How the mistakes and missteps of two men, one nearly 60 years old and the other 30, contributed to — or even caused — the English language debut of one of the most renowned and powerful German writers in recent history to be delayed by a quarter of a century:
In the fall of 1989 I was a student at the University of Texas at Austin working on a Master of Arts in Germanic Languages. That semester the German department sponsored an East German writer-in-residence named Uwe Kolbe. He was a noted poet writing works critical of the East German police state. I was looking for a German writer who hadn’t been translated into English and asked Uwe which German author came to mind who might be one of the most important authors currently living. Without a moment’s hesitation he said “Wolfgang Hilbig”. And then he pointed out in particular Wolfgang Hilbig’s novel Die Weiber.
I got a copy of the book from the German department library — and was stunned as I started to read it.
It was obvious that Wolfgang Hilbig was already a very important German writer. I decided without even finishing the book that I had found the subject of my Master’s thesis.
At that time Professor Leslie Willson had been publishing Dimension (a magazine focusing on translating poetry and prose from German into English). I asked him if there was any translation work I might do. Leslie was very friendly toward me and assigned me several translations for an upcoming issue of Dimension that focused on the German publisher Eremiten-Presse. I was thrilled and went to work on the translations; they were subsequently published in issue 18/3. Leslie also asked me to do some translations for the book Dimensions: Leslie Willson & Contemporary German Arts and Letters. I thought he would be just the right professor to mentor my translation of Wolfgang Hilbig’s novel.
A fellow student working on her PhD at that time perked up immediately when I told her I was thinking of asking him to oversee my thesis. “You need to watch out,” she said. Then she recited a number of hush-hush incidents involving male undergraduate students he had been involved with. I brushed that aside: Gay, lesbian, straight, trans — that was all cool — and it didn’t bother me in the slightest if Professor Willson was not straight.
In any case Professor Willson agreed to supervise my translation of Die Weiber. In my own copy of Hilbig’s book I wrote on the front page in pencil:
First draft finished
July 8th 1990
Near that date I was in Taos New Mexico teaching at a German immersion program that UT sponsored. Since I had no car at that time I had popped into my professor’s office and asked if I could catch a ride up there with him.
His response was drawn out and vaguely lewd: “Are you asking me for a ride?”
At that time the phrase I gave him / her a ride was a commonplace term meaning you’d had sex with someone. If you asked someone for a ride, well …
My decision to “ride” with Professor Willson up to Taos had consequences that I believe led to the English debut of Wolfgang Hilbig being delayed by two and a half decades; in fact Isabel Fargo Cole’s translations of the novels “I” and Sleep of the Righteous weren’t published until 2015.
My trip to Taos with Leslie Willson was awful.
Leslie began to realize that I was essentially a rough talking “pogue” from Port Aransas, Texas, with sensibilities he must have likened to that of a brute. Leslie was an old-school WWII veteran gentleman born in 1923. In his culture it was absolute taboo to talk openly about homosexuality or bisexuality, trans, cross-dressing — lesbianism. He constantly had a cigarette in his mouth. Smoke filled the car. His favorite radio show was Prairie Home Companion, a show which I disliked intensely and would turn off if it came on the radio in my own car. But this was his car, my ride.
Back then it was a 2 day trip to Taos from Austin if you drove slow enough. At the hotel lobby in Amarillo where we had stopped for the night he turned to me and demurely said “I hope you don’t mind sharing a room — it saves money.”
There are times when the word “no” is your friend, and that was one of those times. But I didn’t say it.
Things got frosty on day two as that previous night I had to very firmly decline an unmistakable offer to share his bed. In the car no words were spoken. I hadn’t slept at all. I turned away from him, stared out the window at the desert landscape sliding mutely past at 55 miles per hour. It took at least 3 full packs of cigarettes to reach Taos.
But soon after we arrived all that was forgotten — at least as far as I was concerned. I hit it off with Christoph Buch, who was there as writer-in-residence, and the summer camp German courses were a lot of fun to teach.
After the Taos summer program ended, I went by Leslie’s office back in Austin to get some feedback about my translation of Die Weiber. I was about to go to Berlin for a year-long exchange program. I was really excited and wanted to be able to improve the translation while I was in Germany.
He had nothing to say about that. Instead, he looked at me sternly.
“I’ve written you off,” he said.
Even a brute like myself could see that something bad was happening. I twisted what he said into some kind of glib reply, but he doubled down: “No, Skip, you don’t understand. I have written you off.”
He stared at me and said nothing more, so I left.
Leslie absolutely followed through on the matter of me being written off: I was in practice banned from contributing to his magazine Dimension. During my thesis defense in his office in the fall of 1991 he refused to even talk about Wolfgang Hilbig or Die Weiber, and instead focused the discussion on Günter Grass, who he was friends with. When I apologized that I had focused on Wolfgang Hilbig, Die Weiber, and translation theory and couldn’t comment much on Grass’ work, Leslie just stared at me. It was apparent that he hadn’t read my thesis, the translation of Die Weiber, nor Hilbig’s German original. It was equally apparent that an excerpt of Die Weiber would not be appearing in Dimension or that he would in any way try to promote my translation of Hilbig’s work to other publishers he knew.
After graduating I was angry and frustrated. Professor Willson had introduced me to academic sexual harassment fifteen years before the concept of Me Too was coined in 2006 by Tarana Burke. Professor Willson helped a lot of students on to fine careers … but not all of them. I couldn’t untangle his sexual advance and my rejection of it from the negative outcome of my thesis work. The first English translation of one of Wolfgang Hilbig’s important works should not have disappeared into the depths of a research library.
Over the years I got busy with many other things. Though I sometimes considered trying to find a publisher for my translation, every time I began ruminating about it, I thought how much influence Professor Willson had regarding German arts and letters. Fair or not, I future-tripped that he would put a humiliating stop to any such effort.
Since 1991 my version of Die Weiber has been locked away in the vaults at UT: Women
Wolfgang Hilbig died June 2, 2007.
Leslie Willson died December 28, 2007.
Isabel Fargo Cole’s version of Die Weiber was published by Two Lines Press, 2018: The Females.
It’s too late for Leslie Willson to address what he did (or did not do); Wolfgang Hilbig never saw his novels appear in English; and I have learned that staying silent and giving up has a heavy price.
I do not require perfection from those who have accomplished great works. Leslie Willson did contribute great things to both the war effort against Nazi Germany and to the proliferation of German arts and letters in the English-speaking world. He was beloved by many German authors, and some became personal friends with him.
What good would it have done me to call him out? First off, he would have denied it, and second off the wagons would have circled around to protect him. So it was at that time, and perhaps still is today. I didn’t want to hurt Leslie Willson. I didn’t want to be the reason his career ended in scandal and shame (if that were even a remote possibility). I experienced him differently than the German authors did — even if some of them quietly knew what he was up to. I was not the only student to experience his advances.
Wolfgang Hilbig’s voice was too powerful to silence — even by a police state — mine was not. In the end I try to remember that Leslie Willson was a victim of the violently intolerant heterosexual culture that he grew up in. It compelled him to hide his utterly normal gay or bi-sexual self behind layers and layers of discretion and euphemism. He would often and incongruously bring up the book Death In Venice when I would go into his office. He was trying to tell me something I heard but did not want to acknowledge. I wanted to talk business. He wanted to talk love.
No person should have to endure that kind of pain.