Book Fate

by Nancy Allison

Transitions

If anyone can attest to the hoodoo of books, their power to come out of nowhere and whap you upside your life, it’s Jake Schneider ’10. He recalls interviewing as a first-year for SLC professor Jeffrey McDaniel’s poetry class: “I was quaking in my socks,” he says.

It was a wintry spring day in Berlin, and we’d blown into the nearest warm place on Alexanderplatz that wasn’t a McDonald’s.

“Professor McDaniel was a bit of an idol,” he explains, as a young blonde in a dirndl brings our goulash and fries. “I really, really wanted to study with him.”

The din of beer steins clonking the tabletops drowns out his voice for a second, but back in McDaniel’s office, 18-year-old Schneider was nervously burbling on. When he mentioned that he spoke German, McDaniel went to his shelf and handed him a book by prize-winning German poet and editor, Ron Winkler.

“This was written by my translator,” he told Schneider. “Think you could tell me what it says?”

By then, Schneider had been studying German for six years, the same amount of time he’d devoted himself to poetry. Becoming bilingual seemed a rite of passage in his family. As a kid, he watched, amazed, as his mother, a translator of Japanese, deciphered faxes of blurry kanji. His father, a musician and conductor, traveled often to Germany, and his stepmother, a professional singer, sang auf Deutsch.

“I guess I felt by learning German I could join in,” he says.

So Schneider took the book from McDaniel and translated Winkler’s poem—badly, he says in hindsight. It didn’t matter. As the book gods nodded in approval, McDaniel put Schneider in touch with Winkler, who lives in Berlin.

During the next four years, Schneider translated several of Winkler’s poems, which appeared in Boston Review, Atlanta Review, Chicago Review, and on various literary Web sites. Winkler’s poetry—dense with puns, invented words, and unexpected curves—is notoriously difficult. But Schneider has always loved the tricks and trills of language, both in his native and adopted tongues. Relying on his inner ear, repeating lines over and over again, he finds the poem’s pulse.

“You can’t preserve the exact sounds of the words,” he explains, “but over time you can find a way to express the thought in the right rhythm, so that the [translated] poem accelerates and slows down when it’s supposed to.”

The likely next step for someone with Schneider’s talent would have been graduate school, but he decided that after graduation, he would move to Shelter Island and apprentice as an organic farmer.

Huh?

“It’s a pretty Sarah Lawrence thing to do,” he says with a laugh. After a trial week “trapped” on the island, however, he realized that working the soil by day and digging poems by night was a lovely dream for someone—just not him.

Feeling adrift after graduation, he went to Israel to visit his mother. While there, the book gods (and possibly his mom) binged him on the head, and he applied for a Literature Translation Fellowship with the National Endowment for the Arts. In July 2011, Schneider had nearly forgotten about the grant when he heard the NEA had awarded him $12,500 to translate Winkler’s second book of poems. High fives up in heaven! Six months later, he moved to Berlin. Winkler met his plane.

A month after our chat in the beer hall, I call to check up on him. In May 2012, after only five months in Germany, Schneider completed his translation of Winkler’s Fragmented Waters and landed a job. He’s biking with a friend when I phone, celebrating his first week of work at a small translation firm. For the foreseeable future, Berlin—a city that’s easy to love—is home.

“I’ve started preparing the book proposal for Fragmented Waters to send to American publishers,” he says, a little out of breath. He mentions one particular press that he really hopes will want the book. So I ask him to say it again, just in case the book fates are still listening.

Nancy Allison is a freelance writing living in Munich.