs in The Cheap-Eaters in more than a thematic sense, and indeed in quite a graphically literal sense, in that in this book the word Geist, either on its own or in various nominal or adjectival derivatives, occurs with greater frequency and insistence than in perhaps any other of Bernhard’s works. Regrettably in this translation it has not been possible to preserve this Geist-fulness in its entirety because no single English word covers all the senses of geistig. On a very few occasions I have managed to employ the semi-comparably echoic mental, but in most cases the only word that has turned out to be an adequate denotative match is intellectual, which regrettably looks nothing like mind and contains two more syllables than geistig. The indispensability of intellectual here is even more ardently to be repined at because Bernhard held intellectuals, the twentieth century’s quasi-officially appointed champions of intellect, in utter abhorrence, to the extent of once asserting in an interview, “These so-called intellectuals [Intellektuelen] are some of the biggest assholes.” To be sure, in another interview he made satirical mincemeat of the entire notion of Geist, but in such a playfully high-spirited manner as to convey a palpable sense that Geist was in his view at least a much more loveable if not necessarily any more noble concept than Intellekt

To live authentically in the present may indeed require transforming oneself into a kind of aristocrat.

In any case there is really no way around using intellectual in Englishing the majority of the occurrences of geistig in The Cheap-Eaters, because these occurrences have to do with the mind specifically as an agent of active, reflective thought engaging with the thoughts of other people, and in particularly the thoughts of writers in a specifically urban setting, and intellectual is the most well-established and enduring English means of describing the mind in such a way, as one is reminded when, for example, one finds Samuel Johnson saying in the late eighteenth century, “You find no man at all intellectual who is willing to leave London.” My only other translational choice that risks contravening at least the letter of Bernhard’s ethos centers on the constellation of words associated with the act of walking, an act of enormous importance to Bernhard in both his work and in his life. As I mentioned in the second sentence of this afterword, there is a novella by Bernhard known in English as Walking and entitled Gehen in the original German. Gehen (a gerund, like Walking) and its derivatives do not turn up very often in The Cheap-Eaters, and yet the act of walking is obviously very nearly as pivotally significant in the Cheap-Eaters as in Walking itself, but its significance is mainly conveyed via a plain noun, Weg, that can indeed denote a walk, in the sense of the usual route one takes when on foot but that is not specifically associated with pedestrian travel, such that it is best rendered by words other than walk even when the travel in question is foot-powered, provided that it is not the pedestrianness of the movement that is to be foregrounded. Thus whereas in the context of the first sentence of the book, wherein Koller is said to have been taking the same Weg for weeks, walk is the most natural rendering, in the context of the second sentence, wherein Koller is said to have alighted on a Weg that diverts him from one of his usual landmarks, the English word most precisely denoting the diversionary Weg is probably path. In translating the typical German-language writer one might unhesitatingly use walk in one’s version of a certain sentence and path in one’s version of the very next sentence, but in the light of the centrality of vocablic repetition to Bernhard’s works it seems to me best to sacrifice a soupcon of semantic precision by following the lead of the first sentence and sticking to walk in the second and subsequent sentences. 

A remark on my treatment of punctuation is perhaps not amiss, inasmuch as it seems to differ from that of most of Bernhard’s other Englishers. Bernhard punctuates almost solely by means of the comma and the full stop or period; semicolons are rare and dashes rarer still (the original of the The Cheap-Eaters contains exactly one of each mark). Other translators tend to treat this punctuational parsimony as an autochthonous stylistic quirk and to reproduce it religiously. But the perhaps disillusioning truth is that if a lack of affection for semicolons and dashes were enough to distinguish a writer as a master stylist on the level of Bernhard then every German, Austrian, etc. secondary school pupil with high marks in prose composition would have to be regarded as such a master stylist inasmuch there is no such thing as a comma-splice in modern standard German; in other words, shocking though it may seem to a punctilious English-speaking writer, in modern standard German, one is permitted to concatenate freestanding sentence-like constructions with commas alone, with commas not followed by conjunctions. Such being the case, it seems to me that the Englisher of any modern standard German text is not only permitted but duty-bound to substitute a semicolon for a comma whenever modern standard English usage requires such a substitution. It further seems to me that in the absence of such substitution, the translated text is bound to be semi-incomprehensible by the Anglophone reader, who has been unaccustomed to dealing with comma splices since infancy, just as every modern Occidental reader, even the professional classicist, has a difficult time with surviving manuscripts from antiquity, which do not even indulge the reader’s patience to the extent of separating words from one another via spacing. Dashes are an entirely different matter because even in English their use is always entirely discretionary: in English one never uses a dash by default as a consequence of employing a certain grammatical construction but either as a means of singling out a certain cluster of words for special emphasis or for separating certain for clarity’s sake. As Bernhard has his own sufficiently eloquent favorite device for imparting special emphasis—namely, italics — I have refrained from using dashes in this way and employed it in the second way only when clarity is not merely enhanced by their inclusion but would be all but destroyed by their exclusion. The very long first sentence in this version contains an example of such a use of dashes.

In objection to my punctuational policy it will doubtless be objected that earlier Bernhard English translations have been comprehensible enough despite bristling with comma-splices; and this is certainly true, but from what I hear tell from a reasonably reliable source, this comprehensibility has been purchased at the high cost of breaking up Bernhard’s gloriously serpentine long sentences into more Anglophone-friendly shorter sentences; and however guilty I may indeed be of punctuationally pacing Bernhard’s headlong prosodic gallop, I can at least boast in good faith that I have left each and every one of his sentences intact — i.e., that the number of full-stops or periods in my translation does not even ever-so-slightly exceed that in the original. And only occasionally have I been obliged for minimum intelligibility’s sake to introduce a bit of English for which there is no corresponding bit of German — for example, in the spelling out of the referents of non-naturally gender-coded pronouns. Last if perhaps also least, I should mention that on the untranslatability front the absence of semicolons in the original is more than adequately counterbalanced by the ubiquity therein of the subjunctive mood, a grammatical mood necessitated in the German by the fact that everything said by Koller is being reported to us by the narrator. Of course even in translation this periscopic (so W.G. Sebald termed it) quality of the narrative perspective becomes evident thanks to the frequent interjections of “so said Koller,” but in the German it is evident from the very start and remorselessly driven home at every moment along the way thanks to certain telltale markings of certain inflections of the helping-verbs haben and sein. There are, to be sure, effective ways of conveying the periscopic subjunctive in English despite our language’s absence of such markings, the chief one being the insertion of a he said or she said-implying that at the beginning of every sentence in this mood, but in passages of more than a few sentences in length, such insertions quickly become irksome obtrusions, and in dealing with a work many thousands of words long like The Cheap-Eaters they are manifestly infeasible. I am making such an elaborate song-and-dance about the subjunctive mood in the The Cheap-Eaters only because in contrast to certain of Bernhard’s prose works (e.g., Extinction) in which the narrator’s presence is perfunctory almost to the point of nonexistence, and in which accordingly the central character’s point of view can be regarded as the epistemologically central one, the least unreliable one, in The Cheap-Eaters the narrator says a fair amount in his own voice, and consequently in the indicative mood, a fair amount that is however only intermittently at odds with what Koller (according to the narrator) says about many of the same objects of discourse, such that in the absence of constant markers of the subjunctive mood (as opposed to intermittent ones of the so said variety) it is rather easy to be misled into supposing that one is dealing with a univocal, quasi-objective (i.e., Gods-eyeesque) representation of things. 

While the above list of compromises, distortions, and omissions is certainly far from exhaustive, and while my translator’s conscience would certainly be eased by making it so, I prefer to extend it no further, not so much for the sake of the reader’s patience as of The Cheap-Eaters’ brevity. The old Italian proverb that every translator is a traitor is undoubtedly true, but it must be considered that the only effective means by which a translator can mitigate his treachery is by explanatory annotation, that every such annotation draws the reader’s attention away from the author and towards the translator, and that in in any adequately annotated translation of a short work of any complexity, the notes are bound to exceed the length of the text itself, so that the published book turns out to be less a translation than a translator-authored commentary on the work. This may be all fine and well and indeed desirable in the umpteenth English translation of, say, one of the slimmer Balzac novels, but in only the second English translation of such a complex short work as The Cheap-Eaters, it could not but constitute a betrayal in its own right.

Thomas Bernhard was one of the most important and unique writers of the twentieth century. Born in 1931, Bernhard published numerous novels and autobiographical writings, including The Loser and Extinction, as well as short stories, plays, and poetry. Many of his prose works feature complex narrative structures and obsessive, misanthropic monologues. After years of chronic lung illness, Bernhard died in Austria in 1989.

Douglas Robertson is a translator based in Baltimore, Maryland. He studied British and American Literature at the New College of Florida and Johns Hopkins University. He has translated works from German into English by authors including E. T. A. Hoffmann, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Christian Morgenstern, Novalis, and Ludwig Tieck, and he has studied Thomas Bernhard’s work for over ten years. Twitter: @shirtysleeves.

Bios courtesy of Spurl Editions.